Most Hawaii cruises visit the port of Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Below you’ll find two, excellent do-it-yourself shore excursions.
Having cruised into the port of Kona three times (including this awesome cruise), I know that it’s a weird port to understand and appreciate. Lucky for you, I now live in Kona, and have a very good understanding of the place. There are amazing experiences here, despite the abundance of awful T-shirt shops, time-share sales booths, and ABC stores.
Ship’s tenders drop you off in the middle of “downtown Kailua-Kona,” next to a Marriott Courtyard hotel. Below, I’ve outlined two port of Kona shore excursion itineraries, drawing on my experience living here. Both itineraries work best if you get an early start. With either itinerary, you’ll want to begin the day in a bathing suit, but bring dry clothes (or at least a shirt) to change into later.
What’s up with the variations on Kona’s name? Explanation at the bottom of this post
Kona Shore Excursion via foot and trolley
Near the Courtyard, you’ll be able to catch the Kona Trolley—do this as early as possible! Board a southbound trolley, and tell the driver you want to get off at Kahalu’u.
- Awesome snorkeling. At Kahalu’u Bay, rent snorkels and experience some of the best underwater life in all Hawaii. It’s not uncommon for sea turtles to join you. The earlier you can be in the water, the better the conditions, and the smaller your crowd of fellow snorkelers. Kahalu’u has showers and bathrooms, so you’ll be able to clean up after snorkeling, and before boarding the return trolley.
Coffee experience. On the return trolley ride, tell the driver you want to step off at Waterfront Row. Directly across the street from the pink church is a superb eatery called Daylight Mind Coffee Co. Tucked in the back of a white-colored shopping center, this restaurant and roastery roasts beans for several coffee farms on the hills above Kona.
Order a cup of whatever they’ve recently roasted and a fresh-baked goodie, and head to their upper lanai (deck) where the views of the ocean and your ship cannot be beat. If you’re lucky enough to be in Kona on a Thursday at 11:00a.m., don’t miss Daylight Mind’s amazing coffee cupping—like a wine tasting for coffee.
- Hawaiian Heritage. Leave Daylight Mind via their stairway nearest the ocean, and enjoy the grassy area next door—it’s part of a county park complex and really lovely. Continue back to the sidewalk and go north, wandering through the Kona Inn shopping complex (the least-tacky of Kona’s rather unattractive and touristy downtown strip).
Shortly, you’ll arrive at Hulihe’e Palace, historic summer home of Hawaiian Royalty, which you can visit for a few bucks. It’s not a big palace, but it’s pretty, and grounds are especially nice. Equally interesting is the church across the street, which dominates Kona’s skyline. This Congregationalist building was the first Christian church in the Hawaiian Islands—essentially where old Hawaiian ways began to be shredded by holier-than-thou missionaries. It’s free to wander around.
- Cool down with a treat at nearby Scandinavian Shave Ice (in Hawaii it’s never “shaved” ice). Then continue to the Marriott Courtyard hotel. Go inside to explore a hidden gem: the collection of Hawaiian heritage art and artifacts lining the hotel’s public spaces.
- Place of many sexy bodies… As you wait for your tender back to the ship, take note that the beach at the pier is the starting line for the annual Ironman Triathlon World Championships. Each October, 2,000+ of the world’s fittest men and women start a grueling race at this point. They swim 2.4 miles in the open ocean, bike 112 miles (to the north end of the island and back), then run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. The transition area between each sport is located on the pier area, and the race also ends nearby. If you’re feeling inspired, head to the gym on the ship. Otherwise, the buffet awaits you back on board.
Kona shore excursion with a rental car
Most of Kona’s car rental companies are located at the airport, and it’s nowhere near the cruise terminal. A smart cruiser like you will book well ahead at the in-town location of Enterprise, which would be about a 30 minute walk from the ship. But better: they’ll pick you up at the pier. Once you’ve got your car, here’s the most-interesting Kona itinerary—again, get going as early in the day as possible, and wear a bathing suit for starters with something to change into or at least a shirt for later.
- Hawaii’s best snorkeling. Drive south from downtown Kailua-Kona. Stop at Kona Boys, and rent snorkeling equipment. Continue to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (in English, City/Place of refuge), a really sublime small national historic park. In total, the drive from Enterprise to the national park should take about 30-40 minutes. Park in the national park lot, then walk back out the park gate, and turn left down the nearby road to 2-Step beach—truly awesome snorkeling happens here. Again, the earlier in the day, the better! Note that this is open ocean, so use an abundance of caution.
- Real Hawaiian tikis and village. Then wander around the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. This is a really special place, with much Hawaiian heritage woven in. It’s essentially an archeological site, with some of the buildings reconstructed. If you’re lucky, a handsome Hawaiian guy will be working on craft projects in one of the structures, dressed in nothing but a loin cloth. Sigh. But the real star attraction here are the giant tikis and carved poles on the site. It is all really interesting and terribly photogenic.
- Not quiet da Vinci, but… Driving back up the hill, turn north onto tiny Painted Church Road, and about a quarter-mile ahead the actual Painted Church. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but the interior is a wonderful surprise.
- Authentic Hawaiian food. Head back to the main road and return to the highway, head north, and find Ka’aloa’s Super J’s, a small eatery that will be the most-Hawaiian food of your trip. The family specializes in lau lau (we prefer the pork to the chicken), and it’s best served as a complete “plate lunch” with rice, macaroni salad, lomi salmon, and hopefully a little taste of homemade poi if they have it. The ladies who run it are a delight, and the food is unlike anything else you’ll ever taste.
- Coffee experience. Driving back toward Kona, stop at Greenwell coffee farm to wander among coffee plants and learn about this important Kona industry. Of course you can have a sample, and buy coffee by the pound if you wish.
- Cool shopping. Continuing north, pause in the village of Kainaliu (identified by the pink Aloha Theatre, the Kona region’s live community theatre). This village was once the heart of the Kona region (Kailua-Kona is a relatively new “town”), and it’s still a delight. There are several interesting vintage shops and a fantastically fun fabric store called Kimura’. This hidden gem missed by most tourists offers an abundance of Hawaiian and Japanese print fabrics.
Gay Kona local answers your Kona questions
Q: What’s gay about Kona?
A: It has 2 gay bars: the only gay bars in the state of Hawaii outside of Honolulu. (My Bar, and Mask). The Kona region is home to sizable gay and lesbian communities. Pop onto Scruff or Grindr and you’ll quickly learn that “locals” (Hawaiians, folks of Asian descent) tend to be closeted or down-low, while Haoles (white folks) tend to be visibly out. Beyond the bars, most socializing is privately organized in homes or restaurants, with a monthly gay men’s stroll in downtown Kona.
Q: What is the difference between “Kona,” “Kailua,” and “Kailua-Kona”?
A: The main village, or “town” here is technically called Kailua, but is also known as Kona and Kailua-Kona. It can get confusing. Locals use the terms quite interchangeably. Kona means “south” in Hawaiian. There are two “Kona” regions of the island: North Kona and South Kona, essentially encompassing the entire southwest coast of the island. The town of Kailua became renamed Kailua-Kona by the US postal service in order to minimize confusion with another town named Kailua, on Oahu. Now, have fun in the wonderful cruise port of Kona, Hawaii!