A look out of Pololu Valley. Photo by @broseph_wei

How to island-hop to Kona for a weekend

While it’s easy to spend a week taking in all that the Big Island has to offer (Did you know, at 4,028 square miles, you can fit six and a half Oahus inside?), there’s a lot you can pack into a weekend to Kailua-Kona. And, with the recent launch of Island Air flights connecting Honolulu and Hawaii Island’s sunny side, there’s never been a better time to explore.

Whether you’re into nature, history, shopping or locally produced food, there’s something for everyone in Kona. With that in mind, we’ve created a sample itinerary for a weekend away on the Kona Coast. So, pack your bags, book your rental car and prepare to island-hop!

Day 1:

After touching down at the Kona Airport, situated atop a Hualalai Volcano lava flow from 1801, grab your rental car and head north on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The route will take you past lava desert to many of Kona’s most popular hotels in the Waikoloa area 20 miles away. Check in and keep going—it’s another 40 minutes along the scenic rugged coast to tiny Hawi and picturesque Pololu Valley. Explore the shops of Hawi, but be sure to save time to take photos at the original King Kamehameha statue and the Road to Hana-esque scenery between it and the end of the road stunner: Pololu Valley. Made extra spectacular by the light of the setting sun, Pololu Valley is the westernmost in a series of deep valleys cut into the Island’s northern coast. If you’re early, have an hour and it’s not raining or misty, the hike down to its black sand beach is worth the trip. 

Afterwards, take Route 250 south from Kapaau to Waimea for dinner. Solid options include the pricey, but worth it, Merriman’s (open until 9:30 p.m., 65-1227 Opelo Road, reservations recommended), serving innovative Hawaii regional cuisine, or the more affordable Big Island Brewhaus (open until 8:30 p.m., 64-1066 Mamalahoa Highway) for comfort food that skews Mexican paired with house-made beer.

New wok charred ahi served at Merriman's Waimea location.
Photo courtesy Merriman's Waimea

Then, if you’re up for it, you can be at the Mauna Kea visitors center for its free nightly star show in an hour. Interpretive displays and videos explain why this site is one of the best in the world for stargazing. It’s another hour and change back to the hotels at Waikoloa.

Day 2:

If you were up late stargazing, you’ll appreciate a slow start to the day and some beach time. After breakfast, head to one of the local Waikoloa beaches for some respite. A bumpy drive and a short hike leads to secluded Mahaiula Bay; its white-sand crescent is worth the extra effort (turn off Highway 19 at the Kekaha Kai State Park access road between mile markers 90 and 91, some 17 miles south of Waikoloa, park and hike in following the signs). If you keep going beyond Mahaiula, you’ll find even more secluded local favorite Makalawena Beach.

Harvested cacao pods. Photo courtesy Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory

In the afternoon, take a leisurely drive to South Kona for some coffee tasting. Head south on Route 19 to the North Kona Belt Road, Highway 180, via Palani Road or Hina Lani Street. You’ll wind through artsy Holualoa all the way to Captain Cook. Recommended stops include: Doutor Coffee Mauka Meadows in Holulaloa where a $5 donation will get you a self-guided tour of the impressively manicured grounds as well as a tasting alongside a stunning ocean-overlooking infinity pool (75-5565 Mamalahoa Highway, daily 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.) and the Greenwell Farms’ 30-minute tour, which explains everything from history to growing and roasting (81-6581 Mamalahoa Highway; tours from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily). Both are ideal for pop-in stops for visitors. With some advance planning, you can also learn about other area agricultural products: Big Island Bees runs an informative tour of its raw honey collection facilities and apiary daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (82-1140 Meli Rd., Captain Cook) and the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory runs tours of its pod-to-bar operations Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. (78-6772 Makenawai Street). Both operations have impressive gift shops where it’s possible to sample products any day of the week. If you can, stop at Gypsea Gelato  for a frozen treat (Wednesdays through Mondays, noon until 8:30 p.m.; 79-7460 Mamalahoa Highway); the adjacent Rocco’s Pizza, TK Noodle House and Annie’s Burgers are all solid lunch options.

Body Glove sunset boat tour. Photo courtesy Body Glove

In the afternoon to evening, head back to downtown Kailua-Kona, where you can explore the Hulihee Summer Palace and easily find dinner options (like the Body Glove boat’s popular sunset cruise to the Captain Cook Monument from the downtown pier) awaiting. The Fish Hopper and seaside Huggo’s are recommended. Then, if you’re feeling adventurous, head out on an evening snorkel to see Kona’s world famous manta rays. Many outfitters offer the experience, but popular ones include Jack’s Diving Locker, Hang Loose Boat Tours and Sea Paradise. (You’ll definitely need to book the manta ray tours in advance.) Landlubbers, never fear! You too can spot mantas from the spot-lit section of sea off the deck at Rays on the Bay, a restaurant inside the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa (78-128 Ehukai Street, Kailua-Kona).

Dive with fishes, turtles, manta rays, and more. Photo courtesy Jacks Diving Locker

Day 3:

Head back down to South Kona after breakfast—the earlier the better, as it can get hot by noon—and get ready to be wowed by Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (1871 Trail, Captain Cook). The park encloses the last surviving “place of refuge” on Hawaii Island, a place where early Hawaiians could come for absolution after breaking kapu (forbidden acts under Hawaiian law). Coconut palms and sandy beaches make the area particularly picturesque as well as historic. Just outside the park entrance is 2-step, widely considered one of the best snorkeling spots in the state. If you want to get down with the area’s underwater denizens, this is your spot (though note that it unfortunately lacks the convenient freshwater showers of other snorkeling haunts, potentially making your flight uncomfortable if you don’t stop at another beach park to rinse off). Wind back toward Kona and the airport via the South Kona Fruit Stand’s excellent smoothies (84-4770 Mamalahoa Highway) before you board your flight back to Honolulu.