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"Kona" is actually a misnomer, since it refers to a region of the western part of The Big Island rather than an actual city. The area the ships arrive in is called Kailua-Kona. Ships anchor in Kailua Bay and tender their guests to the Kailua Pier, which is right in the middle of Kailua Village.
Located on the western shore of the Big Island (Hawaii), this is the region that attracts most tourists. It nearly never rains, and Kona's sunnier and dryer than Hilo to the east, and features the best beaches, snorkeling and surfing. (The east coast is more tropical, with waterfalls and mountainous regions closer to the town of Hilo.) This is important, because, believe it or not, the island has 11 -- yes ELEVEN -- different climate zones!
Because of the unique climate conditions in the hills above Kailua-Kona (the one place where it rains more in the summer than in the winter), coffee from the region, while not the most abundant of Hawaii's coffee production, is among the most delicious in the world and is highly prized. Beaches in the area range from black sand to sugar white, with sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and -- in season, December to April -- humpback whales visible from the surf or the shore.
Just north of Kailua-Kona, along the Kohala Coast, are to be found some of the most desirable resorts in the world, with renowned restaurants, spas and golf courses. Whereas Hilo is the business and cultural anchor of the Big Island, Kailua-Kona, Waikoloa, the Kohala Coast and Keauhou
form the basis for most of its tourism.
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Other Hawaii Cruise Ports:
Fanning Island • Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
English, but try your hand at any Hawaiian phrases you pick up. "Aloha" means hello and goodbye, "mahalo" means thank you, and "aloha ahiahi" means good night! If you hear "Aloha, e komo mai," don't panic. It means "Welcome!"
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are plenty of banks and ATM's around the little city, including some in the stores. Almost all shops and restaurants, car rental companies and tour companies take credit and debit cards.
Kona Coffee, of course, although there are plenty of fabric items (wraps, muumuus, shirts) and sundry tchotchkes you can choose. If you're looking for shot glasses and keychains, there's the Hawaiian equivalent of a dollar store in a strip mall across the street from Hilo Hattie's. I got a great pair of sandals there for $4.
You can also take a free shuttle to Wal-Mart, where they have stacks and stacks of Mauna Loa macadamias in every flavor (including plain) from chocolate covered to Kona Coffee and Maui onion. Sure, you can get them in your local Costco, but somehow, buying macadamias in a Wal-Mart on the Big Island makes them taste so much more ... authentic.
Did you know that it takes 345 pounds of pressure to crack the outer shell of a macadamia nut, and until fairly recently, the trees were considered strictly ornamental? Another fun fact: The Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Company is owned by Hershey's!
But back to the coffee: Try to buy at either one of the plantations or at a grocery store rather than in a tourist outlet. You'll get a much better price in the grocery stores although the packaging might not be as pretty, and at the plantation, you'll at least have a souvenir of your visit.
More trivia: There are more than 500 coffee farms along the Kona Coast. Coffee pods are called "cherries" because of the bright red fruit that holds the beans. They ripen at different times, which is why they have to be picked by hand. Most cherries have two beans (the seeds), but there is the occasional pod that has only one; this is called a "peaberry," and many farms offer a special peaberry coffee, which supposedly has a distinctive taste.
Where You're Docked
Kailua-Kona is a tender port; tenders arrive in the middle of downtown Kailua Village. It's a short walk to souvenir shops, coffee shops, bars and other shopping venues. Shuttles for Hilo Hattie's and Wal-Mart will pick you up at the pier, as will rental car company shuttles.
Just across from the tender pier are several shops selling everything from "Maui socks" (rubber footwear to protect your feet from the coral shoals when snorkeling) to brightly colored muumuus, shell leis and wind chimes. You can get Kona coffee and macadamia nuts, sandals, shot glasses, beach wraps and towels and sundry other touristy items. Prices here, while geared towards the tourist trade, seem to be a little lower than elsewhere in the islands.
You can also walk (or take a shuttle up the hill) to Hilo Hattie's the ubiquitous original Hawaiian textile clothing store. It's big, nicely air-conditioned, and has plenty of items to browse, although most are quite expensive.
Several hotels and restaurants line the streets in Kailua Village so you can stop for a Mai Tai or lunch before heading back to the ship.
On Foot: If you're just going to visit Kailua Village, you can easily do it on foot. It's small and compact.
By Bus or Shuttle: Shuttles available at the pier will deliver you to Wal-Mart and to Hilo Hattie's. There's even free island-wide bus service with pick-ups right near the tender pier.
By Car: Most people take advantage of the easy accessibility and reasonable prices of the car rental agencies located just a few miles from the tender pier. It's nice, because it's the United States and business is conducted as though you were in any other U.S. city. It's best to book ahead, if you can, because the cars do sell out and, if they don't, last-minute rentals can increase the price exponentially.
Rental companies include: Alamo (800-GO-ALAMO), Avis (800-331-1212), Budget (800-527-0700), Enterprise (800-261-7331), and Hertz (800-654-3535). The code to use when booking online is KOA.
Puuhonua O Honaunau, City of Refuge: In ancient times, anyone caught violating a "kapu," a sacred taboo, was captured and put to death ... unless, that is, he could reach a Puuhonua, or Place of Refuge. There he could be absolved by the priest and return home safe and forgiven. O Honaunau is the best preserved of the sacred puuhonuas in the islands and the most famous. It is a National Historic Park and includes ruins of the king's home, heiau (temples), royal fish ponds, the huge wall that separated the chief's residence from the puuhonua, and canoe-building demonstrations, spear-throwing competitions and other replications of early island life. This is located about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona, just beyond the town of Captain Cook.
Kona Coffee Plantation: Although it's one of the most sought-after brews in the world, Kona coffee production is not the most plentiful in the state ... beans from the island of Kauai are actually more bountiful. But, the lush mountain regions and the fact that they get more rain in the summer than in the winter make Kona coffee special, and this region is the only place in the U.S. where coffee production has been ongoing for over 100 years. There are several to visit in the area, including Pele Plantations, which has seven farms, Holualoa Kona Coffee Company and Bay View Farm.
King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel: (808-329-2911) Located directly across the street from the Kailua Pier, this hotel holds one of Hawaii's most sacred sites on its grounds, which are available to the public during the day. The King lived on this site, and rebuilt the Ahu'ena Haieu (temple) which also contains his burial platform. In the lobby are several artifacts that date back to his reign. It's a nice place to wander through before getting back on a tender to the ship; the grounds are lush and lovely and the Mai-Tais are cold.
Snorkeling: The Kona or west side of Hawaii provides the best snorkeling spots on the island and some of the unique species and corals in the world. You can make a day of it without renting a car; take a cab to Kahaluu Beach Park: about six miles south of the tender pier on the main oceanfront boulevard (Ali'i Drive). The beach is black sand and protected, and is an easy walk to the snorkeling spots. It's a great place for kids and beginners because of the shallow waters; green sea turtles occasionally come up on shore to graze. The park also has picnic tables, equipment rental, lifeguards, shade trees and concession stands for lunch and drinks.
Been There, Done That
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel Grounds: (68-1400 Mauna Lani drive, 808-881-7911, Resort Concierge) The hotel's concierge will give you a brochure with a map so you can wend your way around the historic sites contained within the grounds of the resort. Go underground through a series of interconnecting lava tubes, visit the unique fishponds where grates have been set up to allow smaller fish in but keep the bigger fish from getting out. Watch as the fish come to the surface to shake off parasites. There's a well-maintained trail, and several historic sites that are not actually part of the hotel, but when you're done trekking, this is a great place to stop for a cool one.
Waimea Highlands and Parker Ranch: (808-885-7311) Located about 37 miles north of the airport (where you'll pick up your rental car), the Parker Ranch is a historic anomaly. It's one of the oldest continuously operating ranches in the U.S., and, at 175,000 acres, the biggest. Although the ranch itself was founded in 1847, the land it's on was in use well before that, from 1791, when Captain George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha with just five head of cattle. This is the home of the original American cowboy, the paniolos, who herded the cattle when the original five reproduced into thousands. The visitor's center, museum and store are located in Waimea Town Center; from there you can choose excursions like horseback riding, a Paniolo Barbecue, a drawn wagon ride or a four-wheel-drive ATV adventure. It's a fabulous "day out" for the kids, too.
Kahanahou Hawaiian Foundation: (808-322-3901) Located in the opposite direction, about 20 miles south of the airport, is this cultural center developed in the early 1960's to keep alive the vanishing culture of Polynesian Hawaii. Here you can try everything from hula implements to nose flutes made on the premises by artisans. You can get demonstrations of everything in the center as well. It's a real peek into authentic Hawaiian culture.
Mauna Lani Resort and Spa: (Tee time phone: 808-885-6655) The elegant, tranquil resort is located just 20 minutes and a world away from Kailua-Kona, on the Kohala Coast north of the airport. With two world-renown courses (North Course: more difficult, built on a lava bed, with its signature par three 17th hole in a virtual lava bowl. South Course: featuring a panorama of both mountain and sea, and its signature 15th hole, one of the most-photographed over-the-water holes in the world), you can play with the golf enthusiasts who come from around the world to experience these courses. Rates run about $205 for 18 holes (either course); club rentals and carts extra.
Kona Country Club: (Tee time page online: www.konagolf.com/konagolf/set-tee-ttimes.cfm, 888-707-4522) Located just south of Kailua Village, on Ali'i Drive (the main oceanfront street in the town), you can play either the William Bell-designed par 72 Ocean Course or the William Bell, Nelson and Robin Wright-designed par 72 Mountain Course ... or both! Rates are $160 for the Ocean Course and $145 for the Mountain Course, but you get a big break by beginning play after noon.
Lunch in Kona can be almost anything you want it to be, from extravagant elegance in the hotels around Waikoloa to cheap eats just a few blocks from the tender dock. Local food (fish, fresh fruit, items with Asian influences) is available in most of the places we've recommended, but these days, even KFC counts as local food. We've tried to give you a range of options, from historic Hawaiian meeting places to uber-classy resort fare. All of our recommendations are family-friendly.
Kona Inn: (75-5744 Ali'i Drive, Kailua-Kona, 808-239-4455) Sit on the open terrace for lunch, where the prices are low, the views of the bay fantastic and the Mai-Tai's are potent. Located on Ali'i Drive not far from the pier. The food's good, but the Hawaiian atmosphere, ocean breezes and views make it special.
Kona Mix Plate: (341 Palani St, Kailua-Kona, 808-329-8104) This place could be subtitled "Cheap Local Eats." For under $10 you can "dine" in this spare little joint with its long tables and no decor, but heaping plates of island favorites. Closed on Sunday, and they don't take credit cards.
Hawaii Calls at Waikoloa Beach Marriott: (69-275 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Kohalo Coast, 808-886-6789) If you're heading north towards Waikaloa and the Kohalo Coast, this is a fabulous place to have lunch. It's open air, with a koi pond and waterfalls, and serves fresh fish and produce. It's pricier than some of the other recommendations, but it's well worth it.
Huggos: (75-5828 Kahakai Road, Kailua-Kona, 808-329-1493) If you're so inclined you can walk to Huggo's, about a mile south of the tender pier. And once you get there you'll be enjoying a gorgeous ocean view from a lanai (terrace) over the water. In season (between December and April), this is an excellent spot for whale watching as the humpbacks frolic offshore.
Kona Tiki Hula Cruise: Want to party? Take this boat out around Kailua, be treated to a complimentary bar (21 and older) and lots of Hawaiian entertainment and dance. If you're lucky, you'll see lots of dolphins. If you're luckier, between December and April, you'll see humpback whales.
Captain Zodiac Raft and Snorkel: Take a 24-foot inflatable raft down to Kealakekua Bay, site of the Captain Cook monument, a protected marine sanctuary, and home to manta rays and sea turtles among other extraordinary sea life. After snorkeling, the raft explores sea caves and lava tubes.
Deep Sea Fishing: The Kona Coast is the billfish capital of the world; try your hand at catching record-breaking ahi tuna, marlin, mahi-mahi or wahoo on a five-guest boat with an experienced Captain and guides. Age restriction for this tour is 12 years old and up.
Outrigger Canoe Rides: Travel the way the ancient Hawaiians traveled, in these hand-crafted wooden canoes. Starting at Kamakahonu, a holy site, you'll get a sense of the history of these vessels before you get in for a ride.
Staying in Touch
Cell phones: This is the U.S. so cell phones actually work around Kailua-Kona, Waikoloa, Waimea and the Kohala Coast.
Internet cafe: Scandinavia Shave Ice, a block south of the pier at 75-5699 Ali'i Drive, offers speedy DSL service.
For More Information
Big Island Visitor's Bureau: www.gohawaii.com/bigisland
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--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.