Updated: May 21, 2015
Map of Hawaii - Big Island of Hawaii MapPlanning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii first means deciding on where to stay. Make no mistake -- this is indeed a "big island" - it is bigger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined (about the size of Connecticut). Driving all the way around Hawaii can take almost 6 hours. Let's start by looking at the map below. Let's talk geography first before we get to best resorts and beaches. The Big Island of Hawaii is dominated by volcanoes. The dark brown ridge on the map extending towards the southwest is Mauna Loa, a nearly 14,000 foot tall volcanic peak (more like a mound really). Just north of it is a dark circle that marks the other massive volcano called Mauna Kea. The currently active volcanic area is on the southeast side -- Kilauea (about 2.5 hours from Kona, 1 hour from Hilo). This is where you see news stories of lava entering the ocean and creeping across roads.
Best Places to Stay on Big Island of Hawaii - Hawaii ResortsMost people stay (and spend most of their time) on the west side of the island, commonly called the Kona side -- Kailua Kona is the main big city here. Kona is pretty much dead center on the left hand side of the island. The other big city is Hilo, located almost exactly dead center on the eastern, or right, side of the map (it is the second biggest city in Hawaii after Honolulu). Hilo is also known as the rainy side of the island, lush and green, waterfalls and rivers, but no great beaches and no big resorts. Instead, all of the tourist spots are on the Kona side. The area that has the most sunshine year round and the best beaches is also the area that has all the best hotels and resorts on Hawaii - it's called the Kohala Coast -- that's where most of the blue markers are at on the left side of the map.
View Best Big Island Hawaii Resorts in a larger map
You can use the little +/- buttons on the map to zoom in and out for a closer view.
The two best sandy beaches on Hawaii are here, Mauna Kea beach and Hapuna Beach. In fact Nelson Rockefeller picked Mauna Kea as one the most beautiful beaches in the world to develop (Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands is another). One word of warning about the Kohala Coast - it's dry, barren, and hot here. The resorts are mostly carved out of lava fields, and there are no trees or vegetation other than what has been planted here. So you'll feel like you are driving across Arizona or something as you approach.. Personally, when I go to tropical island resorts, I want access to both beaches and pools. The beaches tend to be better in this Kohala section. There are many smaller hotels closer to (and just south of) the city of Kona, but almost the entire coastline there is rocky. So if you are looking for some place to stay that is next to a town, less expensive, without a great beach out the front door, you can look into those lodging options. We have highlighted only one here, the Sheraton which is the last one furthest south from Kona, and the best in that area. The rest in the list are all considered to be the top resorts on Hawaii.
From north to south, the resorts we have highlighted are:
- Mauna Kea - top of the line, sitting on perfect bay and large, white sand beach. Decorated with Oriental artwork, elegant. Expensive, but just an incredible setting.
- Hapuna Beach Prince - right next door to Mauna Kea, Hapuna also sits on another idyllic bay with a white sandy beach. There is a state park at the southern end of the beach, which means more people on the beach (and not quite as private as Mauna Kea), but it is a long beach with plenty of room. Great views from multi-level, open-air lobby. Also expensive, but hard to match.
- Fairmont Orchid - Typical Fairmont style here, everything is perfect. There is one picture-perfect small bay and beach here. Grounds are immaculate.
- Mauna Lani Bay Hotel - Resort built next to old Hawaiian fishing ponds. Beach directly in front is not great, but a 4 minute walk south takes you to another bay that is part of the property -- snorkeling there is out of this world. The hotel is built around a huge open, central atrium that stretches the length of the building. Free use of lounges and cabanas on beach, excellent service around the pool. This ranks among the best.
- Hilton Waikoloa Village - Mega-resort, multiple buildings spread out requiring a monorail and boat canal to move people around - wow! They have man-made lagoons here rather than a real natural beach. Some people feel it is a little to "Disney-esque", but there is nothing else like it.
- Waikoloa Beach Marriott - Large hotel, more than 500 rooms. Good pool for kids. Lagoon and lava separates you from pretty nice, sandy beach.
- Kona Village Resort - This one is different from the rest, with little bungalows tucked in among walkwalks around ponds and beaches. These are the real deal, thatch roof, etc. Plus no TV, no phones -- it's a place to get away from it all (they even ask that you use cell phones only in your room and not bother other guests at the pool, dining areas, etc.). Service is top notch - staff recognize you and can get anything you need. If you want seclusion and no fancy frills, this is your spot. Limited beach
- Four Seasons - just down the beach from Kona Village, the Four Seasons is also built in a non-highrise style -- just smaller 2 story units spread around lush landscapes around four coves. Decent beach, though lots of rocks and lava flows in the water. Overall, what you'd expect from the Four Seasons in terms of service and design.
- Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort (south of Kona) - most of the hotels south of Kona are not really "resort" style. They tend to be less fancy, less glitz -- just hotels, except they are in Hawaii. The Sheraton is the furthest south in the line of hotels coming out of Kona, and in our opinion the nicest. Over 500 rooms, terrific pool, set on black lava cliffs above the sea. There is no beach here, but pool has waterslide. If you want to stay closer to Kona, this would be our pick.
Personally, I wouldn't stay in Hilo. Some people stay around the little town of Volcano for a night to spend more time exploring Volcano National Park. We have done a day trip from Kohala area (starting at 6-7AM), looping around the south to Kilauea volcano area, then back up around Hilo to the north. It's a long day, but doable.