Deciding where to stay on the Big Island for your first visit is going to be the decision that impacts your trip the most. It is one to spend some time considering and researching.
The crucial factors in choosing the best area to stay will always be budget, walkability, drivability, climate, safety, and proximity to the key attractions.
By the end of this Big Island of Hawaii travel guide, you will have all of the information and key insights for each of these factors that will allow you to decide where to stay on the Big Island for the ultimate vacation.
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Best Areas to Stay on the Big Island
Wet Side vs Dry Side:
Comparing Kona vs Hilo
All Hawaiian islands have a wet side and a dry side as a result of the looming volcanoes which created them.
The sudden elevation gain of the volcanoes creates unique weather systems. Not only do they shelter one side of the island from wind, but they also create a microclimate as that wind is forced upward. As the wind gains altitude, it rapidly cools creating a new weather system.
On the Big Island, the dry side is on the west coast and is typically referred to as the Kona side. The wet side is on the east coast and is referred to as the Hilo side.
Kona and Hilo are the two major towns on each coast. We’ve listed the main benefits to staying in Kona vs. Hilo below.
- Closer to the major airport
- Drier, better weather
- More resorts and vacation rentals
- Best beaches and snorkeling
- Starting point for most tours
- More restaurants and nightlife
- Closest to Volcanoes National Park
- Cheaper accommodation
- Lower cost of goods
- Offers more outdoor activities including hiking, ziplines, and waterfall chasing
- More walkable downtown
Our Recommendation for Where to Stay on the Big Island
The Kona side is the best area to stay on Big Island as it will have the driest, sunniest weather and by far the best beaches.
In fact, nearly the entire east coast has no sandy beaches at all, but rather a lava rock shelf that meets the ocean.
If you have 7+ days for your Big Island itinerary, then we would recommend considering spending a couple of nights in Hilo to allow you to fully experience the island and reduce commute times. In this instance, we would still advise staying the majority of the time on the Kona side, but adding two nights in Hilo.
Big Island Regions Explained
The Big Island is broken down into 6 regions + Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The yellow lines indicate the only major roads on the island.
Before you begin looking into the best hotels and resorts, take a moment to study the map below and become acquainted with where things are. This will help you make the most informed decision possible on where to stay on the Big Island.
The Kona and Kohala regions make up the west coast and are where you will find most of the best beaches on Big Island. This is also where the vast majority of tourist accommodation and amenities are.
Aside from these two regions, Hilo is the only other one to consider staying in. While this is the wet side of the Big Island, the precipitation has created a beautiful rainforest and numerous waterfalls to see nearby. Also, it is much quieter for those who prefer calm and serenity over crowded beaches.
The Kau region is home to two popular beaches, including the world-famous Papakolea Green Sand Beach and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach; two of the best beaches of Hawaii. However, the area is fairly remote and there is little to see or do outside of these destinations.
Puna is the gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and has a couple of beaches, but none that merit a visit.
Hamakua will be a drive-through region at most.
So what is Kona? Is it a town? A region? A side?
Yes, yes, and yes. As you may have noticed, the term “Kona” is used quite interchangeably!
It can be used to reference the town of Kailua-Kona, the region of Kona, or the Kona side of the island.
For easier understanding and reference throughout this guide, we will always specify references as Kailua-Kona town, Kona region, or Kona side.
Comparing the Most Popular Areas to Stay:
Kailua – Kona vs Waikoloa
We have discussed why the Kona side (west side) is by far the best place to stay on the Big Island, and these two areas provide the most options for accommodation, stores, and restaurants, and are within the closest proximity to beaches. Both are great options.
Why Stay in Waikoloa
The farther you venture up the west coast, the less coarse the sand tends to be. Waikoloa is in the Kohala region, making it the northernmost destination town.
It is in close proximity to most of the Big Island’s best beaches including ʻAnaehoʻomalu Beach (A-Bay for short), Waikoloa Beach, and Hapuna Beach.
Waikoloa also has the highest-end resorts on the Big Island. This is where you will find the luxury hotels and upscale shopping.
Finally, Waikoloa is the most beach-accessible option. In other words, this area is the only one on Big Island where you can walk straight to the beach from your hotel lobby.
Best Places to Stay in Waikoloa
- Best Luxury Resort: Fairmont Orchid – 8.7/10 ⭐
- Most Romantic: Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection – 9.2/10 ⭐
- Family-Friendly: Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa – 8.1/10 ⭐
- Best Holiday Home: The Fairway Villas at Waikoloa Beach Resort – 10/10 ⭐
- Most Budget Friendly Option: Paniolo Greens Resort – 8.9/10 ⭐
Why stay in Kailua-Kona
Kona is where the action is. This is where the airport, stores, restaurants, and shops are most densely saturated. It is also where you will find the widest range of accommodation types, from vacation rentals to AirBnBs to hotels and resorts.
The Kona Beaches are also very nice, though typically more littered with lava rock and with coarser sand than you will find in the Kohala region to the north.
Most people choose Kailua-Kona when deciding where to stay on the Big Island because it is the best area for tourists to find everything they may be looking for in their Hawaii vacation.
It is also where most Big Island tours will pick up or start from.
Best Places to Stay in Kailua-Kona
- Best Luxury Resort: Holualoa Inn – 9.6/10 ⭐ (This is the only 5-star resort, for more luxury hotels consider staying in Waikoloa)
- Most Romantic: Holualoa Inn – 9.6/10 ⭐
- Family-Friendly: Four Seasons Resort Hualalai – 9/10
- Best Holiday Home: Kona Sunset House – 9.6/10 ⭐
- Most Budget Friendly Option: Kona Shores Condo – 9.8/10 ⭐
Other Areas to Stay on the Big Island
While Kona and Waikoloa are certainly the best areas to stay on the Big Island, there are a few other options that may appeal to those of you who like to get off the beaten track.
If a sunny beach vacation is not the most important criteria you have for choosing where to stay on the Big Island, consider one of these alternatives.
Historic Hilo receives far more rain and cloudy days than the leeward side of the island. However, this climate nurtures one of the most beautiful rainforests in Hawaii.
Nature lovers and hiking enthusiasts will find a lot more to explore in the Hilo region, especially along the Wailuku River.
Hilo is not as small as many imagine it to be. It has an airport as well as an abundance of the necessary options for restaurants and groceries. These range from fast food chains to upscale dining, and there is even a Wal-Mart.
Accommodation options are plentiful and easy to find, though more limited than Kona.
Big Island North Shore
To the north of the Big Island, there are a few scattered regions with small properties that range from private villas to ecolodges to AirBnBs. These are mostly in small towns like Hawi, Waimea, and Honokaa.
The great thing about staying on the north shore of Big Island is the solitude. These areas are primarily local and are going to be much quieter than the major tourist stops.
They are also near the Waipio Valley, which is considered one of the best areas to visit on the Big Island.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii is home to one of the few places in the world you can observe a lava lake in an active volcano caldera. Seeing the raw, savage power of nature in volcanic form is truly one of the most special experiences you will ever have.
With the exception of photographers designing a trip around photographing the volcano, most visitors would not want to spend more than a night near the national park, but it is a great option for one night.
The night is the best time to see the lava in full effect as it glows deep red against the blackness around it. As the park is so remote, this can be a challenging time to visit unless you are staying nearby or plan on booking a tour.
Hawaii Volcano House is the only lodging, besides camping, that is available within the National Park. Just outside the park, Volcano Village offers a number of great accommodation options, mostly cottages, lodges, and BnBs.
How Many Days to Stay on the Big Island
The Big Island is aptly named, and there is a lot to see and do with long drives in between.
One to two weeks is the perfect amount of time to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii if you are hoping to tick off most of the best things to do. If you are just looking for a couple of days of sunshine or are considering a multi-island Hawaii itinerary, 3-5 days should be enough.
For 5-7 day Big Island Itineraries, you need to consider the options of booking one accommodation for the duration or booking multiple locations.
The advantage of staying for the full week in one location is that it will be the easiest to plan and you will not have to lose time re-packing and checking in and out of multiple places. The disadvantage is that your daily drives will be longer to always drive back to the same point.
Conversely, booking at least 2 hotels in different areas of the Big Island allows you to cut back on drive times by exploring locally in each area. This is particularly helpful if you plan on visiting Hawaii Volcanoes NP and/or Hilo.
For Big Island stays of more than one week, you should definitely book at least 2-3 different accommodations split between the Kona and Hilo regions.
Best Things to Do on the Big Island
The following lists the best activities, tours, and sites on the Big Island. For a complete list, visit our ultimate guide: 101 BEST THINGS TO DO ON BIG ISLAND.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel or Dive
If you only do one thing on the Big Island, do the manta ray night snorkel (or dive if certified) This is unanimously the most memorable experience visitors have on their trip to Hawaii.
Note that you do not even need to know how to swim or snorkel to do this, though it is less intimidating if you are comfortable with both.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Few people ever experience the incredible power of mother nature in the form of bubbling magma flowing through a lava lake.
That is exactly what you get to look forward to at Volcanoes National Park and an after-dark visit is the most compelling reason to find somewhere to stay nearby for at least one night on a Big Island.
Though special any time of day, the display is even more impressive in darkness. Seeing the stars shine above a pulsing red fire lake is something worthy of every Big Island itinerary.
Snorkel at Captain Cook Monument
The Big Island is considered the best island for snorkeling in Hawaii, and the best spot on the best island is at Captain James Cook Monument.
While it is technically possible to reach this cove on a self-tour, a long drive and even longer hike are required. The easiest and most enjoyable way to discover the underwater paradise at Captain Cook Monument is to book a morning tour that delivers you to two of the best spots on the island.
You are almost guaranteed to see dolphins from the boat and maybe even from the water, with a high likelihood of spotting some turtles as well. You are 100% promised to see one of the most vibrant coral gardens in the Pacific Ocean and a vast assortment of colorful tropical fish.
Green Sand Beach / Black Sand Beach
Two of the most unusual and best beaches of Hawaii are found in a remote region along the south shore of Big Island. Unsurprisingly, both owe their unusual tints to their volcanic heritage.
Papakolea Beach, aka Green Sand Beach, is a sheltered cove featuring olive-colored sand and beautiful blue and green water. The strange color is derived from a rich deposit of the mineral “olivine”. But more than that, Papakolea is home to the softest sand on the entire Big Island.
Just down the road is one of the most famous black sand beaches in Hawaii called Punalu’u Black Sand Beach. This pebbly shoreline is not as comfortable but is amazing to see. It is also a sea turtle sanctuary and you are almost guaranteed to see a resident honu (Hawaiian for sea turtle) on a visit.
Note: The most famous Black Sand Beach in Hawaii is Honokalani Black Sand Beach on the island of Maui.
Beach Hopping in Kona
Most people planning their holiday to Hawaii have tropical beaches on their minds.
You can read all about the best beaches in Kona in this complete guide, or just visit the ones closest to your accommodation.
The important thing is you take some time to enjoy them, especially on your final few days in Hawaii.
EXPLORE THE BEST BEACHES IN KONA
The rich volcanic soil and perfect climate of the west coast of Big Island is ideal for coffee growing, and Kona coffee has become a world-famous commodity.
If you are a coffee enthusiast, consider visiting one of the farms to learn more about it and taste it right from the source!
Where to Stay on the Big Island FAQs
Click the drop down arrows to find answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding where to stay on the Big Island of Hawaii.
What is the best towns to stay in on the Big Island of Hawaii?
Is it better to stay in Hilo or Kona?
Is it better to stay in Kona or Waikoloa?
Kona and Waikoloa are the two best areas to stay on the Big Island, but both appeal to different people. Kona is more budget friendly and nearer to towns, restaurants, groceries, etc, while Waikoloa is a more self-contained area for people who never plan on leaving their hotel or resort except to hit the beach.
Which side of the Big Island has better beaches?
The West Coast (Kona side) has the best beaches on the Big Island, especially between Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa. The majority of the east coast has no sand at all, but rather a lava rock shelf that meets the ocean.
More Big Island and Hawaii Travel Guides
If you found this post on where to stay on the Big Island useful and want more help planning a trip, browse some of the other popular guides below:
- Big Island Travel Guides
- Planning a Trip to Big Island: Start to Finish Guide
- The Perfect 5-7 Day Big Island Itinerary
- 101 Best Things to Do on Big Island
- Hawaii Travel Guides