How to wander Kailua-Kona’s Alii Drive on the Big Island
A stroll down Kailua-Kona’s main street reveals delightful food, music and local boutiques.
It’s one of those Kona days when the sky is clear but its colors are muted by a voggy haze.
I watch a group of teenagers bodyboard a break, jumping off the wave right before it splashes against the rocky coast, as I sit on the oceanfront veranda of Daylight Mind Restaurant and Café (75-5770 Alii Dr.) waiting for my breakfast, though it’s half past noon. The breeze off the ocean is rejuvenating and I wish I could lounge here all day, just like the turtle I spy near the shore, camouflaged by rocks, lazily floating half in and half out of the water.
Arriving to my table are three Hamakua scrambled eggs covering a medley of vegetables mixed in a spicy-sweet sauce, next to buttered toast with a lilikoi (passion fruit) jam I cannot get enough of. On the side: a papaya bowl plated with tropical fruits, yogurt and granola. I take my time eating, not wanting to rush what is becoming an idyllic Sunday afternoon, but the 100 percent Kona coffee finally gives me the boost of energy I need to get up from my table and begin my stroll down Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona’s most popular thoroughfare.
Consider it Kona’s Waikiki. The coastal road is surrounded by restaurants, shops and a few hotels, but today it’s bustling with more activity than usual for a Sunday. Drums beat rhythmically at a next-door pavilion for the annual Heiva I Hawaii Tahitian dance competition. I stop for a moment to watch a group of children dance with smiles lighting up their blushing faces, arms poised upward and hips swirling back and forth, before making my way to the corner of Hualalai Road to Alii Drive, where I stumble unexpectedly into a block party.
Every third Sunday of the month, the road from here to the King Kamehameha hotel is blocked to traffic, and vendors selling everything from souvenirs and trinkets to hot dogs and wontons, take over the street. I join the herd of people as they meander through the crowd, but soon duck into the Kona Inn (75-5744 Alii Dr.) because I was told there’s a view here I have to see.
Built in 1928, the Kona Inn is no longer used as a hotel, but if you head out the back and past the shops, you’ll still find the Kona Inn restaurant, serving guests as it always has, in an open-air setting fronting a large public lawn next to the ocean. Couples stretch out on the grass, groups of people sit on the rock wall dividing the lawn from the ocean, letting each wave spray them as it hits the barrier, and I stare back at the historic structure with its name, “Kona Inn,” written very large in white paint on top of its red roof, feeling nostalgic.
Back on Alii Drive, I cave into the sweet smells of sugar and dough and buy a bag of mini-doughnuts for $3 from a tiny cart, before continuing my stroll: past Mokuaikaua Church, Hawaii’s first Christian church; past Hulihee Palace, where I hear musicians singing in Hawaiian and playing slack-key guitar at a monthly concert on the lawn; and past the small, sandy beach of Niumalu, where I watch someone write “Happy Birthday, Liz” carefully in the sand.
Not particularly interested in the “Aloha from Hawaii” pendants I see on the road, nor an official Ironman Triathlon T-shirt that must be a hot item, I spot a sign for Pueo Boutique (Banyan Court Mall, 75-5695 Alii Dr.), with a pueo (owl) for its logo, pointing in a direction off the street. I take a sharp right and see that it’s the local, made-in-Hawaii by Hawaii designers kind of shop I’d been hoping to find. A small boutique, Pueo carries apparel and accessories for women and children from local brands such as Ava Sky, Florencia Arias, Lily Lotus, Otaheite, Lucky We Live Hawaii and Wings Hawaii, to name a few. There’s also unique artwork for sale, made on the Big Island by artist Shelly Batha, who turns colorful fused glass into nightlights and decorative wall art.
After perusing the store for its brand of pueo-wear apparel, and admiring the necklaces with miniature watercolor paintings, I reach the end of the road and stare out at Kailua Pier. A sign marks the beginning of the Ironman Triathlon at the small beach below me where kids splash around, and snorkelers and swimmers are doing laps. People take turns sitting on the ocean wall to rest, watching the waves or people passing by; a girl blows bubbles from a giant tube that wobbles and floats above the swimmers’ heads; and I take one last detour inside Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice (75-5660 Palani Rd.) across the street.
The colorful menu hanging overhead describes “how to order in five easy steps.” I decide on a keiki-sized shave ice, with ice cream and fresh mochi. The flavor? There are too many choices, so I order what’s recommended: POG (passion fruit, orange and guava). I sit by the sunny window of the shave ice shop and give it a taste. Not too sweet and just the right size, I dig my wooden spoon into the vanilla ice cream at the bottom of the cup, shove some shave ice on top and slowly scoop up a soft ball of mochi into one satisfying combination and let it all melt away on my tongue contentedly. I’m as happy as the little girl at the table next to me, slurping up her red cone of ice, so I stay and take my time.