While all the other islands in the chain are shrinking the Big Island, named Hawai’i but called the Big Island to avoid confusion, is growing, and evidence of its continual expansion is all around you, especially when you realize you have to drive three hours to get from one end of the island, Kona-Kailua to the other, Hilo. Both of these cities will remind you of something like San Diego or Honolulu, compared to the small towns of Kapa’a, Kaua’i or even Maui’s Lahaina. We’re talking big and built up. The locals were excited to have a Pier One Imports opening in Kona. Pier One Imports! Compared to the older islands, the baby of the archipelago is quite a shock to the senses if you’ve just spent time in slow paced Koloa or stepped out of the jungles of Hana.
We stayed at the Kamehameha Courtyard Marriott right at the corner of Kona Beach, and in the thick of downtown Kona. If you’ve ever been to Pacific Beach in San Diego or Weymouth in South England, you might find Kona-Kailua familiar. Think urban meets beach. Hordes of tourists promenading the waterfront, scads of local teens rolling by on skates or hanging out at the pier, and plenty of traffic to keep the night busy all evening long.
Upon arriving, our first order of business was to hunt down the best snorkeling spots, and Kahaluu Beach Park was the perfect introduction to the Big Island. A cozy cove with a small strip of beach but plenty of clear waters to share with the masses, the honu here are in such abundance, its really difficult to avoid tripping on them, but we made every effort not to since the sea turtles are protected. The snorkeling can get cloudy in some parts, but we were able to find some open spaces for good picture-taking. The beach is tourist friendly, complete with a food truck that rents out locker spaces, and there’s an environmental awareness advocacy group who are available for any questions about the area’s restoration. These volunteer naturalists aren’t the friendliest bunch, and they’re not shy about telling you what you should and should not do in the water to protect its natural beauty whether you ask for their guidance or not.
The best snorkeling we found on the Kona side was Two Step, located just across from Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Park. Parking can be a pain, unless you’re willing to pay the park fee and walk about five minutes. A tide pool area, there’s little to no sand to sun-bathe in but the snorkeling is extraordinary. Thirty feet deep coral jungles with cold water rising from the sea floor, swimming through here is unearthly.
For land-based activity Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Park is a must. Here they’ve recreated some of the buildings the native Hawai’ans lived in, performed their rituals, and practiced their customs. Known as The Place of Refuge, anyone who had broken a kapu, or Hawaiian law, could find refuge only if they succeeded in reaching the area, which was difficult to access. A sacred site where chiefs were buried, elaborate fish ponds, and ki’i wood carvings make this park a national treasure full of beauty and history.
Above Kona-Kailua, on the lush slopes of the mountain is the Kona coffee belt. Here the roads wind through coffee plantations and houses that boast endless mango, papaya, and banana groves. You can see the ocean just below the hillsides, and gape at tropical fruit so bountiful, they’re often left to rot on the street. Up in the thick of jungle, we took a peek at The Painted Church erected in 1899 by Father John Veghle. Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church is filled with Father John’s original art paintings, which helped him to teach his parishioners, many of whom could not read. Most of the Kona Coffee tours are free though Kona Joe’s isn’t. We stopped at Greenwell Farms, one of the historic plantations where the first coffee trees planted are still thriving even after almost hundred years have passed since the owner started their coffee-growing business. Comparing the two places we tasted, Kona Joe’s has Greenwell beat.
On the other side of Kailua-Kona, close to the airport, is Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. The hike through this park can be brutal on a hot summer day, but the trek is worth it to reach A’opio Beach, which has calm waters and a dreamy white sand beach that begs to be enjoyed. The beach was an ancient fishing trap, and now offers utter tranquility and refreshing waters to wade and enjoy. Best bet is to get an early start to avoid the merciless afternoon sun and bring plenty of water. Then picnic at the Kaloko Fishpond, which serves as another serene setting where the state park is slowly reconstructing an ancient and massive stone wall to recreate the impressive fish traps once used here.
Another serene setting along the Mamaloa Highway is Mauna Kea Beach in the gated, ultra ritzy Prince Resort. All of Hawai’i’s beaches are accessible by public, but can sometimes be quite a feat to reach them. Mauna Kea is no exception. They only allow a certain number of public beach-goers to enter, and we had to collect a pass at the kiosk but, once we got to the beach, we enjoyed a full afternoon of blissful fun in the sun. No snorkeling here, the white sands of this beach and the waters are what make Hawai’i an absolute paradise. There’s a picture perfect cove at the public end of the beach complete with gorgeous trees and rocks, a most romantic spot for lovers.
Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill – Come for the happy hour specials but no need to stay for dessert. Their kalua egg roll is mouthwatering, and their beer selection is a perfect way to end the day.
We splurged for a one-time celebration to watch the sunset at the Four Seasons’s Pahu’ia right on the beach boardwalk. The cocktail menu was displayed on iPads, and, as impressive as the listing was, the drinks didn’t quite match up. The food, however, was every bit as divine as the setting. We shared the opah, moonfish, drenched in a orange shoyu sauce and plated on top of a edamame and mushroom salad. Exquisite dining.
Getting out of Kona was an adventure. The day before we left, we learned that the King Kamehmeha Parade was scheduled for the morning of our checkout. Sounds all fine and good until you learn that the parade passes by the main road in front of the hotel, which was to be closed from 8am-12noon. Not good if you have family you want to see on the other side of da island. We had to do some scrambling, but still had minutes enough to catch the parade set up where we watched paniolos trot by.
That’s the Kona adventure. Up next is Hilo, a completely different and unexpected side of Hawai’i. Stay tuned.