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While cruise ships call it "Kona," this stop on the western part of the island of Hawaii is actually a region rather than an actual city. Ships anchor in Kailua Bay and tender their guests to the Kailua Pier, which is right in the middle of Kailua Village, the historic heart of Kailua-Kona.
Kona's sunnier and dryer than Hilo to the east -- it almost never rains -- and features the island's best beaches, snorkeling and surfing. (The east coast is more tropical, with waterfalls and mountainous regions closer to the town of Hilo. Believe it or not, the island has 11 climatic zones!)
Coffee grown in the hills above Kailua-Kona (the one place where it rains more in the summer than in the winter) is very delicious and highly prized. Beaches in the area range from black sand to sugar white, with sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and -- in season, November to May -- humpback whales visible from the surf or the shore.
Whereas Hilo is the business anchor of the Big Island (with a more authentic, local feel), the area just north of Kailua-Kona -- the Kohala Coast -- houses the island's most desirable resorts, with renowned restaurants, spas and golf courses.
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Other Hawaii Cruise Ports:
Fanning Island • Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
You can't go wrong with a Hawaii-themed cocktail like a Lava Flow (a cross between a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada, made with light rum and coconut rum plus strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut cream) or a Blue Hawaii (a concoction of rum, curacao, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix). For something a bit more local, order a beer from the Kona Brewing Co. or a drink made with Ocean Vodka, made with water sourced from deep sea water off the Big Island's coast.
Kona Coffee is your best bet for coffee drinkers. Try to buy at 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 find coffee varieties you can't find in retail stores.
For other food souvenirs, head to a KTA Super Store or Long's Drugs to pick up local favorites such as ulu (breadfruit) chips, Kona Chips potato chips, mochi (a sweet rice cake) and manju (a confection filled with red bean paste), or Donna's Cookies. If you're looking for shot glasses, keychains and the ubiquitous chocolate-covered macadamias (which you can also find in your hometown Costco), head to an ABC Store, Wal-Mart or most any shopping area. You'll find the bigger chains up Palani Road from the pier and a variety of tourist shops along Alii Drive.
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
Local currency is the U.S. dollar. There are plenty of ATMs around the little city, including at the Courtyard King Kamehameha Hotel, retail stores on Alii Drive and at the Lanihau shopping center. An American Savings Bank is located at the corner of Kuakini Highway and Palani Road. Almost all shops, restaurants, car rental companies and tour companies take credit and debit cards.
Where You're Docked
Tenders arrive in the middle of downtown Kailua Village. Shopping shuttles will pick you up at the pier, as will rental car company shuttles. Local tourist representatives set up a small table with brochures and maps and can answer questions.
Just across from the tender pier is the King Kamehameha Hotel, a historic Hawaiian temple and a small beach with water sports rentals. Head right for a quick walk to restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops, the farmers market and a few historic sites; head left and up the hill for more restaurants and shops, as well as the larger stores like Hilo Hattie's and Long's Drugs.
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 at the pier will deliver you to Hilo Hattie's, Kmart, Wal-Mart and the Kona International Market. The Keauhou Trolley is a local area shuttle that makes two alternating loops around Kona area attractions for a couple of bucks. It picks up at the pier and does a shorter loop to retail/restaurant areas and a longer one to nearby beaches; service is limited, so make sure you have a copy of the schedule, available from the tourist reps at the pier.
By Car: You can take advantage of the easy accessibility and reasonable prices of Kona's car rental agencies. Just be savvy about which agency you choose; some have in-town branches, while airport locations might not provide courtesy shuttles for cruisers. (If not, you'll need to hire a cab for the seven-mile ride.) It's best to book ahead, if you can, because if the cars sell out, last-minute rentals can increase the price exponentially. Discount Hawaii Car Rental is one great source for discounted rentals and information on pickup service.
Watch Out For
Ocean safety is a top concern. The water might look calm and peaceful, but conditions can change quickly. Never turn your back on the ocean and obey all signage or official warnings about beach and water use. If you don't see locals in the water, it might be best to stay on dry land, and don't disobey posted regulations just because someone you meet tells you it's no problem to go swimming.
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 and the huge wall that separated the chief's residence from the puuhonua. You may also witness canoe-building, rock bowling or spear-throwing demonstrations. Puuhonua O Honaunau is located about a 35-minute drive south of Kailua-Kona, just beyond the town of Captain Cook.
Kona Coffee Plantation: Kona coffee is one of the most sought-after brews in the world, and this region is the only place in the U.S. where coffee production has been ongoing for 200 years. On a visit to a coffee plantation, you'll probably get a full tour with an explanation of the farm and the family that runs it, an overview of the harvesting, processing and roasting processes, and the opportunity to taste and then buy coffee. There are several great farms to visit, including Pele Plantations, Holualoa Kona Coffee Co., Bay View Farm, Greenwell Farms, Mountain Thunder and Ueshima Coffee Co.
Snorkeling: The west side of Hawaii provides the best snorkeling spots on the island, with several unique species and corals. You can make a day of it without renting a car; take a cab or the Keauhou Trolley to Kahaluu Beach Park, about five miles south of the tender pier on the main oceanfront boulevard (Alii Drive). The black sand beach is protected, and it's an easy walk to the snorkeling spots. The shallow waters make the park a great place for kids; 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. Other excellent snorkel spots include Kelakeau Bay by the Captain Cook Monument (accessible only by kayak or catamaran tour) and Honaunau Bay (also called Two Step), located next to Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.
Golf: The Big Island features a variety of world-class golf courses, many of which are attached to the big-name resorts on the Kohala Coast. Mauna Lani Bay Hotel offers two world-renowned courses; built on a lava bed, the North Course is more difficult, while the South Course features a panorama of both mountain and sea. The Waikoloa Beach Resort boasts the Beach and Kings' Courses, also a mix of greenery, sea views and black lava, and the Mauna Kea Golf Course offers a course in a beautiful, coastal spot with palm trees and ocean views. The Kona Country Club, located just south of Kailua Village, features the William Bell-designed par 72 Ocean Course or the William Bell, Nelson and Robin Wright-designed par 72 Mountain Course. Both are due to reopen in spring 2014.
If you don't mind a more mountainous course or are looking for cooler climes for golfing, try Makalei Golf Club, set amid lush forest scenery, and Big Island Country Club, located on the slopes of Mauna Kea mountain.
Been There, Done That
Historic Kailua-Kona: Kailua Village has several historic sites worth checking out. These include Ahuena, King Kamehameha's temple, the grass-thatched structure sitting on a rock that you can see from Kamakahonu Bay (to the front and left from where you get off tender); Mokuaikaua Church, the first Christian church in Hawaii; and Hulihee Palace, once a summer palace for Hawaii's royal family. These sites, as well as others along the seven-mile Alii Drive, are included in the Royal Footsteps Along the Kona Coast free smartphone app, which lets you take a self-guided historic tour of the area.
Cultural Attractions: Most resorts will have some sort of historic sites on their premises. These might include lava tubes or ancient fishponds, where grates were set up to allow in smaller fish but keep the bigger fish from getting out. While most visitors don't visit a hotel simply to view the cultural attractions on its grounds, you might wish to take time out of your beach or golf day to look around. Find the resort's cultural director, who can point you to interesting locations or alert you to any cultural performances (like hula dancing) taking place that day.
Outrigger Canoe Rides: Travel the way the ancient Hawaiians traveled, in these hand-crafted wooden canoes. You can book rides at the rental kiosk at Kamakahonu Bay, right by the pier, where you'll get a sense of the history of these vessels before you get in for a ride. Hotel activity desks may also arrange canoe rides.
Kona Farmers' Market: Tired of ABC stores? Hit the Kona Farmers' Market for a more fun and authentic shopping experience. You can ogle local produce and flowers, or pick up hand-crafted gifts and Kona coffee. (Intersection of Alii Drive and Hualalai Road; open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
Eco Adventures: Those looking for an adrenaline boost can try zip-lining, ATV rides and nature hiking with Kona Eco Adventures. Tours can be booked by phone or online, and tour pickup is at the Keauhou Shopping Center on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. Another recommended outfit for adventure tours is Hawaii Forest and Trail, offering waterfall, birding and zip-lining tours.
Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park: This significant historical site is located next to Honokohau harbor and its fishing boats. Take a self-guided walking tour along the footpaths and view ancient fishponds, heiaus and petroglyphs. You might even see green sea turtles on the beach. (Highway 19, three miles north of Kailua-Kona; visitor center and parking lots open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily)
Helicopter Tours: From Kona, helicopter tours will fly you over the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, as well as Kilauea with its active lava flows. Longer tours will also circle over the island's northern coastline to see waterfalls and other breathtaking sceneries.
Closest to Port: Kamakahonu Beach is a crescent-shaped beach just across from the tender pier and King Kamehameha Hotel. A water sports stand rents snorkel gear, kayaks, bikes and standup paddleboards and can book you on an outrigger canoe ride. The beach's shallow, clear waters and proximity to bathrooms and beach showers make it ideal for families or anyone looking for a quick dip pre- or post-tour. Old Airport Beach (Kailua Park) and Magic Sands Beach are also close to Kailua-Kona but will require a car, cab or trolley ride.
Best for Snorkeling: Just a few miles south of Kailua-Kona, Kahaluu Beach Park is quite popular with snorkel enthusiasts (see Don't Miss, above). You can rent equipment onsite and paddle into the water to see Hawaii's green sea turtles and other marine life.
Best for a Day of Sunbathing: You can easily spend the day at the resort area of Waikoloa, with its beautiful beaches and fancy resorts offering amenities like restrooms, water sports rentals and even interesting cultural attractions onsite. Hapuna State Beach Park, about a 45-minute drive from the Kailua pier, is the largest white sand beach on the island. Located next to the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, the beach offers easy parking, available bathrooms and picnic areas. Another good choice is Anaehoomalu Beach, next to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. You'll find watersports rentals (body boards, kayaks, hydro bikes, snorkel equipment) and even an old Hawaiian fishpond.
Lunch in Kona can be almost anything you want, from extravagant elegance in the hotels around Waikoloa to cheap eats just a few blocks from the tender dock. Fresh fish is a Hawaiian staple; look for mahimahi, opakapaka, opah and ahi. Fresh fruit (including tropical ones like pineapples and coconuts) are also a good bet.
One very typical Hawaiian meal is the plate lunch. It consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and one protein: Choose from options such as barbecue chicken, kalbi ribs, hamburger steak, beef stew or the fish of the day. A mixed plate lets you choose two different meats. For a perfect dessert on a hot day, stop in any shave ice shop. Hawaii's version of the snow cone consists of ice shaved off a large block then topped with flavored syrups. You can even order them with a scoop of ice cream in the center.
If Hawaiian food isn't your thing, don't worry. Restaurants in Hawaii are quite diverse with ethnic cuisines including standard American, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and French. Cruise Critic members have been pleased with several of the near-to-pier options, including Splasher's Grill and The Fish Hopper.
Kona Inn: Sit on the open terrace for lunch, where the prices are lower, the views of the bay fantastic and the mai tais are potent. It's located on Alii Drive, not far from the pier and attached to a shopping center. The food's good, but the Hawaiian atmosphere, ocean breezes and views make it special. (75-5744 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona; 808-239-4455) For a more casual vibe and sports on the TV, stop at Kona Canoe Club, in the same marketplace. It has a similar menu and prices.
Kona Brewing Co.: If you want to try local beer, it's worth the uphill walk to the Kona Brewing Co. to sample their brews -- including ones you can't find in the supermarket. Lunch is typical salads and sandwiches, pizza and pupus (appetizers). It's a bit pricey but typical for Hawaii rates. Get here super-early (before noon) or be prepared to wait for a table. Don't worry -- you can sip a Longboard Island Lager or Pipeline Porter while you wait.
Hawaii Calls at Waikoloa Beach Marriott: If you're heading north toward 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. (69-275 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Kohalo Coast; 808-886-8111)
Huggo's On the Rocks: Located about a mile south of the tender pier, On the Rocks is the place to eat with your toes in the sand. The casual menu offers up sandwiches, burgers, tacos and fish and chips -- not to mention an array of "exotic tropical potions." In season, you might even spy a few humpback whales diving offshore. (75-5824 Kahakai Road, Kailua-Kona; 808-329-1493; open 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily)
Scandinavian Shave Ice: This small downtown shop is in the running for the title of Hawaii's Best Shave Ice. We're no experts, but we loved the choices of sizes, flavors (65!), toppings and ice cream or frozen yogurt centers. A small can easily be shared by two; the larges are enormous. Eat it there or sit on the seawall across the street as you indulge. (75-5699 Alii Drive)
Staying in Touch
Some restaurants may offer Wi-Fi to customers, including Island Lava Java (75-5799 Alii Drive). Alii Buzz, right across from the pier, has one computer terminal for customer use and free Wi-Fi with a purchase. (75-5669 Alii Drive, Suite 1109)
Best for Snorkeling: On the 3.5-hour Captain Zodiac Raft and Snorkel tour, 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 swimming and snorkeling, the raft explores sea caves and lava tubes. (While some lines, like Norwegian, add "dolphin adventure" to the tour name, there's no actual dolphin show, though you might glimpse wild spinner dolphins if you're lucky.)
Best for Fishing: The Kona Coast is the billfish capital of the world. On a five-hour Deep Sea Troll-Fishing tour, try your hand at catching record-breaking ahi tuna, marlin, mahi mahi or wahoo on a six-passenger boat with an experienced captain and guides. Experience is not necessary, but kids must be at least 10 years old.
Best for Coffee Addicts: Visit a coffee farm, while also exploring the Big Island's cultural and natural treasures on a 3.5-hour Gold Coast and Cloud Forest tour. First, a ranger will take you to an endangered tropical cloud forest, where you'll learn about plants and birds as you walk. Then it's off to a coffee mill for a tour and tasting. All caffeinated up, you'll finish at the Kaloko Honokohau National Historical Park, to see temples, petroglyphs and walk the beach, searching for sea turtles, monk seals, whales and dolphins.
For More Information
On the Web: Big Island Visitor's Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
IndependentTraveler.com: Hawaii Travel Guide
--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor