When people think of Hawaii, popular destinations like Maui or Oahu typically come to mind. But the west side of the Big Island, known colloquially as the Kona side of the island, which includes everything from the Kohala Coast to Kau, is worthy of more attention. With its jet-black and bright-red lava rock fields, an active volcano and famous black sand beaches, it’s sure to bring a whole new perspective to the tropical paradise you know and love. Blessed with sun and clear skies, the west side of the island is drier and hotter compared to the lush east side, but it also has more beautiful sandy beaches, luxurious dining experiences, and adventure activities. Home to Hawaiian cowboys, the famous Ironman competition and delicious Kona Coffee, western Big Island is ideal for those looking for a less touristy Hawaiian experience.
Along with being twice the combined size of the other islands, the Big Island boasts the world’s most active volcano and the state’s longest sheer-drop waterfall. It’s also the most ecologically diverse. So, here’s what should be on your western Big Island to-do list.
1. Ancient Fishpond Tour
The Mauna Lani Resort takes up more than 3,000 acres on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. In ancient times, the area known as Kalahuipua’a was where ancient Hawaiians created aquaculture ponds that covered 15 acres of what is now this resort. The seven ponds—Kalahuipua’a, Kahinawao, Waipuhi, Waipuhi Iki, Hope’ala, Milokukahi and Manoku—date back to the 250 B.C., and have been restored and preserved at the resort. Mauna Lani has walking trails that are open to the public from which you can see ancient shelter caves, petroglyphs and a prehistoric fishing village. Although the trails and ponds (pictured above) are always open, we recommend going with Danny Akaka, who is basically a living encyclopedia of Hawaii and also the resort’s cultural historian. He gives a free, guided walking tour of the ponds every Saturday and points out hidden details that most people don’t know about. He also does an evening of storytelling and entertainment every full moon called Twilight at Kalahuipua‘a. Put on by the Mauna Lani, the event is thrown to preserve the traditional folk art of Hawaiian storytelling, history and dance, and is open to all.
2. Helicopter Volcano Tour
There’s no better way to experience Kona than getting on a helicopter to explore all five volcanoes up close. Soar through waterfalls that cascade down 2,000-foot valley walls, hidden black and white sand beaches, and many different climate zones on the Big Island alone. The two-hour flight takes off from the Kona Airport and flies over the Kona coffee district, the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa. Riders will also see red, hot lava at Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano; and fly in front of the gigantic waterfall at the top of the valley known as Manawaiopuna Falls, AKA that waterfall from Jurassic Park. The tour goes from a dry volcanic climate to lush rainforests, and ends with a birds-eye view of Hapuna Beach and Kua Bay beaches, which are considered by many as some of the best beaches in the world. The lucky passenger who sits shotgun gets to enjoy the view with a see-through glass floor.
3. Nighttime with Manta Rays
Photo by James Wing
Once the sun goes down, the Mauna Kae Beach Resort shines bright floodlights into the ocean to attract plankton, which attracts manta rays. From the hotel, you can see the manta rays peacefully swimming among giddy snorkelers, but to get the full experience, you should sign up for James Wing’s Manta Ray Moonlight Swim. The tour, run by James Wing, is an informative 35-45 minute swim that puts you face to face with the manta rays. Wing is known as the authority on manta rays and human interaction; he’s clocked more hours underwater with manta rays than anyone in the world. Don’t let the creatures’ 25-foot wingspan scare you—they are harmless, gentle giants. Bring yourself and your swimsuit; Wing will provide the snorkel gear and fins.
4. Sail and Snorkel
Hop onboard the Winona, a spacious 50-foot deck for a three-hour sailing and snorkeling adventure. The sailboat will take you to secluded snorkel sites along the Kohala Coast where the reefs are home to hundreds of species of fish, sea turtles and a variety of other marine life. Enjoy unbeatable views of the Kohala Mountains, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai and Maui’s famous Haleakala as you swim alongside sea turtles and touch live sea urchin. A staff guide is always in the water with you to answer any questions or to educate you on any creatures you see during your snorkel. Those that prefer not to get in the water can sunbathe and enjoy the views on the open deck. Mauna Lani Sea Adventures also has a whale watching tour and a sunset sail.
5. Zip and Dip
Photo courtesy of Kohala Ziplines
As the birthplace of King Kamehameha, the warrior who united the Hawaiian kingdom after years of conflict, North Kohala has profound cultural significance to Hawaii. Hawaii Forest and Trail offers a two-part activity known as the Kohala Zip & Dip. Guests start off the morning going off-roading through private lands in an open-air military vehicle, followed by an educational hike alongside tunnels blasted and carved from solid rock. The hike goes over an aqueduct bridge and leads through hidden Kohala Waterfalls where participants can jump in and swim, and concludes with a deli picnic lunch overlooking 1000-foot ocean cliffs. Upon returning, guests go to Kohala Ziplines where the ziplines are sustainably built directly into the trees. Guests fly from tree to tree through some of King Kamehameha’s traditional family land holdings at speeds up to 45 MPH without going up or down stairs.
6. Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
No Big Island trip would be complete without checking out the highest-selling crop in Kona. Kona’s unique soil and growing conditions give their coffee a superior flavor. Although there are a handful of different Kona Coffee tours on the Big Island, Mountain Thunder’s award-winning coffee takes the cake. At Mountain Thunder, you learn about coffee from bean to cup.
The Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is off the beaten path and well worth the 20-minute beautiful drive up the mountainside on the picturesque Hawaiian country road. The plantation offers a free 30-minute tour every hour on the hour where they take you through the entire coffee process—showing you everything from the trees to the roasting. Unlike other coffee tours on the island, Mountain Thunder’s tour focuses on the engineering behind the process. Springing for the VIP tour will allow you to get hands-on in the coffee roasting process. End your day with a cup of Kona Coffee on the very farm that it was grown, dried and processed.
7. Hapuna Beach
Photo courtesy of Big Island Visitors Bureau
Consistently voted among the best beaches in the world, Hapuna Beach is a beautiful white sand beach that stretches for over half a mile between points of lava. During the summer, Hapuna Beach is more than 200 feet wide, making it the widest white sand beach on the Big Island. Hapuna Beach also boasts more sunny days than any other shoreline site on the island as its located in the driest part of the Big Island; the beach only gets 10 inches of rain annually. Its clear blue water and minimal surf make for great swimming, bodysurfing and other water activities.
Lead photo courtesy of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
Kristie Hang is a TV host and writer with an insatiable appetite for food and travel.