The natural beauty and ecological features of the Big Island, Hawaii, are a draw for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Its fields of hardened black lava, hidden waterfalls, green and black sand beaches, and misty and mystical Waipi’o Valley never fail to inspire. But money seems to fly out of your wallet in Hawaii. The way to keep the costs down is to take advantage of low cost or free sights and activities. Here are some of the best free things to do on Hawaii, the Big Island.
Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens
This 12-acre Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is free of charge. Not only is the zoo free, but it showcases local and exotic animals in their natural habitats. Panaewa Rainforest Zoo, located just south of Hilo, has lush botanical gardens with over 100 varieties of flora and fauna, a petting zoo, as well as some unique animals like a white Bengal tiger, an anteater, and a great collection of rainforest animals and exotic birds. The zoo is easy to navigate.
The day we visited we watched volunteers “socialize” many of the parrots out of their cages. The grounds and cages are kept clean and animals appear healthy and happy. There is a small playground for the kids to burn off energy. There’s no cafe but there are vending machines and a small gift shop near the entrance where we got some ice pops to finish up the trip. Although there is no fee to enter, I’m sure donations are greatly needed and appreciated. The small gift shop is also worth a stop.
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company Visitors Center in Kawaihae is a fun stop. It is located 3 or 4 miles off the beaten track, on the loop road to Hawi. Hamakua Macadamia Nut Co processes macadamia nuts purchased from local farmers and prides itself on working toward becoming a “sustainable company.” In addition to all of the nut displays, they offer lots of free samples – including spam-flavored macadamia nuts. There is an interesting walking tour around their large sales shop. In the back of the store, you can watch their production facility in action behind glass. It is basic but interesting signs add to the experience. You can also taste various coffees, such as Kona and Ka`u, a new type of island coffee coming from the Kilauea volcano area. While we were there, some wild goats came over to drink water by the air conditioner unit. Besides nuts, they also sell chocolates, confections, ice cream, locally produced coffees, pancake mix, honey and a variety of other products. They will ship orders for you.
Kalapana Lava Viewing Area
This is a must-see if you can walk (or ride a bike) 4.5 miles in each direction.
The Big Island is famous for its still-active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea. (Kilauea has been continuously erupting over 30 years.) Magma cascading into the ocean is an unforgettable spectacle—especially at twilight. Try to see the lava around sunset and afterward or before sunrise. The sun’s rays wash out the incandescence of the lava, so you can’t really see as much of it in the daytime.
If you want to see molten lava, it is best done from a safe distance. Sometimes it is easy to view the lava flow activity while other times it requires many miles of intense hiking. Depending on where the lava is flowing, access can be dangerous and off limits to the general public. You cannot see this flow into the ocean from the national park.
The Kalapana Lava Viewing Area offers an excellent vantage point. Best of all, you can witness the hot lave gushing into the ocean for free. Conditions change daily, so be sure to call the viewing hotline (808-961-8093) for up-to-date conditions during your trip. It’s difficult to predict where the active lava will be as it erupts at different spots in and around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
I’ve seen the lava flowing into the ocean at night and it was absolutely incredible!
Hike vs. Bike: the hike is about 4 miles each way, so we opted to rent bikes. It was $20 for adults. The rental facility provided helmets, headlamps, flashlights. Bring lots of water!
Mokupapapa Discovery Center
Mokupapapa Discovery Center might not look like much when you step in, but it’s the perfect venue to learn about the ocean and ocean conservation. The building housing the center is and beautiful, especially the Koa wood staircase. It is a re-do of a historic Hilo commercial building. (In a past life it was a furniture store.) The Discovery Center is not very big but there is lots to see. Discovery Center focuses on the pollution and human damage to the Islands. There is a small movie theatre in the old vault, a large gallery with exhibits and murals, a large tropical fish aquarium, and a replica Polynesian sailing vessel and traditional Hawaiian canoes.
The Discovery Center offers a number of interesting displays with interactive videos. The aquarium alone is amazing. It was very pleasant to just relax and watch the fish for a while. There are some very beautiful rare tropical fish that are only found in the western Hawaiian reefs/atolls. The front desk offers a fish identification card to help identify them. They also called our attention to a new species of Butterfly fish that had recently been discovered in a protected area.
This is one of the few ways to learn about the northern island chain and the national monument. There were interactive displays to learn about the birds and aquatic life on the Northeastern Hawaiian Islands, which are uninhabited and protected in Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument (which was recently expanded and became the largest protected area on the planet!) The best (and most moving) part was an exhibit showing all of the trash that washes up on the islands. Never has a collection of old cigarette lighters meant so much. I appreciated the opportunity to learn about it since I’ll likely never visit them in person. If you have the time, they show a 2-hour National Geographic video about the outer islands.
The Discovery Center has nice bathrooms and good parking. It is free, but donations are appreciated.
Kona Historical Society
Do you like Portuguese Sweet Bread? The Kona Historical Society practices the traditional art of baking Portuguese bread in a large wood-fired forno (beehive oven.) The free program takes place every Thursday 10:00 AM until 1:00 PM on the same property as the Greenwell Store (in the pasture just below the store you will see a shelter and a stone oven). You can help make bread as you hear about the Portuguese contribution to Hawaii’s culture and economy in the 19th century. You roll dough for Portuguese Sweet Bread, white bread and wheat bread and watch how it is baked in a lava rock, wood-fired, outdoor oven.
At the H. N. Greenwell Store one not only steps into a General Store of 125 years ago, but also learns surprising facts about Hawaii. Greenwell was an important promoter of Kona Coffee. But who grew it? Big Island Butter was made in large amounts to export. How did they keep it from spoiling or melting away? What could you buy in 1891 and where did it all come from? The store is open as an exhibit, Monday and Tuesday 10 AM – 2 PM. Admission by donation. On Thursdays, Living history is presented at the store from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM. (Admission at this time is $7 general/$5 seniors.)
The Kona Historical Society offices, H.N. Greenwell Store, and the Portuguese Stone Oven are all located on Mamalahoa Highway (Highway 11), about 14 miles south of the town of Kailua-Kona, between mile markers 111 and 112.
Greenwell Farm is historically one of the oldest coffee plantations on the island. There is a free informative 30-minute tour of the farm and processing facility. It was so interesting to walk through hundred-year-old stunted coffee trees and get up close to the berries. (No huge machines here…) The tour walks you through how coffee is grown, picked, and processed to eventually ending up in your cup! You also learn about the family and the early farm, what distinguishes different types of coffee beans, and how the quality of beans is judged. It gave us a new perspective on coffee and its history. On the tour, you will not only see coffee but lychees, pineapples, avocados and a variety of other tropical fruit plants that grow in Hawaii.
While waiting for the next tour you can taste samples of 9 different coffees produced at the plantation. The tasting that is done similar to beer flights—light to dark. You can sample O’hia honey and other local products. There is even a macadamia nut flavored coffee.
I’m not a coffee drinker but the tour was interesting and the place is just so pretty. The location south of Kona offers spectacular views of the hillside and ocean. Greenwood Farms provide free tours throughout the day and you don’t have to be reserved in advance. They also have a small gift shop. It was a great visit.
The Big Island is truly a paradise, but paradise can be expensive. A vacation on Hawaii doesn’t need to break your budget. It’s not hard to have an activity-filled vacation in paradise on a budget. The beauty is free and you can round out your itinerary with some of the best free things to do on Hawaii, the Big Island.