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Imagine yourself, as it rains, sleets, and snows through the long winter, lying under cerulean blue skies bathed in healing sunlight on a warm golden sand beach, playing in bath-temperature water, and snorkeling among the brightly colored tropical fish and placid, but amazing sea turtles. Sound too good to be true? In West Hawaii, this soothing daydream is our day-to-day reality

Beaches of South Kohala and the Kona Coast

Kua Bay

Kua Bay on the Southern Kohala Coast is a Gem of a Little Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kua Bay on the Southern Kohala Coast is a Gem of a Little Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The site of Kona’s newest beach park, this is a lovely white sand beach. Although there is little shade, the swimming and boogie boarding in the crystalline waters is primo. Strong current and large waves call for respect, here; if the surf is up, don’t go in. Also, sometimes winter storm surf removes the sand to offshore, leaving a rocky shelf that is less fun than the sandy beach.

Behind the beach on the north end is a small, inviting fresh-water pool. Don’t be seduced—it is bottomed by foul-smelling quicksand and is extremely. There are sacred, native Hawaiian sites and ruins to the north of the beach. Please do not disturb them.

Park facilities include parking, picnic tables, restrooms, and water. Wild goats are frequently seen in this area.

Makalawena Beach

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makawena Beach in Kehakai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makalawena Beach in Kekaha Kai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

One of the last, large, wilderness beaches in Polynesia, frankly, Makalawena is the finest beach on the island and the most beautiful beach setting to boot. This is the amazing beach you flew over just before you landed at Kona International Airport. This beach sports a series of coves, refreshing shade, big sand dunes, and a nice freshwater pond to rinse off in.

This beach is reached either by traveling the (extremely) 4WD road from the highway between mile markers 88 and 89, or by hiking about 15 to 20 minutes along an easy trail from Kekaha Kai State Park. The trail goes over rough pahoehoe and a’a and through keawe breaks, so shoes are required.

The land fronting the beach is owned by Bishop Estate/Kamehameha Schools and is slated to be turned into a development of condos and resorts; vigilance and protest on the part of locals and visitors is the only way we can keep this last, wild Kona beach wild.

Kekaha Kai State Park

Kekaha Kai State Park Contains a Series of Brilliant, Huge Sandy Beaches, Yet Because of the Bumpy 2 Mile Drive In, Remains Almost Unknown To Visitors: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Kekaha Kai State Park Contains a Series of Brilliant, Huge Sandy Beaches, Yet Because of the Bumpy 2 Mile Drive In, Remains Almost Unknown To Visitors: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

A superbly wonderful set of beaches and one of Hawaii Island’s gem parks. The northernmost and loveliest beach is Mahai’ula and the smaller, less fine one is Ka’elehuluhulu Beach. The water is fine for swimming and boogie boarding but may be a little murky for ideal snorkeling. There are numerous small springs making the near-shore water a little cold.

The mansion of the original owners, the Magoons, can still be seen on the northern edge of the beach. Tours of the mansion have become scarce to sporadic in recent years; if you are interested, contact the Kona Historical Society.

Turn makai at the State Park sign, between mile markers 90 and 91; the road is nasty to impassable. Facilities include public restrooms and picnic tables, but no drinking water.

Honl’s Beach

Honl's Beach on the Edge of Old Kailua Town: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Honl's Beach on the Edge of Old Kailua Town: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

This small beach on the outskirts of Old Kailua Town is a favorite spot for surfers and boogie boarders, but also has very nice snorkeling and is an excellent place to view the sunset and picnic. Remember when going into the water here, there is a fairly strong current to the north, so stay in the shallow reef area close to the beach. Parking is on both sides of Ali’i, but can be tight here during good surf; crossing Ali’i drive can be harrowing at certain times of the day. A new bathroom with running water has recently been constructed on the mauka (mountain) side of the road.

Kahalu’u Beach

Kahalu'u Beach is Kona's Premiere Snorkeling Spot But Is Also A Fabulous Place To Watch Dolphins, Whales and Sunset: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kahalu'u Beach is Kona's Premiere Snorkeling Spot But Is Also A Fabulous Place To Watch Dolphins, Whales and Sunset: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Loll in sand and sun under swaying palms, watch humpback whales dance in an exotic Kona sunset, snorkel among rainbow-colored fish on a protected reef or ride surf where the Kings of Hawaii defined the sport a thousand years ago! Kahalu’u is the choice destination of Kona Coast County Beach Parks.

Kahalu’u is the most popular snorkeling beach on the Island of Hawaii with good reason; protected from the open ocean by a seawall, the reef is also protected against commercial aquarium fishing. The snorkeling is in calm, shallow water and there is an abundance of fish—perhaps the best display on the island. Dozens of Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles call this bay home, thrilling the snorkelers. Numerous freshwater springs and shallow water bathers make the near-shore snorkeling unpleasantly cloudy, but about 100 feet offshore the water turns crystal clear and the display of coral is nothing short of amazing.

Outside the seawall is an excellent surf break that is for intermediate or better surfers and boogie boarders. There is a fair current north out of the bay and along the coast—swimmers caught in this current should relax and swim with the current, angling towards land.

Most days there is a food wagon selling sandwiches, burgers, shaved ice, and cold drinks at reasonable prices and a vendor renting snorkeling gear and boogie boards.

Two-Step Beach/Honaunau Bay

Two-Step Beach at Hounaunau Bay Has Some of the Finest Snorkeling in the World: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Two-Step Beach at Hounaunau Bay Has Some of the Finest Snorkeling in the World: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Some superb protected snorkeling and shore-diving is located at Two-Step Beach, adjacent to the City of Refuge National Historic Park. A wonderland of turtles, coral, and fish, with frequent morning visits by dolphins, this snorkeling experience shouldn’t be missed. No swimming is allowed within the Park, as a measure of respect of the sacredness of the Refuge site; however, Two-Step Beach offers a convenient place to enter Honaunau Bay.

One can enter the bay either by walking down the boat ramp, or by stepping off the short cliff into the water. Two-Step beach gets its name from this short hop. Near the center edge of the lava beach there are two ledges serving as steps to the ocean. At low tide, it’s a simple matter of stepping down: “1, 2, OCEAN!” At high tide, one just steps off the edge and in. Getting out, one simply approaches the steps, puts hands palms down and waits for an incoming wave to float you up and onto the bottom step—the process is easier than it sounds. Resist the temptation to put fingers into small holes and pockets in the rocks to haul yourself out—they are filled with spiny sea urchins. Always lay hands on rocks palms down; don’t use fingers.

The best snorkeling is along the cliff edges and the shallows. Remember that you cannot get out of the water within the confines of the Park. Remember dolphin and sea turtles are federally protected species.

Ho’okena Beach County Park

Hookena Beach in South Kona IS a Fabulous Beach Plunked Down in the Middle of Real Old Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hookena Beach in South Kona IS a Fabulous Beach Plunked Down in the Middle of Real Old Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Brilliant snorkeling, decent boogie boarding, passable shell collecting, and wonderful camping—it’s a wonder Ho’okena Beach is not more popular with visitors. Nestled alongside the ruins of Ho’okena Village, this beach is a wonderful place to spend a morning or a weekend.

Frequented by dolphin, stuffed full of pelagic and reef fish and turtles, and boasting crystal clear, warm and calm waters, Ho’okena is a must-see beach for avid snorkelers and divers as well as sea kayakers. Hiking south over the hills and through cow fields brings one to numerous small, sandy beaches where ocean current conditions make shell collecting possible. Hiking north from the park, one finds the remnants of once-thriving Ho’okena Village, in past times the main rival to Kailua for steamer traffic, but now all but lost to the ravages of tsunami, earthquake, and the passing of time. During the winter months, female Humpback whales and their babies frequent the waters off this bay.

Wonderful beach camping, new showers and restrooms, picnic tables, and abundant fresh water make this county park a gem. Camping is by permit only on a first come-first served basis.

Honomalino Bay

Honomalino Beach is a Short Hike From the Old Hawaiian Fishing Village of Miloli'i: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Honomalino Beach is a Short Hike From the Old Hawaiian Fishing Village of Miloli

A true gem of West Hawaii and rarely crowded, Honomalino Bay is reached by a 20-minute hike from the south end of Miloli’i Beach County Park. The hiking trail starts between the bathrooms and a yellow church and the path to Honomalino is always along the right fork of the trail, in and out of the surf line, to avoid private property.

Snorkeling is very interesting on the north side in the rocks, when the surf is low. The water, though very clear, is sometimes quite cold due to spring discharge in the sand on the beach.

So now that you are armed with all this information and you’ve had the best-ever, mid-winter, beach daydream you’ve had in years, I just have to ask … what are you doing sitting there in your cold, wet, winter misery for? C’mon over to West Hawaii and soak up your fair share of the rays!

Monk seal at Honl's Beach near Kailua Kona: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Monk seal at Honl's Beach near Kailua Kona: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the beaches of the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.   Information about the author can be found here.

All Media Copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan.

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This post has been updated and expanded, please go here.

The town of Kailua Kona is the crown jewel on the island of Hawaii and the beating heart of the Kona Coast. A sleepy fishing village not so long ago, Kailua Kona is now the metropolitan center of West Hawaii’s burgeoning economy and exploding population. Founded by King Umi in the 1500’s, Kailua Kona served as the social, religious and political capital of Hawaii for several hundred years. Deeming it the loveliest spot in all the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha the Great ruled his island empire during the final years of his reign from here.

Exploring the downtown area from the King Kamehameha Beach Resort to the Honl’s Beach on the south provides a couple hours pure enjoyment: easy walking along the incomparable turquoise Kona Coast under the warm, sapphire Hawaii sky, past ancient temples, missionary churches, intriguing and unique shops and wonderful restaurants. It is easy, walking here, to understand how one can be completely seduced by the magic of the Big Island.

Kailua Kona is a town made for walking, so start by parking your car. On the north side of town, abundant for-pay parking is available at the King Kamehameha Beach Hotel. Free parking on this end of town is available at Triangle Parking, between Kuakini Highway and Ali’i Drive. About half-way through town, by the Farmer’s Market and Hale Halawai Park, is a large area of free parking. On the south side of town there is abundant free parking at the Coconut Grove shopping area, and at Honl’s Beach.

Let’s start exploring Kailua Kona on the north and work our way south. The thatched structure surrounded by carved wooden idols across from the pier is ‘Ahu’ena Heiau, an ancient and sacred temple site. A temple (or Heiau) has existed on this spot since at least the first millennium, and as recently as the 15th century was occupied by a temple of human sacrifice (or luakini Heiau) dedicated to the war god Kuka’ilimoku. In 1812, King Kamehameha I ordered the heiau enlarged, rebuilt, rededicated as ‘Ahu’ena Heiau (“hill of fire”), a temple of peace and prosperity dedicated to the fertility god Lono.

The current structures seen at ‘Ahu’ena Heiau were re-built in 1975 under the auspices of the Bishop Museum with financial help from the Hotel King Kamehameha and are constructed to 1/3 the original scale. Here, there is a veritable forest of of carved, wooden sacred images in the “Kona Style”, considered the most refined in all Polynesia.

Three delightful, but tiny, beaches grace the immediate downtown area. The snorkeling from these small beaches is spectacular and strangely uncommon. A beautiful coral garden and vibrant reef fish can be seen snorkeling along the shoreline off ‘Ahu’ena Heiau where fish, turtles and eels are abundant in Kailua Bay.

During the winter of 1819 to 1820, Congregationalist missionaries from Boston crossed the Atlantic Ocean enduring 5 months of intense stormy weather while headed for a new life in Hawai’i. In March of 1820, the missionaries sailed into the balmy waters of Kailua Bay and landed at Kamakahonu Rock (eye of the turtle), the “Plymouth Rock” of Hawai’i, which now supports the Kailua Pier.

Mokuaikaua Church, built under the leadership of missionary Asa Thurston between 1835 and 1837, was specifically aligned so that the prevailing breezes would pass through it, but also so that it presented a strong, stone façade to the south and west, the direction from which strong Kona Winds, large storms and hurricanes come. The 112-foot steeple was for many decades the highest structure in Kailua and served as a navigation landmark both for ships at sea and people on land.

The church is constructed of rough-hewn basalt blocks mortared with lime made from burnt coral and bound with kukui nut oil. The corner stones were taken from a heiau built on the same spot by King Umi in the fifteenth century. The interior beams and woodwork are of koa wood. The joints were painstakingly joined with ohi’a wood pins; this is a magnificent example of the architectural style brought to Hawai’i by the missionaries in the 19th century.

The inside of the church is beautiful, cool and inviting, and visitors are welcome between services and on weekdays between sunrise and sunset; admission is free. There is a fascinating mini-museum, small but informative, which is open daily from sunrise to sunset and free tours are conducted from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3:30 p.m. The Museum features exhibits about Hawai’i, the life of the missionaries and contains a scale model of the Brig Thaddeus.

Hulihe’e Palace was built by High Chief (later Governor) James Kuakini in 1838 as a home. For many years, the Palace was used by Hawai’ian royalty as an official residence and summer get-away palace, a place of great galas and parties, but was abandoned to ruin in 1914. Since 1928 the Palace has been operated as a museum by the Daughters of Hawai’i. The Palace Gift Store has many fine art items and hard-to-find books on Hawai’iana.

The museum is open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are friendly and knowledgeable docents who give free tours, which last about 45 minutes. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and $1 for students; photographing inside the museum is forbidden. The palace sustained considerable damage during the earthquake of 2007 and is currently undergoing renovation.

The Kona Inn is of particular historic significance, as it was the first destination resort to open in West Hawai’i and it ushered in the era of tourism along the Kona Coast. Built on the site of Papa ‘Ula (red flats) where a temple of human sacrifice was built by High Chief Umi, today the Kona Inn features many unique and interesting shops and fine restaurants.

The Inn fronts on a large, palm-shaded lawn that leads to a seawall and the ocean. This area is open to the public and is a really grand place for picnicking, watching whales and dolphin and the fabulous Kona sunsets.

The Kailua Farmer’s Market, open Wednesday through Sunday, lies in the parking lot at the corner of Ali’i Drive and Hualalai Road between the Public Library and Hale Halawai Park. The market offers a wide and intriguing variety of fresh produce, hand-made local arts and crafts, Hawai’iana and other types of souvenirs.

The grounds and oceanfront of Hale Halawai Park offer a peaceful, shady place for taking a rest from a busy tour of bustling downtown Kailua, or watching whales and dolphin and the unmatched Kona sunsets. Frequently honu (sea turtles) and boogey boarders can be watched from the seawall. Featuring coconut palms, a neatly manicured lawn, picnic tables and a seawall, the large, Polynesian-style pavilion is used for everything from community gatherings to orchid shows to wedding receptions.

Historic St. Michael’s Church was the first Catholic Church in West Hawai’i. The church offers services in English and Spanish throughout the week, but is primarily of historic interest; the burial plots in the cemetery date from 1855. In 1940, during less “ecologically aware” times, resident priest Father Benno Evers had his parishioners gather 2500 coral heads to build the grotto in front of the church, which covers the church’s original well. The seafloor in Kailua Bay has yet to recover from this pillaging of coral heads. This historic church sustained considerable damage during the earthquake of 2007.

Coconut Grove and Waterfront Row cap the southern end of the Kailua Village shopping district along Ali’i Drive, starting next to the Hale Halawai County Park and ending at the Royal Kona Resort. Newer and more metropolitan that its sister shopping district to the north, Coconut Grove and Waterfront Row have almost everything, from tattoos to souvenirs to Hawai’iana, fine art, musical instruments, sundries, groceries and clothing. The range of cuisines available from restaurants here sweeps from local flavor to Thai, the Hard Rock Cafe to poi crepes to pizza and burgers.

Between the Royal Kona Resort and Hale Kona Kai Resort is a fabulous tide pool that is completely protected from all but the most vicious winter surf. It boasts a moderate population of reef fish and even the occasional turtle! The water sometimes can be a bit murky, but it makes a nice place to take small children or beginning snorkelers. Drive into the entrance for the Royal Kona Resort and continue south past it until you see the blue and white Shoreline Access sign; find a place to park, go down the stairs to the tiny beach and enjoy!

Lovely but compact, Honl’s County Beach Park is a small beach on the southern outskirts of Old Kailua Town. A favorite spot for surfers and boogie boarders it also has very nice snorkeling and is an excellent place to view the sunset and picnic. Remember when going into the water here, there is a fairly strong current to the north, so stay in the shallow reef area close to the beach. Parking is located on both sides of Ali’i Dr., but can be tight here in times of good surf, and crossing Ali’i Dr. drive can be a bit dangerous at certain times of the day. A new bathroom with showers and running water has recently been constructed on the mauka—uphill–side of the road.

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, go here and here.