On the west side of Hawaii Island, the Kona-Kohala Coast is an overachiever in an archipelago already known for greatness. It’s preternaturally sunny. By turns lush and lava scarred, it is a coast of drama and history. Are those petroglyphs, for gosh sake? Yes, yes, they are. Was that a peacock on the golf course? Believe it.
When faced with such a destination, it’s hard to know where to start. But here are seven don’t-miss activities.
1. Swim with Giants
Startlingly alien-like, manta rays are breathtaking to behold — and don’t worry, harmless. These gentle marine giants have a 12-foot wingspan; they feed on plankton attracted by divers’ lights, so scuba dives and snorkeling trips to see them take place after dark.
Two of the world’s best viewing spots for manta rays happen to be right off the Kona Coast: “Manta Heaven,” near the Kona International Airport, and “Manta Village,” in Keauhou Bay. Various tour operators, such as Big Island Divers or Manta Ray Dives Hawaii, will get you there.
2. Sip Kona Coffee
Coffee has been cultivated in the Kona region for nearly 200 years, thanks to the perfect blend of rainfall, sunshine and rich soil. Coffee cherries are harvested by hand in the fall through early winter at the more than 600 farms here, and you can tour many establishments year-round.
Try Greenwell Farms, where the fourth generation of farmers is at work among century-old arabica coffee trees, and you can learn about the growing, harvesting and roasting processes. If you are in the Coffee Belt in November, check out the annual 10-day Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.
3. Tickle an Octopus
Octopuses are notoriously hard to breed in captivity, a challenge that marine biologists are wriggling with at Kanaloa Octopus Farm. The farm is part of the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park on the Kona Coast, an incubator for aquaculture companies. (There’s also a seahorse farm there — how fun is that?)
During the octopus farm tour, you’ll interact with these intelligent cephalopods. Insider’s tip: The twice-daily tours tend to fill up, so book online least a day in advance.
4. Tour a Real Royal Palace
Built in 1838, Hulihee Palace in Kailua-Kona gives a fascinating glimpse into the Kingdom of Hawaii. This was the home of a high chief and later belonged to King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani, among other royalty.
Now it’s a museum offering guided tours and showcasing artifacts such as koa wood furnishings and featherwork.
5. Off-Road to a Secluded Waterfall
Swimming under a waterfall is on everyone’s Hawaii bucket list. Check that off the list in high fashion with a private tour. One to try: The North Kohala Hawaii Forest and Trail offers eco-tours with small groups, working with landowners to gain access to private areas and hiring guides with backgrounds in geology and Hawaiian culture.
On the Kohala Waterfalls Adventure, explorers take a six-wheel-drive Pinzgauer to a trailhead before hiking to a waterfall for a refreshing dip.
6. Delve into Hawaiian History
In ancient Hawaiian culture, kapu were the regulations that governed daily life, from who could eat bananas to who could wear certain colors of feathers. If someone violated a kapu law, they could seek sanctuary in a place of refuge.
Visiting Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, you can see an actual one of these. It’s a remarkable site — a bit eerie and well worth a visit.
7. Visit an Underwater State Park
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park hits the trifecta: natural beauty, history and just plain fun. Yes, this is the same cliff-side view once encountered by Captain Cook. The sea life is equally engrossing — think playful spinner dolphins — which is why it’s a popular snorkel destination.
Enter the park via hiking the Kaawaloa Trail, kayak in with a permitted tour company, or visit by boat, such as on the Fairwind II. On that vessel, the captain and crew regale you with tales from history as you check out the coastline on your way to snorkel, and hey, that waterslide is pretty slick, too.
Insider’s tip: Book in advance, especially in high seasons of summer and December.