Big Island Bliss: Things to Do in Kona, Hawai’i

Adina Keeling Avatar

Things to do in Kona include checking out the views from The Coffee Shack in Kona.
Views from The Coffee Shack in Kona. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

This summer, I spent one wonderful week in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It was actually my first time in Hawaii, and needless to say, it won’t be my last. I was most impressed by the island’s diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes, from black sand beaches to lush jungles to lava fields. Even more impressive, the island is home to four of the world’s five major climate zones.

Although there are six districts on the Big Island, most visitors think of the island in terms of only two sides: the Kona side and the Hilo side. While Hilo is lush and rainy, the Kona district tends to be drier and sunnier. Kona is also more tourist-friendly, with luxurious oceanfront resorts, great restaurants, charming vacation homes, gorgeous beaches and lots of flight traffic. Most tourists stay in Kona but venture off to see Hilo on a day trip.

So if you’re fortunate enough to have a Hawaii vacation on your horizon and find yourself based in Kona, here’s our list of the top things to do in beautiful Kona.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Traveling with kids? Check out our list of fun things to do on the Big Island with kids.

Things to do in Kona include two step, a popular snorkeling spot.
Two Step, a popular snorkeling spot. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

1. Go snorkeling or scuba diving

Snorkeling or scuba diving is an absolute must-do activity while in Hawaii. Luckily, Kona is surrounded by beautiful diving sites, home to diverse marine life. One of the best snorkeling spots is Honaunau Bay, or Two Step. Here, you are literally two steps from a coral garden, teeming with tropical fish, including yellow tang and raccoon butterflyfish. When I was there, I spotted a speckled pufferfish and a yellow trumpet fish. Dolphins are also frequently spotted here.

Another popular spot is Kealakekua Bay, found at the end of the Captain Cook Monument Trail. If you don’t want to make the trek, there are snorkeling tours that can take you straight there. Kahaluʻu Bay Beach is another popular snorkeling spot on the Kona coast.

2. Explore Kailua-Kona

The biggest town in Kona is called Kailua-Kona, or just “Kona,” as the locals call it (confusing, I know). This historic town has a laid-back vibe and brims with ice cream shops, cozy cafes and seafood restaurants.

Kailua-Kona is a great place to spend an afternoon. Explore beach boutiques, snack on a snow cone, or swim at Kamakahonu (King Kam) Beach. There are kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals available. As the sun sets, grab a cocktail or a beer at one of the beach bars. Although nightlife is fairly laid back in Kona, Laverne’s Sports Bar has a dance floor that fills up, especially on weekends.

3. Swim with manta rays

Tick swimming with manta rays off your bucket list. This once-in-a-lifetime experience is one of the best things to do in Kona. These manta rays have a wingspan of about 12 feet and unlike sting rays, they are harmless.

Several companies offer boat tours, where guests will meet at a harbor in Kona and then take a boat to a snorkel spot. Tour operators shine a light into the water to lure plankton to the surface. Attracted by the tasty plankton, Manta Rays swim up to the boat, where tourists can watch them swim. This organized tour comes with hot chocolate and cookies to help guests warm up after their dive.

Things to do in Kona include seeing turtles resting at Punaluʻu Beach.
Turtles resting at Punaluʻu Beach. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

4. Look for sea turtles

Nearly every day of my week-long vacation, I dedicated a little time to turtle hunting. These majestic creatures can be found swimming in shallow waters or resting on sandy beaches.

Although sea turtles can be spotted anywhere along the coast, there are a couple of beaches they tend to frequent. Only 15 minutes south of Kailua-Kona, Kahaluʻu Beach Park is one of those beaches. A 40-minute drive north, Kiholo Bay is another turtle hot spot. Punaluʻu Beach is a black sand beach, about an hour and 40 minutes from Kailua-Kona by car, but it’s almost guaranteed to see turtles here. Just remember to give sea turtles their space and never touch or feed them.

5. Visit a coffee farm

If you’re a coffee lover, you’ve come to the right place. Kona’s rich soil and high elevation make it the perfect place for coffee production. Sold across the world, Kona coffee is rich and flavorful.

You can sample Kona coffee at cafés and restaurants all over the island, but for a more immersive experience, tour a coffee farm. You’ll learn all about the production of coffee and what makes Kona coffee so special. Several coffee farms, including Hala Tree Coffee and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, even offer free tours.

Things to do in Kona include checking out The Captain Cook Monument Trail.
The Captain Cook Monument Trail. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

6. Hike to the Captain Cook Monument

A white 25-foot monument marks the place where, in 1779, British explorer Captain Cook was killed by Native Hawaiians after attempting to kidnap ruling chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Although the monument is neither very impressive in itself, nor popular among the natives, whom it reminds of the man who invaded their home, it does sit at the end of a very beautiful hike.

Let me warn you, though, the hike is quite strenuous. It travels down, and later back up, a steep valley and can be quite tricky to navigate, as much of the path consists of loose rock. Still, the hike is gorgeous, traversing through lush greenery, across volcanic lava fields and down to Kealakekua Bay, a destination known for its scuba diving.

7. Shop at the Kona Farmer’s Market

Stock up on fresh, exotic fruit at the Kona Farmer’s Market. That’s where I purchased a large prickly fruit called a soursop, which I highly recommend if you haven’t tried it yet.

Open Wednesday through Sunday from 7am to 4pm, the Kona Farmer’s Market is located in the heart of Kailua-Kona. Here, you’ll find fresh produce, jewelry, clothing, woven purses and hand-made gifts. And if that’s not enough, there are several other farmer’s markets in Kona, including the Pure Kona green market and the Ho’oulu Community Farmers Market & Artisans Fair.

8. Hike to Makalawena Beach

Although there are lots of picturesque beaches on the big island, Malalawena Beach is considered one of the most beautiful. Located along the Kohala Coast north of Kona, this white sand beach boasts clear, blue water, private coves and lots of privacy.

The beach sits at the entrance to the Kekaha Kai State Park and is not near a road, which makes it gorgeously remote, but also a little tricky to get to. To get there, you can either start at the Kua Bay parking lot and head south, or you can head north from Mahai’ula Bay. Either hike takes about 20 to 30 minutes.

Things to do in Kona include seeing seahorses at Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm.
Seahorses at Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

9. Hold a seahorse

I concluded my trip to Hawaii with a visit to Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, where I got to hold a seahorse. These delicate animals are endangered, in part, due to wild seahorse fishing. To combat overfishing and protect wild seahorses, the founders of Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm bred a new species of seahorse, designed to live in captivity.

You’ll meet these seahorses and learn about the farm’s conservation efforts at a one-hour tour of the facility. At the end of the tour, all visitors get to hold a seahorse.

10. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Located in South Kona, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park is a 180-acre archaeological park that once served as a refuge for Hawaiians who broke the law.

The park is full of historical sites, including the Great Wall, the Royal Grounds and the Pu’uhonua,, where lawbreakers were forgiven of their crimes. Visitors can take a .50-mile self-guided tour of the park, starting at the visitor center.

11. Take a helicopter tour

For an absolutely unforgettable experience, see the entire Hawaiian island from above. Several companies host helicopter tours, many of them departing from Kona. Most of these tours last between 50 and 100 minutes and range from $400 to $900 a person.

See majestic waterfalls, pass over the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea summits, or gaze down at lush rainforests, depending on the tour you select. Click here to select the perfect tour for your trip.

Things to do in Kona include seeing the Kilauea Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
The Kilauea Crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

12. Take a day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

A trip to the Big Island would be incomplete without a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This park encompasses two different volcanoes, Mauna Lau and Kilauea, and is laced with hiking trails.

Within the park, visitors can also explore the Thurston lava tubes or huge caves formed by lava. The Kilauea Crater, an otherworldly basin once filled with lava, can be seen from above or via trails that lead to the crater floor. There is a petroglyph field and lots of stunning overlook points. While driving through the park, you’ll see hot water vapor rising up from steam vents in lava rock. There is even a small village inside the park for those who plan to spend several days there.

If you’re not sure where to start, speak to a park ranger at the Kilauea Visitor Center. This is also where many of the park’s guided and self-guided tours start.

13. Go whale watching

Humpback whales seem to love Hawaii just as much as I do. Every year, between December and April, these beautiful animals come to Hawaii to breed and raise their young. If you’re traveling during this time, book a whale-watching tour, many of which pick up guests from Kona.

14. Go to a Luau show

For a taste of Hawaiian culture, attend a luau. This is a traditional Hawaiian dinner party that includes hula dancing, storytelling, a fire show and a buffet with traditional food. These usually last about 2 and a half hours and cost between $150 and $200 a person. Luaus in Kona include the Voyagers of the Pacific Luau and Island Breeze Luau.

15. Visit Hulihe’e Palace

Learn a little about Hawaiian royalty at the Hulihe’e Palace. Located on Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona, right across from the Mokuaikaua Church, this former vacation home of Hawaiian royalty now serves as a museum, preserving artifacts and fu from the time of King Kamehameha.

Tour the palace, which consists of six rooms and two porches. Rooms are decorated with beautiful koa wood furniture, portraits, Hawaiian quilts and ornaments.

16. Visit Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park

Kaloko-Honokohau is a national park home to historic sites, beaches and hiking trails. The park is named after two land divisions, Kaloko and Honokōhau, and includes aconnects petroglyph field, ancient temples, rock art and Hawaiian fishponds.

A network of hiking trails connects these attractions. Start at the visitor center, where helpful guides can help you plan your route.

Things to do in Kona include not missing the beautiful sunsets.
Kona at sunset. Photo credit: Adina Keeling

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: What is the best Hawaiian island to visit?

Each Hawaiian island is unique and spectacular, so deciding which to visit really depends on what you’re looking for. Kauai is known for its dramatic landscapes and lush natural beauty, while Oahu is the most developed Hawaiian island. Maui boasts stunning beaches and a great blend between natural and developed areas.

If you’re looking for a more off-the-beaten-path experience, Lanai and Molokai are great options. As its name implies, the Big Island is huge and home to a variety of different landscapes, from barren lava fields to lush jungles.

Q: What is the best time to travel to Kona?

There’s no wrong time to visit Kona. This part of the island is known for its mild weather and year-round sun. However, if you’re trying to save money, it may be best to plan a trip during Kona’s off-seasons, in April or May, or between August and October.

Q: What airport should I fly into?

There are two airports on the Big Island of Hawaii—the Kona International Airport (KOA) and the Hilo International Airport (ITO). Most visitors fly into the Kona Airport, as it receives more flight traffic and is closer to Kailua-Kona, the island’s most popular vacation destination.

Q: What is the difference between Kailua-Kona and Kona?

You may hear Kailua-Kona and Kona used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. Kona is a region encompassing much of the western side of the island, while Kailua-Kona is a popular town in the Kona region. Kailua-Kona has several nicknames, including Kona, Kailua, or Kona town, which can be a little confusing at times.

Q: What is Ironman Kona?

Ironman Kona, also known as the Ironman World Championship, is a triathlon held annually on the Big Island. This event usually takes place during October and is one of the world’s most challenging triathlons. The championship starts with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and ends with a 26.2-mile marathon.

Adina Keeling Avatar
Adina Keeling is a freelance travel writer from San Diego, CA. She worked in local news for a year until her wanderlust drew her to Costa Rica, where she is now based while freelancing and traveling the world. She has lived in three different countries and traveled to 27. An avid solo traveler, Adina wants to empower other women to safely travel alone.
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