Spending a Week in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii
Kona is our favorite place in Hawaii. From town you can access any adventure on the island and its relaxed vibe is a break from the resorts and tourist meccas. Over the past two decades, my wife Julie and I have explored all of Hawaii’s islands but now we always come back to the Big Island. We just returned from a 10 day trip to Kona and I thought I would share some insight on things to do. Here’s some of what we cover below.
- Stand-up paddleboarding
- Turtles and dolphins
- Seeing lava
- Two wheels
- Volcano summits
Sea turtles resting on Kukio Beach
About the Big Island
Hilo is the local and industrial side of the island and is therefor less desirable for tourists. On one trip we stopped into a bowling alley and quickly realized we were out of place. The beaches of Hilo can be that way too so be aware of your impact around this city and be respectful to the people.
The Waikoloa area is the other extreme – it is made up of expansive (and expensive) resorts and doesn’t have that local feel. The area has some of the best beaches and it’s only a 30-45 minute drive from Kailua.
Kailua-Kona is paradise to us. It’s welcoming to tourists and has friendly locals too. It’s a chill place and no one seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Don’t be surprised if you get waved through intersections by smiling locals. The hotels and resorts in Kona are getting a bit tired, but they are also more affordable.
Weather-wise, Hilo is wet and humid, Waikoloa is hot and dry (and quite windy at times), and Kona is just right. We are from Seattle and Kona gets about the same amount of rain annually (40 inches or so), but is a constant comfortable temperature. Wind usually isn’t an issue because it’s sheltered by Mauna Loa and a smaller volcano known as Hualalai.
On trips to Hawaii, we are always trying to find the balance between relaxing and exploring. In the past we’ve overdone the exploration and missed out on a relaxing week. Sometimes just sitting on a beach and soaking in the sun is the best medicine, but we usually try to do at least one activity every day. It might be kayaking, SUPing, hiking, or just snorkeling – we love to explore. Typically we avoid guided trips or outfitters but guided tours are sometimes the only and best option.
Downtown Kona waterfront with seawall and harbor
Get off to a good start
First things first, you’ll need snorkel gear for the week. Head to a local rental shop like Snorkel Bob’s – and be sure to get fitted and verify it’s good equipment. Consider getting beach chairs, and if you have kids, you’ll probably want boogie boards as well.
Now you’ll need to do some planning. We spend our first day in town getting brochures for ideas and contact information, hitting the Kona Farmers Market for fruit and veggies, and walking the waterfront. If you are driving into town there is a free parking lot behind the paid lot at the farmers market. Consider renting a stand-up paddleboard and put in at either end of the big rock seawall by the harbor. There is a man-made jet ski island out in the bay that you can paddle out to or just hug the shoreline. Save the planning for after the sun goes down so you can enjoy the day.
Hapuna Beach from shaded spot on north end
Northern shore beach days
At least one day you’ll want to hit the big beaches up north near Waikoloa – Mauna Kea Beach or Hapuna Beach. We like the north end of Hapuna best. It has shady spots next to the rocks (be sure you go early to get a spot) and the snorkeling is fantastic. Also on the northern shore there are many lesser-known beaches like Beach 69, Kukio Beach, and Makalawena. Be adventurous and visit beaches that take a little problem-solving to find or get to. Always pack a lunch and water for your beach days. Before heading back to Kona, have dinner at the Lava Lava Beach Club. It has a diverse menu, great live music, and is literally right on the beach.
Lava Lava Beach Club Restaurant on A-Bay in Waikoloa
Near Kailua-Kona there aren’t a lot of sandy beaches. Tiny Honl’s Beach and Magic Sands Beach (aka White Sands) are south of town on Ali’i Drive. North of town you’ll find the Old Airport Beach and Wawaloli Beach Park, both of which feel local. The latter has excellent tide pools for kids and is pretty cool despite being close to the active airport.
You’ll find that there is great diversity of beaches on the Big Island. Even though the shoreline has more lava than the other older islands, there are wonderful sandy beaches to discover.
Visit Captain Cook
Some of the best snorkeling on the west side of the island is at Captain Cook Bay (Kealakekua Bay). There are outfitters that will take you out in a big boat with 50 other people, but we prefer small boats and avoid crowds. Kayaks are the best way to see this bay. A rental company we recommend is Ehu and Kai. They have sit-on-top double and single kayaks and are right on the water. Pack your snorkel gear, water, and snacks. They give you a large dry bag for wallets, phones, and other items. Head across the bay to the Captain Cook Monument and if you are a confident snorkeler, swim beyond Cook Point west of the actual monument. It’s exposed to waves, but there are several rock arches to dive under and nooks in the lava rock to explore. You’ll find more fish in the bay but have more fun out by the point. They don’t allow beaching kayaks so you’ll have to drag your kayak along as you snorkel, but it’s not difficult even with deep dives.
Cook monument is on right. Snorkeling is good there and at the point on left.
See flowing lava
The Big Island is one of the only places on the planet where lava is constantly flowing into the ocean. Kilauea has been spewing molten lava for decades now. The path changes regularly (see the current location), but is typically accessible from both sides. The western access is from Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The eastern access is via a wide trail starting on Pahoa Kalapana Road that goes for about 3 miles one-way (this is the recommended option these days).
There are several ways to get close to the flow. Outfits will guide you out there by bike or you can hike along the shore from either side. Another option is to join a group on a boat or helicopter to for easier viewing access. On this trip, we had planned to hike out from the east side, but Julie injured her leg and we opted for a helicopter at the last minute. It was a long drive to the helipad at the Hilo Airport, but it was worth the effort. The aerial view is the only way to see the source of the lava in Pu’u ‘O’ Crater. Next time we might take a boat because they get surprisingly close to the mini-explosions created by the molten rock hitting cool Pacific.
Steam from lava flowing into the ocean from Helicopter
Snorkel or with luck, swim with dolphins
One of our favorite snorkel spots on the Kona Coast is Two Step on Honaunau Bay. It’s a bit localized and parking is a problem, but don’t be scared off. The bay is super deep so snorkeling is confined to the shoreline, but it’s fabulous. On this trip we made the 45 minute drive and got a parking spot after waiting a bit. While we were parking, Julie noticed that dolphins were jumping out of the water in the center of the bay. We scrambled to get our snorkel gear on and swam out at full speed. This was surely the highlight of our trip. They were flipping and twirling, unafraid and showing off for the snorkelers who had ventured out this far. If you see dolphins give them about 150 feet of space (required by law). When you are done swimming in the bay consider a visit to the adjacent Pu’uhonua O Honauau National Historic Park (aka Place of Refuge). The park has a self-guided path called the 1871 Trail which leads through historic sites to coastal viewpoints.
On this day they would jump one after the other 3 or 4 times
While the snorkeling is great all over the western side of the island, a couple spots in Kailua-Kona stand out. Kahalu’u Beach Park is probably the most popular. It’s protected so it’s safe even when the surf is up, but it’s too shallow for me. The other spot is right under the tourists’ noses but they usually miss it – right in downtown at Kailua Bay Harbor. Get in at either end of the rock seawall and follow the north shore as far as you are comfortable; the snorkeling is superb. It’s a bit strange leaving the tourists behind and swimming past the pier and the boats, but if you can get past the above-water surroundings, the coral and fish beckon below. No matter where you wind up snorkeling look out for sea turtles as the western side of the island has many.
Summit the world’s largest volcano
Mauna Loa starts at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, making it the the largest volcano on Earth. Mauna Kea is the other high summit on the Big Island and though older and now dormant, it is actually about 120 feet taller. Both of these summits are attainable both legally and logistically.
Mauna Kea is easiest to access – a road winds to the top, where several observatories with high-powered telescopes take advantage of the high elevation and dry weather. Be sure to take a break at the visitors centre (9,200 feet) to acclimate to the elevation change. Depending on how you feel this might be your high point, but it’s still worth it. At the summit there is a short trail that ascends the true summit. At this altitude it will feel difficult.
Mauna Loa isn’t as easy to summit, in fact it’s downright hard. There are several trails that begin low on the mountain but they take days to ascend. The only day-hike trail starts at the Mauna Loa Observatory at 11,000 feet. That leaves you with 2,700-foot gainer over four miles at extreme altitude. Be prepared to turn around if you get a headache; altitude sickness is no joke.
Both of the mountain roads start from the Saddle Road which crosses the center of the island. If you drive up either mountain, be sure to use low gears on the way down; these roads will burn through brakes. The summits of both these mountains are always cold (even snowy at times) so bring layers in addition to the normal day-trip stuff.
Summit of Mauna Kea at 13,803 feet above the nearby sea level
Seeing the Big Island on two wheels
In Kailua there are several mountain bike rental companies. We found one that has eBikes for rent and even had folding versions. Folding bikes fit easily into rental cars so you can take them to other parts of the island. For example, most cars can’t get to Green Sand Beach near South Point, but you could park down there and ride the rest of the way.
Green Sand Beach
Another option, which is my favorite, is to rent a motorcycle and explore the island’s twisty paved roads. Ask around in town and you’ll find several rental companies with various bikes. They usually have half and full-day rental options. You need to have a motorcycle endorsement. If you don’t then your only option is a 50cc moped.
Eating In and out
Typically we stay at resorts with full kitchens and hit Costco as we drive out of the Kona Airport. If you’re in a resort, it saves time and money to make some of your breakfasts and dinners. At Costco (or Walmart) you’ll need lots of bottled water, snacks, macadamia nuts (why not), eggs/breakfast foods, and things to grill. They also have good prices on Hawaiian apparel and, of course, booze.
When eating out, we like the local restaurants over the touristy ones. Get on Yelp and find a hole in the wall joint that isn’t on the main drag. On this trip we found a tasty Thai Restaurant and a hard to find Mexican Restaurant with an entrance off a hidden parking lot just north of town. We always stop at Da Poke Shack a couple times and cool off with a Scandinavian Shave Ice on a hot day. If you have a big appetite and are short on time there is always an L&L Hawaiian Barbecue nearby.
Poor prior planning promotes…
A month before you fly, get a copy of the book Hawaii The Big Island Revealed by Wizard Publications and start reading, circling, and highlighting. It’s the bible for those seeking places off the beaten path in Hawaii. It’s always current (now in 8th edition) and all color.