Kailua-Kona Travel Guide

Overview

The famed Kona coast covers about two-thirds of the western coastline of Hawaii Island—the perfect spot for spectacular sunsets. At the heart of Kona is the town of Kailua-Kona, where many of the area's restaurants and tourist activities are clustered. Along the North Kona and South Kohala coasts, you'll find some of Hawaii's most luxurious resorts.

Spend several days exploring Kailua-Kona's historical and cultural attractions, engaging in watersports, deep-sea fishing and diving, or just relaxing on the many spectacular beaches. Perhaps the Kona coast's biggest attraction is its fine, sunny weather—daytime temperatures average in the high 70s F/23-26 C year-round.

Geography

Unlike the eastern coast, which owes its lush greenery to ample rainfall, Kona gets plenty of sunshine. And because it sits on a lump of volcanic rock, the Kona countryside seems somewhat barren by comparison. Along with sandy beaches and palm trees, the Kona coast has lava caves and jagged inlets that are lapped by a generally moderate surf.

North Kona is a wide expanse of plateaus, mountain slopes, vast lava flows and dry scrubland. In the northern area are the noted Kohala coast resorts. South Kona is a mostly upslope district wrapping around the flanks of the towering volcano, Mauna Loa. Highway 11, the district's primary road, meanders from Kailua-Kona through upslope areas away from the rugged cliffs of the coast.

History

The west coast of the Big Island is linked to important events in Hawaii's past. King Kamehameha was reputedly born near Kohala, on the northwest coast of the island. In his bid to become ruler of all of Hawaii, he built an enormous heiau, at what is now Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, to honor and enlist the support of his war god.

Capt. James Cook first set foot on Hawaii at Kealakekua Bay, south of Kailua-Kona, in 1778; he was killed there in an altercation with some Hawaiians in 1779.

Coffee trees were first brought to Hawaii in the early 1800s as ornamental plants. The first Christian missionaries to Hawaii followed, landing near Kailua-Kona in 1820. An American missionary later imported a coffea arabica cutting to Kona, where it flourished. Kona's very rich volcanic soil, higher upslope elevation, and consistent weather pattern of bright sunny mornings, afternoon cloud cover and ample rainfall furnished the right conditions for coffee to thrive.

By the mid-1800s, coffee growing and milling was an established industry in Kona. A coffee-market crash in 1899 depressed the industry temporarily, but the hard work of many local Japanese families with small coffee farms kept it alive. The backbone of the coffee industry on the island is still the large number of small, family-operated farms on the upland slopes of the Kona coast.

Kailua-Kona remained a sleepy fishing village until the 1960s and '70s, when it was discovered as a tourist destination. With the rise of the Kohala coast resorts in the 1980s, the character of the area changed dramatically and real estate values have skyrocketed.

Sightseeing

Kailua-Kona lies at the base of 8,271-ft-/2,521-m-tall Mount Hualalai, where some of the town's residents still grow Kona coffee (and macadamia nuts, avocados and citrus fruit) on farms high on the cool mountain slopes. Modern shopping centers, huge discount warehouses, light industry and a slew of restaurants and modern shops line the streets to the east, north and south of downtown.

Along the North Kona and South Kohala coasts are the luxury resorts, which are built upon volcanic flows. The resorts' lush tropical greenery and magnificent golf courses are startling oases amid the expanses of black and gray lava fields.

Downtown Kailua-Kona is geared toward tourists, with many T-shirt shops, boutiques, gift shops and restaurants. But it's still the sort of place you'll want to explore at a leisurely pace, stopping to browse in shops, peek into hotels and restaurants, and sip a cup of Kona coffee or an icy glass of tropical juice.

A major Kona landmark is King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, which sits adjacent to the Kailua Pier. On the hotel grounds and immediately next to the pier are the thatched roofs of Kamakahonu, a re-created Hawaiian compound that includes Ahuena Heiau, a restored temple.

Kailua-Kona's main street, Alii Drive, extends some 5 mi/8 km south to the Keauhou area. Along Alii Drive are historic sites, including the gracious, two-story Hulihee Palace at the water's edge and Mokuaikaua Church, a white-spired structure built of lava rock and coral that was the first Christian church in Hawaii. It's an easy 0.5-mi/0.8-km stroll south along Alii Drive to the Royal Kona Resort. Both sides of Alii Drive are lined with shops and restaurants interspersed with churches and sites of historic interest.

A good way to cover Kona's historical sites is to take the 75-minute walking tour of Kailua Village conducted by the nonprofit Kona Historical Society. It includes Kailua-Kona's historic sites and Hulihee Palace.

Nightlife

Although Kailua-Kona is known for its activities during the day, you can find good lounge music and other entertainment after sunset. Try Huggo's On the Rocks in Kailua-Kona for music, or visit some of the resort lounges for evening cocktails.

To find out what's going on during evenings and weekends, read the Saturday Calendar of Events in the Hawaii Tribune Herald, West Hawaii Today or Big Island Weekly.

Dining

There is no shortage of food on the Big Island. From fine Pacific Rim dishes served in grand hotel dining rooms to huli-huli chicken plate lunches on Alii Drive, Kona offers a variety of cuisines.

Take advantage of Kona's location and sample some of the fresh local fish. Seafood restaurants abound up and down the Kona coast, and sushi is readily available in fine restaurants, at takeout counters and in local grocery stores.

East meets West in the local cuisine, so expect Asian spices, rice and long noodles to go along with chicken, pork and beef dishes. And don't forget about the Big Island's ranching history; local beef is served at some of Kona's finest restaurants. Take advantage of opportunities to sample traditional Hawaiian foods, such as pork lau lau, chicken long rice, taro sweetbread and poi.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax and tips: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$16-$30; $$$ = more than US$30.

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