The Big Island is a bit like the younger, cooler cousin of Oahu. It’s perhaps less rugged overall, and dominated by its volcano Kilauea and the mountains Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, which are all clustered in the middle of the island. These mountains give the Big Island a split personality of sorts, with the rainy windward Hilo side, and the dry western Kona coast, which each felt like completely distinct islands. After the slightly rundown yet charming seaside shanty-town feel of Hilo, we found Kona to be highly developed and bustling. This place has grown as a big resort town, catering to lots of families who love the convenience of resort holidays, and well-off middle-aged Americans, whose ideal holiday involves days spent on a championship golf course. Seriously, what is it with the obsession for golf courses, people?! These things are popping up like some kind of disease along the Kona coast, as well as other parts of Hawaii. Why you’d travel to Hawaii to play golf, which you could arguably do anywhere, we don’t understand and probably never will. In any case, Kona wasn’t our favourite place we visited in Hawaii, although we still found plenty of unique and interesting things to do during our two-and-a-bit day stay there. Check out our suggestions below for your own bite-sized break in Kona, and please leave your comments below of other great things to do in Kona (as long as it’s not golf)!
Seriously, the snorkelling on the Kona coast is amazing. We hadn’t yet ventured into the ocean since arriving in Hawaii, despite the numerous good snorkelling spots in Oahu we could have visited, so in Kona it was time to bite the bullet and jump in. We hired some snorkel gear from Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea, which cost about $10 each for 24 hours. The guy there was great, getting us fitted with the right gear and putting us snorkel noobs at ease. He told us about a few good spots to go to, including the neighbouring Kahalu’u Beach, which is sheltered by a rock wall and has many species of fish to check out, and is monitored by a life guard during the day. We recommend heading out in these waters if you’re not super comfortable with snorkelling/swimming. Keen an eye out for turtles, which like to hang in this calm beach and chill out on the rocks. Sadly we didn’t see any while we were there.
The absolute best snorkelling spot in Kona, though, is Captain Cook, also known as Kealakekua Bay. Unfortunately it’s a bitch to get to without a boat, as it’s located at the bottom of a very steep hill. Several snorkelling tours can take you out there, but we perhaps foolishly chose to hike down the hill instead. Yay for the free option! From the start of the trail at the top of Napoopoo Road, it was a 45-minute walk down a very steep and uneven trail, through face-slappy grass and over loose lava rocks. Even heading downhill, the hike was gruelling. Thankfully, we were rewarded for our efforts with stunning snorkelling at the bottom, with a multitude of beautiful fish species. While we were there, we checked out the Captain Cook monument, which commemorates the approximate location where English Captain James Cook was killed*. After a lovely and refreshing snorkel, we had the fun of hiking back up the hill in the hot sun with our wet towels and snorkel gear. Despite taking plenty of water with us, we still managed to run out on the way back up, so keep that in mind if you opt to hike down the hill as well. There’s no water or other services when you get to the bottom so bring everything you need. Also remember to wear sturdy shoes (no flip flops!). You’ll thank us later.
The absolute highlight of our snorkelling adventures in Kona, though, involved manta rays. Kona is one of two places in the world where you can snorkel with these gentle giants of the sea, which are known to grow up to 12 feet in width in these waters. They’re completely harmless beautiful creatures. We took a tour to snorkel with the mantas because you need to boat out to the right spot at nighttime and the tour guides use special lights that shine down into the water to attract the phytoplankton which attract the mantas. After a chilly and impatient 30 minutes or so waiting in the water looking down, eyes keenly peeled for any movement, we were joined by a female manta ray who put on a stunning show of ‘manta ray ballet’ for us right below us. She was so close we could have touched her, although touching the animals is understandably strictly forbidden. The experience was easily my (Jac’s) favourite from the whole Hawaii trip, and I already can’t wait to swim with the mantas again. Maybe next time a little closer to home, at Ningaloo Reef on the west coast of Australia 😉
Take a coffee tour
We love a good coffee. As it turns out, so do Americans, although our definitions of good coffee differ greatly. As you’ve probably seen in the movies, Americans love their drip filter coffee, in contrast to espresso which is more common in Australia. No matter your coffee preference though, all coffee starts with coffee beans. A narrow strip of the Kona hillside is ideal for growing coffee, with the perfect combo of sunshine, cooling sea breezes and rainfall. There is a plentitude of coffee farms you can visit, but we opted to check out Greenwell Farms for one of their free drop-in tours. The tour included free tasters of most of their coffee range, plus a guided walk through their coffee plantation with an overview of the coffee growing process. While the tour was free, almost everyone who attended the tour bought beans or ground coffee at the end. While it didn’t get into the gritty details of coffee production, the tour was entertaining and informative. The coffee farms are definitely worth a stop during your Kona stay. While you’re in the coffee-producing area, be sure to check out the Donkey Balls Chocolate Factory on Hawaii Belt Road. This shop has been producing its distinctive chocolate-covered nut balls for decades. We tried the Blue Balls and chocolate macadamia flavours and really enjoyed both.
While we were on the western side of the island we thought we’d take the roads as far north as they would take us. As you leave the northern bounds of Kona and pass the airport, you enter what looks like an alien landscape. Old lava fields surround you with only a hint of hardy greenery. Mauna Kea is ever present but unlike the north shore of Oahu, the gradient towards the ocean is a lot flatter. Tucked away in a not-so-picturesque industrial town called Kawaihue, you can find the Hamakua macadamia nut farm. This place is the BOMB for mac nuts, boasting a seemingly endless number of flavours you can help yourself to, including spam (surprisingly good), Kikkoman soy sauce (just kinda salty), and our favourite savoury flavour, island onion (drool). They also have a range of sweet glazed flavours, of which coconut glaze was our favourite. They have a fun little photo booth where you can take a photo, and you can see right into the processing room to see macadamia nut roasting and flavouring in action.
After Hamakua, we drove further north to Hawi, on the northern tip of the Big Island. This tiny town is a little more like the north coast of Oahu, and seemed to be a haven for alternative types of people. We grabbed iced coffees and a bite to eat from the Kohala Coffee Mill cafe and enjoyed the live music playing in the cafe’s outdoor seating area. The main street shops are also super cute and worth a check out. On the way back we did a big loop around through Waimea to return to Kona via the inland route. Although it shares a name with the beachside destination in Oahu, this Waimea is very different. Home to the largest privately-owned cattle ranch, the town celebrates its ranching history with giant rodeos on July 4th. If you’re not around then you can still feel part of the action by getting a photo with the giant cowboy boot located in the centre of town.
*We had a pretty good idea what it was doing there but for those who don’t know: Captain Cook was a navigator and cartographer for the British Empire. While on his third world tour in 1776 he came across the Islands now known as Hawaii. When Cook first arrived in Kealakekua Bay he was welcomed, however tensions rose when he was forced to return later with a broken ship. One night a group of Hawaiians stole one of Cook’s cutter ships, so Cook retaliated by trying to kidnap their King. Understandably, this was not well received, and just as Cook turned to return to his boat he was struck on the head before being stabbed. The obelisk marks the approximate spot where this encounter took place, and today the land upon which the obelisk stands is British soil.