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Hawaii Ironman Highlights Hilo & East Coast Interior ITO Airport KOA Airport Kohala District Kona Coast North Coast South Coast Waipio Valley
Hawaii Islands (Big Island [West])
Kalua Kona
You will enter Big Island either in Kailua-Kona on the west side or Hilo (pronounced HEE-lo, not High-Low) on the east coast, so we'll start with Kona. Kona, which is divided into north and south districts, is known for it's sunny, dry climate, hence its nickname "The Gold Coast". This is the home of the International Billfish Tournament as well as our legendary Kona coffee and the only USA coffee plantations.

When you land at the airport at Keahole (pronounced Kay-ah-HO-lay), about 10 minutes north of Kailua, you are likely to assume that all the stories you've heard about beautiful, lush Hawaii were just travel agent tricks designed to trap you on an ugly, desolate rock miles from home. Don't worry, we just like to build our airports in the middle of old lava fields. It will get better. Much better.

North Kona
A drive north of the airport will take you further into north Kona, home of the finest (and most expensive) resorts on the island. The Hualalai Four Seasons, the Mauna Lani, Kona Village and further north the Hilton Waikoloa Village all dot the coastline here. Though still rugged and somewhat barren in this region, the hotels have made their own little oases. This is also the area in which our best sand beaches begin (see Beach Guide).

If you head south from the airport you will soon come to the main town on our west side, Kailua-Kona. By the way, don't worry about getting lost. There's only one major highway. Anyway, Kailua is the shopping and general activity center for this side of the island. Ali'i Drive (pronounced Ah-LEE-ee), the main street through town will take you to quaint old shopping villages as well as a few dozen restaurants (check our restaurant guide). At the north end of Ali'i you will find the Kailua Pier, the starting line for the Ironman Triathlon.

Some places to visit in Kailua proper must include the Hulihe'e Palace and the Mokuaikaua Church. The palace was a summer escape for the royal family, built in 1838 by our first governor, John Kuakini. Not palatial on the outside with its country manor style, the inside holds some very precious treasure. If you are a  person who appreciates fine woodworking, the furniture in the palace is not to be missed. There are also delightful personal effects on display. Operated by the Daughters of Hawaii as a museum, there is usually someone on hand to answer your questions.

Across the street from the palace is the Mokuaikaua Church, erected in 1838 as well. Built of lava rock, ohia and koa woods, it is said that this is the oldest Christian church in Hawaii. Elegant and beautiful in its simplicity of design, hush falls on you when you enter its cool, dark sanctuary. It's name actually translates, The trees are felled, now let us eat, an example of the insightful, creative and uniquely Hawaiian way of expressing a much deeper thought in what seems to be a very practical and almost nonchalant manner.

If you follow Ali'i to its conclusion at Keauhou Shopping Center you will pass by several of the best beaches in the immediate area, many of which are popular surf spots. Tiny (and I mean tiny) St. Peter's "Little Blue Church", built in 1889 is along the way. Almost at the end of Ali'i Drive you will come to Kahalu'u Beach Park, a popular tourist beach and good beginner's' snorkeling spot, known for its friendly honu (sea turtles). For your convenience, a trolley service runs through Kailua to nearby Keauhou (Kay-ow-HO), but we recommend you rent a car to really get around the island.

South Kona

Continuing further towards South Kona you enter the Real Old Hawaii, consisting of a string of tiny villages and small coffee farms. You will notice the air becoming cooler and the foliage lusher, as you're going up the mountain (or mauka, as we say here). Here and there you will also see remnants of old cattle pens and chutes left over from the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) days. You will pass through Honalo, Kainaliu and Kealakekua (famous for the little grass shack of song) in quick succession. There are interesting shops and places to stop throughout this area. Leaving Kealakekua you will see a road leading down to your right to Kealakekua Bay, home of Spinner Dolphins and the best snorkeling around. This four mile winding road will take you to the spot where Captain Cook met an unenviable end. You can see his monument across the bay, which is where the great snorkeling is. To reach it you will need a kayak, go by one of several tour boats, or take the Kings' Trail Rides down the mountain. The hike is a bit much unless you are in superb training. Ironman kind.

Driving further south you will come to the village of Honaunau (Ho-now-NOW) and the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau or the Place of Refuge. This is a National park in which you can stroll through a replica of a Hawaiian village and see ancient Hawaiian culture demonstrated. The Honaunau area, like all South Kona, is coffee country and there are dozens of small farms along the way, as well as spectacular valleys and postcard views. Have your camera handy! There is so very much to see in Kona that it is impossible to describe it all here. Take your time and look around.

Eating and drinking

Competition ensures that the bars and restaurants of central Kailua – especially those along the seafront – are well priced, though the relentless vacation atmosphere means the place can seem a bit unreal.
  • Cassandra’s Greek Taverna, Kona Plaza, 75–5719 Alii Drive (tel 808/334-1066). Delicious and inexpensive Greek food, from light salads to substantial moussakas.
  • Huggo’s, on the beach at 76–6828 Kuhakai St (tel 808/329-1493). Lunch and dinner only on a large ocean-view terrace; burgers, salads and sandwiches, plus live evening entertainment.
  • Island Lava Java Bakery & Bistro, Alii Sunset Plaza, 75–5799 Alii Drive (tel 808/327-2161). Seafront cafe/bakery just south of central Kailua, with delicious Kona coffee, fresh-baked bread, and live acoustic music in the evening.
  • Ocean View Inn, 75–5683 Alii Drive (tel 808/329-9998). Very inexpensive Hawaiian and Asian diner overlooking the sea; traditional fish dishes. Closed Mon.
  • Oodles of Noodles, Crossroads Shopping Center, 75–1027 Henry St (tel 808/329-2222). Pan-Asian noodle joint a mile up from the ocean near the highway; great dinners from around $15.
  • Su’s Thai Kitchen, 74–5588A Pawai Place (tel 808/326-7808). Kailua’s best Thai restaurant; hard to find, but also hard to beat, tucked away behind the North Kona mall. Red- or green-curry specials for around $6, Pad Thai noodles for under $10.


Alii Drive is lined for about five miles south from Kailua with hotels and condos, but none offers much by way of budget accommodation. The listings below therefore include a couple of places a bit further along the coast.
  • Aston Royal Seacliff
  • Aston Kona by the Sea Resort
  • King Kamehameha's Beach Hotel, 75–5660 Palani Rd . Long-established landmark hotel at the northern end of oceanfront Kailua, centered around a picturesque little beach and the Ahuena Heiau. $100–130.
  • Kona Reef Hotel
  • Kona Seaside Hotel, 75–5646 Palani Rd. Six floors of reasonable air-conditioned rooms, with and without kitchens, plus discounted car rental.
  • Kona Tiki Hotel, 75–5968 Alii Drive. Bargain little three-story motel, on the ocean a mile south of central Kailua. No phones or TVs.
  • Patey’s Place, 75–195 Ala Ona Ona. Chaotic, ramshackle budget hostel, up from the town center, and dominated by backpackers and surf freaks. $18 beds in four-person dorms, plus some private rooms with shared bath.
  • Royal Kona Resort
  • Uncle Billy’s Kona Bay Hotel, 75–5739 Alii Drive. Friendly central hotel, run by the same family as The Hilo Bay in Hilo. Simple but comfortable rooms arranged around a small pool and the Banana Bay buffet restaurant.

Accommodation south of Kailua - Kona includes:

The best of the spectacular sandy beaches along the Kona coast – safe for summer swimming, though with tempestuous winter surf – lie to the north of Kailua. Hapuna Beach, almost forty miles up the coast, is deservedly the most famous; it’s still possible to rent cabins here, but since the opening of the giant Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel in 1994 it has lost some of its charm. For real idyllic seclusion, head instead for Kona Coast State Park (daily except Wed 9am–8pm; free), reached via a bumpy dirt road just a couple of miles north of Keahole Airport.

Several extraordinary resort hotels lie in the district of South Kohala, thirty miles north of Kailua. Three separate enclaves – Waikoloa, Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani – have been landscaped out of this inhospitable lava desert, each one a self-contained oasis holding two or three hotels, a beach or two, and nothing else. Although Waikoloa is the least exclusive of the three, it’s home to the ludicrously ostentatious, mile-long Hilton Waikoloa Village, said to consume seven percent of all the island’s energy. Guests travel to and from their rooms by electric boats or monorail. The adjoining Outrigger Waikoloa Resort is half the price, and has two good restaurants, as well as its own field of petroglyphs. Accommodation north of Kailua - Kona are:

Arrival and information

Open-plan Keahole Airport, on a field of black lava nine miles north of Kailua, has the usual car rental places; otherwise the Speedi Shuttle (tel 808/329-5433) into town costs around $16 per person. Once in Kailua, a regular shuttle bus runs the six-mile length of Alii Drive every ninety minutes (8.30am–9.30pm; $2). One daily bus follows Hwy-11 around the north of the island to Hilo, leaving Kailua just before 6am and returning in the evening.

The Hawaiian Visitors Bureau is in Kona Plaza on Alii Drive (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1–4.30pm; tel 808/329-7787), as is the well-stocked Middle Earth bookstore. Bicycles can be rented from Hawaiian Pedals in the Kona Inn Shopping Village (tel 808/329-2294).

Alii Drive detail map shows many of the hotel and condominiums located on the Kona Coast as well as the center of much of the activity in Kailua-Kona.
The Kona Coast map will guide you from the Keahole Airport to points north, and through Kona Coffee country to the historic regions to the south.
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