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Boat, Raft & Submarine Tours

The relatively calm waters of the Kona and Kohala coasts are home to inquisitive reef fish, frolicking spinner dolphins, tranquil green sea turtles, spiraling manta rays, and spouting whales and their calves in season (Dec–Mar). A wide variety of vessels offer sightseeing and snorkel/dive tours (gear provided), while cocktail and dinner cruises take advantage of the region’s predictably eye-popping sunsets. On the wild Puna side of the island, boat rides pass green clefts and coastal waterfalls. Thanks to Capt. Kiko Johnston-Kitazawa’s Waakaulua Sailing Excursions (www.waakaula.com; 808/895-3743), you can also experience the traditional double-hulled sailing canoe, or wa‘akaula, used by Hawaiian voyagers; charter a three-hour sailing trip out of Hilo’s Wailoa Harbor for $100 per person for up to six people, with a minimum of $400 per trip. 

Note: Prices below reflect discounts for online bookings, where applicable; book well in advance whenever possible.

Kona Coast

Atlantis Submarines If you have what it takes (namely, no claustrophobia), head 100 feet below the sea in a 65-foot submarine, with a large porthole for each of the 48 passengers. During the 45 minutes underwater, the sub glides slowly through an 18,000-year-old, 25-acre coral reef in Kailua Bay, teeming with fish (including, unfortunately, invasive goatfish and taape) and two shipwrecks encrusted in coral. You’ll take a 5-minute boat shuttle from Kailua Pier, across from the ticket office, to the air-conditioned submarine. Note: Children are allowed, but all passengers must be at least 3 feet tall.

75-5669 Alii Dr. (across the street from Kailua Pier), Kailua-Kona. 800/548-6262. www.atlantisadventures.com/kona. Tours leave at 9am, 10am, 11:30am, 1pm, and 2:30pm (check-in 30 min. before departure time). $109 ages 13 and older, $38 under 13; $119 special includes one adult with one child.

Body Glove Cruises Body Glove’s Kanoa II, a 65-foot, solar-powered catamaran carrying up to 100 passengers, runs an environmentally friendly, 4 1/2-hour Snorkel & Dolphin Adventure morning cruise, along with shorter dinner excursions and seasonal whale-watching trips; all depart from Kailua Pier. In the morning, you’ll be greeted with fresh Kona coffee, fruit, and breakfast pastries before heading north to Pawai Bay, a marine preserve where you can snorkel, scuba dive, swim, or just hang out on the deck. (Spinner dolphin sightings are guaranteed, but for their health and your safety, you do not swim with them.) Before chowing down on the deli lunch buffet, take the plunge off the boat’s 20-foot water slide or 15-foot-high diving board. The only thing you need to bring is a towel; all gear is provided, along with “reef safe” sunscreen. Dinner and lunch cruises feature a historian who points out significant sites on the 12-mile trip from Kailua Pier to Kealakekua Bay, where passengers feast on a buffet spread and enjoy live Hawaiian music. All cruises are free for children 5 and under, and the boat, including restrooms, is wheelchair accessible.

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Kailua Pier, Kailua-Kona. www.bodyglovehawaii.com. 800/551-8911 or 808/326-7122. Snorkel cruises (daily 8am) $132 adults, $88 children 6–17; see website for additional scuba charges. Dinner cruise (Thurs–Tues 4pm) $128 adults, $88 children 6–17. Whale-watching cruises (Dec–Apr only; Thurs–Tues 1pm) $98 adults, $78 children 6–17.

Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watch Learning Adventures The islands’ most impressive visitors—45-foot humpback whales—return each winter to warm Hawaiian waters. Capt. Dan McSweeney, who founded the Wild Whale Research Foundation in 1979, has no problem finding them. During the 3-hour whale-watching tours, typically offered December through April, he drops a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) into the water so you can listen to their songs, and sometimes uses an underwater video camera to show you what’s going on. Cruises are aboard the Lady Ann, which has restrooms and a choice of sunny or shaded decks; cold drinks and snacks are provided. Trips depart from Honokohau Harbor, where parking is ample and free.

Honokohau Harbor, 74-380 Kealakehe Pkwy. (off Hwy. 19), Kailua-Kona. www.ilovewhales.com. 888/942-5376 or 808/322-0028. Departures 7 and 11am Mon–Tues and Thurs–Fri Dec–Apr; arrive 15 min. early. $120 adults, $110 children 11 and under who also weigh under 90 lb.

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Captain Zodiac It’s a wild, 14-mile ride to Kealakekua Bay aboard one of Captain Zodiac’s 16-passenger, 24-foot rigid-hull inflatable rafts, or Zodiacs. There you’ll spend about an hour snorkeling in the bay, perhaps with spinner dolphins, and enjoy snacks and beverages at the site. The small size of the craft mean no restrooms, but it also means you can explore sea caves on this craggy coast. Four-hour snorkel trips take place twice daily, while the 5-hour midday tour ingeniously arrives at Kealakekua when most other boats have left, leaving extra time for a second snorkel site, seasonal whale-watching, or other experiences at the captain’s discretion, plus a deli lunch. Be prepared to get wet regardless (that includes your camera). There’s also a 3-hour swim with wild dolphins—an activity I typically don’t recommend, due to the disruption it causes to the pods of dolphins who need to rest during the day and feed at night. But Captain Zodiac claims to follow federal guidelines in these encounters and briefs passengers on proper protocol for letting the marine mammals approach them, rather than vice versa.

In Gentry’s Kona Marina, Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy. (off Hwy. 19), Kailua-Kona. www.captainzodiac.com808/329-3199. 4-hr. snorkel cruise (Wed–Thurs and Sat–Sun 8am and 12:30pm) $100 adults, $79 children 5–12; 5-hr. snorkel cruise (Mon–Tues and Fri 9:45am), $115 adults, $89 children 5–12. Dolphin swim (Tues, Thurs, Sun 8am), $100 adults, $75 children 8¬–12. Whale-watching cruises (Jan–Apr only; Tues, Thurs, Sat 8:45am; Tues 3:30pm) $74 adults, $54 children 5–12. 

Fair Wind Snorkeling & Diving Adventures I love Fair Wind for several reasons, starting with its home in Keauhou Bay, 8 miles south of Kailua Pier and so that much closer to Kealakekua Bay, where its two very different but impressively equipped boats head for snorkel/dive tours:

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  • Fair Wind II When traveling with kids, I book a cruise on the Fair Wind II, a 60-foot catamaran that includes two 15-foot water slides, a high-dive jump, playpens, and child-friendly flotation devices with viewfinders, so even toddlers can peek at Kealakekua’s glorious sea life. Year-round, the Fair Wind II offers a 4 1/2-hour morning snorkel cruise that includes breakfast and barbecue lunch; most of the year it also sails a 3 1/2-hour afternoon snorkel cruise that provides snacks, which in summer becomes a deluxe 4 1/2-hour excursion with barbecue dinner. Swimmers age 8 and up can also try SNUBA—kind of a beginner’s version of scuba—for an optional $69, with an in-water guide.
  • Hula Kai When traveling with teens or adults, I prefer the Hula Kai, the Fair Wind’s 55-foot foil-assist catamaran, open only to ages 7 and up. The boat provides a plusher experience (such as comfy seating with headrests) and, on its 5-hour morning snorkel cruise, a faster, smoother ride to two uncrowded Kona Coast snorkeling sites (usually neither is Kealakekua Bay), based on conditions. Guests have the option to try stand-up paddleboarding, SNUBA (see above), or the propulsive “Sea Rocket” ($25 per half-hour) to cover even more ground underwater. The Hula Kai also offers a fascinating night snorkel with manta rays, a 1 1/2-hour tour that doesn’t have to voyage far from Keauhou Bay to find them. At night these gentle giants (no stingers!) are lured closer to the ocean’s surface by the plankton that also rises there. Like other tour companies, Fair Wind uses dive lights to attract even more plankton; on the off chance you don’t get to see a manta ray, you’re welcome back for another evening or an afternoon snorkel tour. Wetsuits, warm soup, and hot drinks are provided to ward off chills; non-snorkelers can join for a $45 “ride-along” fee.

Keauhou Bay Pier, 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Kailua-Kona. www.fair-wind.com. 800/677-9461 or 808/322-2788. Fair Wind II morning snorkel cruise (daily 9am) $145 adults, $89 children 4–12, $29 children 3 and under. Afternoon snack snorkel cruise (Tues, Thurs, Sat 2pm) $89 adults, $49 children 4–12, free for children 3 and under. Hula Kai deluxe morning snorkel/dive cruise (Mon–Thurs and Sat 9:30am, daily in summer) $159 age 7 and up (younger not permitted). Manta ray snorkel/dive (daily; time varies by sunset) $129 age 7 and up (younger not permitted); snorkeling experience required. Parking is on opposite side of Keauhou Bay, at end of King Kamehameha III Rd.

Kamanu Charters The Kamanu, a sleek, 38-foot sailing catamaran, provides laidback sail-and-snorkel cruises from Honokohau Harbor to the marine preserve of Pawai Bay. The 3 1/2-hour trip includes lunch (deli sandwiches, chips, fresh fruit, and drinks), snorkeling gear, and instruction for first-time snorkelers; weather permitting, it sails twice daily. The boat can hold up to 24 people but often has fewer, making it even more relaxed. The Kamanu also sails at sunset to snorkel with manta rays, and afternoon whale-watching excursions are offered in season. Kamanu Elua, a 31-foot, rigid-hull inflatable with seating, offers similar morning tours, but heads to Kealakekua Bay. Note: This Zodiac-style Kamanu Elua is not advised for children under 7, pregnant women, or those with back or neck injuries.

Honokohau Harbor, 74-7380 Kealakehe Pkwy. (off Hwy. 19), Kailua-Kona. www.kamanu.com. 800/348-3091 or 808/329-2021. Snorkel cruises 9am Thurs–Tues, $95 adults, $50 children 12 and under; 1pm, $85 adults, $55 children. Dolphin swim and snorkel (9am Thurs–Tues) $99 all ages. Sunset manta ray snorkel (daily; times vary) $95. Whale-watching Dec 15–Apr 15 (Thurs–Tues 1pm) $80 adults, $55 children 7 and older.

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Kohala Coast

Kohala Sail & Sea It took 2 decades of waiting before Capt. Steve Turner finally realized his dream of sailing from the small-boat harbor in Kawaihae, which finally opened in 2015. But it was a dream worth waiting for. Passengers (no more than six at a time) board his gleaming white, 34-foot Islander sloop, Riva, on the sunny, sparsely developed coast next to Puukohola Heiau, a short drive from the Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea resorts. Turner and his knowledgeable crew share a deep respect for the ocean and local culture, easy to impart on these intimate cruises. In humpback-whale-watching season (Dec–Apr), they make three 2 1/4-hour trips daily ($106), including the year-round sunset cruise departing at 4pm. The 3 1/2-hour morning snorkel tours ($139) take advantage of the Kohala Coast’s brilliantly clear waters with dazzling sea life, especially in the reef off Puako, and include all gear, snacks, and drinks; they’re also available by charter.

Kawaihae South Harbor, Slip No. 8, 61-3527 Kawaihae Rd., Kawaihae. www.kohalasailandsea.com. 808/895-1781. Whale-watching (daily 8:30am, 1pm, 4pm Dec–Apr) and sunset cruises (daily 4:15pm May–Nov) $106. Morning snorkel trips (on demand, daily 8am) $155 per person; 5-person minimum. Private charters also available.

Hilo, the Hamakua Coast & Puna District

Note: During whale-watching season, Hilo visitors may spot whales on one of the culturally focused Waakaulua Sailing Excursions out of Wailoa Harbor or during the 2-hour Hilo Bay and River Falls Adventure afternoon cruises ($69) offered up to twice daily by Hilo Ocean Adventures (www.hilooceanadventures.com; 808/934-8344). The latter also operates a 4.5-hour morning snorkel/dive cruise at 8:30am daily ($135 per diver, $79 per snorkeler) and high-adrenaline, high-speed banana boat rides in Hilo Bay at 11am and 1pm daily ($39).

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Lava Ocean Tours The unpredictability of Pele means there may or may not be lava-viewing tours. When molten rock collides with the ocean, Capt. Shane Turpin’s Volcano Boat Tours depart six times a day from Pohoiki Harbor near Pahoa to a daringly close (some would say too close) vantage point. The 49-passenger, 42-foot-long LavaOne catamaran provides the smoothest ride, relatively speaking; his smaller LavaKai and LavaKat craft offer bouncier voyages that thrill-seekers may appreciate. When lava isn’t spouting (check before you book), Turpin may offer 3-hour Hilo waterfall cruises ($145 adults, $100 ages 4 to 12) and whale-watching cruises Dec–May ($99 adults, $50 ages 4 to 12) from Hilo’s Wailoa Harbor, 

Pohoiki Harbor, Isaac Hale Beach Park, Pahoa. www.seelava.com. 808/966-4200. Volcano boat tours $180–$190 adults, $145 children 4–12. 

Riding a Duck on land & sea

One of the newer adventures on Hawaii Island, Big Island Duck Tours (www.bigislandduck.com; 808/491-9284), takes a unique, pub-quiz approach to its land and sea tour. Departing from Honokohau Harbor on a modern, Coast Guard–certified amphibious vehicle, Captain Mark Powell navigates from the highway to a 7.5-mile stretch of Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona, while his wife, Shaden Powell, asks passengers (up to 40 of them) trivia questions. Passengers are divided into teams and equipped with buzzers. The answers prompt Shaden’s anecdotes about the area’s rich cultural and historic legacy, reflected in the ancient sites and landmarks the tour passes. The tales continue as the Hydra-Terra “duck” returns to the harbor and enters the water for a cruise to the northern edge of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, site of a former fishing village, temples, and fishponds. The 2-hour tour ($50 adults, $35 ages 15 and younger) is offered Tuesday through Saturday at 9:30am; check in 15 minutes early. Parking is ample and free at the harbor, 74-390 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona. 

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High & Dry: Glass-Bottom Boats

If you’re not a swimmer, no need to forgo seeing the multihued marine life for which the Kona and Kohala coasts are justly famous. Of the Big Island's several glass-bottom boat cruises, Kailua Bay Charters’ tour on the 36-foot Marian, which has comfy benches and shade, is well suited to families. The trip is just an hour long, with a naturalist on board to explain what you’re seeing. Tours leave Kailua Pier at 11:30am Thursday through Tuesday and at 12:30pm on Wednesday (www.konaglassbottomboat.com; 808/324-1749; $50 adults, $25 children under 12; reservations required). See the underwater sights of Anaehoomalu Bay on Ocean Sports’ 26-foot glass-bottom boat; it too has benches, shade, and a naturalist. Half-hour tours depart from the beach six times daily from 9:15am to 1:15pm (www.hawaiioceansports.com; 888/724-5924, ext. 103, or 808/886-6666, ext. 103; $27 adults, $14 children 6 to 12, and free for children under 6).

Bodyboarding (Boogie Boarding) & Bodysurfing

As with other watersports, it’s important to stay out of rough surf in winter or during storms that bring big surf. In normal conditions, the best beaches for bodyboarding and bodysurfing on the Kona side of the island are Hapuna Beach at the Mauna Kea Resort, Laaloa Beach (White Sand/Magic Sands Beach) in Kailua-Kona, and Kua Bay (Maniniowali Beach) in Kekaha Kai State Park, north of the airport. Experienced bodysurfers may want to check out South Kona’s Hookena Beach Park; on the Hilo side, try Leleiwi Beach Park

Hotel beach concessions and most surf shops rent bodyboards, but you can also find inexpensive rentals at Snorkel Bob’s in the parking lot of Huggo’s restaurant, 75-5831 Kahakai St. at Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona (www.snorkelbob.com; 808/329-0770), and on the Kohala Coast in the Shops at Mauna Lani, 68-1330 Mauna Lani Dr., facing the road on the Mauna Lani Resort (808/885-9499). Both stores are open 8am to 5pm daily.

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Kayaking

Imagine sitting at sea level, eye to eye with a turtle, a dolphin, even a whale—it’s possible in an ocean kayak. After a few minutes of instruction and a little practice in a calm area (like Kamakahonu Cove in front of the Courtyard King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel), you’ll be ready to explore. Beginners can practice their skills in Kailua Bay, intermediate kayakers might try paddling from Honokohau Harbor to Kekaha Kai State Park, and the more advanced can tackle the 5 miles from Keauhou Bay to Kealakekua Bay or the scenic but challenging Hamakua Coast

You’ll find rentals at nearly every beachfront Kona and Kohala resort, as well as the Grand Naniloa Doubletree by Hilton on Hilo Bay; hourly rates typically start at $20-$25. At Hookena Beach Park, kayak rentals include a clear “peekaboo” version that allows you to view sea life and run $40 to $50 a day.

Kealakekua Bay Guided Tours & Rentals

Although technically you can rent kayaks for exploring Kealakekua Bay on your own, it’s best to go with a guided tour. Only three kayak companies are allowed to offer guided tours in Kealakekua Bay that land at the Cook monument (Kaawaloa), all launching from Napoopoo Wharf. These tours include equipment, snorkeling gear, snacks or lunch, and drinks, and they should be booked in advance, due to the 12-guest limit per tour. Note that Napoopoo is a residential area, where parking can be difficult if you’re not on a tour.

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Kona Boys (www.konaboys.com; 808/328-1234) was the first outfit to offer kayak rentals in Kona and is still widely regarded as the best. Its 5-hour Kealakekua Bay kayak snorkel tours, held daily by reservation, meet at the shop at 79-7539 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 11), Kealakekua, at 7:15am; tours cost $189 for adults, $169 for ages 18 and under. The 4-hour “midday meander” tours ($139 adults, $119 children) depart at 12:15. You can also rent gear from Kona Boys’ beach shack at Kamakahonu Bay (808/329-2345), the only one of its two sites to offer kayaks by the hour, not just by the day or week. Rentals include kayak, paddles, backrests, cooler, life jackets, dry bag, and a soft rack to carry kayaks on top of your car (including convertibles). Hourly rates are $19 single kayak, $29 double, with daily rates $54 and $74, respectively (weekly $174/$249).

Owned by a Native Hawaiian family, Aloha Kayak (www.alohakayak.com; 877/322-1444 or 808/322-2868) offers two tours of different lengths to Kealakekua Bay and Kaawaloa Flat, where the memorial to Captain Cook stands. The 3 1/2-hour tour (add an hour for check-in/check-out) departs at 8am and noon Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday; it’s $99 for adults and $55 for children 11 and under. The 5-hour tour, which allows more time for snorkeling and exploring Kaawaloa (where a deli lunch is served), departs at 7:15am Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; it’s $129 for adults and $70 for children (check website for $20-off coupon). Aloha Kayak also offers morning tours of Keauhou Bay sea caves ($99 adults, $55 children) four days a week and nightly manta ray tours with snorkeling ($99 adults, $55 children ages 5 to 11). Half-day rental-only rates are $25 for a single and $45 for a double; full-day rates are $35 for a single and $60 for a double, with triple kayaks and discounts for longer periods. Aloha Kayak’s original shop is in Honalo, about 8 1/2 miles south of Kailua-Kona, at 79-7248 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 11), just south of its intersection with Highway 180. A second site, with shave ice stand and other beach gear rentals, is on Napoopoo Road just below the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative mill.

The environmentally conscious Adventures in Paradise (www.bigislandkayak.com; 888/210-5365 or 808/447-0080) has a small office at 82-6020 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 11) in Captain Cook, but generally meets clients at Napoopoo for its 3 1/2-hour Kealakekua tours ($100 for ages 6 and up), departing at 7 and 11:30am daily. (Tip: Book the early tour for the least crowded snorkeling.)

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Parasailing

Get a bird’s-eye view of the Big Island’s pristine waters with UFO Parasail (www.ufoparasail.net; 800/FLY-4-UFO or 808/325-5836), which offers parasail rides daily between 8am and 5:30pm from Kailua Pier. The cost is $85 for the standard flight of 8 minutes of air time at 800 feet, and $95 for a deluxe 10-minute ride at 1,200 feet. You can go up alone or with a friend (or two) ages 3 and older; single riders must weigh at least 160 pounds, and groups no more than 450 pounds. The boat may carry up to eight passengers (observers pay just $39), and the total time in the boat, around an hour, varies on the rides they’ve booked. Tip: Save $4 to $10 per rider by booking online.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP)

Anywhere the water is calm is a fine place to learn stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), which takes much less finesse than traditional surfing but offers a fun alternative to kayaking for exploring the coast. Numerous hotel concessions offer rentals and lessons, as do traditional surf shops.

Kona Boys (www.konaboys.com; 808/328-1234) has the best locale in Kailua-Kona to try your hand at SUP: Kamakahonu Cove, next to Kailua Pier and King Kamehameha’s royal (and sacred) compound. The spring water in the well-protected cove is a little too cool and murky for snorkeling, but just right for getting your bearings. The 90-minute lessons costs $99 in a group setting, $149 private; once you’ve got the hang of it, you can also reserve one of Kona Boys’ 90-minute tours ($99 group/$149 private) or just pick up a rental ($29 hourly, $74 daily). It also offers lessons and rentals at its Kealakekua location, 79-7539 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 11), 1 1/4 miles south of its intersection with Highway 180. Both sites are open daily until 5pm; the Kamakahonu beach shack opens at 8am, Kealakekua at 7:30am.

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Another good option in North Kona is at Keauhou Bay where Ocean Safaris (www.oceansafariskayaks.com; 808/326-4699) offers 2-hour lessons and tours, each $79; rentals are $25 for 2 hours, but paddlers must stay within Keauhou Bay.

On the Kohala Coast, the smooth crescents of Anaehoomalu Bay and Puako Bay are also well suited to exploring via SUP. Ocean Sports (www.hawaiioceansports.com) rents boards for $30 a half-hour ($50 hourly) from its kiosk on the sand in front of the Waikoloa Beach Marriott; see website for details on its other Kohala locations. Hulakai rents all kinds of beach gear from its outlet in the Shops at Mauna Lani (http://hulakai.com; 808/896-3141). Open 10am–4pm daily, it offers 1-hour SUP lessons ($68) and 90-minute “adventures” ($98), plus rentals for $69 a day, $249 a week.

In Hilo, KapohoKine Adventures rents boards for $25 an hour from its base inside the Grand Naniloa Doubletree by Hilton, providing an easy launch into Hilo Bay (808/964-1000).

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.