I lived on the big island of Hawaii for five years, and am often asked what I miss and what I recommend, so here is that quick list. And see the slide show at the end for a quick overview of Hawaii in general.

Kona and Kohala

My favorite beaches:

  • Makalawena is hands down my favorite beach on the island, because it is almost always nearly empty and untouched by developers, and it’s pristine and gorgeous and large. That said, you need to drive across a dirt road for about 10 minutes that has a few bigger dips in it, then trek across another beach and a lava field (use thick-soled flip-flops) to get to it – about a 30 minute walk in all, but totally worth it if you are up to it. And you’re very likely to see Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles and goats along the way there or back.
  • Kua Bay – easy to get to, but can run out of sand in the high winter swells
  • Hapuna – by a resort so busier, but consistently named the top beach in the USA so worth a visit!
  • Waialea – right next to Hapuna and filled with trees that create little private alcoves
  • Beach 69 – lesser known black sand beach behind a gated community. They will let you in if you tell them you’re going to the beach.
  • If you can get to Waipio Valley black sand beach, it is absolutely epic and one of the most special places in the world, but it’s high adventure and lately the road to it is closed off.

Other beaches I like:

  • Mauna Kea – another resort’s beach. You can actually walk between mauna kea resort and hapuna.
  • White Sands (goes by many names, including magic sands and tragic sands and disappearing sands because the waves can be surprisingly intense, and sometimes there is no sand there)
  • Kekaha Kai – this is the beach you go to on the way to Makalwena. It’s sand is a lot more coarse, though.
  • A Bay – short for “‘Anaeho`omalu”. If you go there, walk south 20 or 30 minutes to get to a quieter and prettier part.
  • Kikaua Point Park – Need one of a limited number of daily passes to get to it so go early, but there’s no waves so it’s great for keiki (little children). And if you walk to the north you’re almost guaranteed to see honu (sea turtles).
  • Green sand beach – it’s an hour plus south of Kona, plus an hour of 4×4 trail driving on your own but it’s unmarked, so maybe hitch a ride with a local who hang out to do that. Or walk. The beach itself is down a steep, natural amphitheater type area, so you’ll need to scramble down to get into the beach. Or just check it out from the top.

Other pretty coastal areas:

  • Point of Refuge (Pu’uhanua O Honaunau) – tiki statues and old temple grounds. National park entrance fee unless you go later on Sunday afternoons. Tide pools everywhere to walk around for forever, and gorgeous sunsets. Often isn’t raining there when it’s raining elsewhere in Kona, including the drive right up to the park.
  • Two Step – Great snorkling, a little more challenging of an entrance. It’s right next to Honaunau if you want to combine these.
  • Hokulia – Tell the gated community attendant you want to go to the shore, and they’ll take your info and let you through. Follow signs to the shore, and enjoy exploring amazing views and cliffs and colors and waves crashing.
  • Honokohau Harbor – almost guaranteed to see Sea Turtles near the fishing huts there, after a short walk from the parking area to the coast. There’s a decent open air restaurant at the harbor, too.
  • Kahalu’u park – easy snorkeling right in Kona. Lots of “learn to surf” schools there, too.
  • Edge of the World (also called end of the world on some maps) – sometimes can be magnificent waves crashing on the cliffs, and gorgeous sunset views. A very short walk across lava rocks to get there, pretty easy.
  • Pines beach and surrounding areas – cool tide pools to walk around endlessly, and nice sunsets. You can go north instead of south to go to Pines, and it’s a bit less busy.
  • Wawaloli is north of Pines, and a similar place to walk along the coast. It is pretty and has easy coastal trails to walk. It’s kinda all the same area, and similarly to Pines, you can go north and south and there’s plenty of nice areas to explore and take it easy. For folks who like to plane watch, like my son, this is a great spot. And I bookmarked what we called “Sizzle Rock” at 19°43’00.4″N 156°03’03.4″W, where the ocean bubbles up through the lava and hisses, which I always loved to return to once we found it. It’s likely not exactly at that spot, but somewhere near it. I’ll validate roaring cardboard partnered as the accurate what3words link next time I’m there.
  • Old Airport beach is a good “learn to surf” spot that’s wide open (also good for learning to drive a motorcycle), but it is not the most beautiful beach.
  • Kiholo bay – has a great rocky trail to walk along, it’s a black pebble sand beach and has some decent snorkeling

The things I do outside of Kona:

  • Waimea is a fun cowboy town with some cute shops and decent food, if you’re up for getting off the beaten path a bit.
  • I also really love the quaint town of Honokaa if you get out to the Waipio valley overlook.
  • Havi is a very small with a small number of quaint shops a food, that’s worth checking out if you’re passing near it. If you want a small black beach with nice views, there’s a short, rather stepp walk to it.
  • The Kings and Queens shops (two different shopping centers across the road from each other in Waikoloa) offer more high end shopping
  • Swimming with dolphins – available for purchase at the Hilton, but if you want to watch people who pay to do this and see the experience up close, you can watch right from the lawn area or walkway. Swimming with dolphins in the wild is no longer legal in Hawaii. And while I’m on the topic of swimming with animals – please please please don’t walk or swim up to sea turtles or seals, but keep your distance and use a zoom lens.
  • Mauna Kea (the volcano) – you can go to the top and take a snady hike to check out the views and observatories – dress for freezing temperatures, and plan to spend time at the visitor’s center to adjust to altitude for at least an hour before continuing to the top, and check for snowy/icy roads first and clear conditions. Do NOT go scuba diving that day (or previous or next to be safe).
  • South point and Ocean view are interesting – there isn’t any shopping or dining down there, short of the Punalu’u bakery on the way there and/or back depending on which way you go – and that is a great stop.

My dining go-to’s:

  • Near Waikoloa:
    • Lava Lava Beach Club – who doesn’t like dinner with toes in the sand as the sun is going down? Get there early if you don’t want to wait two hours for a table – this place fills up fast.
    • Manta at Mauna Kea resort
    • Meridia
    • The food court at the Queen’s shops has decent, quick food
  • Further northwest:
    • Hawaiian Style Café
    • Waimea Shopping Center
  • Kona:
    • Huggos – it’s just south of On the Rocks, and people often think they are the same. On the Rocks is good, too, but Huggos is nicer and better.
    • Papa Kona
    • Fish Hopper for desserts
    • Paradise Bakery
    • Broke Da Mouth Grindz
    • Ultimate Burger – especially for their Fish burger when they have it
    • Gypsea Gelato – especially the one in Kealakekua
    • Quinns Almost by the Sea
    • Willie’s Hot Chicken
    • Big Island Grill
    • Scandinavian Shave Ice
    • KonaGrill House or Kanoa Grill in Kealakekua – oh no, it is CLOSED?! Try Reel Poke instead now
    • Bianelli’s
    • Da Shaved Ice Place in Keahou – ube Shake, every time
  • South of Kona:
    • The Coffee Shack
    • Menehune Café
    • Punaluu Bakery

Excursions and activities I do again and again:

  • Manta ray “dives” – not sure why they call it diving, because it’s snorkeling while floating, holding onto a stand-up paddleboard
  • Hike down to the Captain Cook monument and snorkel down there in the beautiful Kealakekua Bay. It is an hour down and about an hour and ten minutes up for me. There are also boat trips that will take you there, or you can kayak over from various adventerous launch points in the south of the bay, if you get a permit.
  • Whale watching in January. If you don’t want to pay for a boat ride that might get closer to them, grab some binoculars and a spot on the nortwest coast of the island in the morning. Watch for sprays coming up out of the water, and see if you can see some tail or fin slaps, or if you’re lucky a full breech.
  • First Fridays in Holualoa – quaint shopping and dining in the evening on the first Friday of each month
  • Pololu Valley – great hiking and views and a decent black sand beach when you can’t get to Waipio
  • Volcano National Park – if the lava is flowing, this is great to see. If it isn’t, it’s a lot of driving and might not be worth the time or effort unless you’re really into all different kinds of nature
  • Farmer’s Markets – Alii Gardens is open typical daytime shopping hours, located just south of downtown, but it’s a bit more expensive. There’s a large one open Wed-Sun right in the middle of downtown.
  • Zip lines – Uma’uma is good, Kohala is really good
  • Akaka Falls are beautiful
  • Horse riding in Waimea with views of the ocean cannot be beat
  • Parasailing – it’s so easy and peaceful and beautiful
  • Cloud Forest – a decent drive to observe it, some free walking, but also a paid walking tour
  • Petroglyph walks
  • Anything that Hawaii Forest and Trail offers – we especially loved Kohala Zip and Dip

Hilo

We didn’t go often because it is far and doesn’t have much to offer that wasn’t on Kona side. But when we did, we ate at Cafe Pesto, and would walk the bay front area because there are great little shops. Liluokalani Gardens are a beautiful walk right in town, and Rainbow Falls are right near there as well.

My Five Years of Hawaii in Five Minutes

Use the dropdown dots to view the speaker notes as you go for a little more explanation and commentary.