The sunny Kona District stretches for about 60 miles from Kona International Airport to beyond Kealakekua Bay on The Big Island’s lava-lined western coast. Due to local weather conditions it is almost always dry and is known as a great place to snorkel, dive, kayak, fish, and just lie on white sandy beaches. In the last couple of decades, this formerly sleepy coffee and fishing village has transformed into a hustling and bustling city with a thrilling atmosphere. Listed below are the top ten things to do in Kona.
10. Visit the beaches
One of the must see tourist attractions in Kona are the beaches, of which there are several to choose from. The first is the Kekaha Kai State Park, formerly known as Kona Coast State Park that includes Mahaiula, Makalawena, and Kua Bay. It’s open 9:00am to 7:00pm every day except Wednesday. Kua Bay has easy access, beautiful white sand, and usually safe swimming, so it can be pretty popular on weekends. An amazing set of white sand bays backed by high palm trees make the scene at Mahai’ula. Swimming is usually pretty safe when the surf isn’t too rough. Makalawena is much more of a novelty beach than a primo swimming spot because the sand is black and the surf is rough. Another beach is the Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area which is a landscaped beach park with swimming during calm seas, bodysurfing during periods of shore breaks, sunbathing and other beach-related activities, picnicking and shelter lodging opportunities.
9. Mokuaikaua Church
This is the oldest Christian church in the Hawaiian Islands and was founded in 1820 from the first ship of American Christian Missionaries, the brig Thaddeus and consisted of two ministers, two teachers, an apprentice printer and a farmer, along with their spouses. A piece of land near the harbor was given by the king for the building of a church. After many fires destroyed the previous buildings, a new church was constructed representing a combination of New England architecture, native materials (lava rock and coral-based mortar) with cast off ballast from sailing ships built in as well. The church’s 112-foot-high steeple is the tallest structure in Kailua. The inside of the church is beautiful, cool and inviting, and visitors are welcome between services and on weekdays between sunrise and sunset; admission is free.
8. Waipi’o Valley
Take a daytrip to this magical valley where the road ends. Located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeastern coast, Waipi’o Valley is the largest and southernmost valleys on the windward side of the Kohala Mountains. You can linger at the scenic viewpoint and gaze upon an unimaginably massive valley filled with deep green-encrusted cliffs cut by plunging waterfalls. Or bring out the romantic in you by experiencing the waterfalls first hand, see wild horses within the carpeted forests, and witness the mile-long black sand beach. Choose from hiking, horseback or even a mule-drawn wagon to get you there.
7. Mauna Kea Summit
Mauna Kea is Hawaii’s highest mountain and home to the Mauna Kea Observatory. During certain months the snow covered mountain offers downhill skiing. A road, best suited for 4WD vehicles, offers access to the summit which stands at 13,796 feet. Due to hazards of altitude sickness, pregnant women, persons in poor health, and children 16 and under should not venture above the Visitor Information Station which is open every day from 9:00am until 10:00pm. The weather varies widely which means a calm sunny day may quickly become treacherous with hurricane force winds and blizzard conditions. When conditions are too dangerous due to ice, snow, and/or high winds, the Summit Access road is closed to ensure everyone’s safety. But it’s well worth the trip because once the sun goes down, the view is spectacular with the world’s clearest stargazing; what you see through the telescopes, you won’t soon forget.
6. The Shops at Mauna Lani
Take a 45 minute drive to the Shops at Mauna Lani in Waimea to get some shopping done at retailers like DeWitt Luxury Jewelry, Fine Hawaiian Gift Gallery, and Hawaiian Tikis. Or go on a journey by visiting Hawaii’s only 4D Adventure Ride that is located in the same pedestrian mall. If you go on a Tuesday between 4:00pm and 7:00pm, make sure you invite your friends to get a taste of Kona by joining the Shops at Mauna Lani for the Pau Hana Culinary Festival featuring Big Island food vendors, gourmet products, live music, and entertainment by Te ‘E’ a O Turama. There is also a Keiki (kids) Korner, and Pau Hana (Happy Hour) at the fine dining restaurants located there. Admission is free and it’s good family fun.
5. Hulihe’e Palace
The Hulihe‘e Palace is located in historic Kailua-Kona on Ali’i Drive. This two-story stone structure was built by Governor John Kuakini in 1838 out of lava rock and was used as a summer vacation home for Hawaiian royalty. After his death the palace was passed down from heir to heir from 1844 until 1914. It was then converted to a museum run by the Daughters of Hawai’i. Today, The Palace features beautiful koa wood furniture, ornaments and artifacts from Hawaii’s royal past. And on one Sunday out of the month, the Hulihe’e Palace Concert features free music and performances from the Hulihe’e Palace Band and the Merrie Monarchs Chorale.
4. Kahalu’u Bay Education Center
Kahalu‘u Bay welcomes more than 400,000 visitors annually and as visitor traffic increases, educating visitors on proper reef etiquette and ecosystem stewardship is critical to the bay’s survival and the region’s economic health. The Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center (KBEC) was established in 2011 to promote reef etiquette to visitors in an effort to protect the bay’s fragile ecosystem. The center provides educational videos and computerized access to environmental and cultural information about Kahalu‘u Bay and the ahupua‘a. Their goal is also to develop a long-term plan that will improve Kahalu‘u Beach Park’s public facilities and ensure the bay and park remain a clean, safe, and welcoming place for visitors and residents alike. The education center is open 9:30am to 4:00pm every day that the park is open which closes due to severe weather or other hazardous conditions. They also offer a snorkel rental concession through which visitors can learn how to enjoy the bay and at the same time protect its fragile environment.
3. Ali’i Drive
Ali’i Drive is lined on one side by the ocean and on the other by numerous shops, boutiques, cafes, dining venues, and Kona Farmer’s Market which has a huge selection of locally-grown produce, flowers, hand-made arts and crafts, Kona coffee and a whole lot more. But it’s not just for shopping though; there are festivals with musicians and artists lining the street and most historic sites in town can all be reached on foot including the Ahuena Heiau, a restored temple that became the retreat of King Kamehameha the Great, Hulihe’e Palace and Mokuaikaua Church that are worth exploring. Shortly after leaving town there are several other historic sites along the road as well as wonderful Kahalu’u Beach Park, which is a prime snorkeling beach on the island.
2. Hualalai Volcano
Normally, if you wanted to see a live volcano on the Big Island, it would mean an all day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. That is no longer necessary because recently, Hawaii Forest & Trail was granted permission to lead tours to the best kept secret in Hawaii, Hualalai volcano. This is one of the most exciting places to visit in Kona as it’s the third youngest and third-most historically active volcano with the most recent eruptions occurring around 1800 A.D. Despite maintaining a very low level of activity since its last eruption, it’s still considered active, and is expected to erupt again sometime within the next century. In the meantime, you can take a short 30 minute drive from the hot, dry, coastal lands of Kona to an elevation of close to 6000 feet where the cool mountain air is home native and rare forest plants to see this natural wonder.
1. Pu’uhonua o Honaunau
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, formerly known as Place of Refuge at Honaunau, is an incredibly beautiful and educational experience that no trip to the Big Island should be without. The present temple site was restored by the national park authorities and is a replica of the original which dates from the late 18th century. It was protected by a huge wall measuring 10 feet high and 16 feet wide. This thick wall between the former palace and the sanctuary has been preserved over the centuries. Attractions found on the estate include the keone’ele (royal canoes) landing place, the stones on which the royal family played a type of Hawaiian game known as konane, and the Kaahumanu Stone, behind which the Queen hid from Kamehameha’s henchmen. The Ali’i ruling class made their home on this scorched land of sand and lava rock; this is a great opportunity to explore how they worked and played underneath the shade of Honaunau’s stately palms.
There are two off-season periods on Hawaii Island. The first is from April 15th to June 15th and then from September 1st to December 15th. The most expensive and crowded time of year in Hawaii is December 15 to February. Hurricane season is June through November. The whales arrive in Hawaii in late December and stay until mid-March. A note of warning: the sun is very intense and people without sunscreen can get sunburn in less than 20 minutes at midday. So have a blast, but make sure you protect yourself.