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Things to do on the Big Island during COVID

By William Whelan

We get it! You’ve been stuck inside for months & itching for a vacation. With the success of Hawaii’s pre-travel testing program, you’re considering a trip to the aloha state for a much needed getaway. But you aren’t sure what to do once you arrive in Hawaii with COVID restrictions in place. We’ve put together a list of our favorite activities around the island, updated with any pertinent COVID info. There are still plenty of things to do on the Big Island & we know you’ll have an incredible time if traveling is the right decision for you.

The Big Island of Hawaii is arguably the most diverse of all the Hawaiian islands. We have giant snow-capped mountain peaks, rugged country, thick rainforest jungle, beautiful white-sand beaches & moon-scape lava fields. There are so many things to do on the Big Island we often recommend guests plan to stay for two weeks, or longer, if possible! Beyond excellent SCUBA diving & snorkeling you can find a plethora of outdoor activities, or you can enjoy a languid pace at the beach or in some of our favorite restaurants.

COVID stopped travel to the islands for most of 2020, but since October we’ve gradually re-opened & things are largely back to normal with some extra COVID precautions. Many restaurants have dine-in options again. Most tours have resumed with reduced capacity (we really like the smaller groups!) and beaches & hikes are open. Shopping, getting around, & sightseeing are largely unaffected. Kilauea Volcano resumed erupting in late December (As a season finale to 2020? We joke- the eruption is totally safe.) so it is possible to see lava again on the Big Island in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Private Helicopter Ride with Mauna Loa Helicopters

Some sights on the Big Island are best by air, especially waterfalls deep in the Hamakua Coast valleys.

The Big Island is, surprisingly, actually pretty big! While we love a sunny day drive around the island, nothing compares to experiencing Hawaii by helicopter. Some parts of our island are completely inaccessible by land, but offer stunning views from the air. You’ll feel like you’re entering Jurassic Park flying over the waterfalls of the Hamakua Coast. We highly recommend Mauna Loa helicopters& their private tours.

Nothing really compares to seeing the entire island in one day – and from above. Get it all: views of fringing reef, glowing lava, lush valleys, waterfalls, and black sand beaches. All of the Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours are private, meaning your group has the whole bird (!) to themselves. Go doorless for extra excitement. Try to book an early morning tour for the best weather conditions, and don’t forget to take Bonine if you’re prone to motion sickness.

Horseback Riding with Paniolo Adventures

Day hike into Pololu Valley

Looking down on the black sand beach of Pololuu Valley midway through the hike.

The northernmost of the 7 valleys, Pololu sits at the tip of the island just past Hawi. Plan to hike in early before the crowds, and enjoy a peaceful day at a gorgeous black sand beach nestled between steep valley walls. The hike down the z-trail isn’t strenuous, but you’ll want to save some water for the trek back up (especially if you do it in the afternoon sun). Avoid this trail in the rain – it can turn to slick mud quickly. If you kick off your shoes at the bottom, be warned – black sand can be quite hot! If you’re feeling extra adventurous, follow the jungle trail up the far wall of the valley and enjoy scenic views of the neighboring valley from the bench at the top. Parking can get tight during weekends and afternoons.

Crew tip: hit Kohala Coffee Mill for breakfast before your adventure, and Sushi Rock for lunch afterwards.

Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park & See Lava

The lava lake is filling again & you can see lava in the park (it was not visible after the 2018 eruption). The park has many wonderful hikes & beautiful scenery beyond the Kilauea caldera. You can easily spend 2-3 days in the park.

Charter Our Sailing Catamaran

The Shaka Sail is our favorite place to watch whales & dolphins.

Enjoy a day of sailing, whale-watching, or fishing on one of our private charter boats out of Kawaihae Harbor. We like to make each charter special with catering & beverage options. Sailing charters on the Shaka Sailput you right in the middle of the action during humpback whale season. For the more adventurous, we offer spearfishing lessons on the Shaka Fish with legendary waterman Rob White of Blue Water Hunter.

Take a Surf Lesson

Surfing was arguably invented here on the Big Island of Hawaii, so why not take a lesson or two? Kahaluu Bay offers gentle beginner-friendly waves. Kahaluu Surf & Seaoffers one-on-one or group instruction, & has options for keiki so you can get them started young.

Day hike into Kealakekua Bay

Bring good hiking boots for the trek down, snorkeling gear, and plenty of water for the hike back up. Boots or water shoes for the rocky sea-urchin covered entry points are also advised. Kealakekua Bay is a very sacred place in the Hawaiian Islands, & the initial landing point of Captain James Cook. Both the snorkeling & the scenery are incredible here!

Farm Tours & Farmers Markets

Hawaii has a thriving agriculture industry & farm tours are one of the best things to do on the Big Island. We love the Hawaiian Vanilla Farm, especially their delicious lunch tour. You can also find a Ginger Farm, various Bee Farms, & tons of coffee farms south of Kona.

The Hilo Farmers Marketis epic for fans of locally-grown produce, handmade crafts, and fresh food. With over 200 vendors offering their wares, this is an impressive market. Toss a cooler in your car, and be sure to bring cash and a sturdy tote bag. The left/north side of the market is primarily produce and food, while the opposite side offers a variety of goods like pottery, jewelry, paintings, and clothing. Our favorite steals: strawberry papayas (6 for $2), fresh cut flowers, tamales with inca sauce ($3), and Green Papaya Salad from the Thai takeout window. Parking can get tight here in the late morning.

Zipline with Kohala Zipline

We love Kohala Zipline! The best zipline tour on the island, with a proper ‘full canopy’ zipline tour in the Kohala rainforest. The Zip & Dip double adventure tour offers a full day of zipline fun plus a swim at a private waterfall. Their top-notch guides are super friendly & helpful, even if you have a fear of heights!

Stargaze on the summit of Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is one of Hawaii’s most sacred spaces as the ancestral zenith of creation. We only recommend visiting the summit with a tour guide like Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. The scenery from this 13,000 foot high peak is otherworldly- you’ll drive through the clouds and have unbeatable views of the island & neighboring Maui. On a clear night the Milky Way is a brilliant celestial river overhead, & during winter months you may even see snow in Hawaii. It is difficult to explain the humbling, sublime experience of the summit. Once you reach the very top, consider that native Hawaiians would make the same journey on footfor prayer & other sacred ceremonies. On the way back down the mountain, the Mauna Kea visitor center offers guided viewing through amerture telescopes. (Not happening w/ COVID.)

The Milky Way from the summit.

Sitting just under 14,000’, Mauna Kea is one of the most magnificent sights in all of Hawaii. The geographic isolation of the Hawaiian islands means we have some of the lowest light pollution in the world, and for this reason Mauna Kea summit has become a stargazing mecca. Interactive star talks are offered at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights from 7pm to 10pm. After enjoying sunset at the summit, drive back down to VIS and learn about Hawaiian culture and astronomy, and peer through powerful telescopes into the night sky. The active lava flow glow from fissure 8 can currently be seen from the summit at this time (weather permitting).

If you plan to SCUBA dive during your time on island, be sure to plan your Mauna Kea visit accordingly – driving to elevation after SCUBA diving can seriously increase your risk of developing DCS. Check road conditions before driving to the summit. Believe it or not, it does snow in Hawaii, even in June! Four wheel drive vehicles with low gear are required for drives to the summit. Bundle up! It is not unusual for temperatures at the summit to be around 30ºF. Oxygen levels at 14,000’ are about 40% less than at sea level. Those with heart or respiratory problems and individuals under 13 years should not travel past the Visitors Station. Altitude sickness is not uncommon. Always allow a minimum of 30 minutes at VIS before proceeding to the summit to allow your body to acclimate. For more information about visiting the summit, please check out the VIS website.

Hilo’s Pepeekeo Scenic Drive & Hamakua Coast

While Saddle road can get you from Hilo to Kona in around an hour and twenty minutes, we recommend the scenic route to Big Island newcomers. This will send you through three large and impressive gulches, over old stone bridges, eucalyptus forests, and rolling oceanfront fields. Stop along the way at some of these scenic favorites:

Visit Green Sands Beach

Olivine-rich sand gives this beach its unique color.

At the southern tip of the Big Island, you’ll find Ka Lae – the southernmost point in the United States. High winds are common down here. There is an awesome cliff jump and if you are friendly you might catch a ride in some random uncle’s truck to Green Sands.

[randome uncle sounds like kidnapping to those not from Hawaii, tell people to bring cash for random uncle’s gas, explain the hike if you’re not down with hitching a ride, be aware of ocean conditions for cliff jump and don’t hurt yourself- hospital is a long drive]

Dive or Snorkel with Manta Rays

Call us biased… but Sport Diver, DiveIn, and PADI Travel agree that our Manta Ray Night Dive is one of the top dives in the world. The Kona coast is home to over 200 resident manta rays, ranging from 4 to 16 feet in wingspan. These filter feeders gather at several feeding locations after dark to enjoy a plankton feast, cruising over the heads of divers and barrel-rolling under snorkelers at the surface. This evening spectacle can be enjoyed by certified divers and snorkelers alike.

Honorable Mentions

Waipio Valley: Kohala mountain is the oldest volcano on the Big Island. After hundreds of thousands of years of rainfall, water eroded seven deep valleys into the island’s northeast-facing slope. The southernmost part of this impressive coastline, Waipio Valley, is also the easiest to access (don’t get too excited, that isn’t saying much). The road descending into the valley is one of the steepest in the world, we do not recommend driving down, even if you are equipped with 4WD. While it’s a hike to get to the beach at the bottom of the valley, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views & some great exercise. The water here can be very rough, don’t swim unless you are an experienced, strong swimmer. Maintain respect at all times for the locals in the valley, especially local residents & areas marked kapu (‘keep out’). The valley has strong cultural significance & many sacred burial sites. Don’t be a donkey!

2022's #1 Dive Operator in Hawaii

with a 5 star reputation

Manta Ray Night Dive

What a truly amazing experience!! Nearly an hour of down time with dozens of large mantas putting on an incredible show. Jenna, and Captain Kevin made it a pleasant and safe trip. This is a must do while staying on the Big Island.

RichGiff on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:32:39-10:00

RichGiff on TripAdvisor

What a truly amazing experience!! Nearly an hour of down time with dozens of large mantas putting on an incredible show. Jenna, and Captain Kevin made it a pleasant and safe trip. This is a must do while staying on the Big Island.

One of the Top 10 Dives in the World!

Believe It, it really is one of the most phenomenal dives we have ever done! Laying on our stomachs on the ocean floor around the "campfire" was unforgettable as the beautifully graceful Manta Rays soared directly above our heads, over and over. They performed ballet moves with each other, sometimes as many as 4 at a time feeding on the plankton.

Susan R on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:33:00-10:00

Susan R on TripAdvisor

Believe It, it really is one of the most phenomenal dives we have ever done! Laying on our stomachs on the ocean floor around the "campfire" was unforgettable as the beautifully graceful Manta Rays soared directly above our heads, over and over. They performed ballet moves with each other, sometimes as many as 4 at a time feeding on the plankton.

Excellent

We have been diving the BID on multiple dives over multiple trips and we keep coming back to them because of the high quality service that they provide. Definitely a step above the usual dive shops.

Dreamer6739 on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:37:50-10:00

Dreamer6739 on TripAdvisor

We have been diving the BID on multiple dives over multiple trips and we keep coming back to them because of the high quality service that they provide. Definitely a step above the usual dive shops.

Manta Night Dive Lives Up to the Hype

I recently went on the sunset reef dive & manta ray night dive. I was a little hesitant about my expectations because I heard so many great things and didn't want to be disappointed. Cannot say enough great things about the company, captain and DM - highly recommend and will dive with them again.

ulintza on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:38:42-10:00

ulintza on TripAdvisor

I recently went on the sunset reef dive & manta ray night dive. I was a little hesitant about my expectations because I heard so many great things and didn't want to be disappointed. Cannot say enough great things about the company, captain and DM - highly recommend and will dive with them again.

Excellent Staff

We had a great two tank dive with BID last week! Our dive master Amy was excellent all the way around and our captain Rob was not only a great captain but very knowledgeable about Hawaii and even served hot chocolate on the way back to the Marina.

bridgetsheahan on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:39:31-10:00

bridgetsheahan on TripAdvisor

We had a great two tank dive with BID last week! Our dive master Amy was excellent all the way around and our captain Rob was not only a great captain but very knowledgeable about Hawaii and even served hot chocolate on the way back to the Marina.

Incredible

It was so amazing that it made me feel like a kid again - this is coming from someone who has traveled a lot. I talked to other divers who described the Black Water Dive, and I wish I would have done that one instead of the twilight dive.

Steve9172

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:40:19-10:00

Steve9172

It was so amazing that it made me feel like a kid again - this is coming from someone who has traveled a lot. I talked to other divers who described the Black Water Dive, and I wish I would have done that one instead of the twilight dive.

Great Dive Experience

Great dive experience underwater and while on the boat. Experienced staff gave all of the direction and assistance needed but did not "over-guide" the trip as is often the case.

Compass0726 on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:40:52-10:00

Compass0726 on TripAdvisor

Great dive experience underwater and while on the boat. Experienced staff gave all of the direction and assistance needed but did not "over-guide" the trip as is often the case.

An Amazing Souvenir

I booked the night Manta Ray snorkeling tour. It was simply awesome. In addition of the amazing experience to observe the Manta rays in their natural environment, the crew was just perfect, always helpful and offers us a warm hospitality. I definitely recommend this tour.

tomlecube on TripAdvisor

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:41:47-10:00

tomlecube on TripAdvisor

I booked the night Manta Ray snorkeling tour. It was simply awesome. In addition of the amazing experience to observe the Manta rays in their natural environment, the crew was just perfect, always helpful and offers us a warm hospitality. I definitely recommend this tour.

Two Tank Dive

This is the dive shop to go with for great service and knowledgeable staff. I went out for a refresher dive since it had been 9 years since my last dive. Becca was great and by the end of the second dive I felt comfortable being back in the water.

BryonB690

Big Island Divers
5
2019-05-07T11:42:13-10:00

BryonB690

This is the dive shop to go with for great service and knowledgeable staff. I went out for a refresher dive since it had been 9 years since my last dive. Becca was great and by the end of the second dive I felt comfortable being back in the water.
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Big Island Divers
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