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Discover Kona: The Hawaii You’ve Imagined

Gentle waves on a sandy beach at Kekaha Kai State Park.
Kekaha Kai State Park. Photo © Alberto Loyo/123rf.

Kona can feel like the hottest place on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, not just due to the warm temperatures, but because there is always something going on, from frequent festivals celebrating everything from coffee and chocolate to beer and fishing, to serious nightlife, which locals will tell you means anything open later than 9pm. It’s no wonder that most visitors spend the majority of their time on the Kona side, as it is called. Although Kona is talked about as if it were a city, it is actually a large district. From national historical parks to some of the best white-sand beaches on the island to nearly every ocean activity possible, Kona is a microcosm of what the larger island has to offer.

In March 2011 Kona was affected by a tsunami resulting from a large earthquake in Japan. Damage to some oceanfront areas was significant, with beaches completely changing overnight, and in some cases buildings were destroyed from the force of the wave. The reviews of beaches in this guide were conducted both before and after the tsunami hit, but as rebuilding continues it is possible that some locations will differ in appearance from what is written here.


North of the Airport: North Kona

This is what you were imagining when you booked your trip to Hawaii: turquoise waters beside long stretches of white-sand beaches. Amazingly, there are several good options for these types of beaches within 20 minutes of Kona International Airport—and they are all public places! What might surprise you the most is that parts of this area look like they were hit by a bomb: It is completely desolate. The landscape is made up of lava fields, and in recent years, the black rocks have become dotted with white stones that spell out names of favorite teams and loved ones. Don’t be thrown off by the lack of infrastructure in the area. The ocean and beaches lurking behind the lava fields are some of the most magical the island has to offer for those looking for white-sand beaches and astonishing underwater life.

South of the Airport

The small area south of the international airport looks a lot like anywhere else in suburban America. It’s most significant as a landmark; many refer to Costco, which can be seen like a beacon of light up above Hina Lani Street, and Target in the Kona Commons shopping center, when giving directions. You’ll likely use this area to get from one place to another and for its resource-laden shops, but don’t miss out on Pine Trees, one of the best surfing spots on the island.

Ali‘i Drive: Kailua and Keauhou

The heart of Kona, Ali‘i Drive is the north-south thoroughfare stretching from the Keauhou resort area (the south end) through downtown Kailua and ending in the north near where Highway 11 becomes Highway 19 (and the counting of the mile markers starts all over again—actually, it starts backward). Starting at the south end of Ali‘i Drive are a few larger resorts, like the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa and Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort. There are really only two big resort areas on the Big Island, and Keauhou is one of them (the other is the Kohala “Gold” Coast). Since Keauhou is designed as a resort area, it is constructed so that a visitor never really has to leave its proximity. The beach access here from the hotels and Keauhou Bay is rocky and the water can get rough. Most visitors use their hotel’s or condo’s pools and save a dip in the water for an evening excursion to view the manta rays that hang out in the bay.

As you drive north you’ll pass by a slew of vacation rentals and crowded urban beaches. The downtown area, which is Kailua, is a combination of New Orleans and Key West. This is the area where the cruise ships dock (usually on Wednesdays), and you’ll see passengers running ashore to shop. At night there is street life on Ali‘i, so if you’re looking to go out on the town, this is where you go. Especially on the weekends there is music blasting from the bars overhead, local kids cruising and parking in their rigged-up trucks, and tourists strolling from shop to shop. There are many stores in the downtown Ali‘i section—but it’s a lot of the same T-shirt shops, jewelry stores, and tour agents hocking luau and kayak adventures.

A Road by Any Other Name

Highway 11 and Highway 19 are the main routes in the Kona region. Highway 11 has several names: Kuakini Highway, Hawai‘i Belt Road, Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway, Mamalahoa Highway. These names are sometimes used in addresses, but sometimes businesses simply use Highway 11. Highway 19 on some maps and in some addresses is also called Hawai‘i Belt Road, Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway, and Mamalahoa Highway when it runs through Waimea. Remember that in Kailua town, Highway 11 and Highway 19 merge, and thus, it is important to note which highway you are on when looking for the mile marker (i.e., there is a mile marker 100 on Highway 11 and another on Highway 19). Using the mile markers is a great way to gauge how far you must travel.

Captain Cook Area: South Kona

Captain Cook is an actual town, named for the explorer James Cook, who in 1778 was the first European to have contact with the Hawaiian Islands. An obelisk of Cook adorns Kealakekua Bay where he was killed (rumor says that the small area surrounding the obelisk is considered British territory). There are several other little towns in the area, like Kainaliu and Kealakekua (all off Highway 11), but the area generally is referred to as “Captain Cook” or South Kona.

A visit to the Kona area would not be complete without spending as much time as possible in this area, where kayak trips and snorkeling adventures are plentiful and the beaches are easily accessible. If you are water-logged and looking for some drive time, head to the main road for antiquing or to try one of several excellent restaurants in the area.

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