There was a time when travelers would advise first-timers to Kona on the Big Island to turn left when leaving the airport. Because turning right — and heading into the village of Kailua-Kona — wasn’t worth the vacation. How things have changed.
The historic seaside town of Kailua-Kona has seen a revitalization in recent years, with new shops, eateries and community events fueling a renewed interest here. Once a sleepy fishing village and retreat for Hawaiian royalty, Kailua Village boasts an assortment of things to do — and all within walking distance — from touring the Hulihee Palace, once the vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty, to sipping locally grown coffee with a burger made from Big Island beef at Island Lava Java.
Kona, itself, stretches for about 60 miles from the Kona International Airport to Kealakekua Bay along the island’s rugged western coastline. Kailua is the center of commerce and the tourist industry in West Hawaii, with more than 12,000 residents and thousands of visitors flocking here to visit coffee farms, tour historic sites and take in the views of Hawaii’s pristine coastline.
The community was first established by King Kamehameha I to be his seat of government when he was chief of Kona. After unifying the islands, he kept Kona as the capital of the kingdom before moving it to Lahaina, then Honolulu. It remained a popular retreat for Hawaiian royalty; in fact, King Kamehameha spent his final years here.
Today, it’s a hip, little town with lots to see and do. Here are a few ways to best explore Kailua-Kona and the neighborhoods beyond:
Stroll down Alii Drive
The main road meandering through Kailua Village boasts a variety of shops and restaurants lining the ocean. Stop for some shave ice topped with sweetened condensed milk and azuki beans from Scandinavian Shave Ice or a poke bowl with fresh cubed ahi tuna and garlic edamame from Da Poke Shack. There’s even a farmers market here Wednesday through Sunday with locally grown produce, Kona coffee, handmade crafts and flowers.
Check out Kokua Kailua
One Sunday a month, Alii Drive turns into a pedestrian-only marketplace with live music, food and vendors selling everything from shell jewelry to woven hats. The monthly event runs from 1 to 6 p.m. with free Hawaiian entertainment at Hulihee Palace starting at 4 p.m. Upcoming dates include May 18, June 8 and July 20.
Visit historic sites
Just down Alii Drive you’ll find several important cultural and historic sites. Hulihee Palace is the former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty recently converted into a museum showcasing furniture and other artifacts. The original structure was built in 1838 out of lava rock, coral lime mortar and koa and ohia timbers. It was extensively remodeled by King Kalakaua in the late 1800s, with the addition of decorative ceilings, crystal chandeliers, crown moldings and redwood pillars. Across the street is Mokuaikaua Church, the oldest Christian church in the Hawaiian Islands. The present structure, partially made from stones recycled from a nearby heiau (ancient Hawaiian temple), was completed in 1837 and remains an active church to this day. On the grounds of the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is the Ahuena Heiau, a reconstructed temple restored in 1812 by Kamehameha himself. It was his personal heiau dedicated to the god, Lono, and overlooks Kailua Bay.
Kayak in Kealakekua Bay
About 12 miles south of Kailua Village is this marine life conservation district with ideal conditions for snorkeling and kayaking. The bay is teeming with wildlife, from coral to tropical fish to spinner dolphins. (It also has historic significance as being the site where the first westerner, Captain James Cook, landed on Hawaii Island in 1778. He was killed here, too, a year later. A white obelisk on the shore of the park commemorates his death.) Kayaking is a great way to explore this beautiful bay, and Kona Boys offers a guided kayak and snorkel tour.
There’s no better splurge in Kona than a stay — or even a visit to its world-class spa — at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Designed to blend into its natural surroundings, the hotel’s luxurious 600-square-foot bungalows are literally carved into the black lava rock. There are seven pools, one of which, the King’s Pond, is a freshwater pond with thousands of tropical fish and a spotted eagle ray that you can feed. Not to mention there’s a championship golf course and Four-Star spa.
Dive with manta rays
Imagine swimming with one of the largest fish in the ocean. There are boat tours that take guests into Keauhou Bay, just south of Kailua Village, where the majestic and mysterious manta rays gather to feed on plankton. You can watch the action from oceanfront resorts such as Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Tours head out at around sunset to the bay, where giant lights shine on the ocean floor to attract the rays, which often swim within inches of snorkelers.
Photo Courtesy of Travis Thurston