Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

This was the start of the second half of our vacation as we departed Oahu and headed to the Big Island of Hawaii. While the Big Island is by far the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, most of it is sparsely populated and it contains only about 13% of the total population of the state. Most of the Big Island is dominated by a series of five enormous volcanoes, several of which are still active, and that has made it difficult for any large cities to develop. We would be flying into the western portion of Hawaii and staying in the town of Kailua-Kona, the largest town on that half of the island with about 20,000 residents. Kailua-Kona is a beach town that has been rapidly growing in recent decades as tourist money flows into the region. We'd spend several days here exploring the area; this page covers the immediate town itself along with our two boat excursions.

First we had to travel from Oahu over to Hawaii and with the Hawaiian Islands being, well, islands, that meant boarding a plane for the short flight across the waters. Hawaiian Airlines runs a series of planes between the islands every day and we boarded our afternoon flight after having spent the morning at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. This was probably the shortest flight that I've ever taken as it would last for barely 30 minutes while hopping from Oahu to Hawaii. Our seats were located above the left wing of the plane and fortunately this was the correct side to see Oahu receding into the distance as the plane took off and headed eastwards. Diamond Head stood out visibily from the skies above with the big high rise hotel buildings in Waikiki behind it followed by greater Honolulu off in the distance.

We were also treated to an airborne tour of the other major Hawaiian islands, everything except Kauai and Ni'ihau which were further off to the west. Our flight path took us directly past the four major islands between Oahu and Hawaii, and once again I was very happy that we were on the correct side of the plane to spot them. First up was Molokai which looked a bit like a cigar as it stretched out in rectangular fashion in front of us. Then the smaller form of Lanai appeared directly below; it's the island in the foreground of the first picture above. We couldn't see as much of Lanai because the plane was passing directly over it. Maui was the largest and by far the most populated of these islands and we had a great view of its fish-shaped form from the plane. The second picture above is looking directly at Haleakala, the tallest mountain on Maui which is also a national park. Liz had visited Maui on a previous trip to Hawaii two decades earlier and thus we were bypassing it on this trip. Finally, tiny little Kaho'olawe also passed right underneath the plane, this island being uninhabited and previously used to test munitions by the US military. This was a fun, if brief, tour of the other islands before we approached the surprisingly arid shoreline of the Big Island itself.

A quick word about Kona International Airport where we landed: this was one of the most unusual airpots that I've ever visited. It was on the small size but still had to be capable of accomodating the huge aircraft that cross the Pacific Ocean in either direction from east or west. Most of the airport was outside and open to the air, with the waiting area for each gate under an open sky. Only a portion of the seating area and then the luggage collection conveyor belts were under cover. We later learned that this was possible because the western side of Hawaii doesn't get very much in the way of rain; it's the eastern side of the island which has the highest rainfall in the whole United States. In any case, we collected our rental car at the airport (unlike the Honolulu area, there's not much in the way of public transportation on the Big Island and everything is spaced far apart) before heading to our hotel.

Kailua-Kona sprawls out over an extended area rather than being bunched together and visitors definitely need a rental car to get around here. These pictures were taken from the Coconut Grove Marketplace, one of the more upscale shopping and dining areas that runs along part of the beachfront. The shorefront was too rocky for swimming here but it was a great place to eat a meal while watching the sun set over the waters of the Pacific. We looked at a number of different options for dinner before deciding on a place named Foster's Kitchen with a view of the beach volleyball court below. Foster's Kitchen was advertising that they had been promoted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network which I'm sure was true even if I hadn't seen that episode.

The food at Foster's Kitchen was a bit more expensive than what we would usually get for dinner but definitely very, very good to make it worthwhile. Liz had a salad with chicken on top while I tried out a type of local fish that I can't recall while writing this. It was killing Liz that she couldn't eat most of the fresh seafood on this trip due to being pregnant with our son, nor try out some of the locally brewed beers that we kept seeing as we traveled. Nevertheless, it was a fine meal and we had arrived at the perfect time to watch the setting sun from our vantage point here on the upper floor of the building.

It can be pretty expensive staying in Kailua-Kona because the town lacks massive high-capacity hotels and instead relies on smaller lodgings with more limited rooms. We had found this small hotel which was located outside of Kailua-Kona to make it a bit cheaper, several miles down the main highway to the south in a more quiet area. We were staying in one of the rooms in the Mauna Kea house, where there was a common room with maps and laundry facilities on the ground floor and then the individual hotel rooms on the upper levels. We had a nice little room with even a side porch of sorts where I was able to use my laptop after Liz went to sleep without disturbing her. The one big drawback was a complete lack of air conditioning, which wasn't great but was bearable thanks to the many fans around the room. My childhood room didn't have air conditioning when I was growing up so I'm more used to this than most people I know.

The next morning we were up bright and early so that I could take part in one of the biggest activites planned for this trip: a scuba diving excursion. As part of our preparation for this vacation, Liz had gotten me scuba lessons as a Chirstmas gift the previous December and I completed my certification a mere three weeks before this vacation began. This would be my very first dive after getting certified and my first real diving experience outside of training. Liz drove me to the Honokohau Marina where all of the boating excursions leave from, where I met up with the diving company that I had booked with for the day. The standard practice is to do two dives over the course of the morning before returning back to the docks around noon. There was a really cute puppy running around the dock area (owned by someone who had a boat tied up nearby) that I photograped while it was hiding under a picnic table; this made our safety check-in much more amusing than normal. Soon enough we were off on the water and motoring over to the dive site to begin the first dive.

Longtime readers of the website may recall that we've had some bad luck in the past with taking cameras underwater, having destroyed two different expensive cameras from water damage on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Galapagos. This time we had prepared by bringing a Go Pro camera which was specifically designed for underwater use, then sealing it inside a second hard plastic shell for an extra layer of protection. I had used the snorkeling on Oahu as a test run and fortunately everything worked perfectly to capture pictures and video of the scuba dive while keeping the Go Pro safe for future use. I was diving in a typically small group with six of us present along with the two diving instructors. There were two dive students who were undergoing the same certification that I had completed a few weeks earlier, albeit in a much cooler location than the quarry in rural Pennsylvania where I had gone. I didn't have a dive partner so the woman with the pink fins was paired up with me for this first trip underwater. We followed the lead diver in descending down to about 70 feet / 20 meters underwater and then followed his path over the coral reef spread out below us.

When I would go swimming as a kid, I always enjoyed holding my breath and trying to stay underwater for as long as possible. I always wanted to try scuba diving so that I could stay underwater for an extended period of time and finally had the opportunity to test it out when we went on vacation to Australia in 2019. Now that I'd finished the full training process and obtained my PADI certification, I would have the opportunity to go on dives like this whenever we traveled to a place that offered scuba - this would have been great in the Galapagos or when we traveled to the Carribean at St. Martin's. The water conditions here off Kailua-Kona were outstanding with great visibility even when we were 20 meters below the surface. That is very much not the case on all dives; during my certification process, the lake that we were using was so cloudy that at times you couldn't see more than a few feet away.

For those who have never been scuba diving before, the experience is often compared to flying and I think that's reasonably accurate, although thinking of it as being more like hovering than flying might be more appropriate. Water behaves a lot like air in many respects aside from being about 800 times denser (and of course not being able to breathe water!) This is the real danger when diving: the pressure caused by the weight of all that water on the human body. I'm never worried about drowning while diving as the regulator is easy to use, plus there's a backup regulator, plus you can always use the air of your dive buddy in an emergency, plus in a worst case scenario I'm confident I could swim to the surface if needed. However, that's a terrible idea in anything outside of a dire emergency because the change in pressure from rapid ascension can cause terrible damage to the lungs. The two most important things taught when diving are 1) always keep breathing, never ever hold your breath and 2) always keep equalizing pressure as depth changes. Diving is a very safe activity as long as everyone behaves responsibly but the hours of training required for certification are definitely necessary to prevent tragic accidents from taking place.

The first dive of the morning took the group through a rocky area where there were large underwater boulders of volcanic rock that had been deposited there by past eruptions. (Yes, the Kailua-Kona region has been subject to active lava flows in the recent geological past.) My initial dive lasted for about 35 minutes before my air tank started to get low and I had to return to the boat; some of the more experienced divers in the group were better at conserving their air and lasted for another 15-20 minutes before they had to surface. The dive crew had snacks on hand to eat while we traveled to the site of the second dive, however I ended up feeling a bit seasick on the boat and had to pass up eating anything. It wasn't even that windy or choppy on the water this day, I simply get seasick pretty frequently on boats. For that matter, I wasn't the only one suffering as the woman who had been my dive partner felt bad enough that she chose not to do the second dive. I would end up getting partnered with the dive instructor this time around (the man with the blue fins in these pictures) and followed him throughout the second dive. I felt much better in the water and under the water as compared to on top of the water; my brother is also scuba certified and said he often experiences the same thing when diving.

The second dive spot was less rocky and instead had a much larger coral reef underneath where our boat had dropped anchor. The presence of more coral meant more fish as well which were noticeably more abundant in this location. These pictures were taken from the deepest part of the dive when we were about 60 feet / 18 meters below the surface. The underwater terrain sloped downwards at a relatively steep angle due to the volcanic nature of the Big Island; in other words, it grew deeper pretty fast as you moved away from the land. I'll point out as well that everything underwater was blue-shifted in terms of color, i.e. appearing in these images as bluer than it actually was in real life. That's a consequence of light passing through all of that water and absorbing the red end of the visible spectrum. There are camera lenses that can correct this phenomenon but I wasn't using them with my rather basic Go Pro setup.

Dives almost always start by descending to the deepest part of the dive first and then gradually rising back up to the surface over the course of the dive. This allows the body to adjust over time to the rising depth and also accomodates the change in buoyancy as the air tank on the diver empties out over the course of the dive. For this particular dive, it meant that we returned back to the coral reef where we ran into tons and tons of fish swimming together in big schools. I don't know the specific types of fish on the reef but they were certainly everywhere and made for a pretty spectucular conclusion to the dive. This really felt as though I were in an aquarium with marine life on every side, only the aquarium's boundaries stretched off infinitely in every direction. There's really nothing like this feeling, and even though I felt exhausted by the time that the two dives concluded, I'm hoping that I'll have the chance to explore more underwater sights with dives to future locations.

Video clips from these dives uploaded to YouTube here.

Outside of the morning spent scuba diving, we also used Kailua-Kona as our base camp for exploring the surrounding region over the following few days. These were some pictures taken the next morning on the northern side of the town near Kailua Bay. There was another shopping area here with a coffee store selling breakfast where we stopped for a short morning meal. We spent an hour or two wandering around and checking out the stores on this other side of Kailua-Kona, including purchasing some souvenirs for our families back at home. This was also the part of town with the most historic buildings:

These are some pictures of the Hulihee Palace, built by the Hawaiian royal family in 1836 for use as a residence when they spent time on the Big Island. King Kamehameha I was originally from Hawaii and he made Kailua-Kona his initial capital after uniting the island chain before it was later moved first to Lahaina on Maui and then to Honolulu on Oahu where it has remained to the present day. The palace was quite small and didn't look like a royal residence which was a testament to the humble status of the Hawaiian islands during the first half of the 19th century. We would have loved to tour the building however it's only open to the public a few days each week and we weren't visiting Kailua-Kona at the correct days for a tour. I also learned that the oldest Christian church in Hawaii, Moku'aikaua Church, is located across the street from the Hulihee Palace which I certainly would have checked out if I had know about it at the time.

We later had lunch at this oceanfront restaurant named On The Rocks as it was quite literally situated next to the rocks of the coastline. The food here was quite good as I enjoyed a meal of ribs while Liz had a chicken + salad combo once again. However, the real draw was sitting on the outdoor porch overlooking Oneo Bay and watching the waves crash against the rocks below. There were a good number of boats out on the water including one that was towing a paraglider high above. The rocks themselves had tiny black crabs that blended into their dark surface and skittered about amongst the waters. This restaurant was extremely crowded and we were lucky to have arrived just as they were opening for lunch to ensure that we had a seat. If you're wondering about the American flags everywhere, this lunch took place on July 4th as the town was preparing to celebrate Independence Day!

As a final activity in Kailua-Kona, we had reserved tickets for a night-time manta ray excursion. This is one of the big draws in Kailua-Kona and featured in all of the local tourist advertising, the chance to take a short boat ride out to a place where underwater lights are turned on at night. The underwater floodlights stir up microscopic sea life and draw manta rays to feed where they can be watched by tourists. We were looking forward to this as one of the most popular attractions in the area; upon arrival, we suited up in wetsuits and boarded the catamaran which would take us on the quick jaunt onto the water. The sun was setting over the waves and it was an absolutely beautiful evening as our boat joined half a dozen others which were all here to see the manta rays.

Unfortunately the reality of the experience didn't manage to live up to the hype that we heard ahead of time. The mechanic for seeing the manta rays was to hold onto a floating bar with a pool noodle tucked under the arms while wearing a snorkel to peer down into the waters below. That was all well and good, however the main problem was that we just didn't really see any manta rays! Over the course of 45 minutes spent floating in place, I think that we saw two or three of the creatures far below us before they quickly glided away. It was also too dark to take good pictures with the Go Pro and I wasn't able to capture anything near what I had gotten while scuba diving. Our conclusion was that it would probably be better to take the late night version of the manta ray tour rather than the early night version that we did, when more of the animals would be visible, or better yet go scuba diving to see the rays up close. (We spotted half a dozen divers down below us and they certainly had a far better vantage point than we did.)

Despite the manta ray excursion being a bit of a dud, we enjoyed the three days that we spent in Kailua-Kona. This is a town that's still in the process of being transformed by tourism and its population has effectively doubled over the last two decades as investment money has poured in. We continued to spend our nights in the hotel at Kailua-Kona while driving the rental car to explore other attractions on the western coast of the Big Island. Those trips elsewhere on the Kohala Coast are the subject of the next page of this travel report.