#1 Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Worthy of several days for full exploration, it’s still worth a visit if you have only one day. That’s enough time to experience HVNP’s Thurston Lava Tube, museums, trails and steaming vents.
Avid hikers can reserve space for weekly guided four-mile treks to and into Puapoo Lava Tube, an ornate natural wonder with lavacicles, driblet spires, lava lines and flow ripples.
Quaint and cute, Hilo brims with historic buildings, parks, museums and lush gardens. Flowers thrive, especially within Queen Liliuokalani Gardens’ 30 acres of Hawaiian and Oriental plantings, walkways, pagodas, bridges and ponds. Also scope out Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots, the terraced pools that fed by Peepee Falls in heavy rains and bubble as if they are boiling.
#3 Hamakua Coast
This stunning north coast area is known for its Hamakua Heritage Corridor drive garnished by lush rainforests and waterfalls. Akaka Falls State Park delivers two beautiful cascades on one short hike. The overlook view of Waipio Valley is stunning. Get up close and explore the valley via van tour, hiking or horseback riding. Or discover the coast with a different perspective on a boat excursion that voyages off black sand beaches, sea caves and nearly 40 stunning waterfalls plunging over towering cliffs into Onomea Bay.
#4 Waimea Town
Home of the paniolo (cowboy), Waimea rests some 2,500 feet above sea level amid rolling hills, rail-fenced pastures and plenty of fresh mountain air. Its 225,000-acre Parker Ranch owns bragging rights as the largest single-owned cattle ranch in the U.S.
Adding recreation to its ranching endeavors, nearby Kahua Ranch lets you explore Waimea’s scenic landscapes by horseback or ATV.
Expert tip: Stay on for the evening to enjoy a Big Island sunset with paniolo-style barbecue dinner, live music, dancing and toasty campfire.
The ancient playground of Hawaiian royalty, this former fishing village more commonly known as Kona is coveted for deep sea fishing. On Alii Drive, you’ll find Mokuaikaua Church, Hulihee Palace and Kamakahonu, the restored compound where King Kamehameha spent his final years. This mellow town is a hub for primo sport fishing, stand up paddling and kayaking in typically gentle waters.
Expert tip: Grab a table at oceanfront eateries like Huggo’s to savor a legendary Kona Coast sunset.
#6 Snorkeling at Kealakekua
Flaunting some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling, Kealakekua Bay is a great place for beginners and experts alike. The best area to snorkel in the bay is near the Captain Cook Monument, honoring explorer Captain James Cook who lost his life there in 1779. Here, you can meander amid abundant marine life within coral and lava rock reefs, and you are likely to encounter a number of spinner dolphins, turtles, and also manta rays during your visit.
Getting to Kealakekua Bay is an easy drive from Kailua Kona, but getting to the monument itself is more of a challenge. The best options are to rent a kayak and paddle out to the monument from the parking lot (1 mile and around 1/2 hr) or take one of the many ocean tours that offer to pick up from more accessible bays on the Kona coast. It is also possible to access the Captain Cook Monument by foot on a 1.8 mile one-way hike, but be prepared for a steep and hot hike down to the bay from the parking at the top of the cliffs.
#7 Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Just south of Kealakekua, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau or the “City of Refuge” was a 16th-century sanctuary for defeated warriors and war victims. Once inside the lava rock compound, they could be blessed for returning safely to society. For ocean lovers, this place is more commonly called "Two Step" because of how easy it is to enter the water. The visibility here is almost as good as Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay. There are also some picnic tables near the shoreline that make for beautiful sunset picnics.