So, you’ve decided on a trip to Hawaii. Aloha! But it’s your first time, you’ve only got one week, and you want a killer itinerary. Where should you go? What should you see? What’s the best way to balance your time? Well, we’re here to help. But first, as always, a bit of background……
Why Choose Hawaii?
They call it ‘the aloha spirit’. If you want to relax, Hawaii can be the ultimate chill. With it’s world-class beaches and slow, lazy, island time, it’s the ultimate place to unwind. We were asked once to compare it against Tahiti, and it won hands-down. But it’s not just the chill factor; Hawaii is a great place for activity junkies, with great hiking destinations, water sports and amazing dive locations. Not many places come close as an island getaway, in fact we prefer it to that other palm tree paradise, The Bahamas. Hawaii is constantly ranked in the top three world holiday destinations, and you’re about to find out why.
How many Islands in Hawaii?
If you weren’t already aware, the state of Hawaii isn’t just one island – it’s actually a group of over 130 that are spread out over a 1,500-mile area of the North Pacific (technically it’s an archipelago of eight major islands and several atolls, and the other smaller islands are called islets and seamounts). The main Hawaiian islands – the ones popular with tourists – are Hawaiʻi, Maui, Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Niʻihau and Kahoʻolawe. The last of these is uninhabited and up until 1990 was used by the US Navy for target practice, so we don’t recommend a visit!
Which Hawaiian Islands Should I Visit?
That’s the big question. By far the most popular tourist island is O’ahu, which is also the most populated and home to Hawaii’s capital city of Honolulu. If your dream is to spend your time chilling on Waikiki beach and maybe visiting Pearl Harbor, then your choice should be O’ahu, which you should look to combine with another island – perhaps Kaua’i. But travelling between islands (‘island hopping’) takes up valuable time, and so if you only have a week we’re going to recommend something different: Hawai’i – the one they call ‘The Big Island’.
One Week On The Big Island
The island of Hawai’i – the single inverted comma is used to differentiate the island from the state – is almost twice the size of the seven other islands combined, and it’s also the largest island in the whole of the US. It boasts the tallest sea mountain and the largest volcano in the world and experiences 8 of the world’s 13 different microclimates; which means there are tropical rainforests, arid deserts and snow-covered mountains all in one place. It’s the third most popular island with tourists, and a week is just the right amount of time you need to explore both sides. So, let’s start planning.
One Week in Hawaii Itinerary
Before we go into detail, here’s a quick breakdown:
- Day One: Kona and Kohala Coast
- Day Two: South Kona
- Day Three: Hawi, Pololu Valley Lookout and Horseback Riding
- Day Four: Going Down South
- Day Five: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Day Six: Botanical Gardens and the Akaka Falls
- Day Seven: Time To Say Goodbye
Where to Stay on the Big Island
It’s perfectly possible to base yourself in one hotel or apartment for the whole week, but it will add to your journey times and leave you with less time to spend at each location. For our ‘One Week in Hawaii Itinerary’, we suggest staying on three different parts of the island – Kona, Volcano and Hilo – but of course it’s totally up to you!
Whether you choose to stay in one place or not, we strongly recommend that you pick up a rental car, or even a 4×4 if your budget stretches to it (some of the best places to go can require a vehicle with off-road capabilities). You’ll save yourself a small fortune in taxi fees, and you’ll find some of the tours and excursions are cheaper if the tour company doesn’t have to pick you up from your hotel.
Day One: Kona and Kohala Coast
You’re probably going to be quite jet-lagged, so it’s best to start with a relaxing afternoon on a beach somewhere. Oh, and we thought you should know that Kona is actually called Kailua-Kona, so as not to confuse it with the town of Kailua, which is on a different island (O’ahu). So locals call it just ‘Kona’. Anyway, back to the beaches.
There are plenty of beaches along Aliʻi Drive, which is the main drag in Kona. One popular beach is Magic Sands, but our favourite is Hāpuna Beach on the South Kohala Coast. From downtown Kona the drive is about 45 minutes, but we think it’s worth it. The beach is 1/2 mile long, almost always sunny, and has a continuous shore break which makes it great fun for a ‘splashabout’.
Once you feel rested enough, head back to the downtown area for a light dinner and some drinks. Maybe you’ll choose to visit the Kona Brewing Company, famous for their locally-produced lagers and pale ales. Alternatively, why not experience a typically-Hawaiian lūʻau – a traditional introduction to Hawaii? Arguably the best lūʻau in Kona is the ‘Island Breeze Luau’ at the nearby Courtyard Marriott hotel. It features an open bar, Polynesian and Hawaiian food, a firedance show and, of course, the iconic Hawaiian hula dancers.
Day Two: South Kona
I bet you thought we’d be starting with the volcano park. Don’t worry, it’s coming, but first we’re off to South Kona. Mornings in Kona are famous for one thing: coffee! The high elevation, rich volcanic soil, cloud coverage and perfect temperatures make it the ideal place to grow coffee beans, and Kona coffee is revered by coffee experts the world over.
So…. make an early start and arrange a tour of one of the Kona coffee farms, with great names such as Hula Daddy and Buddha’s Cup, or try the Royal Kona Coffee Centre. Alternatively, visit one of the many coffee shops for breakfast – our favourite is the little, nondescript Coffee Shack which opens at 7am and serves homemade bread, carrot cake, eggs benedict and of course amazing coffee.
Once the caffeine has kicked in it’s time to go snorkeling in one of the best spots on the Big Island, so hike, kayak or get a boat to the Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay.
This 27-foot monument marks the spot where Captain Cook was bludgeoned and stabbed to death (!) in 1779. The land it stands on, while still technically part of the United States, is actually owned by the British. But, more importantly, the surrounding waters are simply superb for snorkeling, with schools of tropical fish, beautiful coral and friendly spinner dolphins in abundance.
Next, we suggest you head for the Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. On the way you should check out the unusual Painted Church, which used pictures to teach bible stories to locals who didn’t know how to read their bibles.
The Pu’uhonua (which translates as ‘place of refuge’) was a safe haven for those that broke the Kapu laws, which in old Hawaii was punishable by death. If you reached the Pu’uhonua, after swimming for your life through waters patrolled by hungry sharks, you would be pardoned and given a second chance at life. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to reach – just a gentle 2-mile hike – and you can experience a ‘walk back in time’ on an ancient trail that leads to the site of an abandoned fishing village. If you like hiking, check out our detailed guide to great hikes in Hawaii.
The whole area, known as the Royal Grounds, is now a National Park, and is of very great significance to local residents. It includes the Hale o Keawe temple, which holds the remains of 23 monarchs, including the King of Hawai‘i Island in the 1600s whose name was Keawe-‘Ī-kekahi-ali‘i-o-ka-moku, (no, we can’t pronounce his name either!) It’s guarded by Ki’i, or carved wooden statues, of Hawaiian gods. To enter the Royal Grounds you’ll need a ticket from Hawaii National Parks, which is a very reasonable $15 per car including parking.
In the evening, head to Kona Marina for one of the highlights of the Big Island, which is the chance to Scuba or go snorkeling with Manta Rays. The tours cost around $140 and start at sunset or at 9pm (the famous ‘night dives’). Using flashlights, you’ll attract plankton which in turn draws the massive, 18-foot Manta Rays to the site to feast. Watching these huge, graceful creatures swim is absolutely unforgettable.
Day Three: Hawi, Pololū Valley and Horseback Riding
For a real change of culture, head to Hawi. Hawi used to be the busy centre of North Kohala’s sugar industry, but when that industry slowed down in the 1930s, the art galleries and boutiques moved in. Today, it has a very hippie, laid back feel, and the words most used to describe it are ‘charming’ and ‘quaint’. Spend a lazy morning wandering around the Farmer’s Market and the uniquely eclectic shops (‘Hawaii Cigar & Ukulele Store’, anyone?), and then stop for lunch at the Big Island’s best restaurant: The Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery.
If you have time, you might want to check out the statue of King Kamehameha the Great, who first united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810. Of course, Kamehameha was only his nickname – his full name was Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea (you knew that, didn’t you?!)
The statue has an interesting story: it was lost at sea when the ship carrying it from Florence, Italy was wrecked off Cape Horn. A second casting was ordered, but there were unexpected delays and the by the time it was delivered the first one had been recovered by some Falkland Island fishermen. So now there were two statues – exactly the same in every detail. Eventually the spare was sent to Honolulu, and the original is now just beyond Hawi in the town of Kapaau.
From Hawi, drive east to the Pololū Valley for one of the most famous viewpoints in the tropical Pacific. About 300,000 years ago (give or take 50,000 years), a massive landslide caused part of the Kohala Volcano to slip into the ocean, leaving great trenches. Rain erosion gradually formed a series of seven valleys, of which Pololū Valley is the most northern.
The view of the wild, barren coastline is worth the trip on its own, but the best thing to do is to hike to the black sand beach below. The hike down takes 20 minutes, but be warned: the trail drops about 400 feet and whilst it’s easy going down, it can be a real struggle to get back up! Whether you choose to venture down or stay up top, this is one of the most beautiful, untamed spots in the tropical Pacific.
After all that physical exertion, it’s time for something a bit more relaxing. Do you know how to ride a horse? Great, because we’re going horseback riding!
There are quite a few ranches in the vicinity that offer horse riding tours, especially in and around Waimea. We’d recommend one that takes you down into the Waipi’o Valley, such as Na’alapa Stables or Waipi’o On Horseback, but of course the choice is yours. Hawai’i is the historic home of Hawaiian Cowboys, or paniola, who predated the cowboys of the Wild West by a few generations (paniola is the Hawaiian way of saying ‘Espanola’, as the Hawaiian language has no ‘S’-sound). With all that history, rest assured you’ll be in the hands of expert horse trainers as they guide you over lush jungle trails, under flowering canopies and through curving streams.
After a great day’s sightseeing, head to Waimea for an evening meal at one of the locally renowned restaurants such as Merriman’s or Redwater Cafe, have a few drinks and get ready for an early start to Day Four.
Day Four: Going Down South
“What about the volcanoes?”, we hear you cry. Soon, soon – we promise! But there’s still so much to see. And so today we suggest you make an early start and head for South Point (or Ka Lae). As the name suggests it’s at the southernmost point of Hawaii, which also means it’s the furthest south you can go in the USA. But apart from any geographical boasts, it’s home to Papakōlea Beach, which is one of only four beaches in the world with green sand.
It all starts with the volcanic lava that settles on the beach, which contains a mineral called olivine, known locally as ‘Hawaii Diamond’. Olivine is green in colour and, being heavier than the volcanic ash, it accumulates on the beach whilst the blacker volcanic sand is blown out to sea. And so, voila! – green sand! Cars are banned from driving to the beach so it’s a bit of a hike – about 5.5 miles – but not too strenuous. Be wary of so-called ‘licensed cars’ that offer you lifts from the car park to the beach: they’re breaking the law and they know it.
OK, you’ve had an adventurous morning, so now it’s time for a bit of a treat. Head to Na‘alehu, and search out the Punalu‘u Bake Shop (just follow your nose!). With over 200,000 visitors every year, Punalu’u is the most visited bakery in the entire state of Hawaii and the southernmost bakery in the USA. It’s a genuine Hawaiian icon and we’re not kidding – it has live music, a visitor centre and a gift shop, and they even run tours of the bakery!
The food they’re famed for is their range of sweetbreads, but our favourites are the malasadas, a type of doughnut made from a secret Portuguese recipe with an eggy dough. You can eat them plain or stuffed, but we love the ones glazed with liliko’i: a tangy yellow passion fruit that’s native to Hawaii. The taste is simply ‘ono!
After lunch (well, we count doughnuts as lunch!), it’s time for a bit of relaxation. If you didn’t make it down to the bottom of the Pololū Valley on Day Three then don’t worry: there’s another black sand beach nearby and that’s our recommendation for your next stop. The beautiful Punalu’u Beach is great for a lazy afternoon of swimming, or just chilling under the palm trees and watching life go by.
But there’s another reason people visit: it’s to see the turtles! Making their way up to the beach to feed and bask in the sun are some Hawaiian green sea turtles (Honu). Naturalists are puzzled by this behaviour, as sea turtles don’t usually seek beaches just to sunbathe, but for some reason they change their minds when it comes to Punalu’u Beach. We like to think it’s because the weather is just so perfect in Hawaii…
We’ve been asked to remind you that green sea turtles are an endangered species and protected under US Federal Law. You should never feed them or try to touch them, and ideally you should remain 3m away from them at all times. (Think of it as a kind of social distancing, but with turtles).
Once you’ve taken photos of the turtles from every possible angle, it’s time to put your head down for the night, as it’s another early start tomorrow. Find yourself a hotel or guesthouse in the small town of Volcano, and then head to the ‘Ōhelo Café for an evening meal (don’t let the word ‘café’ put you off – it’s a great restaurant and it’s always busy so you’ll need to make a reservation). Guess where you’re going tomorrow…..
Day Five: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
OK, this is the day you’ve been waiting for. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the must-see of any Hawaiian vacation, and exploring it is always an unforgettable day. It’s hard to envisage the sheer size of the park – at 523 square miles it’s only slightly smaller than the entire island of O’ahu. There are 150 miles of hiking trails that take you through volcanic craters, scalded deserts and tropical forests rainforests, and for nature lovers there are carnivorous caterpillars, happy face spiders and Hawaiian honeycreepers. So there really is something for everyone.
Up until a few years ago, it was possible to see lava flowing constantly from the Kilauea volcano. However, that changed in 2018, when a massive eruption of the Kīlauea volcano altered the landscape of Hawai‘i forever. Between May and August, a devastating lava flow struck the Puna district, south east of the park, and destroyed over 700 homes (it also added 875 acres of new land to Hawai’i). The eruption triggered over 60,000 earthquakes, ultimately causing the entire Kīlauea caldera to collapse. The lava stopped flowing in September 2018 and, since then, there has been no active lava flow from either Kīlauea or it’s famous cousin Mauna Loa – the largest volcano on earth.
But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to see! We suggest you start your day at the Kilauea Visitor Centre, where National Park Rangers will offer hike suggestions and ranger-guided activities. You’ll be able to witness the steam plumes from Halemaumau Crater, known as the home of Pele (no, not that Pele! We mean Pele the goddess of volcanoes).
One thing not to miss is the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, which is the largest petroglyph field in Polynesia. Petroglyphs are ancient picture stories literally carved into the rock, and the area is also full of small holes into which Hawaiian fathers placed their newborn’s umbilical cords, hoping for a long life for their children (Pu’u Loa means ‘Long Hill’, but was historically translated as ‘Long Life’).
Once you’ve had your fill of the Volcanoes Park, it’s time to head to Hilo, on the east side of the island, which is where we suggest you base yourself for the rest of your trip. Hilo has a less touristy feel than other places on the Big Island, and the landscape is much more lush and tropical. If there’s time before dinner, we suggest you visit the lovely Japanese-style Liliʻuokalani Park, and then walk across the bridge to tiny Coconut Island.
There are a number of great places to eat in Hilo, so find yourself somewhere nice for dinner. We like Pineapple’s, which does a great range of Island-inspired fresh cuisine including local caught fish and Big Island beef It’s also the only open-air restaurant in Hilo, so a cool place to eat on warm evenings.
Day Six: Botanical Gardens and the Akaka Falls
We’re going to start your day with a bit of a road trip around the East Coast. Take the Old Mamalahoa Road north, which is a lovely ‘long and winding road’ that takes you through fields of wild ginger and past mountain streams, hidden waterfalls, old bridges and rugged coastline. There’s even a section known as ‘Old Old Mamalahoa Road’.
Your first stop is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which features over 2,000 tropical plants and orchids, and feels a bit like stepping back in time. 15 years ago the area was pretty-much a garbage dump, complete with old refrigerators and burnt-out cars, but it’s now a ‘living seedbank’ run as a non-profit organisation.
Sticking with the tropical theme, your next stop should be a visit to the Akaka Falls State Park (yes, it’s another state park!). This short hike, less than one hour on on a paved footpath, will take you to two waterfalls. First up is the 100-foot Kahuna Falls, which is pretty impressive. But turning the corner takes you to the towering Akaka Falls which plummets 442 feet into a deep gorge. Stunning!
Now it’s time for one of the most dramatic spectacles in the whole of Hawaii (and in this case we mean all of Hawaii, not just the Big Island). Some call it ‘Sunset at the Summit’, others say it’s like being on the top of the world. However you choose to describe it, stargazing from the top of Mauna Kea is awesome! Trips start early afternoon and last 7-8 hours, during which you’ll ascend from sea level to a height of 13,803 feet in a powerful 4×4. When the climb finishes, you’ll watch the sun go down from the top of the world’s tallest mountain and then see the ‘treasures of the night sky’ through a range of powerful telescopes. It does get very cold at the summit, but the tour guides issue parkas and gloves (the warmest on the market) and they’re experts at brewing hot chocolate!
The Hawaiians say Mauna Kea is the connection between the land and the sky, and once you’ve been there, you’ll understand why. You may even decided to take the plunge and hike from the bottom all the way to the top – it’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you decide to go for it then we’ve got some excellent tips in our Hawaiian hiking guide.
Day Seven: Time To Say Goodbye
After that amazing last day (and early morning!) the perfect way to say goodbye to Hawai’i is a relaxing chillout at the beach, and maybe a cheeky cocktail to see you off. If you haven’t had a Mai Tai yet, now would be the perfect time. One of our favourite beaches for relaxing is Mahai’ula – from Kailua it’s just a short walk along the coast. It’s a great place to see some marine life, with whales breaching the waves and turtles playing in the shallows.
And so finally it’s time to finish your packing and head to the airport. We hope you’ve found our guide useful and we know you’ll be back some day – after all, there are another six islands to explore…..