Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island, sparkles with sun, surf, and native culture—plus a feast of tasty treats worthy of King Kamehameha himself.
“We’re lucky,” says Kawika Duncan, my guide for an outrigger canoe tour just off the shore of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island. A honu, a green sea turtle, revered in Hawaii as a guardian spirit, is popping its beaky head up above the waves—a clear sign of blessing, Duncan tells me.
Visiting this compact, lively town, by canoe or otherwise, you may find you feel lucky all the time. Here, the usual tropical lures—warm water, swaying palms—meet unexpected extras: rich history cozying up to modern comforts, all of it accessible without a car.
The Kona Boys canoe tours launch from an inlet next to the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, a sleek, recently refurbished hub with an infinity pool alongside a dainty beach. The hotel is named for the king who famously conquered and united all the Hawaiian Islands, ruling from 1795 until his death in 1819. Across the inlet’s waters sits the reconstructed Ahu‘ena Heiau, once the personal temple of the king.
A short walk south from the hotel along the town’s main drag, Ali‘i Drive, brings me to two more historic sites. Hulihe‘e Palace once sheltered generations of island royalty. Its lush grounds practically vibrate green (a sign reads watch for falling coconuts), but I discover the real surprise inside, where six rooms house hand-carved Victorian furniture (including the heavyset Princess Ruth’s monumental chair) and such artifacts as a koa weapon rimmed with shark’s teeth. Across the street is Moku‘aikaua Church, the oldest Christian church in the state, its outer walls aglow with lava rock and pink coral mortar below a white spire.
At a nearby storefront, I check in for an Atlantis Adventures submarine tour of Kailua Bay with a guide who tells ripping yarns and mercifully few jokes. Later I stroll past souvenir stands to find bright shops such as the Eclectic Craftsman, bursting with local art, jewelry, and koa bowls so finely wrought that light shines through them. Next to an Outback Steakhouse, brave kids and carefree grown-ups climb into a stand-alone ride called Fishpipe Hawaii—essentially a waterslide inside a giant plastic ball. (Visit AAA.com/roadjournals and search for “fishpipe” to watch a video.)
A local farmers’ market, held Wednesdays through Sundays, teems with inexpensive papayas, avocados, and pineapples as well as handmade soaps, colorful ukuleles, and budbud, a Philippine treat made of sticky rice cooked with coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves.
I also discover a foodie epicenter in one complex with three great restaurants. U-Top-It makes hearty breakfasts from savory taro “pancrepes” filled with eggs, cheese, and meat [Since closed. —Ed.]. Sushi Shiono delivers on the island’s promise of fresh fish with its massive Hawaiian Volcano Roll—spicy tuna and rice topped with avocado, eel sauce, and chopped macadamia nuts.
But my favorite indulgence might be dessert at Island Lava Java: Kona coffee, a passion fruit meringue tart, and a sunset over Kailua Bay. I should be so lucky every day.
Photography by Calbear22/Wikipedia (oceanfront, side of Hulihee Palace); W. Nowicki/Wikipedia (Moku'aikaua Church in Kailua-Kona)
This article was first published in March 2012 and updated in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.