Everything you need to know about visting Kona

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In the Hawaiian language, kona means “leeward,” referring to the dry side of an island, as opposed to ko‘olau, the windward or wet side. Today “Kona” serves as shorthand for the sunny west side of Hawai‘i—including the districts of North and South Kona and South Kohala—as well as the airport in Keāhole. Eight miles south of the airport, Kailua is the region’s major population and tourist center, typically called Kailua-Kona to distinguish it from the town of Kailua on O‘ahu.

Part of North Kona, Kailua-Kona is a port of call for cruise ships and a departure point for snorkel/dive and fishing boats, which also launch from Keauhou to the south and Honokōhau harbors to the north; abundant lava fields mean there’s little runoff to cloud the waters. Small hotels, condos, shops and restaurants line Kailua-Kona’s bustling Ali‘i Drive, named for the royalty (ali‘i) like King Kamehameha, who ruled from a small enclave on Kailua Bay, and Princess Ruth Ke‘elīkolani, who summered in Hulihe‘e Palace. South Kona includes hundreds of acres of coffee farms, the pristine marine reserve of Kealakekua Bay, where British explorer Captain Cook met an untimely end, and the national historical park of Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau, a former place of refuge and royal compound.

History: King Kamehameha moved his capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi from Honolulu to Kamakahonu Cove on Kailua Bay in 1813, and died there in 1819. His two widows and son Liholiho, later King Kamehameha II, broke the traditional kapu(taboo) later that year by sharing a meal together, leading to intense cultural conflict and even bloody battles with followers of the kapu system. It proved auspicious timing for the  first Christian missionaries to the islands, who arrived in early 1820 and later built Moku‘aikaua Church across the bay from Kamehameha’s former temple.

After the capital moved back to Honolulu, Kailua remained a quiet fishing village until tourism began in earnest in the early 1970s, including the debut of  moderately priced hotels such as the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel and the Kona Surf, now the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. It has also gained international fame as the home of the Ironman World Championship triathlon, the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament and the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

Photo: HTA:TorJohnson

Restaurants on the Big Island

Kona's Annual Events

Due to Covid times, please check in with the organizers of these events to make sure they are still happening.

AUGUST: The Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament is a catch for all competitive fishers. This international five-day fishing tournament is the second oldest big game sport fishing event in the world. Spend your days aboard charter boats for some fishing fun. 

SEPTEMBER: Get your paddles ready for the World’s second-largest long-distance canoe race. The Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Canoe Races includes a women’s and men’s 18-mile race as well as other unique races. In addition to the competitions themselves, other ceremonies include a torch-light parade, Hawaiian Luau, and more.

NOVEMBER: Coffee lovers won’t want to miss the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. The nine-day festival celebrates Kona Coffee and its tasty flavor. With a world-renowned reputation, this festival celebrates Kona Coffee heritage through education and storytelling.

OCTOBER: Calling all bird fanatics to fly to the Big Island of the Hawaii Island Festival of Birds. This relatively new festival features a special guest, guided field trips, pelagic boat tours, and more hands-on activities. The Saturday Bird Fairs include educational booths and activities for all ages!

You so deserve a vacation. 

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