An Itinerary for in Kona + the Kohala Coast
Read on for the top experiences and my tips for the Kona side of the island
Although travel is such a big part of my life now, like many of us, I didn’t grow up traveling often. Hawaii was the one place I returned to repeatedly as a child. I was lucky enough to grow up spending my October break from school exploring the Big Island’s seas, parks, and beaches.
So I jumped at the recent chance to return with Fairmont Orchid, a resort perched toward the northern tip of the island on the stunning Kohala Coast. I had the chance both to experience the beaches and the stunning coastline just off of the property, as well as revisit a few Kona-side locations — longtime favorite places that I’ll share with you here.
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii’s Big Island, you’ll fly into the Kona International Airport, and, more likely than not, you’ll be staying somewhere along the western or Kona coast side, also known as the “dry side” of the island.
Here are the places to know about in and around Kona, and my top things to do in Kona and the Kohala Coast. Depending upon your desired daily pace, you can mix and match day and night activities to create your own one-week itinerary for the Big Island.
This is the main town on the Big Island, and where you’ll find most of the island’s historic buildings including King Kamehameha’s former home — as well as most of the shopping. It’s the center of activity and commerce for the island, including the airport you arrived in.
The weather here is dry and sunny most days of the year, and there are some really charming parts of Kailua-Kona, especially along the coast. I love taking a drive from the center of town along Ali’i Drive, which winds along Kailua Bay. Driving south you’ll hit Keauhou, which I’ll mention more about below.
The Kohala Coast
Heading north from Kona you’ll hit an open stretch of highway until you start seeing turnoffs to the beaches and resorts. Once you see signs for Anaehoomalu Bay, you’ve reached the beautiful Kohala Coast. Several resorts, as well as Waikoloa Village, call this area home.
If you’re staying here you can also expect mostly sunny days, and you’ll have access to some of the best beaches on the island. I recommend having a car regardless, but you’ll definitely need one if the Kohala Coast is your base during your stay.
Things to Do in Kona and Kohala
+ on the Kona side of the Big Island
Snorkeling and/or Scuba Diving
A huge portion of the Big Island’s beauty lies under the water’s surface. No matter your comfort level with the ocean or with wildlife encounters, there is a range of underwater experiences to suit all.
Manta Ray Night Snorkel
Personally, I love scuba diving, but I am totally terrified of any night dive/swim/snorkel. I finally had the chance to snorkel with the mantas in Keahou Bay, and let me just say: 1) they took care of everything so well that I wasn’t even scared and 2) it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in the ocean (or on land.)
Whether it comforts or annoys you that you’ll be surrounded by dozens of other people while you snorkel with them, it doesn’t matter much because you’re head in the sea, relaxing and drifting above a light that attracts the phytoplankton they eat. I went with SeaQuest and found it to be a fantastic operation all around.
Swimming with Sea Turtles
One of the most magical creatures you can see in the Kona waters is the honu, or sea turtle. They are quite present and chances are that you’ll see one if you snorkel multiple times during your trip. (Please do not disturb them on land or sea — keep your distance and show some respect.)
That said, you can certainly increase your chances by choosing your snorkeling site accordingly. I went in the ocean every morning (snorkeling is always best in the morning!) while staying at the Fairmont Orchid, and the bay off of the resort is one of the best spots I’ve ever found…I saw them every single time.
Snorkeling for Beginners and/or Kids
Another good spot to spot sea turtles is also one of the most family-friendly snorkel sites by Kona. Although it can get crowded due to its popularity and central location, Kahalu’u Beach Park is a sheltered cove with easy entry/exit similar to the Fairmont beach option. These calmer waters tend to attract both the turtles and the newer snorkelers (plus tons of fish!)
Kona by Boat
By far my favorite way to experience the Kona area and Kohala Coast is from the water and on a boat. Here are my top recommendations for how to do so:
- Take a snorkeling cruise. Not only do you get the benefit of relaxing on the water (often with dolphins joining you!) complete with food and drinks, but you can access parts of the coast that are top-notch for snorkeling but difficult to access on land. I recommend Fair Wind II.
- Rent your own boat. For the more adventurous at heart, it’s easy (and with a group, cost-efficient as well) to captain your own vessel for the day or even an afternoon. You can fish, swim, snorkel, and even barbeque, or just relax and enjoy the beautiful Kona waters. I use Kona Boat Rentals out of Honokohau Harbor (visit Harbor House for a fish sandwich and a schooner while you’re there!)
- Enjoy a sunrise or sunset canoe. There are many sunset cruise options in and around Kona. I loved the size and speed of the Hawaiian canoe — it feels closer to the water and the culture than some of the larger vessels. It makes for a really special experience. I booked mine through the Fairmont Orchid.
- Go whale watching. Humpback whale season is approximately from January-April annually (though it can vary.) It’s wonderful to get out on the water to witness these spectacular animals in the wild, and with the guidance of experts. I recommend Captain Dan McSweeney’s or Da Whale Boat.
Visit Kealakekua Bay
Located south of Kona and just after Keahou, Kealakekua Bay is one of the most beautiful spots on the Kona coast. Known to some as Captain Cook’s Bay for the presence of the Captain Cook monument there (it’s where he was killed,) it’s most notably a marine reserve and one of the best spots to snorkel on the island.
The last time I visited I drove and parked at the southern side of the bay, bringing my own gear (rented from Boss Frog’s in downtown Kona) and snorkeling along the water’s edge. I don’t recommend this route unless you favor ocean exploration and are an experienced swimmer, but it can be done without guidance.
For most of my visits, I opt for renting a kayak or taking a boat trip to the bay. Kealakekua is the focus of the Fairwind II snorkel trip, so you’ll see it if you book with them.
Go Surfing and/or Boogie Boarding
Until I get better at surfing someday, boogie boarding or even body surfing is my wave action of choice. Always be aware of surf conditions before entering the water, and if you’re hesitant about safety better to stay onshore than be swept away.
I recommend purchasing an inexpensive boogie board if your accommodation doesn’t have any, and you plan on riding waves for more than a few days as it often won’t cost much more than a rental would. (But it depends on the length of your stay.)
Adventures on Land
Most of the land-based adventures you’ll want to seek will be somewhat of a drive from Kona the west side of the Big Island. Still, there are a few that are closer that I recommend:
Visit a Kona Coffee Farm
If you’re a coffee connoisseur or enthusiast, it’s worth seeking out Kona coffee — grown in the rich volcanic soil and known worldwide for its quality. Take it one step further and you can visit a coffee farm to learn about and see the production process.
Find a Farmer’s Market
Since I personally grew up enjoying the Kona Costco as my main food stop, this is a recent find for me. Tropical fruits, local, handcrafted products, and more await. The main Kona Farmers Market runs Wednesday to Sunday from 7am to 4pm, but here’s a list of all the farmers markets on the island.
If you’re interested in exploring the island by land rather than sea, you’ll want to definitely rent a car and check out the spots below. All are day-trippable from the Kona and Kohala coasts, but some are longer drives than others.
Explore the Towns of Waimea and Hawi
Waimea and Hawi are both a short drive from the Kohala Coast and offer a bit more of a local, small-town feel than Kona or Hilo. In Waimea, be sure to check out Arvo for coffee, Pau for amazing breakfast burritos or pizza, and Hawaiian Style Cafe for their loco moco and haupia pancakes — both of which will give you a taste of local Hawaiian flavor on a huge scale (the pancakes are seriously the largest ones I’ve ever seen.)
Very Worthwhile Big Island Day Trips
(the top three are musts for me)
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Mauna Kea Summit
- Waipio Valley
- Punalu’u Black Sand Beach + South Point
- Akaka Falls
- Pololū Valley
Hawaiian Cultural Experiences
Place of Refuge / Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
This is my favorite place to go on the island to connect with the history and culture of Hawaii. The Place of Refuge provided a place for Hawaiians to seek safety and forgiveness from a priest when fleeing a crime. Located just south of Kealakekua Bay, making it a great combination activity to do both in one day.
It’s one thing to admire hula at a luau, and another to try dancing it yourself! I had the best time learning about the beautiful Hawaiian form of storytelling and movement as a part of my stay at Fairmont Orchid (reserve in advance.) It seems that most hula lessons for the public are given at hotels and resorts
This was another new discovery on my most recent trip, as it was very close to where I stayed. Even though you have to walk through a resort to get to them, connecting with the centuries-old pieces of art carved into the rock is humbling. Get there via short stroll from the Waikoloa Hotel (near Kings’ Shops.)
Spa Without Walls
In my ideal world, every spa would share this concept — open-air massage with the sound of waterfalls or the ocean, the touch of a warm sea breeze and the shade of a tropical tree.
Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, it’s worth seeking a relaxing treatment at the Fairmont Orchid spa (treat yourself.) Their pool and hammocks are also lovely for relaxing.
Standup Paddle Board Yoga on the Ocean
I hadn’t been on a SUP in the ocean before, and I certainly hadn’t done yoga on one! This was one of my favorite new experiences on the Big Island.
It was a standard vinyasa yoga class in the most non-standard location. You take a board from the shore out to the shallow bay at the Fairmont Orchid just as the sun is rising. And even though I’m a seasoned yogi who practices regularly, I still managed to fall in the water — but I didn’t mind! It was wonderful to practice in such a peaceful place where my balance was still challenged (and I could see fish swimming underneath my feet the whole time!)
Whether you want a private beach cabana or simply want your toes in the sand, you can’t beat beach time on the Big Island. Most of the best beaches on the Kona side — see below for my favorites!
Know Your Public Beach Rights
Most of the Big Island’s best beaches can be found on the same stretch of the Kohala Coast. One thing I wish I had realized earlier is that many of the top resorts have to allow public beach access and free parking to a limited number of visitors per day. This means you can enjoy some of the best beaches right on luxury resort properties without paying the hundreds (or thousands) per night to stay there.
A few to note include the Mauna Kea Beach (Kauna’oa) at the Mauna Kea resort, Kikaua Beach at Kukio Golf Resort, and Kukio Beach at the Four Seasons Hualalai. Simply ask for public beach access at the gated areas prior to arrival. There is a limit on the number of daily visitors, so your best bet is to arrive as early as possible in the day.
Big Island Beaches >> Kona side
This is my favorite beach in the world. Although I will often take a boat here, you can also access it by land. You have to hike for a bit over lava rock (I recommend doing this in the early morning — much more pleasant,) but the reward is fewer crowds — and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (in my humble opinion.)
How to find it: the entrance to it is located between mile markers 90 and 91. If you have trouble finding it by map, look for Kekaha Kai State Park, which it is a part of. Head to nearby Kua Bay (also a great beach) if you’d like easier access. Both are just north of Kona International Airport.
Another somewhat hidden local favorite, Beach 69 (named so for its location near the mile marker, of course) aka Waialea Bay is all-around wonderful. I think it’s best for snorkeling and shade, naturally provided during most of the day by the many trees on the beach.
Growing up this was just the Mauna Kea beach to me as it is directly in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Resort (a beautiful hotel.) What most people don’t realize is that there is public parking (although limited) at the hotel for access to this beautiful beach. It’s a lot like Hapuna but on a smaller scale.
This is the long and wide white sand beach of your Hawaii dreams. Although it is home to resort traffic and can get crowded, its beauty and convenience make it a draw — particularly so for swimmers, boogie boarders, and families.
Known to many as simply ‘A Bay,’ Anaehoomalu is a favorite for windsurfing and sunsets.
If you’re looking for more beach information, or simply any information at all to be frank — I recommend the latest version of this guidebook which I have been using for 20+ years (the best.)
I hope this gives you the guidance you seek for the most excellent trip to Hawaii’s Kohala Coast and Kailua-Kona. Let me know which part you love most! Mahalo <3
UPDATED: March 2023. Disclaimer: One of my many visits to the Big Island was in collaboration with the Fairmont Orchid. All opinions and destination recommendations come from decades of trips and are distinctly my own.
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