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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.