When talking about the Big Island, I found that most people will say either the Hilo side or the Kona side. At one time, Hilo was more popular, and a lot of sugar cane was grown nearby. Now, Hilo is not as famous, and the Kona side is where the big hotels and tourist attractions are.
The town is called Kailua-Kona. Partially because of the US Post Office, I was told. There are several Kona’s on several islands, so now you will hear it called Kailua-Kona. Even the area where Honolulu is on the island of Oahu is called Kona. But when most people talk about Kona, they usually mean the Big Island.
Kona is often called the dry side, but being on the west side of the island, it has the best sunsets!
Here are some of the many places we went to when we were there.
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation was our first destination. I knew Tom would want to try the coffee, and being on the dry side (Kona side), I wanted to show him there was more to Kona. This plantation is located up the mountain, up in the clouds, so the area is very lush with vegetation. They also have a nature walk that includes seeing volcano tubes – very cool.
You can sample coffee, see their coffee-making process, and then, of course, buy some real Kona coffee from the source. This was a great way to start our time on the Big Island, plus now Tom had Kona coffee to make each morning. So go sample some coffee and walk through the clouds.
‘Alula Beach with Turtles
This beach at one time was a clothing-optional beach because it is secluded, but it is no longer, and many people enjoy the white sand, turtles, snorkeling, and sunsets! We would park at the Honokohau Marina near the Kona Sailing Club and walk to the beach. (Be sure to check a map before going, there are no signs.)You may also see some marmots running around while walking from the parking lot and the beach. And in the early evening, waiting for the sunset, you will hear dozens and dozens of birds in the trees. It can be pretty loud. When we went, we would bring chairs so we could stay longer and enjoy the ambiance. This was my favorite beach to watch sunsets.
Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark
This was the home of Kamehameha I, the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii; it is near the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Parking is an issue since the parking on the pier was closed when we were there. So many people park at the hotel, it is paid parking but close to where you wanted to go. It is mainly something to see from a distance. Amazing location; I would have liked to live there too.
Ali‘i Dr, Kailua-Kona
This is the main street that winds along the waterfront through Kailua-Kona. It has many small shops to explore, places to get coffee and ice cream, and many places to get something to eat. In addition, there are places to watch sunsets and to wander along the beautiful water.
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
Not a scuba diver? Want to explore the coral reef? Take a glass-bottom boat tour. We caught the boat at the Kailua Pier. One problem, I get motion sick, so I bought new meds, used the wrist bands that are supposed to help, and the tour company gave me some ginger candy. Well, we were only 10 minutes away from the pier and was already feeling sick! Ugh. The water was very rough.
My husband enjoyed the tour, me not so much. One disappointment was we never left Kailua Bay, which is probably okay, but I felt like we didn’t “go” anywhere. If you too suffer from motion sickness, I can’t recommend going. But on the way back in, we did go by some rock formations that looked like small waterfalls. We learned some things about the fish that live there, and overall it was okay.
ABC Convenience Stores
There are several ABC stores in the area. We found the one we went to near Kailua Pier had a good selection of items, and the prices didn’t seem outrageous. Parking is an issue, but keep looking or go to another one that is easier for you.
Ice Cream and Coffee
We tried out three different places for coffee and ice cream-two of them had terrific views; one was in a courtyard.
- Oceanfront Coffee & Ice Cream Café – There is paid parking below the building. There are also several other shops and restaurants in the same building. We sat outside right along the water.
- Kona Heaven Coffee (cafe) – You can sit outside with great views. Their ice cream cooler was broken, sad face, but we got blended coffees that worked.
- Sweet Journey Soft Serve – Located near the back of a courtyard. But you do sit outside, and the ice cream was good. They have a four-step process to make the ice cream that you want.
Waikōloa Petroglyph Reserve is 25 miles north of the Kona airport. We parked at the Shell Gas station (the closest parking lot) and walked from there to the petroglyphs. Don’t ask the locals where the petroglyphs are because the ones we talked with, who worked right next door, had no idea what we were talking about. There are hundreds of petroglyphs. Be sure to read the signs that help explain what you see and its history.
Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area
This beach is only 30 minutes from Kona airport. You will find a beautiful white sand beach, there is a lifeguard tower, handicap parking (on beach level or you have to walk down to the beach), and many people were body surfing. We spent most of the day there; it was relaxing and beautiful.
Black Sand Beach – Punaluʻu Beach
This beach is located on the opposite side from Kona. It takes around two hours to drive there. It is a famous beach, and there were also several large sea turtles sunning themselves. Always amazing to see the turtles. It was well worth the drive. If you plan ahead, you might want to stop at South Point, the most southern point of the USA.
Hilo Farmers Market
Hilo has a large farmers market. One side is all local fresh fruits and vegetables, and on the other side are booths with many handmade items. Tom got a Hawaiian bracelet, and I got this cute turtle magnet. From Hilo, there are many places to explore along the coast back towards the Kona side. There is also a road called “Saddle Road” (State Route 200) you can take between the volcanos that is somewhat of a shortcut from one side to the other. So you can either explore the coast going one way and the inland drive when you are ready to go the other way or vice versa.
We both love waterfalls and this was a very easy waterfall to see in Hawaii. It is only 6 minutes from Hilo. There is a path up to the top of the falls, but it was closed when we were there. So you are looking down at the waterfall. We are glad we stopped to see this beautiful waterfall. It is so close to Hilo. How can you not stop and take a look?
Laupāhoehoe Beach Park
This beach takes down a crazy road to the beach and is about 36 miles from Hilo. The water was beautiful and the kids looked like they were having so much fun jumping into the water. We love to do geocaching, wherever we are, and this was a great place to find a geocache. This beach does have an interesting pier, you might call it? There is a grassy area and tables so you can stay for a while.
Waipi’o Valley Lookout
Located about an hour from Hilo, it was a bit disappointing because of the pictures I saw on the internet, but it still has amazing views. Also, a bit of a crazy drive to get there. We kept wondering where Google Maps was sending us, but we did eventually get there.
Royal Kona Resort
The last night we were on the island, we went to the resort to enjoy a cocktail, dinner, and another beautiful sunset. Little did we know we would be spending the night at this resort the next day.
When we went to leave Hawaii, our flight was delayed. Then we all got on board, pulled out onto the tarmac, and everything stopped. We sat and sat, and then the pilot came on to let us know one of the engines was not working – what! At least we were still on the ground.
Then the long waiting game started as everyone except for six of us were able to catch other flights, but apparently, the canceled flight was the only one available to us. Thus the airline paid for our night stay at the Royal Kona Resort. Fortunately, this was one of those very rare times when we did not have a housesit we needed to get to, so it was nice to see one more sunset in Hawaii.
Places We Missed But You Might Enjoy
- Hulihe‘e Palace, we wish we had stopped here. I’m pretty sure it would be worth the price of admission. It’s the big yellow building along Ali’i Dr. This was the former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty; it has been converted to a museum.
- Volcano National Park, be sure to stop at the Thurston Lava Tube; there are many areas to hike and driving tours for those who don’t have the time to hike. Note walking on lava rocks can be a bit tricky; take your time if you do.
- Mount Mauna Kea, if you don’t mind thin air, you can drive to the top of Mount Mauna Kea, standing 13,796 feet high. But please be prepared for the change of elevation. You will find some of the cleanest air, which attracts astronomers from around the world and there are over a dozen astronomical telescopes. They say it is a great place to stargaze.
- Kona Farmers Market is also on Ali’i drive. There can be as many as 40 booths with handmade items, Kona coffee, and more. It is closed on Monday and Tuesdays; open from 7 am to 4 pm the rest of the week.
We were on the island for over three weeks, and we could have easily stayed longer. There are many more things to do on the Big Island. There are zip lines and other plantation tours you can take. There are numerous hiking opportunities, to mention a few. One silly disappointment – I went to, I think, almost all the Starbuck’s on the Island, and not one of them had the Starbuck’s mug – the “you are here” collection. I could have gotten one at the airport in Honolulu, but the line was too long, and we only had a few minutes between our flights.
Maui is only about 20 miles from the Big Island and you may see it and not even realize that is what you see – smile.
Sunsets are amazing in Kona!
The Big Island is one of those places where you want to have a list of things to do, but you also want time to wander! So when you go there, we hope you will enjoy it as much as we did.