The offshore rocks and reefs make Mauna Kea Beach a good destination for snorkelers.
The best of Hawaii can be found along the Kohala Coast of the Big Island—gorgeous resorts, the sunniest weather, glass-clear waters, terrific snorkeling and diving, mysterious remnants of the ancient Hawaiian culture. The main road, the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, runs north some 33 miles from Kailua-Kona, a bustling resort and commercial town, to the port of Kawaihae.
Along the highway, the landscape is forbiddingly bleak—mostly vast fields of black lava decorated with "graffiti" messages spelled out in white coral chunks. But spur roads lead down to hidden oases of palms, flowers, birdsong, sandy beaches, and the lush green golf courses that surround all the posh resorts. The resorts are attractions in themselves, with spectacular indoor-outdoor lobbies with pools, waterfalls, and displays of Pacific art; the venerable Mauna Kea is famed for its collection of Asian and Oceanic art.
The area is rich in archeological remains—royal fishponds, ceremonial heiaus, some of the richest petroglyph fields on earth, sections of the ancient trail along the shore. Inland rise the great volcanos, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, often crowned with snow in winter. For a detailed travel guide/brochure on the Big Island, contact Hawaii Visitors Bureau in Hilo: (808) 961-5797. It lists lodgings, restaurants, and activities. For brochures describing the resorts and activities, contact Kona Kohala Resort Association: (800) 318-3637.
Resources: When you arrive, pick up the handy Big Island pocket map, free at the airport. (The map on these pages is wildly not-to-scale.) Best detailed map is the one published by the University of Hawaii Press. An informative guidebook is Big Island Handbook, Moon Publications, 1998 edition.
Getting There: Most visitors fly to Kailua-Kona via Honolulu. Fastest route is United Airlines’ daily nonstop from San Francisco to Kailua-Kona.
Where to Stay: There are eight major beachfront resorts along the Kohala Coast. They vary greatly in style, from the isolated thatched halesat Kona Village to the low-rise cluster suites at Four Seasons to the grand hotels of Mauna Lani, the Hilton, Mauna Kea, and Hapuna Beach. Prices run about $200-$500 per night, some lower, some much higher. Many offer low-season deals. Cut costs by buying a package vacation with air, car, and hotel—contact AAA Travel. If you want to plan your vacation carefully, best to call the resorts individually, send for their brochures, and ask a lot of questions about their rooms, facilities, cultural and spa programs, kids’ programs, and special discounts offered during your visit.
Condos in the area are not on the beach but may be cheaper.
If you can’t afford the fancy resorts, consider staying in the much cheaper hotels in the busy Kailua-Kona resort area; from there, explore the Kohala Coast by rental car.
Where to eat: The big resorts have several choices, including fine-dining restaurants where famed chefs turn out award-winning Pacific Rim cuisine. Also notable: Roy’s at King’s Shops in Waikoloa and Cafe Pesto in Kawaihae.
Cheaper options are the food pavilion at the King’s Shops, the marina restaurant at Honokohau Harbor, and of course many in Kailua-Kona town.
Historic Sites: Ruins of royal fishponds and heiaus (ancient temples) are all along this coast. Puukohola National Historic Park preserves the great heiau where King Kamehameha set out to conquer and unify all the islands. Others are in Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Major petroglyph fields are at Puako and Waikoloa, both with interpretive trails.
Beaches: Tucked into the vast stretches of lava shore are several sandy beaches, some of them public parks, others at the resorts (most with public access). The nicest sand is at Hapuna Beach State Park. You’ll find good snorkeling wherever there are offshore rocks and reefs—especially at Kona Coast State Park, Anaehoomalu Bay, and Mauna Kea Beach.
Activities: Praise to the resorts for helping their guests enjoy the rich heritage of Kohala, with daily programs—traditional music, hula and lei-making lessons, outrigger paddling, guided petroglyph and history walks, fish and turtle feeding, stargazing, and more. Some of the best are at the Cultural Center at the Hualalai Four Seasons; phone (808) 325-8520.
Hapuna Beach Prince
Hilton Waikoloa Village
Mauna Kea Beach
Mauna Lani Bay
Orchid at Mauna Lani
Photography courtesy of AlaskaDave/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in July 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.