The first time I visited Hawaii’s Kona was the day after Christmas in 1981. The airport is in the middle of a lava field, nine miles north of the main town of Kailua-Kona. The sun was just coming up over the mountains at 6:15 a.m., but everyone was on the move. My friends picked me up — and we headed out on a small Zodiac inflatable boat towars Kealekekua Bay. Suddenly, a giant humpback whale breached about 50 yards from us.
That was the first of many surprises and delights we discovered on the Big Island of Hawaii. The island is bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, but it doesn’t have the traffic and the high-rises of Honolulu. Nor does it have the lush beaches of Kauai. But more Alaskans are succumbing to the pull of the Big Island, particularly since Alaska Airlines continues its nonstop service from Anchorage.
We were on the first of Alaska’s seasonal Anchorage-Kona nonstops this month. It was a full flight. That’s not surprising, since it’s cheaper to fly to Kona right now than it is to Honolulu. Fly south between now and Dec. 12 for $199 each way. The return flight is a little more: $217 one-way through Dec. 24.
On my first few trips to the island, I set an ambitious agenda: Get up early to drive around to the Hilo side and see Volcanoes National Park, or drive up to the visitor center on Mauna Kea. On this trip, we stayed on the west coast of the island — and didn’t venture too far from the water.
After arriving late in the evening, we got up early to make the long drive to Captain Cook, south of Kailua. This was the staging area for a kayak and snorkel trip to Kealekua Bay. My sister discovered Kona Boys on a previous trip, so we got some snorkel gear at their shop and headed to the water. Our guides, Laken and Jalal, met us on the dock and went over the plan. We were set to paddle over in the open-top double kayaks for about a mile before reaching the underwater park near the Captain Cook monument.
The monument was erected in 1847 to commemorate Cook’s death in 1779. It’s an interesting story about how Cook met his demise, but it’s not the main attraction of the bay. Rather, it’s the incredible array of reef fishes, coral and the occasional spinner dolphin that inspires folks to return again and again.
There was a good reason to work the early shift and get to the bay before lunchtime. That’s because the larger boats sailing from Keauhou Bay start to arrive with dozens of other snorkelers. In fact, on my first few trips to Kona in the 1980s, we came with scuba gar and enjoyed getting up close with the reef 20 to 50 feet below the surface.
Kona Boys includes a lunch with the trip — and just as we were finishing, the Fair Wind arrived from Keauhou Bay with a new batch of snorkelers. I’ve sailed on the Fair Wind several times — and they do a great job, complete with a barbecue lunch. But with the kayaks, you get to paddle around and see parts of the bay and the coastline — right at water level.
We had the option to keep the snorkel gear for the rest of the day. The staff at the shop recommended snorkeling at the City of Refuge, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. Whether you snorkel there or not, it’s worth a visit. When Captain Cook visited Hawaii, the sacred law was called “kapu.” If you broke kapu, the only punishment was death. But if you could reach the place of refuge, you were safe. There are interpretive displays as well as re-created structures to give you an appreciation of this sacred site.
Our day of swimming, snorkeling and paddling was exhausting — so we sought our own refuge higher up the hill in the community of Kealekakua. There, we found the best gelato on the island at Gypsy Gelato. There is a selection of traditional chocolate/vanilla/strawberry flavors, but I opted for the ginger-turmeric flavor with some mango in there.
The gelato stop gave us the energy we needed to make it back up north for a late-afternoon dip in the pool.
As the sun started to sink in the west, we started hunting around for the best place to watch. There are several waterfront spots in Kailua—but that was too far away We settled on the Lava Lava Beach Club in Waikoloa. The restaurant is right on the beach at Anaeho’omalu Bay, just south of Waikoloa. We returned a few more times over the course of the week because of the uninterrupted view of the setting sun. Oh — the mai tais were delicious, too. Just be sure and get there between 3 and 5 p.m. for happy-hour pricing ($7 for the drink and cheaper appetizers).
One advantage of the Waikoloa location is that it’s just down the road from the best beach on the island: Hapuna. This beautiful beach is one of just a handful on the Big Island. We set up our beach camp at the south end, where there’s shade under the rocks and trees. There’s a good-size surf on most days, so you have to work a little bit to get in and out of the water. But it’s worth it. Bring plenty to drink, since it gets hot! But if you’re hungry, stop in at 3 Frogs up at the parking lot. They serve up a delicious fish taco. It’s rolled up burrito style and features breaded “opa” in the center, with some delicious cole slaw. Get extra garlic mango salsa to go with it.
We checked out of Waikoloa and moved south of Kailua to the Sheraton at Kaeuhou Bay. This is another great spot for watching the sunset, as the hotel is set on lava rocks right at the water’s edge. It’s also easy to walk down to the small harbor and catch the Fair Wind for your snorkeling trip!
Friends met us for drinks at the hotel’s restaurant, Rays on the Bay. We got a waterfront table to watch the sun sink in the west. Then they turn the lights on, which draws the manta rays in to have a look. We saw several huge rays playing in the water. Each time a big one would flap its wing on the water, there would be “oohs” and “aahhhs” from the crowd.
You don’t have to buy anything to watch the rays. The Sheraton has a viewing deck adjacent to the restaurant where folks can get a great view of these beautiful creatures. They leave the lights on until around 10 p.m. The Fair Wind charter group has another vessel, the Hula Kai, which sails from the harbor at sunset — about 800 yards. From there, snorkelers can get in the water for an up-close view of the manta rays, whose wingspan can exceed 15 feet.
On our last day, we wanted the perfect cup of coffee. After all, Kona is known for its fancy coffee. We just didn’t realize how fancy it was. It was hot, as usual, on the coast. So we drove “upcountry” to Waimea, at around 2,800 feet altitude. There we found the Waimea Coffee Co. and enjoyed the perfect Americano. The baristas were busy making artful designs on the lattes and mochas. I asked about taking some coffee home and they recommended a “peaberry” varietal in a 10-ounce bag. The price? Fifty dollars. I passed, opting instead for a delicious shortbread. The coffee was worth the trip — and the shortbread was a bonus!