Where Pacific waters crash against volcanic tide pools and white sand beaches, the village of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island offers the perfect blend of tourist-oriented shops and authentic local color, with an abundance of natural sights and wildlife in all directions.
On the leeward side of the Big Island, Kona is a conscientious tourist’s paradise, combining picturesque snorkeling beaches and souvenir shops without losing sight of the Hawaiian history and cultural traditions that make the island more than just an upscale resort destination.
Though Kona doesn’t have the rainforests of Hilo on the opposite side of the island, the landscape is still marvelously diverse, a combination of dense hillsides and desolate dried lava flows. Pop-up fruit stands and world-famous highland coffee farms dot the roadsides leading in and out of town, but the culinary side of Hawaii shines brightest within the village.
Arguably the village’s best poke bowls come from Umeke’s (75-143 Hualalai Rd, Ste. 104), where their “boat to bowl” approach lets diners enjoy fresh Big Island fish with your choice of hot and sweet seasonings. Delicious sides like seaweed salad and lomi salmon join the generous scoops of condiment-soaked seafood. With a locally brewed kombucha or homemade lemonade from their drink fridge, such a bowl makes for an extremely satisfying lunch.
Great food, friendly wait staff and a lively tiki-style atmosphere make Splasher’s Grill (75-5663 Palani Rd) more than just your standard ocean-side eatery. At breakfast, they serve daily catch seafood omelets or pancakes topped with fresh tropical fruits, but dinnertime specialties like the seared ahi and barbecue chicken are also not to be missed.
A mother and daughter team run this quintessentially Hawaiian diner. Kaaloa’s Super J’s (83-5409 Mamalahoa Hwy) is a roadside shack with unfussy décor and flavorful island specialties like pork Lau Lau—pork marinated for eight to 10 hours and wrapped in a taro leaf. The plate lunches are delicious, served with homemade macaroni salad and white rice, and best followed up with their seasonal baked goods like a loaf of Kulolo—sweet bread baked with taro and coconut.
The rough shave ice served at ice cream stands and county fairs across the mainland is nothing to compare with the fluffy ice and subtly-sweet tropical syrups they offer at One Aloha Shave Ice Co (75-5626 Kuakini Hwy, Ste 7). Their organic approach makes a true difference in taste, as natural island flavors like white pineapple and guava meld with the ice’s texture. Don’t forget to top it off with coconut milk and a dash of tart li hing mui powder.
It’s hard to imagine a seaside bar and grill more idyllic than On the Rocks (75-5824 Kahakai Rd).Views of rocky tide pools and endless ocean attract drinkers before sunset. Come nightfall, live ukulele music and sociable performers beckon guests to dance barefoot on the sandy makeshift dance floor. The menu includes burgers made from grass-fed island beef and shareable cocktails with mango, guava and lilikoi (passion fruit) flavors.
The company behind some of the nation’s best and most beautifully designed craft beers, The Kona Brewing Company (75-5629 Kuakini Hwy) makes for a surprisingly family-friendly restaurant, but even with island-remixed pub favorites like kalua pork and fire wings marinated in ale, the biggest draws here are the beers themselves. Seasonal and staple varieties are all available on tap or in bottles that come with a complimentary bottle opener. Pay heed to the menu’s recommended food-and-beer pairings for a real treat.
As its name implies, Sam’s Hideaway (75-5729 Ali’i Dr) is a hole-in-the-wall shelter from the touristy kitsch along Kailua’s main drag, boasting real Hawaiian color and divey charm that attracts locals and visitors alike. Cold beer and strong but sweet cocktails come cheap here, and the regulars are almost as easygoing and welcoming as the bartenders diligently serving their drinks.
There’s always something going on at My Bar (74-5606 Luhia St), most of it appealing to those who just want to forget their troubles and dance with a cheap drink in hand. This gay-friendly night club plays a solid variety of danceable music, but given that this is Hawaii, the atmosphere is still laidback and friendly for anyone who’d rather just sit at the bar and chat with new potential friends.
Pueo Boutique (75-5695 Ali’i Dr) is named for a native Hawaiian bird often revered as a family protector, and a portion of sales for their brand go towards protecting the habitat of the Pueo and other animals native to the islands. You’ll find all sorts of beachy housewares and clothes from local designers at the store, but keep an eye out for Pueo’s own shirts, bags, scarves and jewelry, all bearing an image of their striking owl-like namesake.
Soap is soap, you may say, before you hear all the natural ingredients used by the Kona Natural Soap Company (75-6129 Ali’i Dr), like palm kernel oil, kukui nut oil, Hawaiian rain water, and natural essential oil scents. The store’s welcoming owner and employees are generally willing to share all this information and more about their handmade coffee and cacao-scented bath products or the local coffee beans they sell alongside them.
Kona Stories (78-6831 Ali’i Dr) stocks more than 100,000 books of all genres. Cats roam the aisles to keep guests company as they browse the impressive collection of Hawaiian and children’s books or the smaller selection of handmade gifts and greeting cards. Monthly events let guests take advantage of complimentary wine and snacks before enjoying an open discussion with the latest local or traveling author.
You can easily go and wade into the shallow, surprisingly still waters of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park (74-4968 Queen Ka’ahumanu Hwy #14), but be careful you don’t run afoul of the peaceful green sea turtles that are probably enjoying the beach with you. This wildlife refuge also contains ruins and petroglyphs from the ancient Hawaiians who once used the area for fishing centuries ago.
A lively beach that looks as though it was pulled right from a postcard, Magic Sands Beach Park (77-648277 Ali’i Drive) is regularly filled with boogie boarders and barbecue chefs, all enjoying the impossibly blue waters crashing against a steep stretch of white sand. The crowds thin out on the rockier coastline in the small park’s southern part, but there are still plenty of crabs scuttling between tide-pools for protection.
Though far from under-the-radar, Manini’owali Beach (Kua Bay Access Rd) to the north of the village provides a more secluded, though no less breathtaking, beach for those who find the crowds at Magic Sands overwhelming. Palm trees surround a stretch of white sand and crystal clear surf interrupted by only the occasional rocky outcropping. The rocks at either end of the sheltered shore also provide quality snorkeling in the summer.
The End of the World (79-7386 Keauhou Kainaliu Beach Rd) is a perfectly descriptive name for a coastline as dramatic as this one just a few miles south of the village center. There’s no beach here, just jagged volcanic cliffs one can shamble across to get a better view of the ocean swells crashing against labyrinthine walls that exist only thanks to volcanic activity. It’s easy for a quick stop but also to relax and enjoy an entire day diving into the water and sitting on sculpted rocks.