When you’re looking to explore the real Hawaii, then this island should definitely on your radar. It sure brought out the adventurer in us! To make the most out of your trip, however, you will need to do your research. The island’s many attractions are spread out over its entire surface of 4,028 mi² (10,430 km²) which makes it essential to carefully consider where to stay in Hawaii Big Island.
Hawaii Big Island map
Staying in the center of the island is not an option since it’s volcano territory. So, there’s no one best place to stay on Big Island. When you want to see everything the island has to offer, you’ll need to divide your vacation time over the west and east coast.
Because the climate is such an influential factor on the island, locals use other terms to indicate the coasts. 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. There are two international airports on Big Island, one on each coast.
Best places to stay on Big Island
Windward side / East coast
This is the lush side of Hawaii with waterfalls, rainforests, tropical flowers and Volcanoes National Park. Don’t expect beaches on this side 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 resorts here. Hilo is the main town on this side of the island and a great base to explore the east coast.
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 where there in April, we hardly had any rain.
From Hilo International Airport (ITO) it’s just a 10-minute drive to downtown Hilo.
Where to stay in Hilo
We stayed at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton, offering gorgeous views over Hilo Bay. It’s the best equipped hotel in the area and perfectly located to explore the best things to do in Hilo and beyond.
Adventurers: When your Hawaii travel itinerary is focused on adventure, then do you’re best off staying in Hilo. With Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Waipio valley nearby and plenty of waterfalls to admire, you’ll be spoiled with choice. Try one of the best Big Island hikes, go ziplining or explore the Valley on an off-road adventure.
Nature-lovers: Hilo’s tropical nature is incredibly versatile. You’ll find volcanoes, black lava rock beaches, colorful flowers and lush landscapes.
Stargazers: The Mauna Kea volcano is the place to be when it comes to stargazing. It’s within easy reach of downtown Hilo.
Note that the Maunakea Visitor Information Station is suspending the nighttime stargazing program due to an upgrade of the infrastructure. From December 2018 onwards, the VIS will be closing at 5 p.m. for an estimated period of 6 months. Click here to check for updates.
For more inspiration on nearby activities, check out our article on things to do in Hilo and beyond.
Leeward side / West coast
This is the driest and sunniest side and offers the best places to stay on the Big Island in terms of accommodation. You could either select your lodging in the Kona districts, around the town of Kailua-Kona, or in the South Kohala district.
The landscape is very different on this side of the island: less tropical vegetation, more dry landscapes. It also has a completely different vibe: less authentic and more touristy. This area has two main tourist resorts: Kailua-Kona in the Kona districts and Waikoloa Village in the South-Kohala district.
Kailua-Kona is the most popular place to stay in Kona. It’s a bustling town with plenty of surfer shops, grocery stores and eateries. Do note that traffic in and around town is terrible.
Waikoloa is this district’s resort town, also pretty touristy but much classier. The Kohala coast is known for its sandy beaches, the most idyllic one being Hapuna State Recreation area. Boutiques galore in Waikoloa Village thanks to the Kings’ Shops and Queens’ MarketPlace.
This area has the sunniest and driest weather on the island which explains the differences as described in the previous item.
Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (KOA) is the best choice if you’re staying in this area. It’s located on the main road in between Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa.
Where to stay in Kona
There are several hotel options but hardly luxurious and usually without sandy beach. Because of the traffic issues, we would recommend to stay away from Alii drive and opt for some a little gem such as this one. Alternatively, you’ll find plenty of vacation rentals in this area.
We actually stayed in Kailua-Kona during our trip but really regretted our choice. It’s over-touristy, overbuilt and you’re stuck in traffic whatever direction you choose. Walking from your accommodation to the center, even it’s very close, is not really an option either since there are no sidewalks.
Where to stay in the South Kohala district
You’ll find plenty of resorts in this area. Some of those are massive, like the Hilton Waikoloa Village. If you like a theme-park like atmosphere then this is where you want to be staying on the Big Island. We visited the hotel just get an idea of its size.
If you’re not into that vibe then you’ll find some understated, posh island hotels here too, such as the Four Seasons Hualalai. For our next Hawaii vacation, we would opt for the one beach hotel that enjoys an enviable location along the island’s most popular white sand beach and that’s The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort.
Beach-bums: Are you looking to add in some rest and relaxation time during your vacation? Then the Waikoloa area is the best place to stay on the Big Island. Have a look at the white sandy beaches we recommend in this area.
Nature lovers: If you’re looking to explore the tropical island nature, then also the Waikoloa is a great place to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii. 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.
Culture buffs: 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 island’s leeward side, in the Kona districts and the South-Kohala district. You can see petroglyphs from an early Hawaiian settlement at the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, set foot on royal ground at the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park or see where Captain James Cook arrived on the island at the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park.
Optional third place to stay on Big Island Hawaii
Instead of visiting Volcanoes National Park from Hilo, you could stay at rustic Volcano Village. Tucked away between the ferns, you’ll find some quaint accommodation options. The style didn’t really appeal to us that much so we decided to opt for the 45 minute drive from Hilo to Volcanoes NP. If you’re interested in staying closer to the park, you could check out these hotels in Volcano.
The perfect Big Island itinerary
Ideally, you’ll want to spend one week on the island, dividing your time over the windward and leeward side. 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. For the leeward side, Kailua-Kona didn’t live up to our expectations and we lost too much of our time in traffic.
From our experience, we put together what we think is the ultimate itinerary for first time visitors to the Big Island:
- 4 nights in Hilo.
- Leaving early on a day-long road trip with destination Waikoloa. Taking highway 11 (the south route) with stops at Punalu’u black sand beach and Papakolea green sand beach.
- 4 nights in Waikoloa with a day trip to the Kona districts.
So, ideally, you would arrive in one Big Island airport and depart from the other. We arrived in 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 main island are very limited so a rental car is a necessity. We used this website to 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.
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! 🙂
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’ll 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.
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