South Kona: snorkeling and Hawaiian culture
Kona, a town on a human scale, is the second largest city on Big Island behind Hilo. It's a nice little coastal town where it's nice to stroll along Ali'i Drive. Its restaurants, markets and local events give it a rather friendly atmosphere, both during the day and at nightfall.
Continuing on Ali'i Drive southward, the city gradually disappears in favor of small subdivisions scattered along the coast. This sector of the island has a few beaches but we will mainly focus on its snorkeling spots which are among the most famous of the archipelago. We will also appreciate to discover the Hawaiian culture at Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, one of the most interesting historical sites to discover in Hawaii.
1Beaches along Ali'i Drive
Ali'i Drive is a long road along the coast from Kailua-Kona to Kahaluu-Keauhou. It serves several residential areas as well as some sandy beaches.
Located near the center of Kona, this charming little beach of clear sand is pleasant at sunset. Its western setting with its coconut trees make it a good spot to relax at the end of the day. It is also famous for its waves which make the happiness of the surfers, on the other hand it will be difficult to swim here.
Swimming is not supervised but showers and sanitary facilities are available across the street. Picnic tables are available for eating lunch, and some trees provide shade. Parking is available along Ali'i Drive.
White Sand Beach
A little further south, this pretty sandy beach is very popular. We appreciate its clear sand bordered by some palm trees. The setting could have been very pleasant if the road did not pass so close.
The place is also very popular with surfers. Swimming is supervised, but it can sometimes be dangerous if there are large waves in the winter. At low tide, rocks can be found on the sides and at the water's edge.
There are a few picnic tables, showers and sanitary facilities at La'aloa Beach Park. A few parking spaces along Ali'i Drive allow you to park your car.
Kahalu’u Beach Park
We won't come here for the modest sandy beach, but rather for snorkeling. Here is one of the most easily accessible snorkeling spots of Big Island.
The beach goes around the small bay and offers several access points to the water. The main access is near the lifeguard station. The water is shallow near the shore, but flat slippery rocks can make entry into the water sometimes tricky depending on the tide. Once over the obstacle, you will find a nice sandy platform where fish are usually numerous.
This spot is sometimes quoted as one of the best of the island, but we do not share this opinion because all our experiences there have not been convincing.
In 2017 we saw only few fish. They were much more present in 2019 but the presence of sand sometimes clouds the water which does not always make the experience pleasant. It remains nevertheless an easy spot to see many fishes while staying close to the shore. It is also possible to see some turtles here.
There is almost no coral near the shore, but good swimmers can swim away towards the middle of the bay or towards the barrier reef, to see some corals at greater depths. The water will also be clearer.
Swimming is supervised and sanitary facilities with showers and changing cabins are located at the rear of the roofed building on the beach. A large adjoining parking lot is easily accessible. There are a few picnic tables on site in the shade of the trees.
2Snorkeling spots in Kealakekua Bay and Hōnaunau Bay
Located further south, facing the imposing Mauna Loa, the bays of Kealakekua and Hōnaunau are a refuge for dolphins. They offer very nice snorkeling possibilities.
Snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay, at the foot of the Captain James Cook Monument
Here is certainly the best place of Big Island, or even of all the archipelago to practice snorkeling! Kealakekua Bay is a protected area as a "Marine life conservation district". The marine fauna is incredibly diverse and the corals are numerous.
The best place to launch is on the edge of the famous bay where James Cook was killed in 1795. The access is precisely at the foot of the white stele erected in memory of the famous navigator. Here the waters abound with tropical fish only a few centimeters below the surface and they are not shy! It's a real large aquarium!
Corals are still present in large numbers, but for how much longer? Because the downside of the medal is the over-visitation of the site by the excursion boats which came to drop off hundreds of snorkelers all day long, some of which big models contributed greatly to pollute the site...
The place was a real paddling pool. There were so many people in the water that we had to make our way between each other's flippers... Seeing this had broken our hearts in 2019.
Thankfully, things seem to be getting better as measures have since been taken to restrict access to the bay. A permit is required to access the bay from the sea and it would appear that large tour boats are no longer permitted...
However, I had difficulty finding information on the subject and I have difficulty in evaluating the attendance of the place to date. At the time (in 2019), we used to recommend walking there before 10am to enjoy it, but maybe things have changed. Finally, the closure of the footpath has been considered to limit the access, but it still does not seem to be a reality.
So there are always three options to get to Kealakekua Bay and enjoy snorkeling. Hiking, access by kayak or via a boat excursion.
The access trail
There is only one way to reach the James Cook Monument by land. A 3.2 km hiking trail leads to the stele and down the 380m drop from Napoopoo Road. It takes about 1 hour for the descent and 1 hour 15 minutes for the ascent.
We only recommend it to experienced walkers as the ascent can be quite strenuous especially after a good snorkeling session.
The trail starts from Napoopoo Road. A small rough parking lot allows to park a few dozen meters from the beginning of the trail. The start of the trail is not well marked. It goes away from the road through the vegetation towards the ocean. Then you just have to follow it to the end.
The path is regularly maintained but the vegetation grows quite fast (especially on the first kilometer), so you may have to clear the tall grass growing on the sides with your hands. This will only slow down your progress.
There is no particular difficulty on this trail except that the path is sometimes quite steep, especially on the intermediate portion. The last meters are in the shade of the trees (which is not to displease) before reaching the foot of the stele.
Once there, all you have to do is change your clothes (there is no facility) and get into the water.
Be careful on the way up, as you will have to use your arms to cling to the rocks, as the waves may throw you onto the rock or the corals.
I injured my knee myself when I was climbing up. If you are lucky, you will be able to take advantage of the small ladder that some tour companies install when they are present.
The ascent is by the same path.
Renting a kayak is a great way to get to Kealakekua Bay. The big advantage is to have some time to explore the bay and perhaps to be able to meet the dolphins which are numerous in this area. Finally, it will be easier to jump into the water to reach the snorkeling area at the foot of the monument (as long as you know how to get back in the kayak).
But beware, not all rental companies have a permit to dock at the Captain James Cook Monument. The 3 companies that will allow you to dock your kayak are: Adventures in Paradise, Aloha Kayak Co. and Kona Boys. You will find them in the small village on the other side of the bay.
You will have the choice between renting your kayak and enjoying it alone, or taking an accompanied excursion.
If you decide to go alone, be careful because the area is open to the Pacific Ocean, and according to some sites, it is not uncommon to observe strong currents that push you out of the bay. Make sure you are well informed before leaving.
The last option is to take advantage of a half-day excursion to enjoy snorkeling and maybe see some dolphins. This solution is ideal if you want to enjoy snorkeling without having to spend energy to get there.
Excursions usually offer a meal or snack on board, as well as snorkeling equipment.
For the respect of the site, I invite you to privilege a small excursion company and to avoid the big motor catamarans which pollute the waters of the bay. We recommend you for example Kona Ocean Adventure who propose a half-day excursion in a small group (about 10 people per boat).
Pae’a (Two Steps)
Pae'a, also called "Two Steps" because of the 2 steps used to get in and especially out of the water, is located in the heart of Hōnaunau Bay. It is an excellent snorkeling spot!
Here you will find only a wide rocky platform, formed by an ancient lava flow. The bottoms are moderately deep and the absence of sand makes the water clearer (except in case of hot currents that can disturb the water).
The main interest, apart from the myriad of small yellow fishes with little shyness, is that it is not necessary to go far from the shore to observe an abundant marine fauna. Fish in numbers are present very close to the rocks and turtles frequent the area.
The bottom of the sea is quite interesting although the corals are not in great condition. It is sometimes possible to observe dolphins in the bay (small signs near the road will give you explanations).
Several chemical toilets are available near the parking lot. Swimming is not supervised. Several picnic tables in the shade allow you to enjoy a snack in the parking lot. The place is also a kayak launching area.
Access to water
The main access is located at the 2 steps at the end of the rocky area. However, we recommend to reserve the access for experienced snorkelers because the ascent by the steps is not easy. It can even be dangerous if the sea is rough, the waves may injure you.
Easier access is possible from the fine sandy beach or from the boat ramp, both located on the right side of the rocky area. However, it will be necessary to swim a little to reach the fish area located towards the two steps.
A small warning, the area is full of sea urchins! So keep your hands in your pockets, it will be safer. Delicate moment: also take your time before getting out of the water, sea urchins nest everywhere even at the 2 famous steps, even if you noticed that there were much less in 2019. They are however hidden in small holes, so if you put your feet flat on the steps, you won't feel them.
So avoid swimming barefoot, choose instead flippers, or shoes with hard soles, such as windsurfing boards, or even sea sandals.
How to access Pae'a (Two Steps)
Access is easy from Honaunau Beach Road, near the entrance to Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
For parking, you will find paid car parks at 5$ per day, just in front of the rocky area. It is sometimes possible to find a free parking spot just after the beach, along the Honaunau Beach Road which goes towards Highway 160 (one-way road). However, the parking places are rather limited because the forbidden zones have become numerous (probably at the request of the local residents).
3The sacred site of Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau
Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park
Located just a stone's throw from Two Steps, the Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is one of Hawaii's 3 national parks along with the Haleakalā Maui and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
This sacred and historic site will teach you a lot about how Hawaiian society has functioned over the past 400 years! The park is home to some of the most important traditional Hawaiian sites in the archipelago.
Many remains are on display and will allow you to imagine what life was like at the time. Within the park is an ancient wall that protected a sanctuary. Anyone who was banished for breaking the sacred laws could redeem themselves by swimming to the shores of the sanctuary at Puʻuhonua. But beware of waves and currents...
There are also the remains of an ancient village, as well as beautiful wooden Ki'i, traditional statues representing deities or ancestors worshipped by the Hawaiians.
You will be given a brochure in English at the entrance allowing you to visit the premises freely. It is also possible to take part in a free guided tour.
The park has a second part accessible by car via a small track from the end of the parking lot. The road leads us to a pleasant zone in edge of sea, covered with coconut trees. The place is pleasant for a picnic, but be careful, there is not much shade.
We particularly liked this park, both for the cultural and historical aspect, but also for its beautiful setting, especially with its superb palm grove.
Access to Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park is subject to a fee. The fee is $20 per car. The pass is valid for 7 days. If you plan to visit Maui, we recommend that you purchase the Hawaiʻi Tri-Park Annual Pass which allows unlimited access to all 3 national parks in Hawaii. The pass is sold for $55 at the entrance of each of the 3 parks. If you have it, please note that the America The Beautiful pass is accepted.
That concludes this article of points of interest to discover around Kona.