What to do in South Kona: Our top 5 attractions

South Kona has a charm of its own. We’ve compiled a list of our top 5 attractions so you can find out what makes this part of the island so special!

web1_Kainaliu-Kalikimaka_0044
Kainaliu Town. Photo credit: West Hawaii Today

South Kona is famous for its coffee plantations, spectacular snorkeling, one of the best ancient Hawaiian historic sites, and its arts community. Make sure you get your snorkeling in early – the light is better first thing, and you’ll beat the crowds, especially at popular snorkeling spot, Two Step. Later, head to a coffee farm, like Greenwell Farms, to find out how coffee is produced, shop locally in Kainaliu Town, or just relax by Kealakekua Bay or at a favorite local beach – Hoʻokena Beach Park.

1. Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Place of Refuge) & Two Step

royal-grounds
Royal Grounds. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

This well-preserved historic site is one of the best in the state. The park covers 420 acres and was once a safe haven for those seeking redemption for crimes or the breaking of certain taboos. Once they reached the boundary of Place of Refuge they were safe! The wall still stands and is awe-inspiring.

There’s lots to see at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau but if you’re stretched for time we’ve picked the highlights:

  1. The Great Wall – the wall measures 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet long. Over 400 years old, the wall is constructed entirely using the dry-set masonry method (uhau humu pohaku) in which are stones fitted together without mortar. 
  2. Hale o Keawe – the main temple housing the bones of the 23 ali’i (chiefs). The temple is only able to be viewed from the outside, but it’s worth an up close visit to appreciate its mana.
  3. Pu’uhonua – take a walk past the Great Wall and into the Pu’uhonua itself. 
  4. Keone’ele – this sheltered cove in the Royal Grounds was only for the ali’i to land their canoes. Look out for turtles here, but make sure to keep a safe distance. 

For more information check out our in-depth blog post on the park here.

NPS Walsh
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: NPS / Walsh

Two Step

Two Step Hawaii
Photo credit: bigislanddivers.com

Located just next door to Place of Refuge, is the amazing snorkeling spot known locally as Two Step. Two naturally-formed lava steps make entry into the water incredibly easy (hence the name two step). It’s mostly lava here, and not a lot of sand, but the snorkeling is easy, the currents non-existent and the parking is free. It can get busy here, so either try for first thing in the morning, or toward the end of the day. Alternatively, park in the national park next door and walk around to the bay (it’s an easy 5 minute walk).

Photo credit: Bigislandguide.com

2. Kealakekua Bay

Fair Wind Kealakakua Bay
Photo credit: fair-wind.com

The crown jewel of South Kona is undoubtedly Kealakekua Bay. This beautiful bay is part of a marine reserve and is home to beautiful coral and an amazing array of tropical fish. Dolphins are commonly seen here as they use the sheltered bay as a place to avoid predators and to sleep.

On the south side of the bay is Napoʻopoʻo Beach, a small beach where access to the water is easy, though there are no lifeguards and limited facilities. 

On the north side of the bay is Captain Cook’s Monument. To access the monument you’ll need to hike down from Napoʻopoʻo Road. Read more about this hike in our blog post about top hikes on the island here. The north side of the bay is where the best snorkeling is located and you’ll find that the tour boats typically congregate here.

There are tour operators offering snorkeling and kayaking tours, or you can rent kayaks yourself. This means you can kayak across the bay, and snorkel off the kayak (we’ve done it and we recommend this, especially if you aren’t keen on hiking down to, and back up from, Captain Cook’s monument).

Kealakekua Bay
Yellow Tang. Photo credit: thatadventurelife.com
Captain Cook trail Kona
Captain Cook Monument Trail. Photo credit: Lang Parker

3. Greenwell Farms

Photo credit: greenwellfarms.com

Don’t miss out on the internationally famous Kona coffee! We always recommend Greenwell Farms if you’re looking to visit a local coffee producer (and there are many!). The Greenwell Family were crucial in the production of the very first commercial coffee in Kona. Take one of their frequent tours around the property (the tour lasts between 45-60 minutes) and then sample some free coffee afterwards. The gift shop is the perfect place to stock up on Kona coffee or take some back home as a gift. 

No reservations are needed for a tour. The farm is open daily for tours (9am-3pm).

For more details https://www.greenwellfarms.com

Greenwell Farms Hawaii
Photo credit: greenwellfarms.com

4. Kainaliu Town

Kainaliu Town Hawaii
Kainaliu Town. Photo credit: thisldu.com

Kainaliu Town is the first town you’ll come across when you head south from Kailua-Kona. It consists of a small stretch of both old stores, that have storied histories, and the new – including clothing boutiques and galleries. The Aloha Theatre is also located in Kainaliu, so keep a lookout for their regular productions and you might be able to catch a show. Stop for a bite to eat at Rebel Kitchen, a local institution. Stretch your legs in Kainaliu and get a feel for small-town Hawaii!

Aloha Theatre Kainaliu
Aloha Theatre. Photo credit: lovebigisland.com

5. Hoʻokena Beach Park

The Hoʻokena Beach Park is located at the end of a 2.5 mile road that winds through classic Hawaiian ranch country. This coastal settlement has quite a history. In its heyday it used to be a bustling port town for steamships. It had its own post office as well as a number of stores. 

The beach park itself is now managed by a non-profit and is a local favorite. The sand is a mix of dark brown and gray, and a stretch of cliffs line one side of the beach. Swimming and snorkeling are both easy to do here. Facilities include showers and toilets. You can even camp nearby. Find out more on our blog post about the beach park here.

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Restaurant review: Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill

Umekes restaurant has become a Kona favorite with locals and tourists. Their menu is a mix of traditional Hawaiian cuisine made with the best in local ingredients – with their own special twist.

We arrived at Umekes for lunch at 1pm on an overcast Wednesday and the restaurant was already a hive of activity. They don’t accept reservations online so make sure you call them directly if you want to reserve a table. 

Umekes is situated in Pawai Place in Kona in what is quickly becoming a vibrant restaurant precinct. Beside Umekes is Willie’s Hot Chicken and HiCo Hawaiian Coffee, while across the road is the popular Kona Brewing Co.

Located in the courtyard of Umekes is a small stage where bands play live music in the evenings, Thursday through Saturday. Check the calendar on their website for more details on what’s on.

There is plenty of seating inside and as well as outside – which is covered. The outside seating is a big plus when it comes to remaining socially distant from other patrons when eating out.

The menu

Umekes has an extensive menu and prides itself on serving dishes using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible. Meat and produce are sourced from local fisherman, farmers and ranchers. 

The restaurant is famous for its poke bowls (umeke is Hawaiian for bowl), like its spicy aioli with Hawaiian salt & onions or creamy avocado, with Hawaiian salt & onions and avocado aioli.

What we ordered

Umekes Fish Tacos ($24) – three cajun grilled (or tempura fried – we chose grilled) ahi tacos with avocado, pineapple lomi salsa, cabbage slaw, crispy fried onions and garlic aioli in a flour tortilla. 

The fish was delicious, and grilled to perfection. This might be a dish to share as they were three good-sized tacos, and one of us couldn’t quite get through them all!

Korean Chicken ($20) – Boneless deep fried chicken tossed in a sweet and savory Korean sauce.

Generous servings and the verdict on this dish? Delicious!

Umekes Kona Hawaii

Seared Ahi Caesar ($20) – Crisp baby romaine tossed in house caesar dressing with fresh blackened ahi and crispy wonton strips.

Perfectly seared ahi and a generous amount of salad.

Service was quick, friendly and efficient. Umekes also offers a unique fishing experience. Choose from a number of different packages that include a boat trip and then a dinner afterward in which your catch is cooked the way you want it! For more information on how it all works click here.

Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill

74-5599 Pawai Place

Kailua-Kona

Hawaii 96740

Ph. 808 238 0571

Hours: Mon-Sun, 11am-9pm

https://www.umekesrestaurants.com

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What happened to the sugar? The history of the sugar industry on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hamakua Coast Sugar
Photo credit: hawaiilife.com

Wild sugar cane still grows on the Big Island but the sugar industry was once a big part of the state’s economy, supplying sugar to the mainland and employing large numbers of people.

History

The first sugar mill in the state was built on Lanai in 1802 and the first sugar plantation was established a year later. By the American Civil War the demand for sugar was high. The industry was controlled by five main companies – C. Brewer & Co., Theo H. Davies & Co., Amfac, Castle & Cooke and Alexander & Baldwin. People were brought in to work on the new sugar plantations from a number of different countries including China, Japan, Korea, Portugal and the Philippines.

Hawaii sugar plantation
Sugar cane. Photo credit: hawaiiplantationmuseum.org

But it was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 between the US and the Kingdom of Hawaii that allowed Hawaii unconditional access to the US market and further fueled the booming sugar economy in the islands. Import tariffs were removed and what had previously been small scale sugar production now exploded. By the end of the 19th century hand milling was replaced by mechanical milling. The raw sugar was then shipped to the California & Hawaiian Sugar Refining Corporation on the mainland.

Sugar on the Kona Coast

The first sugar plantation in Kona was built by Judge C.F. Hart in 1869. By the beginning of the 20th century sugar was seen as a lucrative opportunity in the islands and Kona was no exception. At one point a railway line extending over 10 miles was built to bring sugar cane to a mill near Kona. The Kona Sugar Company was established in 1899, and the first sugar mill built above Kailua-Kona village a few years later.

Kona Sugar Plantation
The Kona Sugar Company mill. Photo credit: konahistorical.org

Sugar cane grew well at the 500 ft. elevation but the requirement for large volumes of fresh water meant it needed to be located near the Wai’aha Stream. The stream would eventually prove unable to provide the amount of water needed by the mill throughout the year and the company went broke in 1903. Over the next two decades other investors tried their luck with the mill but by 1926 producing sugar on the Kona Coast was no longer viable and the mill closed.

Interested in seeing the remnants of the sugar industry? The remains of the old sugar mill can be seen from the top of Nani Kailua and Aloha Kona neighborhoods. Along Hualalai Road, near the intersection with Hienaloli Road, large stone embankments are still visible, all built by hand for the railroad bed. The abandoned stone trestle of the railroad can also be seen in this area. The railbed itself can even be hiked!

Kona Sugar Mill ruins
Remnants of the old Sugar Mill in Kona. Photo credit: Donnie MacGowan
Kona Sugar Mill ruins
Abandoned stone trestle of the railroad. Photo credit: Donnie MacGowan

Sugar on the Hamakua Coast

The Hamakua Coast was perfect for the production of sugar cane. The area’s climate meant sugar cane could flourish without intensive irrigation. Large tracts of land were cleared in order to plant the sugar cane and it was often the native forest that was used as fuel for the sugar mills. Honoka’a and Laupahoehoe sprung up around the newly created sugar mills and plantations.

Along with the sugar cane plantations came great infrastructure investment. The Hilo Railroad Company laid railroad tracks at huge expense. There were over 3,000 feet of tunnels and it was this cost that eventually bankrupted the company.

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Sugar cane. Photo credit: pandaonline.com

There was declining demand for sugar during the Depression in the 1930s but a spike in demand did occur briefly in the 1940s. The very end of the sugar industry in the area came after the tsunami in 1946. The wave effectively destroyed the railroad and marked the end of the industry.

Once used for sugarcane production, the land is now utilized by other agricultural products, such as macadamia nuts and tropical flowers.

Recent past

Sugar production continued on the other islands and as recently as 1980 there were 14 plantations and over 500 independent sugar growers throughout the state, producing a total of about 1 million tonnes of raw sugar each year. At this time the state of Hawaii was supplying roughly 10% of the sugar consumed by the United States.

The last sugar mill – Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company's Pu'unene mill on Maui. Photo credit: Joanna Orpia

By the 90s much of the sugar production had ceased as sugar became cheaper to produce elsewhere. Ka’u Sugar, the last on the Big Island, closed its doors in 1996. The last sugar operation in the state finally closed in 2016 on Maui.

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Shave Ice on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hawaiian Airlines Shave Ice
Photo credit: Hawaiian Airlines

The 100% Hawaiian frozen treat has become an iconic part of life in the islands. It’s a simple recipe – super finely shaved ice, drizzled with a selection of rainbow-colored syrups. And don’t forget, it’s shave ice (no ‘d’ required)!

History

Shave ice can be traced back to the original Japanese immigrants who arrived in the Islands to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations in the mid-1800s. They would shave flakes off large blocks of ice and then coat the ice with sugar or fruit juice (shaved ice became shave ice in pidgin).

Eventually shave ice was sold in general stores, including one of the first shave ice stores, Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, which opened in 1951.

Photo credit: Anuenue Shave Ice Big Island Hawaii @moonlitmermaid

The recipe

What makes Hawaiian shave ice so distinctive? Unlike it’s mainland equivalent – snow cones – shave ice is made with finely shaved ice, not crushed ice. This makes for a light, almost snow-like powder, perfect for dousing with syrups! From there the ice is shaped into either a cup or a cone, and drizzled with syrup. 

The extras

Shave ice can also be upgraded with plenty of toppings or extras. These can include, Azuki beans (a red bean and sugar mixture) placed in the bottom of the cup, a scoop of ice cream in the center of the shave ice, mochi balls, fresh fruit or even a topping of sweetened condensed milk.

Where to go on the Big Island

Original Big Island Shave Ice

1. Original Big Island Shave Ice

69-250 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa, HI 
(808) 895-6069
Tuesday – Sunday 11:30am – 6:30pm

Original Big Island Shave Ice Co. takes pride in serving some of the best shave ice on the island since 1957. They use homemade natural syrup recipes and also have a selection of delicious, local-favorite toppings. 

2. Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice

61-3665 Akoni Pule Hwy, Kawaihae Shopping Ctr, Kamuela, HI 
(808) 882-1109
11:00 am – 6:00 pm

Located in the northern part of the island, Anuenue Ice Cream & Shave Ice has been voted best shave ice on the Big Island for five years in a row. This little store has a great selection of flavors.

3. Scandinavian Shave Ice

75-5699 Alii Dr, Kailua Kona, Hawaii, on the corner of Alii Dr. and Likana Lane.
(808) 326-2522
Open Monday – Saturday 11:00 am – 9:00 pm
Sundays 11:00 am – 8:00 pm

Known as Scandi to the locals, this iconic store has been serving shave ice since the early 90s. Choose from 65 flavors, ice cream or frozen yoghurt in the middle (ice cream is our favorite!) and enjoy your shave ice as you stroll along the picturesque waterfront.

4. Kula Shave Ice

57 Mamo St, Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 464-4821
10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Kula Shave Ice serves the best shave ice in Hilo, with syrups made in-house from scratch, using the highest quality ingredients and plenty of love and aloha. They also serve organic cold brew coffee, tea, açaí bowls, ice cream, and Waipio Valley Poi!

5. One Aloha Shave Ice

75-5711 Kuakini Hwy Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740
(808) 327-1717
11:00 am- 6:30 pm

Open since 2015, One Aloha Shave Ice make homemade shave ice syrups lightly sweetened with certified organic cane sugar and organic and local no spray fruits. Voted Best of West Hawaii for 2016 and 2017!

Photo credit: saltandwind.com

Treat yourself! Try one of Hawaii’s signature treats when you’re on the Big Island. Guaranteed to keep you cool on a hot Hawaiian day. 

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Hawaii Island’s Most Endangered Bird: The Palila

Palila Hawaii Judd Patterson
Photo credit: Judd Patterson via birdsinfocus.com

The palila is one of the largest living Hawaiian honeycreepers and one of the rarest. At one time these colorful birds lived on Oahʻu and Kauaʻi but amazingly they are now only found on very small area of land on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea.

Unique honeycreeper

The palila has a distinctive coloring, with a golden yellow head and breast, and a gray back. The wings of the bird are olive-green. The palila grows to approximately six inches in length. Its diet consists almost entirely of māmane tree seeds, supplemented with naio berries, fruits, caterpillars and moths. 

Palila Hawaii Hawaii.gov
Photo credit: hawaii.gov

History

The palila has been in the Hawaiian Islands for over 100,000 years. However, of the original 16 finch-billed honeycreepers in the Hawaiian Islands all are now extinct except the palila. 

Honeycreepers are particular bird species that have a heavy, seed-eating bill like that of the palila.

Palila Mural Hilo
Mural of Palila in Hilo

This mural (9ft x 12ft) was painted by Hilo artist Kathleen Kam, based on a photo by Big Island photographer Jack Jeffrey. 

Limited habitat

The palila is dependent on the māmane tree for its food source (it uses its hooked bill to open the seed pod) and also for its habitat. Unfortunately, this has created a huge problem for the palila. Because the māmane tree, which once grew throughout the islands, only grows at a 6,000 ft location on the slopes of Mauna Kea, the palila’s habitat has been greatly reduced. If there is a drought the palila may not try to breed since they depend so entirely on a good crop of seed pods from the trees.

Their habitat zone is now a 25 square mile area. The last count of the birds totaled 1,000, which was the lowest count in 20 years. 

What caused population decline?

In the past 200 years introduced species such as sheep, goats and cattle have destroyed a lot of the māmane forest that existed in the islands. Feral cats and rats have also had an impact on palila eggs and their vulnerable young. Introduced plants often replace areas that were once dominated by māmane, especially after fire or periods of drought caused by climate change.

Palila Painting Pamela Thomas
'The Endangered Ones' by Pamela Colton Thomas

Conservation efforts

A number of strategies are being employed to try and save the endangered palila.

  • A 6ft fence around Mauna Kea to stop sheep and goats from gaining access to the Palila Critical Habitat zone and causing damage to māmane trees.
  • All sheep are being removed from the Palila Critical Habitat zone.
  • Increased reforestation – planting of māmane trees and other natives.
  • The Keauhou Bird Conservation Center is currently breeding palila in captivity in order to be released into the  wild.

The palila has now been endangered since 1973 when it was added to the Endangered Species Act, while the Palila Critical Habitat was designated a special zone in 1978 .

Hopefully the strategies enacted to help save the palila and its fragile habitat, in particular the māmane tree, will enable the bird to avoid extinction. Find out more at restoremaunakea.org

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The Kukui Nut Tree: The State Tree of Hawaii

Can you identify the state tree of Hawaii? Hint: it’s not a palm tree. It’s the Kukui Nut Tree. This tree is widespread throughout the Hawaiian Islands and plays an important part in Hawaiian culture and mythology. The Kukui nut has a wide variety of uses including medicinal.

Where did it come from?

When the Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands they brought with them the seeds of the Kukui tree, stowed away in their canoes. In 1959 it became the official state tree of Hawaii. 

The many uses of the Kukui nut tree

The Kukui nut

The Kukui nut itself is perhaps the most prized part of the tree. Ancient Hawaiians used the oil derived from the nuts to coat fishing nets, while the outer shells were used in the process of creating natural dyes for tattoos. The oil could also be used as a dressing for treating sore muscles, burns, or other skin complaints. The oil is often an ingredient in soaps, candles, lotions, and even as an oil for surfboards!

Known elsewhere as the Candlenut tree, ancient Hawaiians would burn Kukui nuts in order to use them like candles. Nuts were strung along the middle section of a coconut palm frond, then lit and burnt one at a time. Because each nut burns for approximately 15 minutes, ancient Hawaiians were able to use them to measure time. 

The nuts can also be roasted and the inside of the nut turned into a spice called inamona. This spice is still used in traditional poke recipes. Depending on how the inside of the nut is consumed it can also be used as a laxative(!).

Kukui nuts are also used to create leis by stringing together a collection of nuts. The nuts are sanded, then buffed and polished until either dark brown, black or even white. The leis are often worn by hula dancers, or exchanged by couples during marriage ceremonies. 

lei_kukui
Photo credit: geckofarms.com
The rest of the Kukui Nut Tree

The wood from the Kukui tree was used to make canoes. The trunk of the Kukui needs to be waterproofed before it’s ocean-ready and Kukui nut oil is perfect for this purpose. The roots are even used as part of the process to make black paint which was traditionally used to decorate canoes or tapa cloth. 

The Kukui nut tree can grow up to 80 feet in height, often in an oval shape. The leaves themselves have a distinct pattern, often having three or five lobes (projections of the blade of the leaf with the gaps between them).

Can I eat a Kukui nut?

Since the nut has laxative properties, it’s not recommended that you eat a Kukui nut. It functions more as an ingredient in spice, rather than something to be consumed on its own.

Hawaiian mythology

In Hawaiian mythology Kamapua’a was a wild demi-god, half pig and half man, able to change from one to the other. The kukui tree is known as a kinolau – the physical embodiment of Kamapua’a. You’ll find that if you fold a kukui leaf in half along the stem, the leaf appears in the shape of a boar head. 

The Kukui trees are among the first trees you’ll see on arrival at Horizon Guest House. Look out for them as you drive up the first section of the driveway from the gate – they line either side of the driveway.

Kukui Nut Tree Big Island

The Kukui nut tree was not only an important source of wood for canoes but the nut, and its many uses, became an integral part of ancient Hawaiian life.

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Visit Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau Place of Refuge

Love Big Island Haloe O Keawe
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Find out what makes Pu’uhonua o Honaunau such a special site on the Big Island of Hawaii. From history to architecture, this is a must-see attraction!

1. Royal grounds

In ancient Hawaiʻi the Royal Grounds were considered the center of power. Within the grounds is the main temple (heiau) where the bones of over 20 chiefs (ali’i) were buried. This gave the temple a special kind of spiritual power, known in Hawaiian as mana. Next to the Royal Grounds is the Pu’uhonua. This area became a place of refuge for those who violated kapu, the sacred laws and beliefs by which all Hawaiians adhered to at the time.

royal-grounds
Royal Grounds. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

2. Breaking kapu & the Pu'uhonua

Kapu could be broken in a variety of different ways. These might include the following transgressions:

  • a woman eats with a man
  • fish is caught out of season
  • a commoner disrespects an ali’i (chief)

For these type of violations you could face the death penalty, unless you were able to escape your captors, get to the coast and then swim to the Pu’uhonua (the area of land bordered by the Great Wall and the coastline). Once there you could seek forgiveness for your crime by being absolved by the priest. 

NPS photo 2
The Great Wall. Photo credit: NPS

The Pu’uhonua also had other uses. During war it became a place for children, elders, and those not fighting, to seek refuge. For those warriors who were defeated in battle they could also seek shelter and sanctuary until it was time to return home. Kapu officially ended in 1819 and with it the tradition of seeking sanctuary at Pu’uhonua Hōnaunau.

3. Chiefly power

The Royal Grounds were the gathering place for local chiefs to meet, hold ceremonies and negotiate during times of war. They also engaged in games like kōnane (a board game) and he’e hōlua (sled riding). Priests were also consulted by the chiefs in times of need.  

NPS Walsh
Hale O Keawe. Photo credit: NPS / Walsh

What to see

There’s lots to see at Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau but if you’re stretched for time we’ve picked the highlights:

  1. The Great Wall – the wall measures 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide and over 950 feet long. Over 400 years old, the wall is constructed entirely using the dry-set masonry method (uhau humu pohaku) in which are stones fitted together without mortar. 
  2. Hale o Keawe – the main temple housing the bones of the 23 ali’i (chiefs). The temple is only able to be viewed from the outside, but it’s worth an up close visit to appreciate its mana.
  3. Pu’uhonua – take a walk past the Great Wall and into the Pu’uhonua itself. 
  4. Keone’ele – this sheltered cove in the Royal Grounds was only for the ali’i to land their canoes. Look out for turtles here, but make sure to keep a safe distance. 
Love Big Island Pu-uhonua-o-Hōnaunau-National-Historical-Park-map
Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

What you need to know

Place of Refuge NPS
Aerial view of Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau. Photo credit: NPS

Where is it? Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is located in South Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. To get there, take Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy. 11) to Kea Ala o Keawe Road (Hwy. 160) between mile marker 103 and 104. Follow Hwy. 160 down to the bottom, the turn off for the park entrance will be on your left.

The visitor center is open daily and there’s lots to do – why not try taking a self-guided tour, attend a ranger program, or walk the 1871 trail to Ki’ilae Village (a 2.25 mile roundtrip hike through ancient sites – including volcanic features). 

Love Big Island 1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right
1871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right. Photo credit: Lovebigisland.com

Visiting Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau is a great way in gain insight into life in ancient Hawai’i. Make sure you include this national park on your travel itinerary!

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Big day out: renting a boat and exploring the Kona Coast

What could be better than cruising along the Kona Coast? We took the plunge. We rented a boat from Kona Boat Rentals for the day to find out how it works, what it costs and, crucially, is it worth it?

Big day out

We all arrived at the parking lot in front of Kona Boat Rentals at 9am sharp to find that two of our friends couldn’t make it, so the group of 6 was now reduced to 4. We had originally booked a six person boat, but quickly found that while it could easily accommodate 6 people, it was very spacious with just 4. 

After a comprehensive orientation and question and answer session with Eric we were ready to go – some of us more nervous than others, but who could resist the calm inviting waters of the harbor as we gently motored out toward the ocean.

Kona Boat rental 3
Clem and Angus
Kona Boat rental 3a
Leaving the harbor

What to bring

We all packed an assortment of snacks, lunch and plenty of water. Don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses (reflection off the ocean can be intense), and a sweater – just in case you get chilled.

Each boat comes with the following:

  • GPS & charts of the coast
  • Directions to locations of interest
  • Snorkeling and fishing equipment.
  • Fishing Gear: Penn Rods & Reels, Fishfinder, Lures, Fighting Belt, Leader Gloves, Fish Bat & Gaff
  • Snorkel Gear: Mask, Snorkel, Fins, Boarding Ladder/Swim Step (Scuba gear is available).
  • Each boat also has electronics: Global Positioning Satellite Receiver (GPS), VHF radio, Tri-Beam Fish finder and Depth Gauge.
  • Anchor, mooring & dock lines and fenders. All Coast Guard required and inspected equipment.
  • Detailed Charts with GPS coordinates for over 30 moorings sites located along the Kona Coast.
  • Captains, Guides, and Scuba Instructors are available for hire with 48-hour notice.

     

Kona Boat rental 5
Out in the open ocean!

Heading north

Most boat renters make the decision to head south, in the direction of Kealakekua Bay and the well-known snorkeling hotspot. We decided to venture north towards Makalawena Beach, a white sandy beach just south of Kua Bay (read about our recent hiking trip to Makalawena Beach here).

We had rented the boat for 6 hours, giving us plenty of time to explore the coast, drop anchor somewhere picturesque and have lunch before returning to Kona.

Kona Boat rental 6
Makalawena Beach with Hualalai in the background

After a smooth journey north we dropped the anchor (making sure to drop it into the sand and not the coral reef) and jumped in the water. We were careful not to get too close to shore due to the currents. Snorkeling is also possible in this location and the water is incredibly clear.

Kona from the sea

Kona Boat rental 9

After lunch we still had plenty of ocean-going time on the clock so we headed south past the harbor to Kona, cruising along the waterfront  and enjoying a very different perspective of Old Kona and the downtown area.

Kona Boat rental 8

So far none of us were sea sick – the Kona waters were living up to their reputation for being relatively calm and easy to navigate, and we all took turns at the wheel. There wasn’t time to include a further trip to Kealakekua Bay – we recommend deciding which direction to head and work out your timing based no that. Make sure you allow plenty of time for your return journey.

Back to the harbor

A day spent on the boat went incredibly quickly and it was soon time to head back to the harbor and get used to walking on dry land again! Once we reached the outer buoy near the harbor entrance we called Eric, and by the time we reached the dock he was waiting with the trailer to bring us in. 

Is it worth it?

Hiring a boat won’t be for everyone. The cost of doing so for just a short period of time is relatively expensive. But it is a fantastic experience and a great way to have your very own private tour without the crowds. So if you’re looking for a different way to enjoy the Kona Coast, consider renting a boat for a few hours, or even the day!

Kona Boat Rentals

Kona Boat Rentals is located at Honokohau Small Boat Harbor in Kailua-Kona. They offer full and half-day rentals. The new 21-foot center console boats are large enough for 6 adults and have a bimini top for shade. Don’t worry you’ll be given an orientation prior to sailing, covering everything from boat operations to tips on where you should go. A license is not necessary! And don’t worry, the Kona Coast has some of the calmest and most easily navigable waters in the Pacific.

Cost: 4 hours $425 or 6 hours $555 for the boat we chose – 21 foot, 150 HP. Find out more here.

(This is not a paid promotion for Kona Boat Rentals but we definitely do recommend them!)

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Off the beaten track: Makalawena Beach

Makalawena Beach is located in Kekaha Kai State Park on the west side of the Big Island. The beach park is located north of Kona and is one of the lesser known and little-visited of the white sand beaches on the island, and is well worth the hike!

Makalawena Beach is nestled in Pu’u Ali’l Bay, between Kua Bay and Mahai’ula Beach. Makalawena means ‘mischievous winds’ and legend has it that the Hawaiian wind goddess Laamaomao irritated the other gods causing them to cut off her nose. The nose is Pu’u Ku’ili – the cinder cone within the state park.

Fun fact: Kekaha Kai derives from the Hawaiian phrase ke kaha kai which means ‘the shore line’.

What to take

Your hiking gear – and sensible shoes (flip flops are not very practical on the rocky trail). Take lots of water and enough (reef-friendly) sunscreen.

How to get there

Take Hwy. 19 north of Kailua-Kona. Access to Mahaiula Bay and Makalawena Beach is between mile markers 90 and 91 on Highway 19, there is a sign on the Highway at the intersection. The lava road is rough so take care, especially if you are driving a regular car and not a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. If your car has low clearance, you may want to walk it. The end of the road is 1.5 miles from the highway entrance. Follow the road until you arrive at a locked gate on the side of the road and park there.

The trail

At the parking lot is the beginning of the first part of the trail. It’s signposted ‘Makalawena Trail”. It’s approximately a 20 minute walk from here to Mahai’ula Beach. Find the trail head to Makalawena Beach at the end of Mahai’ula Beach. Continue on from here until you come to Pu’u Ali’l Bay and Makalawena Beach. The hike is about 2 miles in total.

Makalawena 2a
Mahai'ula Beach
Makalawena 4
Historic home c.1880s
Makalawena 7
Mahai'ula Beach
Makalawena 6
Mahai'ula Beach

Makalawena Beach

Makalawena 11
Makalawena Beach

The white sand beach is perfect for snorkeling and boogie boarding (depending on the time of year – winter brings the better surf). Swimming is great when the water is calm, but stay out of the water if the surf is rough as there isn’t a lifeguard on duty.

Makalawena 10
Makalawena Beach

History

The area around Makalawena Beach is an important Hawaiian site. It used to be a busy fishing village and the nearby Opaeula Pond (opaelua means red shrimp) is a national natural landmark and was used by the Hawaiians as a fishpond.

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Makalawena Beach

Pu'u Ku'ili

Looking for another hike? Try hiking to the top of the nearby Pu’u Ku’ili cinder cone. Continue to hike north through the park on the historic coastal trail, Ala Kahakai, which leads to Kua Bay. At the midway point hike up the cinder cone (342 feet high) for some great views of the Kona Coast. Alternatively you can drive to Kua Bay and hike south, climb the cinder cone and then walk on to Makalawena Beach.

The beach park is open daily 8am-7pm. During humpback season (November – March) Makalawena Beach can be a great place to watch the humpback whales breaching offshore.

Makalawena is one of the best kept secrets of the Big Island. An easy hike in is worth it for what awaits you –  a classic white sand beach, clear water and fewer people than your average Hawaiian beach!

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Off the beaten track: Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site

Puukohola Heiau Tclf org
Photo credit: tclf.org

Located beside the small port town of Kawaihae, the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site is an impressive structure. Built in the late 18th century by Kamehameha I, this site is inextricably linked to the founding of the Hawaiian kingdom. Hiking trails and birdwatching make this well-worth a visit.

History

Pu’ukohola Heiau played a critical role in uniting the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha I built the temple due to a prophecy from a priest named Kapoukahi. The priest, told Kamehameha that if he constructed a heiau (temple) on the hill called Pu’ukohoā, and dedicated it to the war god, he would then be able to conquer the islands. The temple was originally built by Kamehameha I in 1790-91. Thousands of men worked for almost a year to build the temple. Upon completion of the temple a chief rival was sacrificed to the war god. Kamehameha I then gained control over the Hawaiian Islands. The monarchy he started lasted from 1810 until 1893.

Where is it?

Photo credit: hawaiitribune-herald.com

The Park is located at 62-3601 Kawaihae Road, Kawaihae. The town of Kawaihae is small with only a few shops and places to eat. This area is the driest part of the entire state of Hawai’i – there is less than 10 inches of rain a year here. 

Directions from Kona International Airport:

Take Highway 19 North for 27 miles. Turn left (north) onto Highway 270 (Kawaihae Road) and go 1/2 mile to the Park entrance (on the left side of highway). Turn left off the highway onto the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Directions from Hilo:

Take Highway 19 North 67 miles. Continue on Highway 270 (Kawaihae Road) to the Park entrance (on the left side of highway). Turn left off the highway on to the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Directions from North Kohala (Hawi/Kapa’au):

Take Highway 270 South 20 miles to the Park entrance (on the right side of highway). Turn right off the highway on to the park road. The Visitor Center is located down the hill just before Spencer Beach County Park.

Arrival of Keoua Below Puʻukoholā by Herb Kane

What to do

Pu'ukohola and Mailekini heiaus
Photo credit: JustyCinMD / flickr.com

Entry to the historic site is free and the visitors center is open 7:30am – 5pm daily. The visitor center contains a museum with some great exhibits, including an amazing traditional koa wood spear display, and a popular rock-lifting display. There are also some original paintings by artist and historian Herb Kane (the museum is due to reopen to the public November 15). There is also a great view of Puʻukoholā Heiau from the visitor center itself.

There are also a number of hiking trails.

  • The Parkʻs loop trail (1/2 mile)
  • From the Park to Mau’umae Beach (about 3/4 mile) along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail
  • From the Park to Hāpuna Beach (about 3 miles)

Depending on the time of year the Park is a great place to watch the sea life near the shoreline. In the winter it’s a great place to spot humpback whales, while sometimes black-tipped reef shakes and spinner dolphins can also be seen. Or get to the Park early and enjoy the wide variety of bird life.

Pu'ukohola Heiau 2021
Photo credit: nps.gov
Photo credit: nps.gov

Fun fact: Puʻukohola Heiau is best viewed from Kawaihae Harbor Road in the late afternoon. This aspect, with Mauna Kea in the background, makes for a great photo.

Other sites

Also in the Park are some other historical sites of interest.

  • Mailekini Heiau – this was a temple converted into a fort with mounted guns to protect the port.
  • Hale o Kapuni Heiau (Shark Temple) – submerged just off the shoreline of the Park, this temple was for worshipping the shark god that protected the local area.
  • John Young Homestead – the remains of the home of a British sailor who became stranded on the island and then became an advisor to the King.
  • Pelekane (The Royal Courtyard) – just below the temples is the courtyard where foreign dignitaries were received.

If you’re interested in Hawaiian history a visit to the Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site should be near the top of your list. The majestic structure is a fascinating legacy of Kamehameha I’s reign. While its close proximity to nearby Hāpuna Beach makes it the perfect place to visit before a day at the beach. 

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