Where else in the world can you wake up to watch the sunrise atop a 14,000′ snow-capped volcano crater, zipline through a rainforest, drive across rolling green hills through a cowboy country town, hike through a dry desert, and still make it in time for a sunset surf session all in one day? Hawaii Island, or better known as the Big Island, is where you can experience all of this and more. According to the Koppen Climate Classification System, Hawaii Island has at least 10 of the world’s 14 different climate zones, all within a 4,028-square mile land mass that is continuously growing in size due to lava eruptions.
I spent more than a third of my life living on the island of Oahu, and the Big Island is my favorite Hawaiian Island. From Oahu, it’s only a 40-minute puddle jumper ride, and now with Southwest beginning flights to neighbor islands, we couldn’t pass up the low airfare! In this post I will focus on Kona, the West side, and the North Shore of the Big Island, including activities, free things to do, sightseeing, and of course our favorite eateries!
If you’re traveling to the Big Island, be sure to check out my other four blog posts on the Hilo (Eastern) side, including Volcanoes National Park.
HIKING TO ACTIVE LAVA – please note that this post was from April 2018 just before the eruption. As of 2019, there is little to no current lava flow, and Pele, Goddess of Fire, seems to be sleeping once again.
In this guide you will find the following:
1) Activities & Excursions in Kona
2) Free (or nearly free) Things to do in Kona & Western/Northern Hawaii
3) Where to Eat in Kona & Western/Northern side
**PIN THIS POST!**
Activities & Excursions in Kona
There is SO much to do on the Big Island, you truly need a proper month to explore it all! Here are just a handful of the many excursions you can choose from on the West and Northern side of the Big Island:
- Helicopter departing from Waikoloa: 2-hour spectacular
- Swimming with manta rays (night time snorkel or scuba dive)
- Zip Lining
- ATV (all-terrain vehicle)
- Cave Exploring from a Raft Boat
- Snorkeling off a Catamaran or Kayaking at Kealakekua Bay
- Atlantis Submarine
- Luau (evening cultural show & dinner featuring local Hawaiian foods)
- Star Gazing atop Mauna Kea
Kohala Zipline – Zip & Dip
This zipline goes through a tree canopy and old ahupua’a (Hawaiian subdivision of land). You’ll get to zip through enormous trees and cross three swinging bridges. Tour duration is approximately 6.5 hours and includes an 8-line zip, lunch overlooking Pololu Valley, and a refreshing swim in a waterfall.
After the last zip, the only way to get down is by rappelling (don’t worry, the guides belay you from down below!) – this gorgeous view looking out towards Maui and Haleakala awaits you:
There are banana trees on the property, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see the cute little green geckos with red spots!
But the best part of the whole tour is the picnic lunch lookout overlooking Pololu (lunch is provided with the tour). This is actually private land, inaccessible unless you’re with Kohala Zipline! The views were so stunning; as we drove up everybody in the van actually made an audible “ooooo, WOW!”. 🙂
After you’re finished with lunch, they drive you across the street and up a very bumpy dirt road in an old war vehicle built by the Swiss military (Indiana Jones style) to a little hike where we walked down five minutes to a waterfall that was calling our name for a refreshing dip! It was our own little oasis. They keep their tour sizes small, so there were only two other couples in our group, for a total of six of us plus our awesome guide.
Hawea Waipio Valley Cultural ATV Adventure
This was by far one of the most enriching cultural experiences we have had during our world travels. The check in is in a tiny town called Honoka’a, where you meet your guides and board the van. This company is run by Uncle Morgan and Makana, who actually live at the bottom of this sacred valley. The first stop is at Waipio Valley lookout, where you can see thousands of feet below to a black sand beach.
Once at the mouth of the valley, you’ll stop for photos of the waterfall that will quite literally leave your jaw agape for a good five minutes.
The drive is bumpy but spectacular, and you’ll be gasping at every corner, in awe of all the lush green vegetation and beautiful unique flowers.
You can also access the valley by hiking down from the top, which is on a steep incline on a paved dirt & concrete road. Be sure to bring a lot of water because you have to trek back up the hill on the way back, which is a 2,000′ elevation gain! Once you reach the end, you’ll see some private homes, which are off the grid, meaning no electricity and on a catch water system. Here’s what their “weather station” looks like in the valley:
Before the 1946 tsunami, there were over 1,500 residents living in Waipio valley, but after flooding destroyed all the rice crops, only six farmers remained. Now there are around 50 residents, and Uncle Morgan and Makana are two of them.
At the floor of the valley, you’ll cross several streams in the four-wheel drive van, and finally arrive to Uncle’s house where they have rows upon rows of lo’i (taro fields). The Hawaiian word for taro is kalo, and was the staple of the native Hawaiian diet and the core of the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians believe the taro plant to be sacred, as it provided sustenance for entire communities. In this valley, Uncle Morgan and Makana, along with their family and community, are responsible for planting, farming and harvesting the taro supply for the Big Island, and the most incredible thing is, it’s all done by hand. During this tour, they will explain to you how taro is planted and harvested, and you’ll even have the opportunity to get your hands and feet dirty and harvest them yourself!
The bright pink substance you see on the stalk of the taro are snail eggs. These are harmful to the plant and a common problem in the fields.
Here Makana shows how to harvest, or pull the roots from the ground once they are mature.
Hawaiians believed the taro to be a living, breathing plant. When you break the spine of the leaf, it “bleeds”.
The taro are the bulbous part of the plant found above the roots, and this is what is turned into food; however, the leaves are also used for wrapping food to make a dish called “lau lau”.
The bulbous root is boiled and then mixed with water to turn into a paste called poi, which has a natural grayish-purple hue. If you are not accustomed to eating poi, it may taste a bit like the texture of glue and is certainly an acquired taste.
After sampling poi and other fruits on their farm, you’ll board a Polaris ATV (all-terrain vehicle) driven by each of the guides (ATVs accommodate three passengers plus the guide) and you’ll go into the forest to check out where their cacao plants grow!
Can you believe this is what chocolate comes from?! The cacao bean is covered in a thin layer of fruit, which has a slimy consistency and a sweet/tart flavor. Just crack it open by hand and suck on the juice around the bean!
You’ll then reach the end of your tour, which culminates in a short walk to a beautiful waterfall, right on their property! You’ll even be followed by their adorable puppies, who know the route by heart!
Overall this tour was a fascinating and a real look into the lives of the locals living off the land and providing for their community. It’s so important to share the knowledge of the ‘aina (land) and the traditions and customs that once were the lifeblood of these beautiful islands.
Free (or nearly free) Things to do on the Big Island
Drive the Hamakua Coast
Eat BBQ in Waimea and explore old Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town
Visit Pu’uohonua o Honaunau National Park and go Snorkeling at Two-Step
Visit Kealakekua Bay
Take a Short Hike to Visit the Petroglyphs at Puako Petroglyph Park
Take a Free Tour of Greenwell Coffee Farm
Visit Kona Joe’s Coffee Plantation
Watch the Sunset and Grab a Cocktail in Downtown Kona
Driving through Waimea town towards the Hamakua Coast on the Northern tip of the island is one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever done. They call it “open sky country”. You’ll go from thick, lush, green canopies of trees and rain forest to green rolling hills and cow pastures with free-roaming goats abound. The landscape quickly becomes desert-like, hitting all those 10+ earth climate zones. It’s so neat to have such a tall mountain to always look for so that you never feel lost. In Seattle it’s Mt. Rainier; in Portland it’s Mt. Hood; on Maui it’s Haleakala and on the Big Island, it’s Maunakea, which means “white mountain” and is over 14,000′ (4,250 meters) high. On a clear day you can see the entire mountain, but on some days you can only see the top of the peak above the clouds.
One thing you should keep in mind while driving is that if a mongoose crosses the road, do not honk at it; they do not know how to look whilst running so they’ll just stop dead in their tracks and stare at you, wide-eyed like a deer and you will probably hit them. You’ll see many dead mongoose in the middle of the road on the Big Island.
The mongoose was brought over to the islands to take care of the rat problem, but as it turns out, the mongoose is diurnal (active during the daytime) and rats are nocturnal (active at night), so these creatures rarely ever met. Oops. That was poor planning.
There are several highly-rated eateries in Waimea, including Merriman’s, where you can go for happy hour from 2 – 5PM from Friday – Sunday. However, our most memorable meal of the trip was at a BBQ joint called The Fish and The Hog Market Cafe. Their green chile cornbread with local honey butter was outstanding, and their Lilikoi (passionfruit) mule was refreshing!
Waimea is a country town where the paniolos (Hawaiian word for “cowboy”) settled, so there is a big country influence. It feels as though you are driving through a mixture of big sky Wyoming with the rolling hills and lush bright green colors from Oregon. To this day there are still rodeos held throughout the town, and everybody knows everybody in this small-town vibe.
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
This place of sanctuary served as a refuge for defeated warriors or those who violated the kapu (sacred laws). National park entry fee is $15 per vehicle, or $7 per person as a walk-in, so you may as well pay the $15 so that you can park in a more secure lot since you don’t want to snorkel with your belongings. If you have the annual National Park pass, this is included.
For a free walking audio guide on your cell phone, you can call the number:
808-217-9279 and it will take you on a journey through each numbered stop. Other than the cell phone audio tour, there are no signs that you can read, so I recommend listening to the audio so that you understand the magnitude of what your’e looking at, otherwise it appears to be merely a pile of rocks.
Snorkeling at “Two-Step”
Named after the lava rocks that form two large steps down into the ocean, Honaunau is located immediately to the right of the National Historic Park, so you can just walk five minutes from your parking location over to the lava rocks where everybody sets down their beach gear. There is no place to rent snorkeling equipment, so you must bring your own. The snorkeling is excellent, especially on a clear day. Be sure to pack a hat or long-sleeve rash guard because there is minimal shade on the rocks and the sun is strong. Also, whenever snorkeling, please wear reef-safe sunscreen. The chemicals in conventional sunscreens are very harmful to our reefs, not to mention unpleasant to smell when sprayed on.
Another great way to snorkel is through a boat cruise to Kealakekua Bay.
Visit Kealakekua Bay
In 1778, Captain James Cook became the first Westerner to arrive by ship on the Hawaiian Islands, and his first encounter was during the celebration of Makahiki, a traditional festival celebrating Lono, God of fertility, agriculture, rainfall and peace. Since Cook arrived during this celebration, locals attached religious significance to his arrival and believed Cook to be a God. During the next month it was said that Cook and his sailors took advantage of the Hawaiians’ good will. There are several documents reporting that iron and other metals were exchanged for sex, which spread the first diseases to the Hawaiian people, who did not have the same exposure to such diseases and therefore no immunity to them. A month later when Cook departed but had to quickly return to the harbor a few weeks later due to ship damage from rough seas, the Hawaiians were confused. Surely a God wouldn’t have a damaged ship that he couldn’t repair himself. The secret was out; the Hawaiians realized that Cook and his men were mere mortals and relationships became strained. Within a year, Captain Cook was killed during a fight with native Hawaiians in this very bay. There is now a monument memorializing his death.
Take a Short Walk to Puako Petroglyphs
The Malama Trail begins North of the Mauna Lani Resort, and is a short 1.4-mile round trip walk. The trail is relatively well marked, but don’t worry when you see sand and Sleepy Hollow-like creepy branches; you’re in the right place. Just duck and keep going. When you arrive to the petroglyph fields, please do not walk over them. There is a loop trail that goes around it so that you can view it from all angles, but do not walk through them.
After seeing the petroglyphs, check out the beautiful white & black coral & rock beach just past the car park.
Take a Free Tour of Greenwell Coffee Farm
There are many tours of coffee plantations on the Kona side of the Big Island; some are free and some have a nominal fee. We visited Greenwell on the way back from visiting Kealakekua Bay, as it’s just a 15-minute drive. They run free tours daily beginning at 8:30 AM with the last tour at 4:00 PM. Tours run on the half hour. Gratuities to your guide are appreciated but not expected.
Address: 81-6581 Mamalahoa Hwy. Kealakekua, HI 96750
Try a “Cup of Joe” at Kona Joe’s Coffee
This was one of our favorite views in all of the West side of the Big Island. Located over 1,000′ (33 meters) above sea level, the view of this coffee farm overlooks the ocean and is only a five-minute drive from Greenwell Coffee Farm.
They offer both free and paid tours, or you can just order a cup of Joe and enjoy it while overlooking this jaw-dropping view.
*DID YOU KNOW?* the story of how the term “cup of Joe” came to be?
Watch the Sunset in Downtown Kona
Kona is a tiny little town, but there’s plenty to see and eat as you walk the strip! We were lucky enough to catch the tail end of a regatta (paddling in an outrigger canoe made of Koa wood) on this particular Saturday afternoon. We also stumbled upon a beach volleyball net and were able to get in a game of twos!
Where To Eat on the Big Island
Here were some of our favorites, plus others that were highly rated on Yelp and by other bloggers that we didn’t get the chance to try (next visit!):
1) The Fish and the Hog Market Cafe – BBQ (Waimea)
2) Kona Joe’s Coffee (Kealakekua)
3) Cultivate Good Food – vegan, vegetarian, healthy, raw (Kealakekua)
4) Ulu Ocean Grill & Sushi Lounge – upscale fine dining with a gorgeous view right on the water ($$$$ located inside the Four Seasons Hualalai in Kona)
5) Merriman’s (especially for happy hour Friday – Sunday from 2 – 5 PM – Waimea)
6) Da Poke Shack (Kona)
7) Basik Cafe – juice bars, smoothies, acai bowls (Kona)
8) Gramma’s Kitchen – local Portuguese Hawaiian food, popular amongst locals (Honoka’a)
9) Island Naturals Market & Deli – organic, natural grocery store (several locations) – the one in Kona is within a 15-minute drive from the KOA airport, so you can make a pit stop before checking into your Airbnb / hotel. Also, Costco is just across the street from the airport as well if you are staying for an extended period of time and/or have a larger family and are looking to save money
10) Loko Wraps (Kealakekua & Downtown Kona locations)
We were lucky enough to meet the owner, Mike, and learn more about this awesome eatery! They source locally whenever possible, and make their own sauces (seriously, try them ALL.) If you’re really into spicy, ask for the “dragon’s blood”. The word “Loko” in Hawaiian means “within”, so “within the wrap”; they make their own coconut rice, which they use in the fillings of all their wraps (you can also customize the order if you want to leave certain things out, just let them know!) Be sure to try their vegan jackfruit BBQ. Not a vegan? Not a problem! Their kalua pork is roasted for 12 hours, so they have you meat-lovers covered! They also make their own rice milk, which they use in their smoothies, which are also outstanding!
11) Daylight Mind Coffee Company (Kona)
This beautiful space is sure to ignite inspiration for any writer, artist, yogi, entrepreneur or coffee lover. They even teach yoga every Monday – Friday starting from 8:30 – 9:30 AM ($10 per person). The space is massive and includes both upstairs and downstairs, as well as indoor and outdoor seating. They have a dedicated cafe where they sell pastries, croissants and coffee, and they also have a full-service sit-down restaurant where you order from a menu. This is the perfect place to spend your weekend mornings. 🙂
12) Tunaichi – sushi, Japanese (Kona)
You know it’s going to be good when a sushi joint is run by two guys who are actually from Japan. We just returned from a trip to Kyoto and Tokyo, and this place is the real deal! We ordered this chirashi, tea and three sushi rolls and our total bill was $50 including tip. Best deal in town, and really great quality fish.
13) Under the Bodhi Tree – vegan & vegetarian options, breakfast (The Shops at Mauna Lani)
14) James Angelo Underground Pizza (Waimea) – cash only
All I can say is that somehow pizza and BBQ taste way better when you’re in the country! The service is really friendly here, but the ambiance is very dark (probably why they call it “underground” even though it’s at ground level.) We ate our pizza outside in the sunshine (they have available seating outdoors), but be sure to bring a jacket because you’re above 2,500′ (830 meters) above sea level and it gets cold up there!
**TRAVEL HACK FOR RENTAL CARS!**
When you’re renting a car, I recommend booking in advance through Expedia.com (no payment is required until you pick it up). Then on the day of your arrival, check the rates even as last-minute as a few hours prior to arrival, and they’re usually lowered quite a bit! When we reserved our car two months in advance, it was a total of $148 for three days through Hertz. When we booked the day of our arrival, it was lowered to $95 through Alamo. That’s a $53 savings! Enough for a dinner out for the two of us.
**PIN THIS POST!!**