Travel Log: Kona, Hawaii

This post is about three months late! In the beginning of May I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii with my boyfriend, my dad, my sister, and her boyfriend for a wonderful week-long vacation to celebrate both my dad's birthday and recent retirement. It feels like a lifetime ago because work has been keeping me so busy, but I wanted to take the time to create posts highlighting my favorite parts of our trip in case you are thinking of visiting this beautiful island at some point. I have visited Oahu and Maui before, but this was my first trip to the Big Island and I was blown away by how beautiful and expansive it is. The Big Island is the largest of the Hawaiian islands and is often referred to in two parts: the Kona side and the Hilo side. We spent five days in Kona and three days in Hilo; today's post is all about our Kona adventures. Please read on for details and some links to specific companies and activities we chose.

Let's start with the beach. This is Mahai'ula Beach, located about five miles north of the airport. This beautiful, quiet white sand beach is about 11 miles/30 minutes from the main Kailua-Kona town, and once you leave the main highway you have to drive very slow because the "road" consists of gravel/some pavement laid over lava rocks. Here is where a 4WD vehicle definitely comes in handy, but our 2WD did just fine. Once you park, you only need to walk about five minutes to find this beautiful white sand beach. You can walk an additional 10 minutes on the trail to reach Makalawena Beach, another white sand beach with even fewer visitors. I could spend hours at places like this!

We planned a dinner at ULU Ocean Grill in the Four Seasons Hualalai our first full night in Kona. We did not stay at this resort--we stayed at an Air Bnb on Ali'i Drive that was wonderful and far more cost-effective for our group. However, wanted to start the week off with a celebratory dinner and ULU Ocean Grill was a perfect place to do it. The staff was wonderful to seat us at a prime ocean view table outside, and when it started raining partway through our dinner they quickly moved us inside to another comfortable table without any fuss.

We ordered a number of fresh seafood and vegetable dishes to share, a bottle of champagne, and a few additional drinks. Overall the service was excellent and the pricing was quite reasonable. I highly recommend ULU Ocean Grill if you are in Kona and want to celebrate a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary with an exceptional dinner and view.

 Our first big adventure was to drive down to the southern tip of the island and hike to Papakolea Beach. This is one of four green sand beaches in the world, with the green color created by a mineral called olivine. It takes about one and a half hours to drive from Kailua-Kona to the parking lot, and there are a number of gas stations/stores along the way that you can stop for water or snacks if needed.

I know this is not a pretty picture, but this is what the hike out to Papakolea Beach looks like. It is 5.3 miles round trip, hot, and dusty. Bring lots of water, a hat, and clothing that will protect you from the sun. You can take the easy way out and pay people at the trailhead $10 per person to drive you out to the beach, but we were there for the exercise and adventure so we walked. It took us about 45 minutes each way (partly because we stopped to take photos a few times), and the only discomfort came from trucks speeding by stirring up clouds of dust as they hauled people to the beach.

Once you get to this point, you are above the green sand beach and can see the end in sight! You just have to walk up a bit further and then down a fairly steep incline to get the to beach and the water. There are some steps that you cannot see in this picture, but you can see the tiny people on top as well as down by the beach and get an idea of the distance.

So worth it! Once you get your dusty and dirty self down to the beach, you can wash your feet off in the water or jump in for a swim before making the trek back to the parking lot where you started.

Once we finished the Papakolea Beach hike, we decided to drive to the South Point Cliff Dive and southernmost point of the United States. We were already nearby, so why not?  This photo sort of shows how high up the cliff is, and there were a few people who took a running start and leaped off while we were there. That little rickety-looking ladder is the way that you can climb back up. I'm not afraid of heights, but you could not pay me enough to jump off this cliff!

Instead of jumping off the cliff into the ocean, we opted to cool off with Hawaiian shaved ice before making the drive back to our Air BnB.

Another adventure was our drive out to Kiholo Bay in search of sea turtles. This black sand beach is 19 miles north of Kailua-Kona (about 30 minutes) and a bit north of the Four Seasons Resort. Once you turn off the main highway, the road to the beach is fairly short and much smoother than the road to Mahai'ula Beach. There is a lava tube out here with fresh water that you can jump in if you'd like, but we spent most of our time snorkeling/paddling around and watching the turtles. These sea turtles are protected so you aren't supposed to touch them, but as long as you don't bother them they will float around you snacking on plants.

One of my favorite sea turtle shots of the week--this one was hanging out at the beach by our Air BnB on Ali'i Drive. I learned that sea turtles can hold their breath for several hours (4-7 hours while sleeping), so if you try to wait for one to surface for a photo you might be waiting a long time!

Speaking of our Air Bnb on Ali'i Drive, my sister happened to pick a place right next to Da Poke Shack. This place is tiny but serves a variety of delicious, fresh poke dishes every day. In 2014, Da Poke Shack was the number one rated restaurant in the entire U.S. on Yelp! Clearly they know what they are doing. If you have not tried poke, you should definitely try it here.  My boyfriend grew up in Hawaii, so he was in heaven. Every day we bought plates of marinated tuna/mussels/squid/rice/seaweed, really whatever they had fresh that day.

Another favorite activity in Kona was night diving with the manta rays in Keauhou Bay. This was something that my dad really wanted to do, and although I was initially hesitant at the idea of night snorkeling I am so glad we did it! We booked through Hula Kai/Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides and very much enjoyed the experience. I would definitely recommend this if you are visiting Kona for the first time. The guides were very knowledgeable, they had different sizes of snorkel equipment to ensure everyone had a good fit, and they had hot soup on board for you to warm up after being in the water.

 This photo is a little fuzzy, but it gives you an idea of how the night snorkel is set up.  There was a big plastic float with lights underneath to attract plankton, and therefore attract the manta rays who feed on plankton. The downside is that you cannot move around, because you don't want to scare the rays away, but this means you get cold faster. The wetsuits definitely helped, and the wait was worth it when the rays arrived and gracefully circled around us scooping up plankton in their mouths. There were three female rays that evening, each with a distinctive spot pattern and a name.  These manta rays got so close that they brushed up against us several times! I wish I had brought an underwater time.

My sister and I grew up with horses, so of course I could not turn down the opportunity to go horseback riding in Kona. We chose Paniolo Adventures, a working cattle ranch located in the northern tip of the island about one hour north of Kailua-Kona.  This ranch has 11,000 acres up on Kohala Mountain and unbeatable views. During our 2.5 hour ride, we saw the ocean, the coastline, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and the Hualala volcanoes.  We had the best time, and I could have spent all day up in those mountains.  Paniolo Adventures has rides suitable for all skill levels, and I absolutely recommend them if you are interested in horseback riding on the Big Island.

Part of the fun of riding through a working cattle ranch was getting to herd some cattle!  Well, not really.  These young heifers were so curious as to who we were and where we were going-- they followed us as we rode through their pasture.  These little girls were so cute that I had to snap a pic.

It seems fitting to end this post with a sunset shot. This was one of many gorgeous sunsets we enjoyed during our stay in Kona, with this particular view being from our Air BnB on Ali'i Drive.  We enjoyed perfect weather during our early May visit, and every evening we were wowed by beautiful sunsets. We chose to line up a number of activities during our visit and see as much of the island as possible, but I still felt like we had a chance to relax and just enjoy being in Hawaii. If you are thinking of visiting the Big Island, I hope this helps you to plan your visit! Please also stay tuned for another post on our adventures in Hilo. Hint: it looks completely different than the Kona side!


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