Hilo vs Kona

Hilo vs Kona- Where to stay on Big Island? (2024)

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Are you planning a trip to visit the Big Island for the first time and wondering which side of the island to stay at, between Hilo vs Kona? You must have heard of both regions and must be wondering how to decide between the two.

I understand how overwhelming it is to plan a trip to the Big Island. The Big Island is huge, over 4,000 square miles, and it takes around 2-3 hours one way to drive from Kona to Hilo.

When I was planning for my family’s Big Island vacation itinerary, I did a lot of research on Kona and Hilo, what they offer, and where we should spend more time between Kona vs Hilo.

So let’s jump in and discover all about Kona and Hilo: the weather, activities, cost, where to stay, and how to split your time, if needed, between the two.

Where to stay between Hilo vs Kona: My quick answer

In a hurry and don’t have time to read the whole article? Below is my recommendation for choosing between Kona vs Hilo:

To experience the best of both the west and east sides of the Big Island, I recommend splitting your stay between Kona and Hilo, with slightly more days in Kona than in Hilo.

This will reduce the driving time daily and give you more hours to explore both sides of the island.

We stayed five nights in the western region of Kona and two nights in the eastern region of Hilo and had an amazing time!

It was the perfect split of days between the two regions, and we were able to easily travel and see most places on the Big Island!

Accommodation recommendations:

Overview of Big Island, Kona, and Hilo

Big Island is over 4,000 square miles and is almost twice the size of all Hawaiian islands combined!

It has six distinct regions – Kailua-Kona, Kohala, Hamakua, Hilo, Puna, and Kau. Most of its population and tourism are centered around the western region of Kona and the eastern region of Hilo.

Big Island has a wide variety of unique things to experience, like black, green, and white sand beaches, active and dormant volcanoes, tropical rainforests and roaring waterfalls, snorkeling with manta rays, sacred valleys and villages, and historic parks.

Kona is on the island’s leeward (west) side, is drier, and has better beaches and snorkeling. It has, in general, a lot more activities and attractions geared towards tourists. Kona is also where most of the resorts and accommodations are.

Hilo is on the island’s windward (east) side and is more raw and green – think waterfalls, lush rainforests, and volcanoes. Hilo is more laid-back and has fewer touristy activities and options for accommodations when compared to Kona.

We made the most of our visit to the Big Island by maximizing our exploration time and minimizing driving between the west and east regions.

Splitting our stay between the two sides gave us enough time to explore the various regions without having to drive all over the island every day as compared to staying on any one side.

Hilo vs Kona – How are they different?

After having stayed on both sides, we realized that Big Island’s Kona and Hilo sides are so different in what they offer! Each is unique and important in its own way and a must-visit.

Unique things about Kona

We felt that the Western Kona region has a touristy vibe, and this is where all the main Big Island tourist attractions are.

Here, you will find the famous white sand beaches like Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea Beach and brand-name resorts like Hilton Waikoloa Village and the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.

Kona is home to some of the best snorkeling spots and popular water activities like snorkeling with the manta rays and whale-watching.

Kona also has famous Kona coffee farms and produces the world-famous Kona coffee.

Kona has a nice downtown area, Alii Drive, which is bustling with shops, restaurants, food trucks, and farmers markets, and a great place to take a stroll and explore local goods.

If your vision of a perfect Hawaii vacation is chilling at a beautiful white sand beach, I think Kona is where you should be.

Unique things about Hilo

We found Hilo region to be more laid back, with a more relaxed local vibe.

Hilo is also full of lush green rainforests and waterfalls because of the heavy amount of rainfall it receives. The scenic Hamakua coast and Waipio Valley really took our breath away.

Hilo is closer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see the recently erupted Kilauea volcano crater.

It is also closer to the unique Punaluu black sand beach and the Papakolea green sand beach.

Waipio Valley in Big Island

Hilo has more natural attractions like volcanoes and waterfalls, which is what makes the Big Island unique as compared to the other Hawaiian islands.

I recommend that Hilo should be on your list, even if you are in Hawaii for the beaches.

Kona vs Hilo: Weather

Big Island has a lot of different climate zones, and the weather here can be vastly different from one region to another.

You can go from sunny to rainy to cold and snowy all in one day by traveling to different regions. Yes, you read that right: Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcano peaks receive snowfall in Hawaii!

Kona is drier and sunny and has the perfect weather year-round for beaches and snorkeling. Hilo receives the most rainfall, and that is what makes it so green and beautiful.

But it does not rain all day in Hilo and never interfered with our vacation plans. It would just start and stop abruptly and never lasted more than 30 minutes at a time. You can go about your day as planned.

The weather in Hawaii averages between 70 to 85 degrees throughout the year, making it ideal for a winter getaway.

Only the Mauna Kea Summit has cooler temperatures, and you should definitely pack warm clothes if you are planning to visit the Mauna Kea Summit on the Big Island.

Activities in Hilo vs Kona

Kona and Hilo offer a very different range of things to do, with Kona’s activities more focused on water excursions and beach fun, while Hilo’s are more about exploring the volcanoes and rainforests.

Things to do in Hilo

Hilo receives a lot of rainfall throughout the year and is green and beautiful. When you think Hilo, think rainforests, waterfalls, and beautiful vistas.

Hilo is also only 45 minutes away from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and an hour away from Punaluu black sand beach. In the north, the scenic Hamakua coast is a 30-minute drive.

Explore Hilo – Coconut Island, Banyan drive, Liliuokalani Park

Coconut Island Hilo
Coconut Island in Hilo and Mauna Kea summit in the distanceView from our Hilo Hawaiian Hotel room lanai in Hilo

Coconut Island is a small island located in Hilo Bay. It is easily accessible by a pedestrian bridge from Banyan Drive. We could see the island from our hotel room in Hilo!

One of the main attractions of Coconut Island is its beautiful lagoon, which is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and fishing.

The calm, clear waters are home to a variety of marine life, including colorful fish and sea turtles. From the island, you can see stunning views of Mauna Kea Mountain and Summit.

Take a stroll down Banyan Drive, which is adorned with enormous banyan trees and known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame” due to its association with celebrities who planted them. The plague in front of each Banyan tree lists the celebrity name.

Liliuokalani Park is a beautiful, peaceful park in Hilo, Hawaii, with a rich history. The garden was designed in the traditional Japanese style, featuring a variety of plants, ponds, bridges, and pagodas. The park is free to visit and is very beautiful and relaxing with its ponds and bridges.

Visit waterfalls in Hilo

Akaka Falls in Akaka State Park is the most beautiful and impressive waterfall in Hilo.

There is a short, easy paved trail through beautiful and dense rainforest to get to the falls overlook.

Akaka waterfall has an impressive 422 feet drop with lush greenery surrounding it. The trail loop is only half a mile. 

Akaka falls in Big Island
Akaka Falls in Big Island

Rainbow Falls is a very accessible waterfall just a few steps from the parking lot. There is a nice overlook area to admire the falls. If you visit before noon, you can sometimes see a rainbow in the spray of the waterfall. 

If you love waterfalls and have time, Peepee Falls is another waterfall a short walk from the parking lot.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

On your trip to the Big Island, you should plan to spend at least one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as it is a unique place with amazing things to do.

You can visit Volcanoes Park on your own or take a half-day volcano tour from Hilo.

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is only 45 minutes from Hilo. Here, you can visit the Halema`uma`u crater Overlook at the Volcano House and see the steam rising from the crater.

The Kilauea Iki Crater hike is a unique hike in which you walk inside a volcano crater and through a beautiful lush rainforest. Plus, at the end, you can visit a lava tube! This was my favorite hike on the Big Island!

Kilauea Volcano glow Big Island
We saw Kilauea Volcano glow from Devastation Trail Big Island

Drive on the Chain of Craters scenic drive all the way to the end of the road, which ends at the sea. At the end of the Chain of Craters road is the Holei Sea Arch, which is a 90-foot-high arch carved in the lava rocks due to erosion and is impressive to see.

In the evening, just before dark, we parked at the Devastation trail parking lot and walked the short, easy paved trail to the Kilauea overlook. You can see Halema`uma`u crater and any lava activity and glow from here. We were very fortunate to see the lava glow during our visit!

Check if there is any volcanic activity happening before visiting. You can check the current conditions at the Hawaii Volcanoes Nation Park official website.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated
Small Group Big Island Twilight Volcano and Stargazing Tour.

Punaluu Black sand beach

Punaluu Black Sand beach is on the southeast part of the island and is around an hour’s drive from Hilo.

No matter how many days you spend on the Big Island, I believe the Punaluu black sand beach must be on your to-do list. The sand is tiny particles of black lava rocks and looks like black sand. 

Punaluu black sand beach Big Island
Punaluu black sand beach in Big Island

This was my first time seeing a black sand beach, and it was an amazing experience! The beach is so unique and stunning, and the black sand was so soft! You can spot some sea turtles in the water if you are lucky. We saw several turtles here!

Stop at the Punaluu Bake Shop, which is nearby, for some Hawaiian sweet bread and other baked goods. This is a very famous bakery in the southern part of the island.

Take a Helicopter tour on Big Island

Take a helicopter tour to see an aerial view of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, rain forests, and waterfalls.

Many of the Big Island’s waterfalls are on private property, and helicopter tours can take you to some incredible waterfalls.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated Big Island helicopter tour for aerial views of volcanos and waterfalls.

Try ziplining over waterfalls or ATV adventure

The Umauma Experience in Hilo has zipline tours over 14 Umauma waterfalls and lush green rainforests.

If you love ziplining, this is a must-do activity. Umauma Experience also has ATV tours for a 4-wheel adventure.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated 9-Line Zipline Experience on the Big Island at Umauma falls.

Drive the scenic Hamakua Coast

If you have an extra day in Hilo, consider driving north of Hilo on the scenic Hamakua coast.

The drive between Waipio Valley and Hilo is the scenic Hamakua coast. You will pass many small plantation towns, waterfalls, and incredible views and vistas along the way.

Explore the Hilo Farmer’s Market

The Hilo Farmers Market in downtown Hilo is the biggest farmers market on the Big Island, with over 200 vendors!

Shop for local goods, arts and crafts, and try local food. It is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays till 3 PM.

Things to do in Kona

Kona region is more touristy and has the best brand-name resorts, beautiful white beaches, and snorkeling spots. In Kona, you will have your Hawaiian vacation of relaxation, beach fun, and water activities.

There are several attractions and things to do in and near Kona for visitors.

Taking a volcano tour from Kona is a very popular way to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Try Snorkeling in Kona

Big Island is a snorkeling paradise, and there are several world-class snorkeling spots for every interest. Snorkeling is a must-do activity in any Big Island itinerary.

Big Island’s main snorkeling attraction is snorkeling with the manta rays. Keauhou Bay in Kona is world-famous for its resident manta rays. 

There are several snorkel tours in Kona that provide nighttime snorkeling experiences where you get to see the giant manta rays up close.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated
Sunset and Manta ray snorkeling adventure.

Manta Ray Snorkeling in Big Island
Manta Ray Snorkeling in Big Island

A famous snorkeling area on the Big Island is Honaunau Bay (also called Two Step Beach), right outside the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. There are some great coral reefs here to explore. 

The Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook Monument is another popular spot for snorkeling on Big Island.

You can reach the Captain Cook monument for snorkeling by boat tours from Kona, hiking, or by kayak. You cannot drive to the monument. Going by boat tour is recommended as the hike is quite strenuous.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated
Snorkeling at Captain Cook/Kealakekua Bay 4-hour tour

Go on a whale-watching tour

November to April is peak whale watching season on the Big Island. This is when humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii.

Taking a whale-watching tour is the best way to experience these majestic creatures in their natural environment.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly rated small group Whale watching tour on a Catamaran boat from the Kona coast.

Visit Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

The Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park is in Kona and has historical significance as a place of refuge for Hawaiian ancestors. It has beautiful ocean views. 

You can fit this into your itinerary whenever you have a couple of hours in Kona. Take some time to read about this park’s history and cultural significance.

The walk through the park is just a gentle stroll suitable for all ages. The palm trees and historic artifacts make for some great pictures. 

Relax on the white sand beaches in Kona

The western coast of Hawaii is home to some of the best white sand beaches, apart from the snorkeling spots mentioned above.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best beaches on the Big Island. It has a beautiful stretch of white sand and is very family-friendly. It is right next to the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort and has a huge paid parking lot.

Mauna Kea Beach is another great, family-friendly white sand beach and part of the Mauna Kea resort. There is paid parking here, but the lot is smaller, and it is hard to find parking in the mornings.

Visit the beautiful Waipio Valley lookout

Waipio valley lookout big island
Waipio Valley Lookout in Big Island

The Waipio Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the world and is sacred to the people of the island.

There is an overlook at the parking lot for breathtaking views of the valley. From the lookout, you can see Waipio’s black sand beach.

Stargazing at Mauna Kea mountain

You can go to the Mauna Kea summit and visit the observatories by booking a tour.

Kids under 13 are not allowed to go to the summit because of the altitude change and associated health risks.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly-rated Mauna Kea Sunset and Stargazing tour with free hotel pickup and photos.

You can also do stargazing at the Mauna Kea visitor center like we did. You do not need a tour for this. There is a small hill opposite the visitor center parking lot from where you can do stargazing. It was cold up there, so bring some warm clothes. 

Visit a Coffee or Cacao farm

Kona coffee is world-famous, and if you are a coffee enthusiast, then you are in luck on your trip to Big Island.

Several Kona coffee farms in the Kona region offer tours and coffee tastings for coffee lovers in your group.

Cacao pods farm tour Big Island
Cacao pods in the Cacao Farm tour

Kona is also famous for their island-grown chocolate! There are several Cacao orchards on both the Kona and Hilo sides.

These cacao farms offer paid tours of their facilities and explain how they process their cacao beans and turn them into delicious chocolate.

You even get to sample some of the chocolate. This was my kids’ favorite part, as they got to try some yummy chocolate samples!

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly-rated
Coffee and chocolate plantation tour in Kona.

Attend a luau

No trip to Hawaii is complete without attending a luau where you can experience the traditional Hawaiian culture, songs, dance rituals, and unlimited Hawaiian food buffets.

All the popular luaus are in the brand-name resorts in the western Kona region.

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly-rated
Voyagers of the Pacific Luau in Kona.

Enjoy magnificent sunsets on the west coast of Kona

On the western side of the Big Island, you can see magnificent sunsets no matter where you are on the western coast. Sit down anywhere along the western coast and admire the sunset hues in the sky!

Or better yet, take a sunset cruise from Kona and make an unforgettable evening watching the sunset over the water with spectacular island views!

➡ Check rates and availability for this highly-rated
Kona-Kohala Coast Sunset Sail by Catamaran from Waikoloa with drinks and snacks.

Explore Kona Farmers Market

In central Kona, the Kona Farmers Market is popular, where you can buy fresh produce, flowers, and handmade arts and crafts as gift items.

Visit Papakolea green sand beach

Papakolea green sand beach is on the southernmost part of the Big Island and is far from Hilo and Kona.

Papakolea green sand beach
Papakolea green sand beach in Big Island

It takes around 2 hours each way from either Hilo or Kona. Visiting the southern part of the Big Island takes an entire day trip from either side of the island!

Kona or Hilo – Where to spend more time?

Ideally, you should try to plan for at least seven days on the Big Island to see everything that Big Island has to offer since there is so much to explore.

You should plan to spend at least two nights in Hilo and the remaining nights in Kona. This will give you enough time to see the most popular attractions on the Big Island, and reduce driving time.

We stayed our first two nights in Hilo and the remaining nights in Kona’s Waikoloa region.

Hilo is closer to the volcanoes, waterfalls, black and green sand beach, Hamakua coast, and Waipio valley, making it an ideal base to enjoy the lush green landscape.

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

In Kona, you will need more days to enjoy the true Hawaii vacation spirit, the beaches, resorts, and luaus, and have some snorkeling adventures.

You can still drive to the southern and northern parts of the island and to Mauna Kea from Kona.

Where to stay on the Big Island?

Most hotels/resorts in Big Island are in the western region of Waikoloa and Kona. Hilo has only a couple of name-brand resorts and some smaller hotels.

➡ Check out my detailed post about the best Big Island resorts and what amenities they offer!

To minimize driving time daily, I recommend splitting your stay between the west and east parts of the island.

Going to the Hawaii Volcano Park from Kona can easily be 1.5 to 2 hours of driving each way, whereas it’s only 45 minutes from Hilo.

Stay at least 1-2 nights in Hilo to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park one day and the waterfalls and black and green sand beaches the second day. Stay the remainder of 4-5 nights in Kona to enjoy resorts and beaches.

We first spent 2 nights in Hilo, and then 5 nights in Waikoloa which is north of Kona. You can also stay in Waikoloa/Kona first and then in Hilo. 

Below are some recommendations for hotels/resorts in each region.

Where to stay in Kona

Waikoloa region, which is around a 20-minute drive North of Kona, is where all the brand-name resorts are and are very popular with tourists.

Hilton Waikoloa Village is the grandest resort I have ever seen! They even have their own little train to transport guests between buildings! They have a dolphin lagoon as well, with shows.

We saw spectacular sunsets there in the evenings. Hilton Waikoloa Village is a great option if you want to stay in a happening place and never have to leave the resort.

Sunset in big Island
Sunset on Big Island

Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa is another excellent resort option in Waikoloa. Great pool, and spectacular sunsets to come back to after your excursions.

Hilton Grand Vacations Club at Waikoloa is a great family-friendly option with suites, full kitchens, and views of the golf course. This is where we stayed. We had a nice one-bedroom suite with a wrap-around lanai and golf course views.

Vacation rentals and condos in Waikoloa are perfect for larger groups or if you need more space or access to a kitchen.

✅Check prices and availability in the Waikoloa region of Big Island. This is where the brand-name resorts are, with all the amenities and excellent pools!

Central Kona has a variety of accommodations for every budget as compared to the North Kona/Waikoloa region, which has all the bigger and more expensive resorts.

Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is a mid-range resort at a great location and right at the beach. This is a popular option with families.

Royal Kona resort is an oceanfront resort at a great location with lots of food options nearby. This is a mid-range resort.

Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa (formerly the Sheraton Kona) is a great resort overlooking Keauhou Bay. You can see the nightly manta ray feeding lights from the resort shine into the ocean at nighttime.

There are several amazing Vacation rentals and condos in Kona, which are perfect if you need more space or access to a kitchen.

✅Check prices and availability in the Kona region of Big Island. Compared to Waikoloa, Kona has more affordable options and excellent snorkeling nearby!

Where to stay in Hilo

Banyan Drive is where most of the better hotels are on the Hilo side. There are fewer hotel options in Hilo than in Kona, but you can definitely find something for a couple of nights.

We stayed at the Hilo Hawaiian hotel for two nights, and it was comfortable, with great views of the Coconut Island and Mauna Kea summit. This was a very affordable hotel price-wise.

Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo by Doubletree Hilton is the only brand-name hotel on the Hilo side. It is on Banyan Drive with ocean views.

Hilo also has great Vacation rentals and condos perfect for those looking for more space or a kitchen.

✅Check prices and availability in the Hilo region of Big Island. Hilo is a great base for exploring the east tropical side of Big Island and visiting the Volcanoes National Park.

Halemaumau crater Overlook at Volcano House
Steam rising from Halemaumau Crater Overlook at Volcano House

The Volcano House is the best place to stay if you want to spend the night in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It has guest rooms, cabins, and campsites; you can find something for all budgets.

Hilo makes a great base to stay for a couple of nights and do day trips to Volcanoes National Park and Punaluu Black sand beach. This is what we did.

Kona vs Hilo – Which is more expensive?

Kona is generally more expensive than Hilo in terms of hotel accommodations. Food is also a little more expensive in Kona as compared to Hilo.

In Kona, everything is centered around tourists, and prices are usually high. Hilo has more locals than Kona, and the prices are generally a bit cheaper than Kona.

That said, Kona has some big box stores like Walmart and Costco, where you can get essentials a little cheaper if needed.

Hilo or Kona – Which airport to fly into?

The best way to reach the Big Island from within the US or internationally is to fly in and out of Kona International Airport on the west side of the Big Island.

Kona Airport services more destinations than the smaller Hilo airport on the east side.

Kona Airport is where most of the tourists land on Big Island. It is around 20 minutes from downtown Kona hotels and around 30 minutes from Waikoloa resorts.

If you are island hopping, you can also fly into Hilo International Airport on the island’s east side.

Hilo airport has some flights coming in from the mainland as well, but Kona airport has more options than Hilo.

Hilo airport is only a few miles from downtown Hilo, 45 minutes from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and around a 2.5-hour drive from Kona.

You can rent a car from the car rental agencies at either airport.

Do you need a rental car in Hilo or Kona?

Yes, you will need a rental car to explore most parts of the Big Island.

In downtown Kona, you can still manage without a car by using Uber/taxi and booking tours for various excursions. But to truly explore the various unique attractions, a car is very much needed in both Hilo and Kona.

Big Island is huge, and it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours to reach different regions from Kona or Hilo. Without a car, you will be very limited in what you can explore.

➡ I recommend using Discover Cars as they check top car rental brands and provide the best rates.

How far is Hilo from Kona?

Kona and Hilo are around 1.5 hours apart by car. You can also take the longer northern shore route via Waimea, which is around 2 hours, or the southern route, which is around 3 hours.

Final takeaways – Hilo vs Kona, which side of the Big Island to stay?

In conclusion, Hilo and Kona are different and have unique attractions, activities, and experiences. Ideally, you should visit both on your trip to the Big Island.

I recommend splitting your stay between Hilo and Kona/Waikoloa, with spending fewer nights in Hilo than Kona/Waikoloa.

Accommodation recommendations for Kona and Hilo:

➡ Check prices and availability for vacation rentals and condos in Big Island – great for longer stays!

Top excursions from Kona:

Top excursions from Hilo:

Both Kona and Hilo are important regions on Big Island with a lot of amazing and unique things to do.

To truly experience everything that Big Island has to offer, you must visit both regions.

Up next, check out my perfectly planned Big Island itinerary with 2 days in Hilo and 5 days in Kona.

Related Posts

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