The Kona Coast
Kona means “leeward side” in Hawaiian—and that means hot, dry weather virtually every day of the year on the 70-mile stretch of black lava shoreline encompassing the North and South Kona districts.
With the exception of the sumptuous but serenely low-key Four Seasons Resort Hualalai north of the airport, most of what everyone just calls “Kona” is an affordable vacation spot. An ample selection of midpriced condo units, timeshares, and several recently upgraded hotels lies between the bustling commercial district of Kailua-Kona, a one-time fishing village and royal compound now renowned as the start and finish of the Ironman World Championship, and Keauhou, an equally historic area about 6 miles south that boasts upscale condominiums, a shopping center, and golf-course homes.
The rightly named Alii (“Royalty”) Drive begins in Kailua-Kona near King Kamehameha’s royal compound at Kamakahonu Bay, which includes the off-limits temple complex of Ahuena Heiau, and continues past Hulihee Palace, an elegant retreat for later royals that sits across from the oldest church in the islands. Heading south, the road passes by the snorkelers’ haven of Kahaluu Beach, as well as sacred and royal sites on the former Keauhou Beach Resort, before the intersection with King Kamehameha III Road, which leads to that monarch’s birthplace by Keauhou Bay. Several kayak excursions and snorkel boats leave from Keauhou, but Kailua Pier sees the most traffic—from cruise-ship tenders to fishing and dive boats, dinner cruises, and other sightseeing excursions.
Beaches between Kailua-Kona and Keauhou tend to be pocket coves, but heading north toward South Kohala (which begins near the entrance to the Waikoloa Beach Resort), beautiful, uncrowded sands lie out of sight from the highway, often reached by unpaved roads across vast lava fields. Among the steep coffee fields in North Kona’s cooler upcountry, you’ll find the rustic, artsy village of Holualoa.
The rural, serrated coastline here is indented with numerous bays, from Kealakekua, a marine life and cultural preserve that’s the island’s best diving spot, down to Honaunau, where a national historical park recalls the days of old Hawaii. This is a great place to stay, in modest plantation-era inns or bed-and-breakfasts, if you want to get away from crowds but still be within driving distance of beaches and Kailua-Kona—you may hear the all-night cheeping of coqui frogs, though. The higher, cooler elevation of the main road means you’ll pass many coffee, macadamia nut, and tropical fruit farms, some with tours or roadside stands.
The Kohala Coast
Also on the island’s “Kona side,” sunny and dry Kohala is divided into two distinctively different districts, although the resorts are more glamorous and the rural area that much less developed.
Pleasure domes rise like palaces no Hawaiian king ever imagined along the sandy beaches carved into the craggy shores here, from the more moderately priced Waikoloa Beach Resort at Anaehoomalu Bay to the posher Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea resorts to the north. Mauna Kea is where Laurance Rockefeller opened the area’s first resort in 1965, a virtual mirage of opulence and tropical greenery rising from bleak, black lava fields, framed by the white sands of Kaunaoa Beach and views of the eponymous mountain. But you don’t have to be a billionaire to enjoy South Kohala’s fabulous beaches and historic sites (such as petroglyph fields); all are open to the public, with parking and other facilities (including restaurants and shopping) provided by the resorts.
Several of the region’s attractions are also located off the resorts, including the white sands of Ohaiula Beach at Spencer Park; the massive Puukohola Heiau, a lava rock temple commissioned by King Kamehameha the Great; and the excellent restaurants and handful of stores in Kawaihae, the commercial harbor just after the turnoff for upcountry Waimea. Note: The golf course community of Waikoloa Village is not in the Waikoloa Beach Resort, but instead lies 5 1/2 miles uphill from the coastal highway.
Waimea (Kamuela) & Mauna Kea
Officially part of South Kohala, the old upcountry cow town of Waimea on the northern road between the coasts is a world unto itself, with rolling green pastures, wide-open spaces dotted by puu (cindercone hills, pronounced “pooh-ooh”) and real cowpokes who work mammoth Parker Ranch, the state’s largest working ranch. The postal service gave it the name Kamuela, after ranch founder Samuel (Kamuela) Parker, to distinguish it from another cowboy town, Waimea, Kauai. It’s split between a “dry side” (closer to the Kohala Coast) and a “wet side” (closer to the Hamakua Coast), but both sides can be cooler than sea level. It’s also headquarters for the Keck Observatory, whose twin telescopes atop the nearly 14,000-foot Mauna Kea, some 35 miles away, are the largest and most powerful in the world. Waimea is home to shopping centers and affordable B&Bs, while the expanded Merriman’s remains a popular foodie outpost at Opelo Plaza.
Locals may remember when sugar was king here, but for visitors, little-developed North Kohala is most famous for another king, Kamehameha the Great. His birthplace is a short walk from one of the Hawaiian Islands’ largest and most important temples, Mookini Heiau, which dates to A.D. 480; you’ll want a four-wheel-drive (4WD) for the rugged road there. Much easier to find: the yellow-cloaked bronze statue of the warrior-king in front of the community center in Kapaau, a small plantation-era town. The road ends at the breathtaking Pololu Valley Overlook.
Once the center of the Big Island’s sugarcane industry, Hawi remains a regional hub, with a 3-block-long strip of sun-faded, false-fronted buildings holding a few shops and restaurants of interest to visitors. Eight miles south, Lapakahi State Historical Park merits a stop to explore how less-exalted Hawaiians than Kamehameha lived in a simple village by the sea. Beaches are less appealing here, with the northernmost coves subject to strong winds blowing across the Alenuihaha Channel from Maui, 26 miles away and visible on clear days.
The Hamakua Coast
This emerald coast, a 52-mile stretch from Honokaa to Hilo on the island’s windward northeast side, was once planted with sugarcane; it now blooms with macadamia nuts, papayas, vanilla orchids, and mushrooms. Resort-free and virtually without beaches, the Hamakua Coast includes the districts of Hamakua and North Hilo, with two unmissable destinations. Picture-perfect Waipio Valley has impossibly steep sides, taro patches, a green riot of wild plants, and a winding stream leading to a broad, black-sand beach, while Akaka Falls State Park offers views of two lovely waterfalls amid lush foliage. Also worth checking out: Laupahoehoe Point, with its mournful memorial to young victims of a 1946 tsunami; and the quirky assortment of shops in the plantation town of Honokaa.
The largest metropolis in Hawaii after Honolulu is a quaint, misty, flower-filled city of Victorian houses overlooking a half-moon bay, with a restored historic downtown and a clear view of Mauna Kea, often snowcapped in winter. However, it rains a lot in Hilo—about 128 inches a year—which tends to dampen visitors’ enthusiasm for longer stays. It’s ideal for growing ferns, orchids, and anthuriums, but not for catching constant rays.
Yet there’s a lot to see and do in Hilo and the surrounding South Hilo district, both indoors and out—including visiting the bayfront Japanese-style Liliuokalani Gardens, the Pacific Tsunami Museum, the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, and Rainbow Falls (Waianueanue)—so grab your umbrella. The rain is warm (the temperature seldom dips below 70F/21C), and there’s usually a rainbow afterward.
The town also holds the island’s best bargains for budget travelers, with plenty of hotel rooms—most of the year, that is. Hilo’s magic moment comes in spring, the week after Easter, when hula hālau (schools) arrive for the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival hula competition (www.merriemonarch.com). Plan ahead if you want to go: Tickets are sold out by the first week in January, and hotels within 30 miles are usually booked solid. Hilo is also the gateway to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where hula troupes perform chants and dances before the Merrie Monarch festival; the park is 30 miles away, or about an hour’s drive up-slope.
Pahoa, Kapoho & Kalapana
Between Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park lies the “Wild Wild East,” an emerging visitor destination with geothermal wonders such as the ghostly hollowed trunks of Lava Tree State Monument, the volcanically heated waters of Ahalanui Park and the Kapoho warm ponds, and the acres of lava from a 1986 flow that rolled through the Hawaiian hamlet of Kalapana and covered a popular black-sand beach. The ocean has since carved out a new, more rugged cove, while Kalapana’s Wednesday-night farmer's market and live music on Friday nights attract a large local crowd all may join. In 2014, a new lava flow from Kilauea’s East Rift Zone began oozing toward the part-Hawaiian, part-hippie plantation town of Pahoa, the region’s funky gateway. The flow consumed miles of forest before stopping in early 2015 within 550 yards of Hwy. 130, the only road in and out of lower Puna; you can stop at the town’s transfer station to gawk at the massive black wall of hardened lava just a few feet away.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
This is America’s most exciting national park, where a live volcano called Kilauea has been continuously erupting since 1983. In 2016, lava began spewing into the sea across a gravel access road, drawing thousands of visitors a day through 2017. At press time, it no longer reached the ocean, although surface breakouts could be seen by hardy hikers and helicopter tours. While you may not be able to witness molten lava—or have to walk across miles of rough rock to do so—there’s always something else impressive to see. A plume of ash, which at night reflects the glow of the lava lake below it, has been rising from Kilauea’s Halemaumau Crater since 2008, while steam vents have been belching sulfurous odors since long before Mark Twain visited in 1866. Ideally, plan to spend 3 days at the park exploring its many trails, watching the volcano, visiting the rainforest, and just enjoying this spectacular place. But even if you have only a day, it’s worth the trip. Bring your sweats or jacket (honest!); it’s cool up there.
If you’re not camping or staying at the historic, 33-room Volcano House inside the park, you’ll want to overnight in this quiet hamlet, just outside the national park entrance. Several cozy inns and B&Bs, some with fireplaces, reside under tree ferns in this cool mountain hideaway. The tiny highland community (elevation 4,000 ft.), first settled by Japanese immigrants, is now inhabited by artists, soul-searchers, and others who like the crisp high-country air.
Pronounced "kah-oo," this windswept, often barren district between Puna and South Kona is one visitors are most likely to just drive through on their way to and from the national park. Nevertheless, it contains several noteworthy sites.
Ka Lae (South Point)
This is the Plymouth Rock of Hawaii. The first Polynesians are thought to have arrived in seagoing canoes, probably from the Marquesas Islands, around A.D. 500 at this rocky promontory 500 feet above the sea. To the west is the old fishing village of Waiahukini, populated from A.D. 750 until the 1860s; ancient canoe moorings, shelter caves, and heiau (temples) poke through windblown pili grass today. The east coast curves inland to reveal Papakolea (Green Sand) Beach, a world-famous anomaly that’s best accessed on foot. Along the point, the southernmost spot in the 50 states, trees grow sideways due to the relentless gusts that also power wind turbines. It’s a slow, nearly 12-mile drive from the highway to the tip of Ka Lae, so many visitors simply stop at the marked overlook on Highway 11, west of South Point Road.
Naalehu, Waiohinu & Pahala
Nearly every business in Naalehu and Waiohinu, the two wide spots on the main road near South Point, claims to be the southernmost this or that. But except for delicious malasadas (doughnut holes) or another pick-me-up from the Punaluu Bake Shop or Hana Hou Restaurant, there’s no reason to linger before heading to Punaluu Beach, between Naalehu and Pahala. Protected green sea turtles bask on the fine black-sand beach when they’re not bobbing in the clear waters, chilly from fresh springs bubbling from the ocean floor. Pahala is the center of the burgeoning Kau coffee-growing scene (“industry” might be overstated), so caffeine fans should also allot at least 45 minutes for a visit to the Kau Coffee Mill.
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