Kona is the favored travel destination on the big island because its weather is nearly perfect, the temperature averaging 80 degrees F. As it’s in the island’s rain-shadow the climate is dry and not too windy. I like Kona because it’s home to the island’s only Costco, my favorite store (a great place to buy your gifts like macadamia nuts, quality Hawaiian shirts, etc) that also has the island’s lowest priced gas.
The main airport on the Big Island is Kona International; this most probably will be your port of arrival. At the airport you can visit the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center, an educational facility dedicated to space exploration and a good place to take the kids. This center is named in memory of astronaut Ellison Onizuka who was born and raised on the Big Island and who tragically lost his life in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.
Kona has large numbers of hotels and condominiums and long stretches of coast with a few good beaches and some historic sites. Kona is well known for its water sports and offers opportunities for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, sport fishing and some of the best whale-watching on the island (try Captain Dan McSweeney’s whale watching trip).
The main place to explore Kona is on Ali’i Drive. Park nearby and walk along this drive. Do some window shopping, get an ice cream or shaved ice, or stop at one of the many restaurants . Visit the pier and the nicely preserved Ahu’ena Heiau (King Kamehameha’s personal temple; he spent his later years here until his death). Visit the Hulihe’e Palace and Mokuaikaua Church, the first Christian church on the islands built in 1820.
The area immediately south of Kona is best known for its coffee plantations. It’s cooler and moister up here than in Kona, ideal conditions for growing Kona coffee beans, the most famous product of the island. Most of the coffee plantations are small and individually owned, averaging just five or so acres. There are a few larger ones available including Greenwell Farms. We took a tour of the Greenwell plantation and I’d recommend it to anyone who would like learn more about the process of growing and making coffee. For example, did you know that the fruit of the coffee plant is known as a cherry? That it has a very sweet tasty pulp that most people enjoy eating but that’s mostly just used as compost as farmers focus on the central beans?
A good diversion from the main road is to take the road to Napo’opo Beach Park. Here there’s a large stone structure known as the Hikiau Heiau, a Hawaiian temple where human sacrifices were made. Captain Cook was worshiped here by Hawaiians as a god when he first landed. It was here that one of Cook’s men died; Cook ordered him buried near the Heiau and personally conducted the service, which may have resulted in his own demise as the natives figured out these white men were mortals and not gods and subsequently killed Captain Cook. One mile across the bay you can see the Captain Cook Monument, a white obelisk erected in 1874, standing on a plot of land owned by the British. The monument is very hard to get to — best way is by kayak — but Kealakekua Bay around the monument is probably the best place to snorkel on the Big Island.
From the Hikiau Heiau head south to the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (the Place of Refuge). This is a National Historic site and is a NOT to be missed stop for anyone visiting the Big Island. The Pu’uhonua o Honaunau was a sanctuary; anyone who had broken a law could go here and be safe (many crimes were punished by death in old Hawaii so you can see the appeal of the place). After a period of rituals, your crime was forgiven and you could be reintegrated into society. The place now retains a large lava rock wall around it and offers a large oceanside plot of land with a few reconstructed huts. It features beautiful stands of palm trees and is wonderful to visit around sunset. There is a trail you can hike on the black lava flows by the beach.
As you drive back to the main road stop at the Painted Church. It’s a simple small wooden church the inside of which was lovingly painted with frescoes by a priest some hundred years ago. It’s a lovely small Church and cemetery set in in the beautiful coffee country.
The southern part of the island, south of Kona is the least developed part of the island. There are large stretches of lava flows and a few homes and macadamia nut orchards. South Point is the southern most place in the United States (even further south than the Florida Keys). The point has an old abandoned ruined wind farm, a modern functional wind farm, some great cliffs and wind-sculpted bushes and beautiful views of the sea. South point is a great place to whale watch from shore and to view a sunset, or to throw in a fishing line.
Just beyond the turnout for South Point you will find the “Mark Twain Monkey Pod Tree“. The original tree that was planted by Mark Twain when he visited the Big Island fell down in the 1950s but shoots from it have grown to a new tree which you can visit. Stop by the Punalu’u Bakery in Na’alehu. This is the southern most bakery in the U.S with great malasadas and is a good stopping point between Kona and the Volcanoes National Park area.
The last main stop in the southern part of the island before you begin the ascent to Volcanoes N.P. is at Punalu’u Black Sand beach. This is the most accessible black sand beach on the island, though its sand is coarse, but the main reason to visit it is because of the many large green sea turtles that rest here. Your chances of seeing one are excellent.