The Big Island of Hawaii (also called, simply, Hawaii) is, of course, big. Which means that where you stay matters. Driving across the island from the east side to the west side will take you around two hours, so it’s best to position yourself carefully. If it’s your first time on the island, it can be difficult to figure out just where the best places to stay are located! Here’s our travel guide for where to stay on the Big Island, depending on the vacation you’re looking for.
Staying in Hilo
Hilo (pronounced hee-low) is the largest city on the Big Island, but don’t expect a gigantic metropolis; the population is just over 40,000. Hilo is on the less-touristy east side of the island, where a significant portion of the residents actually live.
Hilo is conveniently located near its very own airport. There is free street parking available throughout Hilo overnight and on weekends, although it mostly has a two-hour limit during the day. This means that you’ll have to move your car by 10 AM each morning if you don’t want to pay for hotel parking. (You’re going to want a rental car to visit the Big Island, as most of the island can be accessed only by car.)
We found Hilo to be more or less what you’d expect of a sleepy Hawaiian town in which actual people live. There are a few restaurants (we had great Thai food) and one or two little bars. Most things are fully shut down by 10 PM. There’s a beach and a nice little waterfront area. People wander around in beachy attire and flip flops. (Note that there are also quite a large number of homeless people). Hilo is most lively in the daytime; it’s a beach town, not a nightlife city.
Keep in mind that the weather in Hilo is not as nice as it is in Kona. Don’t be surprised if it is rainy or foggy for much of your stay. That’s just the way it is!
A major advantage, though, is that Hilo is very near to the volcano. The drive is around 45 minutes. We would recommend staying in Hilo on days that you plan on visiting Volcanoes National Park. That way, you’ll be able to spend a full day at the park without having to wake at the crack of dawn, as you would if you were planning to drive from Kona.
Staying in Kona
Kona is the total opposite of Hilo. If Hilo is authentic, sleepy, and maybe a little run-down, Kona is full of tourist infrastructure and resorts. Not as authentic at Hilo, but more comfortable. The classic trade-off.
Kona is on the west side of the island, also near to its own little airport. It has beautiful sunsets, cute coffee shops and restaurants, little breweries, and gorgeous Airbnbs. This is the place to be if you’re looking for a more typical relaxing, beachy type of experience.
Deciding where to stay in Kona is a question unto itself; there are a couple of different lodging options. First, there are a number of timeshare mini “resorts” that also serve as Airbnb vacation rentals within a mile of Kona’s main town. You can get a larger space and a nice balcony in these for a relatively low price. In our opinion, these are some of the best places to stay on the Big Island. The main disadvantage of staying outside of the main town is that there is no good sidewalk for walking into Kona. You’ll be walking along the roadside, or else driving or taking an Uber. The waterfront, you see, is blocked by all of the other mini-resorts and hotels, thus precluding it from pedestrian traffic.
You can also stay in a hotel right in town to be within easy walking distance to all of the waterfront coffee shops and mai tai happy hours! You’ll have a little less space and pay a little more, but you’ll be right in the center of everything.
Kona is further from the volcano, around two hours. If you do decide to visit Volcanoes National Park from Kona, we’d recommend that you drive over the mountain one way, to experience the changing landscape of the lava as you ascend. You can even take a side road to climb to the peak of Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea if you have an extra hour or two to spare. On your way back, we’d recommend driving along the coast, with a stop at the black sand beach. Be sure to leave early, so that you can get some hiking done in the morning before the real heat of the day sets in!
Staying in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Can you stay in Volcanoes National Park itself? Why, yes you can! There is a fancy (and expensive) lodge available, the Volcano House, as well as inexpensive cabins (basically camping). This is a great idea if you’re looking to spend more than one day at the park, and it may be one of the most unique and coolest places to stay on the Big Island. (I mean, you’re sleeping on a VOLCANO!) For most visitors, though, a day trip is probably sufficient.
Staying on the Kohala Coast
If you’re really just looking to lie on the beach and aren’t particularly concerned about being in a town or city, the Kohala Coast may be the spot for you. It’s known for its white sand beaches, such as Hapuna Beach, which is known as one of the best beaches on the big island. It’s also known for its beach resorts and beach hotels. The Kohala Coast is far from the volcano but relatively near to Kona (and its airport!) This may be one of the best places to stay on the Big Island for families; just beach time on beach time on beach time.
So, the verdict on where to stay on the Big Island?
If you had to choose just one place to stay, we’d recommend Kona. Although it’s touristy, it’s much more chill than Honolulu or anywhere on Oahu. It’s nicer to walk around than Hilo, and there is more available in terms of food and drink. Ideally, though, you could stay one to two nights in Hilo to get a taste of real Hawaii and visit the volcano, and then spend the rest of your time in Kona, with maybe a day or two thrown in on the Kohala Coast or Volcanoes National Park for some nature and relaxation time. It really just depends on your schedule and preferences!