Kailua-Kona or Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, is the largest island in the entire Hawaiian island chain. The area of Kona, or Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the Big Island, is known for its exceptional snorkeling, diving, sandy beaches, volcanic coastline, pervasive Hawaiian culture, and premier coffee-growing plantations. Let’s explore the best things to do in Kona.
Nestled on the coast, the town of Kona naturally revolves around the sea and offers incredible opportunities to engage in different kinds of ocean recreation, as well as to get up close and personal with the creatures of the sea! Argued to have the best snorkeling in Hawai’i, there are many sites around Kona to explore under the sea. Here are a few of our favorites:
Kealakekua Bay, Coral Gardens, Driftwoods, Rob’s Reef, and Turtle Rock
Kealakekua Bay features a pristine sheltered bay where vivid turquoise waters meet 100-foot tall volcanic cliffs. Kealakekua Bay is the Big Island’s only underwater state park and serves as a marine sanctuary for a diverse variety of marine life including colorful coral, angelfish, lizard fish, butterfly fish, among all sorts of other rare aquatic creatures. Due to the remote and difficult to access location, the best way to reach Kealakekua Bay is by boat – which in turn reduces foot traffic and keeps the bay relatively private for you to explore its underwater treasures. This fact contributes to Kealakekua Bay being regarded as Hawaii’s top snorkel spot.
Captain Cook Monument
Also located within Kealakekua Bay, the Captain Cook Monument tells a history that can help illuminate the story of native Hawaiians and first contact with westerners. Kealakekua Bay is traditionally a sacred site, and at the time that Captain Cook made landfall for the second time in Hawai’i, Hawaiians were celebrating the makahiki festival, a tribute to the god of peace and fertility, Lono’I’ka’makahiki. The white kapa banners flown on crossbars symbolized the god, and Captain Cook and his ships clad with white sails may have caused uncertainty leading to people mistakenly believing that he was Lono’I’ka’makahiki. The Hawaiians lavished Cook as a god and gifts and culture were shared between the Hawaiians and the British sailors. Chief Kalaniopu’u actually gifted Cook with his ‘ahu’ula (royal cloak) and mahiole “helmet” in a gesture of goodwill. When Cook left the bay, he encountered a fierce storm drawing the sailors back to the bay, where a kapu, or prohibition, had been placed on the bay after the makahiki festival had finished.
Their respect for Cook diminished, and wanting coveted metals in exchange for all of the supplies the Hawaiians had given the English sailors; the Hawaiians helped themselves to metals and the Discovery’s cutter. Cook took a party of nine marines and went ashore to take Chief Kalaniopuu hostage until the cutter was returned. However, for various reasons, the plan failed, and Captain Cook and four Marines died in a skirmish near the monument’s location on Feb. 14, 1779.
To access these incredible ocean spots and to learn more about Hawaii’s rich history, Fair-Wind offers snorkel excursions and private charters to Kealakekua Bay, South Kona, and Manta Village.
Swim with Manta Rays
This is one of those bucket list items you must be sure to do here in Kona. Just offshore of Kona, there are a few locations where these massive rays come to feed on plankton at night. Tour operators will bring you out around sunset and illuminate the sea below to attract plankton while you wait for the multitude of manta rays to come and gobble up plankton by the mouthful. This feeding ritual is just incredible to view. They swoop by at incredible speeds with just a flap of their giant wings and turn in circles to catch as much plankton as possible in their massive filter-feeding mouths. It’s a bewildering and humbling experience to view these elegant creatures at such close range. Remember not to touch or block these beauties as they eat their dinner.
Fair-Wind offers snorkel charters to Manta Village every evening just outside of Keauhou Bay allowing visitors to get up close and personal with these giant beauties.
Kahalu'u Beach Park
In Kahalu’u Bay, you can find honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles, that frequent these shores. The beach park is protected by a submerged rock wall making it accessible for snorkelers to explore the waters below frequented by all sorts of tropical marine life. Please note, sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and it is illegal to touch and disturb them. Fines have been reported up to $10,000 for touching sea turtles in Hawai’i. Need another reason to resist the urge to touch them? The oils and bacteria on our hands and bodies can decrease their natural protection and cause disease and tumors upon the bodies of these beautiful creatures.
A big way you can help protect our sensitive reefs by only using reef-safe sunscreen! Two of the main ingredients that act as UV blockers in regular sunscreen, oxybenzone, and octinoxate, leach into the ocean in popular swimming spots. These chemicals inhibit the growth of young corals and cause coral bleaching even at low concentrations, having a significant impact on overall reef health and animals even higher up the food chain. In July 2018, Hawaiian policymakers passed a bill that will ban the sale of sunscreens containing these chemicals starting in 2021. Help our reefs now by looking for sunscreens marked “reef-safe” and “biodegradable,” or using a mineral sunscreen whose primary ingredient is zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Our marine life will thank you!
Other Ocean Excursions
The coast of the Big Island is known for its nutrient-rich waters off Kona and is, therefore, a great place to hire a deep-sea or sport fishing charter! The majority of sport fishing charters depart north of Kona from the Honokohau Harbor, located between Kailua-Kona and the Kona International Airport. Five miles South of town is historic Keauhou Bay where a couple of additional sport-fishing charter companies are located, including Capt. Jack Sportfishing.
While it’s most common on the islands of Maui and Kauai, another popular ocean activity here in Hawai’i is whale watching, especially along Kona’s Kohala Coastline. You certainly can’t go wrong with Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watching Adventures, Hawaii Ocean Sports, and Body Glove Hawaii!
Formerly a summer home for Hawaiian royal families, the Hulihe’e Palace now serves as a historic house museum in Kona. During the Kingdom of Hawaii, this home housed more members of Hawaiian royalty than any other residence in Hawai’i. Restored by the Daughters of Hawai’i who defended the home from land-hungry developers, Hulihe’e Palace now serves as a museum showcasing artifacts from the time of Queen Kapi’olani and King Kalakaua: ancient weapons of war, furniture constructed out of koa wood, royal portraits, and kapa to name a few. In June, the King Kamehameha Day Parade is an incredible event to experience Hawaiian culture come alive on the streets of Kona.
Naturally, Kailua-Kona is best known for its culinary wonders derived from the sea. Poke has become an internationally recognized dish originating from the Hawaiian islands, so make sure to give it a try! Poke is made from raw ahi tuna (aku) or raw octopus (tako, he’e) and mixed in a variety of manners with seaweed (limu), sesame oil, soy sauce (shoyu), sea salt, inamona, and chili pepper. Some of our favorite places in Kona to get poke are Umeke’s and Da Poke Shack. For delicious world-class sushi, you have to check out Kenichi Pacific.
Looking for a place to grab an ice-cold beer brewed locally here in Kona? We recommend a visit to Kona Brewing Company for brews, pizza, burgers, and Hawaiian food. The Kona Brewers Festival in March isn’t to be missed if you are in town! You will find lots of restaurants and bars on the main beachfront stretch on historical Ali’i Drive overlooking the water that serves seafood, Hawaiian cuisine, and American food all the same. Do make sure to stop in one of the many cafes to try some fresh brewed Kona coffee!
We’re also delightfully excited about Magic’s Beach Grill which is set to open in February of 2019. It will feature fresh, flavorful cuisine with authentic Big Island ingredients from local farmers and fishermen.
Kona is world-renowned for its rich coffee grown in idyllic conditions here on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa. Mineral-rich volcanic soils in combination with sunny skies, light rain, and mild winds create the perfect growing conditions for this revered Hawaiian coffee. Plantations are still maintained today by residents in the Kona area, and stopping by one of the many plantations is a great way to support local businesses! A few plantations that offer tours include Greenwell Farms, Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, Hula Daddy Coffee, and the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Coffee aficionados rejoice! There is even the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival held every November in Kona, so make sure to stop by if you’re around at that time.
Kona Cloud Forest
Want to get lost in a cloud forest? Visit the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary for guided tours of this 70-acre sanctuary, where native Koa, Ohia, bamboo, and giant tree ferns proliferate! A botanical walking tour here lets you take in the smells and sights of an important, delicate ecosystem that the tropical cloud forest inhabits here in Hawai’i. Located just a 15-minute drive from the Kona airport, this walking tour is a great way to spend half a day taking in the incredible fauna and flora found in this forest. Reserve in advance for a tour that lasts about 3 hours.