Having a well-crafted itinerary before ever stepping one flip-flop onto the Big Island of Hawaii can be the difference between a stressful week of planning and the relaxing vacation you deserve!
We visit the Big Island once per year and always get asked the same question by first-time visitors – “What do I absolutely have to see and do with 5 days on the Big Island?”
We have used our numerous experiences to create what we truly believe is the best 5 day Big Island itinerary to answer that question once and for all.
In this guide, you will learn where to stay, the must-see destinations, suggestions on how to spend each of your 5 days on the Big Island, and everything else you need to know for planning your trip.
Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂
Before we get into the guide, you may have heard that Mauna Loa volcano began erupting again in November of 2022. Since then, it has been back and forth between periods of quiet and small eruptions.
Some things to know:
Throughout this guide, we will address every point of planning you need to consider when arranging your 5 day Big Island itinerary in great detail.
To help lay the foundation, this section provides a quick overview of everything you can expect to learn about.
📋 SUGGESTED: ULTIMATE GUIDE FOR PLANNING A TRIP TO BIG ISLAND
This section breaks down all the things you can do with recommendations on which day to do it for each of your 5 days on Big Island.
Each day focuses on a different region of the Big Island. By structuring the itinerary this way, you will find time-efficient routes, as well as the ability to swap one day for another if necessary.
For example, may want to hit the ground running and save the beach days for last! In this instance, you could swap Day 1 and Day 4 with minimal maneuvering.
If you get confused, just circle back to the Regional Map in the overview section.
Having just arrived and potentially still adjusting to the new time zone, the first day of your Big Island itinerary aims to balance leisurely exploration with plenty of beach time.
We recommend you use Day 1 to drive north of Kona to the Kohala region, getting a feel for the landscape while you cruise up.
Once in Kohala, you will find some of the most beautiful beaches and incredible coral gardens on the Big Island, as well as a bit of luxury in the Waikoloa area.
End your first on the island being wined and dined on a magical sunset sail, hopefully helping to truly get your mind away from the mainland and into vacation mode.
🌴 READ MORE: DISCOVER ALL THE BEST BEACHES ON THE BIG ISLAND
Mauna Kea Beach (Kaunaʻoa Beach in Hawaiian) is a white sand beach with crystal clear water located at the shoreline of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Autograph Collection.
While the hotel keeps this tropical paradise carefully manicured, it is a public beach that anyone can enjoy.
This small, remote beach is hidden away just north of Mauna Kea Beach along a semi-rough road.
If you prefer your beaches to feel more authentic than the curated resort beaches, it is worth popping over. However, it is not so special as to be considered unmissable by most.
Hapuna Beach is truly one of the best beaches on the Big Island in every regard.
The water here is incredibly clear and the hazardous lava rock present on most of the Kona shoreline is scarce here. A wide, white sand beach is available for spending the day lounging and soaking in the sunshine.
Of all the beaches you will visit on this first day of your Big Island itinerary, plan to spend the most time at Hapuna.
The park offers plenty of covered picnic tables, parking, restrooms, showers, and even a lifeguard. If you have the foresight to pack a lunch, this is an excellent place to spend the afternoon and enjoy a picnic on the beach.
Beach 69 neighbors Hapuna Beach to the south. Is one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island, but the beach itself is otherwise lacking.
If you have brought a snorkel set (which we highly recommend), take some time to explore the underwater world and coral gardens at Beach 69.
If snorkeling is not your thing, you can skip this stop as there is little to experience from the shore.
For the photography enthusiasts reading this, Puako Beach is one of the least-known destinations for incredible, postcard-perfect tropical scenery.
From an experiential standpoint, however, this hidden beach leaves a lot to be desired.
While the photos make it look sublime, it is worth noting that there is no sand here. Rather, you’ll find large chunks of white coral. The reef in Puako Bay is absolutely incredible, but it is not recommended to snorkel from Puako Beach due to the dangerous lava rock shelf.
In other words, those without an interest in photographs can leave this one off their Big Island itinerary, but the shutterbugs among you should highlight this secret sunset destination.
Waikoloa Beach is one of the nicest beaches in Kona, if you forgive the coarse sand shore.
It is maintained by the surrounding resorts and offers a great family-friendly beach with full services.
The Waikoloa region is one of the places we recommend staying for your 5 days on the Big Island. It is a bit more pricey than most of the island, but the beach, resort, and facilities nearby make it a tremendous home base.
Within the Queen’s Marketplace in the Waikoloa area, you will find upscale and mid-range shopping options as well as semi-daily cultural events such as live Hawaiian music, hula shows, etc. This is also the easiest place to find dining options in the North Kona / Kohala region of the island.
You should aim to make Waikoloa your final destination on Day 1 as this will allow you the most options for how you choose to end the day. Here are the 3 most popular sunset options in the Kohala region:
Now that you’ve had a day to enjoy the beaches and soak in some of those aloha vibes, it’s time for a little adventure!
The Big Island is considered by many to provide the best snorkeling in the state of Hawaii. It has the healthiest coral gardens, and aquatic wildlife sightings are almost expected! These include everything from spinner dolphins to whales to turtles, and even the occasional whale shark.
For Day 2 of your Big Island itinerary we, recommend beginning with a morning snorkel tour to Captain Cook Monument. This is considered the best snorkeling spot on the Big Island.
Afterward, spend the day exploring the buzzing town of Kailua-Kona and some of its best beaches.
🐠 READ MORE: BEST SNORKELING SPOTS ON THE BIG ISLAND
The Big Island is known for being the best snorkeling destination of the 4 major Hawaiian islands. Of all the places to snorkel here, the Captain James Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay is considered the best of the best.
Begin Day 2 of your Big Island itinerary with a snorkel adventure to Captain Cook. The boat tour we recommend provides food and beverages and takes care of everything, making it an easy and fun way to begin the day. You will also learn more about the history of the area.
We’ve done this tour now five times and love it. But if you don’t want to take our word for it, you can also check out their excellent 5-star TripAdvisor reviews!
While it is technically possible to get to this snorkel spot without a tour, it requires a very long drive and an even longer hike. The tours are affordable and provide a much more pleasant experience, and save a lot of time as well, which is particularly important with only 5 days on the Big Island.
The coral garden at the monument is rich and colorful and teeming with tropical fish and aquatic life. Expect to see turtles and tropical fish underwater, and you will almost always see spinner dolphins from the boat.
During whale migration season, you will also likely see a few of these gentle giants if you do a boat tour!
If you do not want to book a tour but are still interested in snorkeling, head to Kahalu’u Beach Park instead. While the snorkeling is not as good as Captain Cook or Two Step, it provides quick and easy access to a lovely coral garden.
The sand is gray and coarse, so it’s not the most comfortable for lounging on. However, the park provides covered picnic areas, full restroom and shower facilities, and ample parking.
Turtle sightings are a bit rarer in the afternoon but common in the morning.
Having spent the morning snorkeling with Hawaii’s cutest underwater residents, you will likely be ready for some dry land and relaxation. Before hitting the beaches, consider exploring the charming and historic town center of Kailua-Kona.
You can easily walk the entire town, giving some indication as to its relative size. You will find, as expected, plenty of restaurants, bars, shops, and quick eats. If nothing else, treat yourself to a shaved ice or cocktail.
When you have recharged and fueled up, grab the cooler and sun chairs out and head to some of the best beaches in the Kailua-Kona region to end Day 2 with a sunset on the water.
While it is very small, this white sand beach has the softest sand and easiest ocean access in the area.
As you will discover if you have not by now, the relative youth of the Big Island (it is the youngest in the Hawaiian Island chain) means there is still a lot of exposed lava rock and coarse sand to contend with at most beaches, but (mostly) not at Magic Sands.
There is a large parking area, restroom facilities, a lifeguard, and a handful of restaurants, bars, and convenience stores all in close proximity if you need any supplies. Take the time to relax and enjoy some well-deserved beach time.
Magic Sands faces west, making it a great place to end the second day of your Big Island itinerary watching the sunset from the beach.
If you are traveling with small children or prefer something off the beaten path, Keiki Beach / Queen’s Bath is one of the best and most secret beaches in Kona.
“Keiki” means “child” in Hawaiian, so this translates to kid’s beach. It is a popular choice for families with kids because a lava rock shelf breaks incoming waves and protects the cove from strong currents. Additionally, a small shallow pool collects the water and forms a natural kiddy pool known as Queen’s Bath.
You will certainly have time to enjoy both Keiki Beach AND Magic Sands should you so choose. Keiki Beach is the quieter, more peaceful option, but Magic Sands is much easier to get to and feels more tropical.
Both are good options for sunset.
Having had a couple of days to get adjusted to island time and explore much of the west coast, Day 3 becomes a bit more adventurous. It also requires a lot more driving than any other day, so some tour options will be presented if you want the hard work done for you.
By now, you have enjoyed a few of the golden-sand, lava rock beaches that Kona provides, but did you know that the Big Island of Hawaii is home to green and black sand beaches?
In fact, Papakolea Beach (aka Green Sand Beach) is one of the best beaches in Hawaii, boasting silky soft sand of an unusual color and crystal clear water within a sheltered cove.
🌺 READ MORE: ULTIMATE BIG ISLAND BUCKET LIST
You will have two amazing options for ending Day 3, but will have to choose one!
The one we recommend is a twilight visit to Hawaii Volcanoes NP, though this is quite the undertaking! With 7 day itineraries, we recommend syncing this experience up with an overnight trip to Hilo but with only 5 days on the Big Island, this is the most time-efficient way to see it.
If you choose to end your day with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, watching magma bubble and burst within a large volcanic crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I promise it will be a day you never forget.
However, if you want something simpler and still incredible, instead end your day at Ho’okena Beach Park watching the sunset from this delightful beach while a pod of resident dolphins splash about the waters.
Day 3 of this 5 day Big Island itinerary involves the most driving you will have to do all week.
If you don’t particularly enjoy driving, or just prefer to have things taken care of for you, this is a great day to book a tour.
There are a number of full-day tours that include stops at Black Sand Beach and Volcanoes National Park. While most do not include a stop at Green Sand Beach, instead they offer other stops such as Rainbow Falls, Thurston Lava Tube, and Waipio Valley.
Below are some of the top-rated tours that include Black Sand Beach and Volcanoes NP. They are all full-day tours lasting 11-12 hours and include pick-up and lunch. Each tour has different stops, varying numbers of guests, and other inclusions, so be sure to read through the descriptions to ensure it suits your needs.
Green Sand Beach derives its unusual tint from the olivine mineral present in the sand. Though it isn’t quite as green as some may hope, it is definitely unique and a must-see on any Big Island itinerary.
The beach itself is also one of the nicest in terms of experience. The sand is like powder, easily the softest on the island, and the water is impossibly blue and turquoise. Large olivine cliffs protect it from winds, creating the perfect shelter for a day on the beach.
Be aware that getting to this marvel requires either a very long walk in the sun or buying a ride with one of the local ATV drivers down to the beach.
You have already seen white and green sand beaches, so it seems fitting to make your final beach stop a visit to the incredible Black Sand Beach of Big Island.
Known locally as Punalu’u, this is perhaps the best place on the island to see the resident honu (Hawaiian sea turtles.)
The black sand is very coarse and is not the most pleasant to lay on, but the visual aesthetics are second to none.
The absolute highlight of any visit to the Big Island is seeing the volcanic origins of the Hawaiian Islands at the source. There are few things more humbling and incredible than gazing out to an oozing lava lake with magma bubbling and exploding like natural fireworks.
If at all possible, plan to end your day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and wait for twilight. There are a variety of viewpoints around the crater which are worth exploring, but the best view is from Keanakako’i Overlook.
Photographers will want to bring a tripod and the biggest zoom lens you have for photos.
For those that aren’t comfortable driving in the dark, you may want to consider booking a tour to Hawaii Volcanoes NP.
⭐️ Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring your Annual National Parks Pass to get free access to Hawaii Volcanoes NP.
If a visit to the national park is just too much time and commitment, there is a more relaxing way to end your third day on the Big Island. That is, watching the sunset from Ho’okena Beach Park.
Ho’okena Beach is one of the best beaches in South Kona. It has some of the softest sand on the Big Island and has a distinct grey color that contrasts marvelously with the tropical palms and water.
The best part is that a pod of resident dolphins live here, so it is very likely you will see some playing about as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Full facilities are available at Ho’okena Beach Park, and there are even covered picnic tables if you require shade.
Day 4 of your Big Island itinerary is going to largely be an underwater adventure.
We have purposefully kept it mostly light in the day in preparation for the absolute best thing to do on a visit to the island: the manta ray night snorkel!
If snorkeling is not your thing, consider spending a little more time exploring some of the remote beaches and sacred historic area, or take whatever else you feel you need.
⭐️ Pro Tip: Begin your day early and you are almost guaranteed to spend the morning with resident spinner dolphins!
Depending on personal preference, you should start Day 4 at either Ho’okena Beach for a leisurely morning of relaxation, or at Two Step for some morning snorkeling.
Both locations have large groups of spinner dolphins that tend to be around in the early morning hours and while it is no longer legal to swim with them, the dolphins do not know the law and will often come swim with you!
If you decided to end your Day 3 here instead, then begin Day 4 instead at Two Step.
Most agree that Captain James Cook Monument is the best place to snorkel on the Big Island, but Two Step comes in as a close second. The best part about Two-Step, however, is that it does not require a tour!
The coral garden at Two Step is amazing and morning swimmers often are lucky enough to be joined by a resident dolphin pod.
Services are limited here so plan accordingly.
Also, it is so-named because it requires two slippery steps to get into and out of the water. People with mobility issues may struggle at this location and should instead consider Kahalu’u Beach Park.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Area is located directly beside Two-Step. However, it is part of the National Park System and therefore requires paid entry unless you already have an interagency pass (which we highly recommend as it pays for itself very quickly!)
This sacred site holds historical and cultural significance that the NPS looks to preserve. The grounds are absolutely incredible to walk and learn about native Hawaiian culture.
Be aware that beautiful as it is, you are not allowed to swim in the water here and the beach itself is very small.
If you are not interested in the Manta Ray night snorkel or find yourself with an open sunset, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is one of the best places to watch sunset in Kona.
⭐️ Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring your Annual National Parks Pass to get free access to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Area.
The absolute best of the things to do on a visit to the Big Island of Hawaii is a manta ray night snorkel (or dive if you’re certified)!!
Note that you do not need to be a strong swimmer nor have any snorkeling experience to participate; you simply have to hold onto the handles of a floating board with lights that attract the manta rays.
This is one of the most incredible, even spiritual experiences you will have on your Big Island vacation. It is hard to overstate the grace, beauty, and size of these gentle giants. It is truly magical to watch them swim directly at you, then barrel roll belly to belly.
We cannot recommend this experience highly enough and consider it the one a “must-do” on your Big Island bucket list.
The time remaining on your 5 day Big Island itinerary should be spent exploring a new region: North Kona.
This region has most of our favorite Big Island beaches. Unfortunately, most of them are a bit difficult to get to, but each is well worth the effort.
End your vacation with a climactic flourish by enjoying a sunset luau. Watch the sun go down while feasting on traditional Hawaiian food and learning more about the history and culture of the natives.
It is one last memory you will cherish forever.
📸 READ MORE: 25 BEST PLACES ON THE BIG ISLAND FOR EPIC PHOTOS
Most people consider Makalawena Beach and neighboring Mahai’ula Beach to be the absolute best beaches on the Big Island.
There are two major catches, however, that you need to be prepared for when including them in your Day 5 itinerary.
The first is that the road to the beach is extremely rugged. You will have to either park and walk a very long road to get there or have a vehicle with a bit of clearance. Technically, standard commuter cars can make it but it may take some scrapes along the way.
The other catch is that the park closes around sunset. While they will not typically lock the gate that early, they will ticket anyone on the beach side of it!
Due to the long walk and enforcement, we absolutely recommend visiting these gems but making them one of your earliest stops.
Kua Bay has the softest sand in North Kona and is the best beach in the area for swimming and water sports such as boogie boarding.
This is one of the few places with easy shoreline access to the ocean without having to deal with lava rock.
There is a large parking area with restrooms and showers available at the beach park. It can get very busy as it is among the most popular beaches on the Big Island. However, there are usually spaces available.
This is one of our favorite places for sunset in Kona as well. While we recommend something a bit more special for your final night on the Big Island such as the sunset luau, Kua Bay Beach is a good free option if this is more your speed!
Kukio Beach is somewhat a hidden gem, always seeming to be quiet despite being absolutely incredible.
On our most recent visit, we had the entire beach to ourselves for a spectacular sunset… with the exception of an endangered monk seal lounging on the beach who joined us.
Be warned that Kukio Beach is fantastic for sitting in the sand and enjoying paradise, but it is not a great place for swimming. A lava rock shelf is scattered across most of the water entry, making it challenging and a little dangerous for splashing around.
As this is the final night of 5 days on the Big Island, make sure you do something special to end it!
In our opinion, a sunset luau is the best option as it combines a feast for the eyes and ears, as well as the stomach.
Several resorts in Kona offer luaus, which combine Hawaiian cuisine with dance, culture, and storytelling.
The Voyagers of the Pacific Luau is widely considered the best luau on the Big Island, with spectacular ocean views.
If any of the recommended activities do not appeal to your personal preferences, you may find yourself with some time to fill.
Not to worry, they don’t call it the BIG Island for no reason!
Below are a few more popular activities not yet featured to consider adding or substituting to create your perfect 5 day Big Island itinerary:
The interactive map above shows all of the stops and points of interest featured within this 5 day Big Island itinerary.
They have been color-coded and grouped by day for easier comprehension.
To open the Google Map in a new tab, click here or on the image above.
Choosing the right place to call home on your holiday is the most important decision you will make.
Travelers with only 5 days in Big Island will want to stay in Kona Town or Waikoloa.
This is where you will find the largest array of accommodation options from hotels to resorts to AirBnBs. It is also where you will have the most access to services, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.
If you don’t mind checking out once, you can save on drive time by dividing your stay between the two options. This also allows you to experience both.
If you would prefer to not deal with multiple check-ins and check-outs, you will have to decide between them.
⚠️ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED READ ⚠️
THE COMPLETE GUIDE ON WHERE TO STAY ON THE BIG ISLAND
Waikoloa: North Kona receives the most sunshine year-round. For this reason, the resorts near Waikoloa are among the most popular, but also the most expensive. Accommodation in this region is a good choice for those who plan to spend more time at home than adventuring. However, it is a poor choice for those who wish to explore.
Kailua-Kona: Mauna Kea, the largest mountain on the Big Island, creates its own weather systems which can leave South Kona engulfed in clouds. During shoulder seasons, this may mean more hours in overcast weather than sunshine. However, it is typically sunny, the most centralized location for exploring, and nearest to services.
You will absolutely need a vehicle to explore the Big Island. There is some public transport available, particularly near Kailua-Kona, but the island is simply too big and time too precious to rely on buses.
For the majority of visitors, renting a car is the best option. The Big Island has all of the typical rental car services. However, another cheaper option is to use the Turo app which has gained popularity in Hawaii.
This app allows you to rent a car directly from the owner which is usually far more affordable to puts money directly into the pockets of the locals. The most notable downside is that you may have to pick it up at their location which requires additional costs and maneuvering.
Finding a campervan on the Big Island is not as easy as we wish it were. For those who manage to get one, however, this is the best choice for exploring.
The size of the island makes commuting back and forth to a hotel or BnB a major loss of time. With a campervan, you can limit overall mileage while saving money on accommodation and gas. You also get your choice of views to wake up to each morning, which is cheaper than any ocean-view hotel room!
Consolidating your rental car and hotel into one comfortable setup is the best choice for maximizing time and money on your Big Island itinerary. Of course, it is also potentially the least comfortable.
If you are unable to drive but still want to see the Big Island, the best option is to pre-book tours for all of the activities you want to do.
For those who elect this option, you will want to choose a hotel or resort in Kailua-Kona as nearly every tour company will arrange pick up in this area.
Your individual packing list will vary depending on the type of vacation you intend to have. However, there are a few essentials that you will want to consider taking with you to the Big Island.
You can also find a printable checklist in our Hawaii Packing guide. This covers all the essentials, as well as often overlooked items.
Hawai‘i is welcoming travelers again! There are no longer any Covid-19 requirements nor mask mandates in place for the flights nor on the islands themselves.
However, there are some pre-travel requirements for international travelers visiting Hawai‘i.
There are no current domestic restrictions for domestic flights to Hawaii. Additionally, the REAL ID enforcement date has been pushed back to May 7, 2025 due to the recent pandemic.
For those traveling from international destinations with direct flights to Hawaii, you will only need to follow federal international requirements. There are no additional State of Hawai‘i requirements.
There is no longer any negative Covid testing requirements for international travel, with the exception of people who have been in China, Macau, or Hong Kong within the past 10 days.
(Accurate as of Jan 16, 2023)
Requirements are constantly changing so ensure you check the CDC website or within your airline for current guidelines.
Below are the most frequently asked questions for visitors planning their Big Island itineraries. Click the dropdown arrows for answers and more information on each topic.
7+ days is preferable, but 5 days on Big Island is certainly enough to enjoy the Kona region and see many of the island’s highlights, or to relax on the beach. However, it does not leave much time to do both.
Rentals cars are surprisingly affordable and by far the best way to explore the Big Island. If driving is not an option for you, be sure to book accommodation in Kailua-Kona as this is where most tours and shuttles service.
The Top 10 best things to do with only 5 days on the Big Island are:
Non-residents can currently only access the Waipio Valley floor via a tour*. The Waipiʻo Lookout is still accessible to everyone.
The Waipio Valley Road is closed to non-residents and access for any pedestrians, uncovered vehicles, and horseback is prohibited.
*Information accurate as of January 16th, 2023. You can read the amendment to the Mayor’s closure of the road here.
The two of us work very hard to create these free travel guides to help you plan your dream vacation. If you think we’ve done a good job and would like to say thanks, please consider clicking the donate button below 🙂
If you have found the information in this Big Island itinerary useful, you may also want to consider reading some of our other regional guides.
Leave a Reply