The Big Island of Hawaii is arguably the most dramatic in the Pacific archipelago, boasting everything from snow-tipped volcanoes and green-sand beaches to active lava flows.
And yet, the island is precisely as its moniker suggests: Big. Coming in at 4,028 square miles, it’s larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. Translation? Visitors are often flummoxed by the most expedient way to absorb all of its beauty during their stay.
Enter Hawaii’s Grand Circle Island Tour. This full-day excursion takes guests through 8 of the world’s 13 climate zones, journeying from lava fields to lush rainforests to picturesque beaches to one of the most acclaimed astronomy centers on the globe. Along the way, certified guides provide an ongoing narration of Hawaii’s intricate history, while island-treats—from macadamia nuts to Kona coffee—fuel the fun.
Here’s a breakdown of the tour’s highlights—and why you should book a seat:
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Farm
Macadamia nuts first hit Hawaii in 1881, when William Purvis—a plant collector, investor, and sugar plantation manager—returned from a trip to Australia with a tree in hand. Rumor has it he planted it on the Hamakua Coast as a mere ornamental, neglecting to see its wider potential.
And what potential it had: The Big Island went on to become the site of the world’s first commercial macadamia nut farm, thereby setting the “gold standard” for the delicious, buttery nut. Today, Hawaii is the third largest purveyor of macadamia nuts on the planet—provided not by immense farms but mostly by small, private orchards.
Hamakua Macadamic Nut Farm is one of these independents. With macadamias that are grown using environmentally-sound processes, their tours include insight to the commercial processing of the nut—a procedure that, by the way, requires 300 pounds of pressure per square inch to crack a shell. The effort is well worth-it: Macadamia nuts are considered the king of nuts. Samples on the tour prove it.
Rainbow Falls State Park
Waianuenue Falls came to be known as “Rainbow Falls” due to the prism of color that arcs over its cascade. Located within Hilo—the largest town on the island—the broad, misty waterfall, situated on the Wailuku River, drops from a height of 80 feet into a placid blue pool. The caves that it shrouds are believed to house the ancient goddess of the moon, Hina, while the lush forests that surround the falls make the site one of the most idyllic in Hawaii.
‘Imiloa Astronomy Center
The pristine landscapes and phenomenal heights on the Big Island render it one of the best places in the world not only for casual stargazing but also for astronomy. The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center pays tribute to this fact, presenting a $28 million, 40,000 square foot exhibition and planetarium complex, complete with interactive displays, live “sky” programs, and a floor-to-ceiling, glass wall restaurant that overlooks Hilo Bay. Here, you can immerse yourself in information about night skies, the depth of the universe, and Polynesians’ navigation history (whom Hawaiians deem “our first astronomers”). The center’s distinct architecture—three titanium-clad cones that represent the volcanoes Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Hualalai—is enough to take your breath away; the gardens that surround it, full of native plants and “canoe crops” brought to Hawaii by ancient Polynesians, are extraordinary.
Big Island Candies Factory
Home to the renowned chocolate-dipped shortbread, Big Island Candies Factory earned a spot on the map for using the finest ingredients to make, well, the finest treats around. Founded in 1977, their list of extravagances includes brownies with a Hawaiian twist (think: coconut, passion fruit, and macadamia nut), manju (a traditional Japanese dessert), Hawaiian red chili toffee, and local favorites like li hing mui cookies and chocolate-dipped mochi balls. Factory workers at their Hilo base may withhold their recipes but they’re keen on revealing how their delicacies are produced—from how nuts are selected to how their packages are wrapped. Best part of all? The samples that are offered, from their signature shortbread to their Kona coffee.
Volcano National Park
Many visitors choose the Big Island because it boasts Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—an enormous swath of land, stretching from sea level to the peak of the largest volcano on Earth, that boasts two of the world’s most active volcanoes, the epic landscapes that arrive with them, and 70 million years of history. On the Grand Circle Island Tour, you’ll stop at the following:
• Kilauea Visitor Center
Consider it the perfect introduction to the park: At this newly refurbished center, you’ll find ranger talks, hiking suggestions, maps, park exhibits, and the latest info on volcanic activity. The center also has a small bookstore, where you can pick up literature on Hawaii’s geologic and cultural history or a souvenir for your friends and family back home.
• Volcano House
Built along the edge of Kilauea—the second youngest product of the Hawaiian hotspot and the eruptive center of the Big Island—the Volcano House is a series of historic hotels with its earliest roots tracing back to the 1840s. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lodge presents views of Kilauea, cultural events, and demonstrations.
• Steam Vents
To visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is to witness history in the making—a truism that’s made clear at the Steam Vents. Located less than a mile away from the Kilauea Visitor Center, here you’ll find steam generated from ground water seeping down to the hot volcanic rocks. The treeless plain around this area—evidence that the ground is too hot for roots to survive—hammers home the fact that Hawaii is an active, ever-evolving site. (And don’t fret: this is a rather gentle steam “bath,” not a scalding blast.)
• Kilauea Iki Overlook
In 1959, Kiauea Iki (or “Little Kilauea”) ignited a fiery inferno, transforming the land into a simmering lava lake with fountains that soared upwards of 1,900 feet and sending two million tons of lava into the sky per hour. Today, it’s a more peaceful place (the lake solidified thirty years later), offering visitors a peek at Iki’s astonishing crater; Mauna Loa and Halema’uma’u, meanwhile, loom in the distance. The colors here are tremendous, providing another reminder to always have your camera ready.
• Pu‘u Pua‘i Crater
Translating to “gushing hill,” Pu‘u Pua‘i Crater is the aftereffect of Kilauea Iki’s tantrum: A “spatter” cone that’s surrounded by blanketed tephra cinder. The area is a popular spot for the nene goose—an endangered species, endemic to the islands, that serves as Hawaii’s state bird.
• Lua Manu Crater
Typically considered the uppermost crater on the Chain of Craters Road, Lua Manu Crater was formed over 200 years ago when hot magma below the Earth’s surface drained, creating a void, causing the ground above to collapse, and leaving a “pit crater” in its wake. 330 feet in diameter and 125 feet deep, it’s a palpable reminder of our planet’s power.
‘Ohia, koa, and ferns pave the way to your next stop on the tour: Puhimau. Another pit crater on this striking drive, Puhimau runs 500 feet deep. If you look close enough, you may be able to see that the crater is still steaming in some parts—it’s part of the Puhimau Thermal Hot Spot, where magma flows just underneath.
• Punalu‘u Black Sand Beach
The prevailing image of paradise might be uber-serene, white sand beaches, but the Big Island’s Punalu’u Beach begs to differ. Or, rather, its visitors do—known to locals as simply “Black Sand Beach,” this stunning stretch of sand gets its jet black shade from years of volcanic activity that have left the area laced with basalt. Situated on the island’s southeastern coast—and sandwiched between the towns of Pahala and Naalehu—Punalu‘u often houses honu (Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles), while coconut palms fringe its shore.
• Royal Kona Coffee
Dubbed the “Jewel of Java,” the Royal Kona Coffee Center is a sight—and an aroma—to behold. On this celebrated property, visitors can get a taste for all things coffee: how it’s grown, how it’s produced, and, yes, how it tastes. Established in 1968, the center provides samples of their stellar brews, as well as myriad places to see, from views of Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook’s monument to a lava tube illuminated with twinkle lights. That fun, aloha feel extends to tiki statues and the center’s tree house—situated on the top of a lofty mango tree—while vistas of the bright green slopes that cater to the coffee bean gleam in the distance. You’ll never want to leave the place, or the island itself. But when you do? You’ll have 250 miles of memories to relish.