It’s no lie: the Big Island of Hawai‘i really is a big place. Here you can drive a dozen miles down a rutted 4WD road to a deserted beach and not see another person all day. While the rain-drenched Hilo side of the island is better known for its natural escapes, the sunny Kona side gives you just as many chances to go green and travel local-style. Drop by a Kona coffee farm, snorkel off the side of your kayak in a sapphire bay, then knock back island microbrews and ono grinds (good food) with ocean views.
South Kona Coastin’
Say the word Kona, and you’re already thinking about coffee, right? On the volcanic mountain slopes of South Kona is where most of the Big Island’s coffee trees grow. They flower with white blossoms (nicknamed “Kona snow”) in late spring, with their ripe red-fruit “cherries” ready to pick in late summer or early fall. Get an up-close look at traditional hand-harvesting processes at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. In early November, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival brings 10 days of cupping competitions, coffee-picking contests, behind-the-scenes farm tours and live Hawaiian music.
When you’re ready to hit the water, keep driving south along the Kona coast. Stop by Aloha Kayak Company for a rental kayak or a guided tour, then paddle out into the calm waters of Kealakekua Bay, where the Captain Cook Monument marks one of the Big Island’s snorkeling hotspot. Most people don’t know it, but you can also get to this shoreline monument via a sunny, steep 4-mile-long dirt trail starting from Napoopoo Rd off Hwy 11.
A South Kona snorkeling spot that’s easier to get to, but is just as full of rainbow-colored tropical fish and green sea turtles, is Two-Step. It’s next door to Puuhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park, with its rebuilt Hawaiian heiau (temple) and fearsomely carved kii images. (No swimming is allowed with the park, out of respect for ancient Hawaiian religious traditions.)
Eating Up & Drinking Down the Kona Coast
On the waterfront in downtown Kailua-Kona, Island Lava Java coffee shop crafts farm-fresh salads and sandwiches, with people-watching from the sidewalk tables. Afterward chill out with a bowl of traditional Polynesian awa from Kanava Kava, or drive uphill to the green-certified Kona Brewing Company for microbrews, pub grub and live music. Then retreat to the humble Kona Tiki Hotel to sleep above the breaking surf.
Meandering North to Kohala
If you’re an Ironman triathlete, you could run or cycle up sunbaked North Kona coast, but most of us everyday humans will make it a scenic drive instead. Photogenic beaches line the “Gold Coast” running into South Kohala, including the perfectly crescent-shaped strand fronting the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. For a less busy scene where you can splash around with sea turtles, walk from Spencer Beach Park south along the hidden coastal trail to Mauumae Beach. Kokua (please) respect locals who prefer to keep this pocket beach low-key.
Back on dry land, detour to the Fairmont Orchid resort and the Puako Petroglyphs archaeological preserve, where you can see ancient Hawaiian rock art along a short walking trail. For a bigger dose of Hawaiian history, keep driving north toward Hawi. Turn makai (seaward) down a jeep road near the airport to discover Mookini Heiau, the ruins of an ancient Hawaiian temple near the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great. It’s impossible not to feel the mana (spiritual power) of this lonely, windswept spot inside Kohala Historic Sites State Monument.
Take a break in the quirky, alternative-thinking small town of Hawi, where art galleries, yoga studios, a bookstore and locavarian cafes all mix. In the last hours of sunlight, take the long way back to Kona via Kohala Mountain Rd, which rolls through cattle country to the paniolo (cowboy) town of Waimea. Or just follow the coastal highway south to Kawaihae Harbor, where the Blue Dragon Coastal Cuisine & Musiquarium is locals’ pick for seafood, starlight dancing and live jazz, rock and blues.
But Wait, There’s More!
Planning a trip to the Big Island soon? The Big Island Film Festival lights up Mauna Lani Resort in South Kohala May 24-28. Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park hosts traditional hula kahiko on June 1. King Kamehameha Day (June 11) is celebrated state-wide with Hawaiian music, hula dancing, lei making and a parade down Alii Dr in Kailua-Kona on June 16.
Wanna know about the other side of the Big Island? Check back for the next blog post in Sara Benson’s eco-travel series: East Hawai‘i on Travel Tuesday, May 22.