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After a perfect 5-day Maui trip with friends last spring, we caught a little bit of a Hawaii bug. Easy to do when you’re exhausted from work and all the airlines are constantly competing with price drops.
So we caught $297 tickets to Kona for some rest and relaxation. If you’re looking for the same R&R, here’s how to spend five days on the Big Island’s Kona Coast in pure island bliss.
A quick overview of the Big Island
Here’s the thing, the Big Island is big. Yep, like its name says. So there’s a ton of things to do on the Big Island.
If you have limited time and are looking to mostly chill and relax, you’ll want to focus your time in just one part of the island. For us, that was the Kona Coast, the central and southern parts of the island’s west coast. (You’ll see in a bit that we ventured into Kau as well.)
This is a bit of a crude digest, but basically, the Kona Coast is the sunnier, beachy side. The Hilo side is the more rainy, volcanic side. You can obviously stay in Kohala, Kau, and other regions as well, but Kona and Hilo offer the most convenience.
If you’ve got more time or really want to explore multiple parts of the Big Island, I’d suggest flying into Kona and out of Hilo or vice versa. That way you can spend some time on the Kona Coast, drive north up the Kohala Coast, and still get to the volcanic side.
Again, we wanted to relax and escape from the dreary northern California winter, so we went with Kona. (Plus, the main draw for us on the Hilo side would have been Volcanoes National Park, but it no longer has any lava after the 2018 eruption.)
Where to stay on the Big Island’s Kona Coast
Again, the Big Island is big. A car is generally required, though you could potentially get around with Ubers and rented bicycles if you really had the willpower.
But even with a rental car in hand, we knew we wanted convenience and flexibility. We wanted the ability to go places without thinking about parking and have some drinks without worrying who was going to drive home.
So we chose to stay right in Kona town. Our adorable Airbnb was right on the water and had this incredible view.
Our Airbnb, as well as many others, had snorkeling gear, tons of beach chairs, beach towels, coolers, and more to make our time on the Big Island more enjoyable (and less expensive).
If the idea of sleeping in someone else’s home unsettles you, no worries. There are obviously plenty of hotels available in Kona as well.
Day 1: Relax and snorkel
No matter where you’re coming in from, you’re likely to have had a long flight to get to the Big Island. So take it easy on your first day.
Start off with a breakfast mai tai at Island Java. This beachside cafe serves up your typical morning fare, but it’s their breakfast mai tai that truly shines. (Seriously, we liked it way better than the more famous ones at Don the Beachcomber.)
Magic sands and magical ribs
Spend the rest of your morning basking in the warm Hawaiian sun (before it gets too hot).
La’aloa Bay, aka Magic Sands Beach, is a gorgeous, albeit small, stretch of white sandy beach. It’s also one of the closest white sand beaches to Kona.
When you’re ready for some lunch, drive south to Randy’s Huli Chicken and Ribs. This outdoor pit serves up delicious chicken and ribs (as its name says) every Thursday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. until they’re sold out.
If you’re not in town during those days, another great option a stone’s throw away is Teshima’s, one of the island’s main staples for Japanese comfort food.
Snorkeling with spinner dolphins
Once you’re full, continue south to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. It’s the home of the Captain Cook monument, which marks where the famous British explorer was killed, and Hikiau Heiau, a traditional Hawaiian religious site.
The bay is also home to the island’s magical spinner dolphins and many other species of marine life. It’s a great opportunity to do some snorkeling or kayaking.
While I’m usually a huge advocate for DIY, Kealakekua Bay is one place where I’d recommend hopping on a tour if you want to get some good marine life viewing.
That’s because the bay now requires special permits to access that body of water. There are three vendors that have the license, and you can go through them. Otherwise, you’ll need to apply for your own permit or find a rental spot that has the licenses for each vessel.
(You can also take the one-hour hike from the entrance of the park to the Capitan Cook monument and then enter the water there, but the trail is rocky, and you’ll still need to swim out for the best chances to swim with spinner dolphins.)
Day 2: Learn some Hawaiian history and see some fishies
Learn some Hawaiian history on your second day with a visit to Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
The Pu’uhonua was a refuge for those who broke the kapu, or sacred laws, as well as for defeated warriors and civilians during wartime. It was, in other words, a literal safe space. Next to it are the Royal Grounds and Ki’ilae Village, which reflects Hawaiian traditional society.
This park was one of the most exciting highlights for me, as too often trips to Hawaii are just beaches and hikes and devoid of any exposure to Hawaiian history and culture. (Oahu has some fantastic museums and historical sites though.)
Make sure to call into the free audio guide. It offers super helpful context as you explore the three adjoining sections. Otherwise, you’re just seeing structures and sculptures without understanding what they are or their cultural and historical significance. (When we went, the number was (808) 217-9279 — but be sure to double check when you visit.)
While you’re exploring Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau, you’ll undoubtedly see snorkelers right next to the park.
I won’t lie, that spot is really rocky and unfriendly to those without reef shoes, but it does offer easy snorkeling right offshore. You can even see some fish without getting into the water.
For lunch, try out Da Poke Shack. If you like poke, this place won’t disappoint.
There’s not much seating at Da Poke Shack, but who needs to eat at the restaurant when you can just take it to a nearby beach?
The manta ray feed
Then take some time to relax in the afternoon. You’ll want to save some energy for the evening special: the manta ray night dive.
Manta ray night dives are one of the most popular activities on the Big Island’s Kona Coast. Snorkeling as these magnificent water flyers gracefully move around you in the dark night waters? Down.
There are a ton of tour companies that do this, but I was super happy to find Anelakai Adventures, which offers a manta ray night snorkel via a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe.
Most companies will offer two times for night dives — one around the time the sun goes down and the other a few hours later. We chose to go for the sunset time slot given we were paddling out on an outrigger canoe and because nighttime water temperatures in January can be a bit chilly, even in Hawaii.
The experience mostly involves you hanging on to your canoe (or other customized raft) while viewing manta rays doing their night feeds. You don’t have to be very athletic for this, but it does help to be comfortable with a snorkel.
They were gorgeous creatures to watch, but I won’t lie, I was chilled to the bone just floating there and not really moving. Definitely had to get out a few minutes early to avoid getting sick!
Day 3: Green and black sand beaches
After days of white sand beaches, lace up your hiking shoes and head south down the Kona Coast. Today is the day for green sand and black sand beaches. (Technically both of these are in Kau and not Kona. I know, I know.)
First up is the green sand beach. It’s also known as Papakōlea Beach or Mahana Beach.
This secluded beach is located at the southern tip of the Big Island. To get to it, you’ll need to hike 2-3 miles from the trailhead parking lot.
Make sure you’re well prepared with lots of sunscreen and water. Despite the coastal trail, the hike was more desert-like — stifling hot, sun blazing on your skin. (Granted, we did this hike at the hottest time of the day). Have no hesitations stripping and trekking in your swimwear.
If hiking isn’t your thing but you really want to see one of the world’s only green sand beaches, you can also pay for a ride from one of the locals who wait at the trailhead with their trucks. (Those same trucks will be at the beach to offer you a ride back later.)
A note about the color of the green sand beach: don’t get tricked by people’s editing and filtering tricks, Instagram ain’t real life.
The sand is more of a glittery deep olive green than your standard green. The color comes from crushed olivine particles that are interlaced with black sand.
We didn’t end up spending too much time at the beach itself, having arrived a bit late in the day. But it’s a beautiful and quiet spot to enjoy a book and get a tan.
If you plan to stay for a longer chunk of time, just make sure to bring everything you need. It’s a remote beach with no facilities, no stores, no staff.
The area is quite remote, so there aren’t too many options for lunch. Once you trek back out to your car, I’d recommend driving to Ka Lae Garden Thai Food, which serves up fresh, made-to-order dishes. If you’re willing to drive a little further, I’ve heard great things about Hana Hou Restaurant in Naalehu.
From green to black to sunset
Naalehu is also the closest town to Punalu‘u Beach, the black sand beach with sea turtles. Unfortunately, we ran out of time the day we visited the green sand beach and couldn’t get to Punalu’u before it got too dark.
But look at this gorgeous place. I’ll have to hit it up next time.
On your way back to Kona, make two important stops:
1. The Punalu‘u Bake Shop
This Big Island classic sells Portuguese-influenced Hawaiian sweetbreads as well as dinner rolls and cookies. The sweetbreads will make a carb-loving monster even out of your cleanest-eating friends.
If you can’t physically make it into the bake shop, the good news is their products are sold in grocery stores all over the island. Won’t lie, we almost stuffed a couple of loaves of their soft and pillowy taro sweetbread into our suitcases.
2. South Point, the southernmost point of the United States
While this spot is super close to the green sand beach, I’d recommend waiting until you’re on your way back to hit it up. Specifically, waiting until sunset time for the gorgeous views.
South Point is also popular with cliff jumpers despite many signs forbidding it. That’s not in my wheelhouse, but if it’s in yours, well, your life, your risks.
Day 4: Water and sun and beer
While the Big Island doesn’t have as many gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches as Maui, it doesn’t lack options for those who prefer to get in the water.
One of the most versatile places for watersports on the Kona Coast is Kahaluu Bay.
This bay has two distinct sides. The left side is reserved for snorkelers while the right side was meant for surfers and paddleboarders. That way you and your fellow travelers can each choose their sport without having to lug everyone else to another spot.
There’s also plenty of beach space for the tans-only, no-water person in your group to get their fill of vitamin D.
Time to be a glutton
Once you’ve cleaned up a bit, go to Broke da Mouth Grindz for lunch. This Hawaiian and Filipino spot is like all your comfort food dreams come true.
Then go down the street to Ola Brew Co, a relatively new brewery in the area. (And as such, the spot is almost all locals.) They brew ciders, too!
And of course, how can you not hit up the island’s most famous brewery, Kona Brewing Co.? Wind down your day there — they often have live music, too!
While Broke da Mouth Grindz and the two breweries are all walkable from town, there’s also a Kona Trolley that can help you get around.
Day 5: Repeat day 4
Quick, get some more water and sunshine before you need to head to the airport! For your last day on the Big Island, keep it close to Kona town and keep it chill.
Start your day with a paddleboard or kayak rental (or both!) and get out onto Kailua Bay (in downtown Kona).
The bay is relatively calm but not so passive that the paddle is a bore. We like to bring a beer with for a nice mid-ocean refresher. (Of course, always make sure to bring those cans back with you!)
Once you’ve returned your gear, don’t forget to check out Kamakahonu National Historic Landmark. Once the residence of Kamehameha the Great, unifier of the Hawaiian Islands, this spot now houses a reconstruction.
Then lay down your towel and relax on the sandy beaches of Kailua Bay.
If you’ve got little ones with you, the beach here is perfect for them. There are tons of children playing in the shallow waters of the cove, and the beach itself is small enough that it’s easier to keep an eye on them.
Hopefully, your Airbnb or hotel will allow you to check out late and shower before you head to the airport. If not, every beach has a nice cool shower where you can at least rinse some of the sand off your body.
Aloha ’til next time! (Or rather, a hui hou!)
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