Where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii: Kona vs. Hilo and beyond (+ map)

Find out where to stay on the Big Island to be close to the action. Some of the best things to do on the Big Island are spread out over its entire surface of 4,028 mi² (10,430 km²). Because it its size, it’s not the kind of island you can crisscross from coast to coast. With so many diverse landscapes and intriguing places to visit, it can be hard to narrow down the best place to stay on the Big Island. That’s why our in-depth comparison zooms in on every area while also highlighting some of the best Big Island hotels. You’ll find some of the dreamiest Hawaiian Airbnbs on this island too, from enchanting cabins in the woods to romantic treehouses.

Narrowing down the best area to stay on the Big Island is crucial to making your Big Island itinerary work. Should you stay in Kona or Hilo? And how about Waikoloa and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? We”re here to help you plan your trip.

One thing’s for sure: When you’re looking to explore the real Hawaii, then this island should definitely be on your radar. The Big Island is the best Hawaiian island for families with somewhat older kids and travelers with a taste for adventure. It sure brought out the adventurer in us during our Hawaii island hopping trip!

This is the only guide you need to make an informed decision on where to stay on the Big Island.

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Short on time?
Then this short overview of top picks will help you decide on the best places to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii for your upcoming trip. Keep scrolling for a comparison of Kona vs. Hilo as well as a selection of the best hotels on the Big Island.

Best places to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii
Where to stay on the Big Island for culture: Kailua-Kona
Where to stay on the Big Island for entertainment and nightlife: Kailua-Kona
Where to stay on the Big Island for beaches: Waikoloa & South Kohala
Where to stay on the Big Island for families: Waikoloa & Hilo
Where to stay on the Big Island for outdoor travel: Hilo
Where to stay on the Big Island on a budget: Hilo
Amazing add-on destination for your Big Island itinerary: Volcano Village

Best hotels to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii
Best luxury hotel on the Big Island: Four Seasons Hualalai
Best beach resort on the Big Island: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Best boutique hotel on the Big Island: Holualoa Inn
Best affordable hotel on the Big Island: Mahana House Country Inn
Best rental in Kailua-Kona: Luxury Oceanfront Beach Home
Best rental in Waikoloa: Kolea Penthouse (direct beach access)
Best rental in Hilo: The Falls at Reed’s Island
Best rental in Volcano Village: Kuono

There are so many gorgeous places to stay on the Big Island that you’ll be spoilt with choice. Then again, booking well in advance is crucial, especially if you plan to visit the Big Island during the high season.

Psst… If you happen to be visiting more than one of the Hawaiian islands, then might want to check out our website about the best areas to stay on Maui too.

Now, without further ado, here’s an in-depth comparison of Kona vs. Hilo as well as our hand-picked selection of amazing hotels and apartments for each.

Best places to stay on the Big Island on the map

Here’s a map indicating the best places to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii: Kailua-Kona, Hilo, Waikoloa, and Volcano Village. We’ll zoom in on each of them one by one in this article.

Map of places to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii

Where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii by region

Because the climate is such an influential factor on the island, locals use other terms to indicate the coasts (no Hawaiian words but specific English terms). The east side of the island is called the windward side, because that’s the side where the wind comes, while the west coast is called the leeward side. So, where you decide to stay on the Big Island will largely determine what to pack for your vacation.

If you want to make the most of your stay on the Big Island and get an idea of its natural diversity, then you’ll need to divide your vacation time over the West and East Coast. To facilitate that, there are two airports on Hawaii Island, one on each coast. Hilo is only served by inter-island flights while some airlines offer direct flights to Kona from the mainland.

But if you don’t have the luxury of time, then you’ll have to choose the best area to stay on the Big Island on your interests and travel plans. So, which side of the Big Island is best to stay? Let’s find out.

Hilo is the best place to stay on the Big Island for adventure and affordability

The windward coast is the lush side of Hawaii with waterfalls, rainforests, tropical flowers, and a true Hawaiian feel. Don’t expect sandy beaches on this part of the main island of Hawaii since the coastline is formed by black lava rocks. That’s one of the reasons why you won’t find any beach resorts here. Hilo is the main town on the east side of the island and a great base to explore the Hamakua coast.

Black lava rock instead of sandy beach on the windward side, an important consideration when researching where to stay on Big Island Hawaii

The windward side is known to be pretty rainy, especially from November to March. How else could the Hilo area be so lush and tropical? But chances are that you’ll be able to escape any shower by just driving a few miles further because the weather is pretty localized. When we were there in April, we hardly had any rain.

The East Coast is also a very budget-friendly area to stay on the Big Island, especially when compared to the West Coast.

From Hilo Airport (ITO) it’s just a 10-minute drive to downtown Hilo.

Best things to do in Hilo

Hilo’s tropical nature is incredibly versatile. You’ll find black lava rock beaches, colorful flowers, and lush landscapes. Chase waterfalls at Rainbow Falls in Wailuku River State Park, visit the Pacific Tsunami Museum, enjoy a picnic at Liliuokalani Gardens, swim with turtles at Carlsmith Beach Park, visit the Lyman Museum and Mission House, eat your heart out at a macadamia nut farm, admire the Hamakua coast, visit the farmers market, visit the Kaumana caves or a tropical garden.

Akaka Falls State Park on Big Island's windward side a region known for its waterfalls

Hilo is also perfectly located for day trips to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or to Waipio Valley on the north coast. Do note that you can no longer access Waipio Valley since the road leading to it has been closed to the public.

The Mauna Kea volcano is the place to be when it comes to stargazing. Check out this amazing small-group tour! It’s within easy reach of downtown Hilo. Did you know that this is the tallest mountain in the world, even higher than Mount Everest? Surprised? We’ve dedicated an entire article to surprising facts about Hawaii. Go check it out! 

For more inspiration on nearby activities, check out our article on things to do in Hilo and beyond.

Best hotels in Hilo

We stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton, offering gorgeous views over Hilo Bay. It’s one of the few hotels on the east side of the island and has very spacious rooms (ours came with a kitchenette). It’s perfectly located to explore the best things to do in Hilo and beyond. The farmers market, shops, and restaurants are just a short stroll away.

The SCP Hotel Hilo next door makes for a wonderful eco-friendly alternative.

If you prefer a more personal experience, then the Mahana House Country Inn makes for a wonderful place to stay on the Big Island. It’s located a bit north of Hilo, along the scenic Hamakua coast.

Best vacation rentals in Hilo

We love the Big Island so much that we’ve put together a wish list of places to stay near Hilo in the future and we’d love to share it with you. Two of the options mentioned below look out over a waterfall and one even allows swimming!

Kona is the best place to stay on the Big Island for culture and entertainment

Located on the west coast of the island, the Kona region is a long stretch of coastline known for its sunny weather. The landscape is very different on this side of the island: less tropical vegetation, and drier landscapes. Kailua-Kona is the main town of the Kona region.

Kailua-Kona town is the most popular place to stay in Kona. It’s a bustling town with plenty of surfer shops, grocery stores, and dining options. Do note that Kailua-Kona feels pretty touristy and that the traffic in and around town is terrible. Other, more tranquil, towns in the Kona region and located just south of Kailua-Kona town are Holualoa and Kealakekua. These are residential towns with a more authentic vibe.

Inside Kona Airport

Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) is the best choice if you’re staying on this side of the island. It’s located on the main road north of Kailua-Kona.

Best things to do in Kona

There are plenty of heritage sites on the Big Island where you can learn about the native Hawaiian culture. All of the historical parks are located on the Kona coast.

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park on the Big Island's west coast

Snorkel with manta rays, learn about Hawaiian culture and set foot on royal ground at Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, check out the petroglyphs from an early Hawaiian settlement at Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, kayak to the Captain Cook monument in the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park, visit a Kona coffee plantation, snorkel at Kealakekua Bay, discover the Kona Cloud Forest or visit a seahorse farm.

When the sun sets, watch a luau performance in one of the Kona hotels. There’s the Haleo luau at the Outrigger Kona Resort in Keauhou, the Voyagers of the Pacific luau at the Royal Kona Resort, and the Island Breeze luau at the Courtyard King Kamehamehaʻs Kona Beach Hotel.

Best hotels in Kona

A popular choice is the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa (the former Sheraton) but apart from that, there really aren’t that many hotel options in downtown Kailua-Kona. We actually stayed in the city center during our trip but really regretted our choice. It’s over-touristy and overbuilt and you’re stuck in traffic in whatever direction you choose. Walking from your accommodation to the center, even if it’s very close, is not really an option either since there are no sidewalks.

Therefore, we’d strongly recommend staying either just south of Kailua-Kona, towards Captain Cook, or just north, near the airport.

If you’re ready to splurge, then head north of Kailua-Kona. The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is an incredibly luxurious resort with above-and-beyond service. The beach is rather rocky, which can be a bit of a dealbreaker for families with young kids, but there’s an onsite swimmable aquarium.

This little gem must be Kona’s best-kept secret: a tropical garden dotted with boutique accommodations and the most personal service. it’s located in Holualoa, just south of Kailua-Kona, and one of the best accommodation options for a romantic getaway. You can either rent the entire property for a special occasion or book individual rooms.

Best vacation rentals in Kona

Of course, you’ll also find plenty of condos and villas in this area. We love the Big Island so much that we’ve put together a wish list of places to stay near Kailua-Kona in the future and we’d love to share it with you:

South Kohala and Waikoloa are the best places to stay on the Big Island for beach bums and nature lovers

Are you looking for rest and relaxation during your vacation? Then the South Kohala region is where to stay on the Big Island. This coastline is also located on the leeward side of the island, right above the Kona coastline. Sunny weather is practically guaranteed year-round in South Kohala.

The Kohala coast is known for its gorgeous sandy beaches, the most idyllic one being the Hapuna State Recreation area. Boutiques and restaurants galore in the family-friendly resort area of Waikoloa Village thanks to the Kings’ Shops and Queens’ MarketPlace.

Hapuna beach at Hawaii Big Island

The resort towns of Puako and Waikoloa Village guarantee a carefree beach vacation. Puako is more tranquil whilst Waikoloa is the perfect destination for a family vacation.

Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) is the best choice if you’re staying at this side of the island. It’s located on the main road south of this region.

Best things to do in Waikoloa

Swim with turtles at Hapuna Beach State Park (our favorite of all the sandy beaches on the island), watch the sunset while sipping mai tais at the Lava Lava Beach Club, visit Puakō Petroglyph Park and Anaeho’omalu Petroglyph Field, discover the captivating beauty of Kiholo Bay which is home to one of the most beautiful black sand beaches on Hawaii island, go horse-riding at Parker Ranch, go shopping at the Kings’ Shops and Queens’ MarketPlace or dine at one of the many on-site restaurants.

CosmopoliMom Sarah and her daughter sitting in a red sofa at Waikoloa Village which is where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii with kids

Waikoloa is a great area to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii if you’re looking to explore the tropical island nature on the north coast. You’ll actually be pretty close to Waimea (Kamuela), the Polulu Valley, and Waipio Valley so you’ll have a diversity of landscapes at your fingertips. Adventurous day trips are guaranteed.

Best resorts in Waikoloa and the South Kohala district

You’ll find plenty of luxury resorts along the Kohala coast. Some of those are massive, like the Hilton Waikoloa Village. If you like a theme-park-like atmosphere with plenty of pools and restaurants to choose from then this is where you want to be staying on the Big Island with kids. We visited the hotel just to get an idea of its size.

If you’re not into that vibe then you’ll find some of the island’s best luxury resorts here too, such as the Fairmont Orchid and the Mauna Lani (part of the Auberge Resorts Collection). The latter also hosts the Hale Hoaloha Luau.

For our next Hawaii vacation, we would opt for the beach hotel that enjoys an enviable location along the island’s most popular white sand beach – Hapuna Beach – and that’s the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection),

Another excellent beach resort with an impressive pool is located just south of Hapuna Beach: The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort.

Best vacation rentals in Waikoloa

Here are some of the amazing vacation rentals on the South Kohala coast that caught our eye.

Volcano is the best place to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii for Volcanoes National Park

Instead of visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Hilo, you could stay at rustic Volcano Village. It’s located in the Puna region and right next to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve that encompasses both the Kilauea and Mauna Loa summit areas.

Because of the elevation, temperatures here are much cooler. It can get foggy and rainy here too, especially in the morning. Before visiting, it’s always recommended to stop by the Visitor Center. Kilauea is an active volcano and the conditions are always subject to change. The same goes for the wind, moving toxic sulfur dioxide and volcanic gases to different areas of the park.

Viewpoint from the rainforest over the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Best things to do in Volcano Village

The obvious activity is visiting the Big Island’s star attraction: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Some of the top things to do include hiking (the Kilauea Iki hike is out-of-this-world!), seeing the lava flows, and visiting the sulfur banks and the hot steam vents. Other popular activities are visiting the Thurston Lava Tube, seeing the glowing lava lake in the Halama’uma’u crater, and driving the Chain of Craters road.

Volcano Village is a rustic little country town. There’s not much to see but that’s exactly the beauty of it. No better place to unplug than this landscape of lava fields and jungle views. You can visit the Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, the local winery, or the vast lava fields in the Puna region. It’s also perfectly located to visit Punalu’u Beach, the most popular of all black sand beaches in Hawaii.

Best vacation rentals in Volcano Village

Tucked away between the ferns, you’ll find some quaint accommodation options. This enchanting cabin in the woods for one, with its hot tub and fire pit. Some of the dreamiest Airbnbs in Hawaii can be found on this part of the island too. Just check out these amazing options:

The perfect Big Island itinerary

Ideally, you’ll want to spend one week on the island, dividing your time over the windward and leeward sides. On our Big Island trip, we combined 3 nights in Hilo with 5 nights in Kailua-Kona. Looking back, an extra night in Hilo would have been very welcome. Unfortunately, Kailua-Kona didn’t live up to our expectations and we lost too much of our West Coast time in traffic.

From our experience, we put together what we think is the ultimate itinerary for first-time visitors to the Big Island:

Papakolea green sand beach is hard to reach so keep that in mind when researching where to stay in Big Island Hawaii

So, ideally, you would arrive at one Big Island airport and depart from the other. We arrived at Hilo airport where we picked up our car and departed from Kona airport where we turned back our rental vehicle.

Getting around on the Big Island

Public transportation options on Hawaii’s main island are very limited so a rental car is a necessity. We used Discount Hawaii Car Rental to book our car rental from Hilo airport with the option to return it at Kona airport. Driving on the Big Island is easy, as long as you stay on one of the few main roads.

Little girl in the back seat as seen from the rear view mirror during a road trip through Hawaii Big Island

We didn’t drive Saddle Road, which runs through the heart of the island, but heard that it can be dangerous because of the vog (volcanic smog). It’s also pitch dark at night. Under these circumstances, it is recommended to take the north or the south route.

To make things as easy as possible for you, we’ve collected the driving times to most points of interest from the main tourist resorts. You’re welcome!

Driving times to all popular attractions from the main Big Island  resorts

FAQ on where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii

Which part of the Big Island is the best: Kona or Hilo?

The best part of the Big Island is the one that aligns best with the expectations you have of your stay. Is the focus on outdoor activities and budget travel? Then Hilo is for you. Are you more into culture and nightlife? Then head to Kailua-Kona. Or are you just looking to relax on the beach? Then Waikoloa and South Kohala are for you

What’s the best place to stay on Big Island with family?

Families who favor outdoor travel over the resort experience will have a great time in Hilo. Waikoloa is the most family-friendly place to stay on the Big Island in terms of resorts and beaches.

What’s the best place on the Big Island for volcanoes?

Volcano Village is a quaint resort community located just opposite Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s dotted with cabins, cottages, and intimate jungle retreats.

Which side of the Big Island has the best beaches?

The best beaches on the Big Island can be found just north of Kailua-Kona, along the Waikoloa and South Kohala coastline. Some of the most popular beaches are Hapuna Beach, A-Bay, and Kua Beach.

Is Hilo cheaper than Kona?

Yes, Hilo is cheaper than Kona. While the most coveted Kailua-Kona properties mostly include villas and condos located along Alii Drive, the residential area of Hilo is much more widespread and diverse. You’ll find anything from condos to plantation homes and even waterfall retreats. Plus, the fact that the Kona side is sunnier and lines swimmable ocean waters, makes the properties even more in demand. The higher north, the sunnier and the prettier the beaches. This translates into higher prices.

Is Hilo or Kona more rainy?

Hilo is much more rainy than Kona. That’s because Hilo is located on the windward side of the Big Island. This side is much more prone to rain which results in a lush tropical landscape with rainforest, waterfalls, and flowers. Kona is located on the leeward side of the Big Island. This side has a drier and sunnier climate, perfect for a beach vacation.

Is it better to stay in Kona or Waikoloa?

Kailua-Kona is the best place to stay on the Big Island for culture and entertainment. There are some excellent snorkeling beaches but they’re not sandy and tend to consist mostly of lava rock. Waikoloa is a true resort community, built for visitors. Aside from the Waikoloa Petroglyph Preserve, there are no cultural landmarks. But the beaches in Waikoloa, and further up in South Kohala, are divine.

Should I stay on both sides of the Big Island?

Most definitely. Staying on both sides of the Big Island is the best way to take in all its beauty. You get to see the lush rainforest and waterfalls and spend some time on the beach. As you drive from one side to the other, you can visit Volcanoes National Park, Punaluu Black Sand Beach, and Papakolea Green Sand Beach. Add a night in Volcano Village to experience the magical landscapes to the fullest.

How many days on the Big Island is enough?

We recommend staying for at least 9 days (8 nights) to discover the Big Island’s diversity. Spend 3 nights In Hilo, 1 night in Volcano Village, and 4 nights in Waikoloa with a day trip to Kailua-Kona and one to Kohala.

What’s your favorite place to stay in Big Island?

Planning a Big Island trip anytime soon? Now that you’ve read all possible angles on where to stay on Big Island Hawaii, we can’t wait to find out which area(s) you’ll choose when you travel to the island for the first time. Been there, done that? Then we want to know all about your favorite places to stay on the Big Island. The comment box is all yours.


    1. Sarah

      Hi Johnny. Pahoa is a very small town, located south-east of Hilo, and a bit of a special case. While it’s certainly authentic and worth the drive, if only for the unique wooden boardwalks and a couple of tourist sights such as the painted church, the Lava Tree Monument and of course the lava flows, it might be a bit out of the comfort zone for most visitors to Hawaii when it comes to accommodation. It’s a hippy town, home to some communes, that comes with a quirky vibe. We wouldn’t have felt that comfortable (or maybe even welcome) staying there. If you prefer staying in a remote part of Big Island, then we’d definitely choose Volcano over Pahoa. Or how about Waimea, in the north? The rural setting may be different, away from the lava and amidst the pastures, but it’s a very friendly little town amidst the lush Kohala valleys (north-east) and the white-sand beaches near Waikoloa (west).
      Should you decide to stay in Pahoa anyway, I’d love to hear about your experience after you return. We might be totally wrong in our opinion about this town, so feel free to contradict our point of view. Happy (and safe) travels, Johnny!

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