Kona’s town centre isn’t much to rave about, but the expansive Kona District is pretty awesome in its range of activities.
Kona is the Big Island’s most popular tourist spot – it receives a hefty number of cruise ship passengers each year as they island hop around Hawaii. But there are plenty of other people, like me, who enter the Big Island by flight and are keen to explore the Kailua-Kona region in more than just a day.
Getting away from the souvenir stores and tourist bars in the town centre to see the foothills of the massive Mauna Loa and discover how the locals make use of their volcanic surroundings is a much better way to spend time in and around Kona, in my opinion.
I recently spent 3 days/4 nights exploring Kona and Captain Cook before moving on to complete a 7 day itinerary around Hawaii’s Big Island. Here’s what I think you should do if you’re planning to visit this awesome destination!
How to get to Kona, Hawaii
Kona has its own airport that receives frequent flights from Honolulu, as well as occasional flights from other Hawaiian islands and from east coast US cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus a handful of others. We flew in from Honolulu as it allowed us to connect to our international flight from Australia.
I was amazed by the epic landscape that could be seen out the window as our flight descended into Kona Airport. The runway literally sits on top of an old lava flow – what a great sight to welcome visitors to the Big Island.
Where to stay in Kona, Hawaii
We stayed in a B&B just outside of Kona in an area called Captain Cook (named for the famous explorer who died nearby). Kona Bayview Inn had 3 spacious and clean guest rooms, and a view over the ocean that was perfect for admiring evening sunsets. The breakfasts provided each morning by the hosts at this place were absolutely delightful with plenty of fresh fruits and other local produce, coffee from a farm just up the road, and baked goods that had been prepared only moments earlier. If you want to choose an affordable place that’s tucked away on the hillside away from all the usual tourist spots, this is it!
Things to do in Kona and Captain Cook, Hawaii
Snorkel at the Captain Cook Monument
This monument is placed in the spot where Captain James Cook died in 1779. The obelisk itself is not that exciting, but the snorkelling in front of the monument is a fantastic Hawaii experience! There are corals all throughout the shallows with an array of colourful fish. Watch out for the sea urchins – there are many.
There are three ways to access the monument. The first and cheapest option is to hike downhill from the Captain Cook Monument trailhead on Napoopoo Road, which should take about 30 minutes each way. I’ve heard that this trail can be brutally hot when the sun is beating down, so choose to do this a cloudy day if you can.
The second option is to kayak across Kealakekua Bay, which is what we chose to do. We called Bayside Adventures in the morning and were able to rent a double kayak that same day. It cost $65 USD for a day-long rental, which was great as we didn’t feel like we needed to rush back within a certain timeframe. Paddling across the bay took approx 30 minutes each way, and when we arrived we jumped straight off the kayak into the water for snorkelling. Apparently there’s a chance of seeing dolphins and manta rays in the bay (which is a marine life conservation district), but unfortunately we didn’t see any. If you do see dolphins, be sure to keep your distance as you could be fined for chasing the marine life.
The third option is to reach the monument on a snorkel boat tour. It’s the most expensive, but also the most convenient and doesn’t involve so much exercise if you’re feeling lazy! There were plenty of people doing this on various snorkel tours when we were there. It looked like a lot of fun, they jumped directly off the boats into the water.
Magic Sands Beach
I had no idea why it was called Magic Sands until after I visited this spot, but apparently the sands at this beach will sometimes disappear! There were black rocks poking out of the sand at various points, but still plenty of white sand to relax on while we were there.
The waves here were decent, which we Aussies are pretty comfortable with but it was clear that some people were intimidated by the surf (this justified the lifeguard on duty). It was also a good spot for body boarding – lots of people were taking advantage of the waves for some fun in the water.
P.S. There’s a good kombucha spot at the beach shack next door, and free parking in a lot across the road.
Visit a coffee farm or macadamia farm (or both!)
Hawaii’s Big Island is covered in rich and fertile volcanic soil, and combined with the subtropical climate, it’s perfect for growing delicious things such as coffee beans and macadamias.
There are plenty of plantations to choose from in the area around Captain Cook. We turned up unannounced at Hala Tree Organic Coffee Farm and luckily we were able to jump on a farm tour 5 minutes after it had started. The tours run as needed so best to let them know you’re coming beforehand. The tour is free, but you’ll be presented with the opportunity to purchase coffee tastings at the end. We went with a set of three for $15 which allowed us to try some unique coffee samples, as well as a tea made from the discarded coffee cherry shell.
Step inside the Painted Church
This is a quick stop, but a pretty one! The Painted Church is actually named the St Benedict Catholic Church, and it was moved from location closer to the shore to its current spot in 1899. A self taught painter decorated the inside with murals which are mostly religious themed but also incorporate the Hawaiian spirit by including palm trees and tropical colours. I’ve visited a lot of churches on my travels but can definitely say this this small chapel is quite unique.
Swimming and sunbaking at Two Step
At Two Step, volcanic rocks lead into the water with naturally formed steps in the rocks to assist swimmers entering the ocean to admire the surrounding coral. The waves were rougher here than at Captain Cook which made it a little challenging to get in and out of the water, and the visibility beneath the surface was also not quite as good. Our favourite activity at this spot was actually sunbaking on the black rock as it radiated heat, making it feel somewhat like an open air sauna.
There’s paid parking at the entrance to the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park–a historic monument across the bay from Two Step–but you can also park along the road outside of this lot for a free option if you see a spot available.
Day trip to Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a crazy awesome place to visit. We drove there and stayed for a few nights to get the most out of our volcano experience, however, it’s quite possible to see the volcano in a day trip from Kona.
Your options are to rent a vehicle and do the drive yourself, or to hop on a guided day tour. The tours depart from Kona and you can do a full day version or an evening version. The night time tour is a bit more expensive, however, if you will be travelling while the volcano is erupting, I would highly recommend the evening tour as you’ll be able to see the ominous red glow from the lava in the volcano crater!
- Morning/daytime trip: Volcano National Park Adventure
- Afternoon/nighttime trip: Evening volcano explorer tour from Kona
Where to eat and drink in Kona and Captain Cook, Hawaii
Kona Brewing Co
I found Kona town centre to be somewhat underwhelming with the shops and restaurants mostly focused on drawing in cruise ship visitors, however, Kona Brewing Co was a pleasant surprise. It had a very lively atmosphere, decent food including vegetarian pizza options, and a wide variety of drinks made locally. It was so busy that we couldn’t get a table outside in the garden but the indoor seating area was plenty comfortable.
I can’t decide whether the name of this casual eatery is tacky or awesome, but the food at Shaka Tacos was definitely amazing. The veggie tacos here were like a Mexican-Hawaiian-Asian fusion, with pickled onion adding a Korean element and the mango chili sauce reminding us that we are still in Hawaii. All of the ingredients were super fresh. The tacos were served in a diner-style venue with the kitchen housed in a food truck outside.
Honaunau Poke Shop
This Japanese-inspired Hawaiian seafood dish is not meant to be vegetarian, however, I discovered that this highly-rated poke place offers a veggie bowl. A serving of warm rice sprinkled with seaweed flakes, served with your choice of three sides. It had the vibe of a simple meal done exceptionally well with the flavours light & tasty. The venue is a mere hole in the wall with a counter and outdoor seats for diners, true to the Hawaiian style of enjoying a meal out in the open.
Black Rock Pizza
Let me start by saying that I really enjoy a pizza with a thin crust and sparse toppings, and Black Rock Pizza served the opposite of that–a thick crust with loads of veggies stacked on top–but considering this, it was done well. The red sauce base added a great flavour, which is not something that all pizzerias can get right. The lanai (balcony) was also great with a fab view of the sunset!
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