We lived in Kona for 12 years before moving to Maui and although we’re no longer living on island, Kona still feels like home.
It’s an unusual place. Located on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean there is something alluring about its remote, stark beauty.
The Kona coast is a unique place on this earth. Measured in geologic time it is considered new real estate.
The experience starts with landing at Kona International Airport. You’re (at least most people) startled with the sight of lava flows, the lack of sandy beaches bordered with palms and any sign of a town – not even a gas station is in sight. As your plane descends to the asphalt of the runway you get a good look at the rugged shoreline. Where’s the sand? someone might ask.
There are sandy beaches, but you have to know where to look. Our first home was located close to the village of Kailua Kona and it didn’t take too long to fine some of the few beaches that bear some resemblance to those in California. But Kona is a different world. A sandy beach is a relative term on Hawaii Island. Most of us visualize a beach as a long strand of white (or light-colored) sand and a shoreline that is inviting and approachable. Not so on the Kona coast. This is a rugged land pounded by surf, solar radiation and Kona winds, infrequent as they are.
Although there are many other geologic features that reveal the recent past of Hawaii Island, the uninformed eye identifies the rocky coast and rugged landscape, yet to be covered with any significant landscaping. Not too many years ago parts of the coast was a boiling caldren, the molten lava flow from Hualalai was building more land in 1801.
There are a couple of beaches along the Kona coast that fit that description of paradise, but most don’t. The large resorts on the north have manufactured beaches reminiscent of travel posters, and there is a beautiful Polynesian cove just under the glide path of Kona International Airport that is worth noting. Known as Kekaha State Park, it’s not the usual state park experience. First, it requires a 2.5 mile drive over a lava flow to find it and there’s a path from the parking area to a crescent-shaped cove where azure meets the sand. For those who make the trek it’s an oasis surrounded by old lava flows.
All of the Hawaiian islands are a result of volcanic action, shaped by the movement of tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust. And Hawaii Island is the youngest of the islands in this chain of jewels, formed from three massive shield volcanoes. The signs of their recent (relatively that is) formation are present everywhere. The image to the right is a panorama showing Hualalai volcano, which hovers over Kailua Kona. Look closely and you can see the gentle arc of Mauna Loa, a monster shield volcano that rises almost 14,000 above the ocean surface. Don’t be fooled by the scale of the earthforms in this image. Mauna Loa is almost 100 miles away from where I was standing.
With volcanoes Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea and Hualalai standing as massive sentinels to the east, the moisture laden trade winds never find their way into the streets and shores of Kailua Kona. I call it a tropical desert, again, a relative use of terminology but an appropriate statement. When you travel to the windward, better known as “the Hilo side” you see a dramatic change in the flora. Leaves of plants are larger, greener and more abundant. This is a result of the tradewinds that buffet the east-facing coast.
Yes, the highway that parallels the coast from Kailua Kona to the big resorts is a barren stretch of mostly lava flows. My previous blog post: “Walking to Kiholo Fish Ponds” spends some time describing this part of Hawaii Island. Let’s just say it’s not what the casual visitor is expecting from the tropics.
The big resorts of Hualalai, Waikoloa and Mauna Kea have carved up the rugged lava flows and you can see their palms and green golf courses for miles. But it’s a ruse, an artificial oasis carved into the landscape by heavy machinery.
Turning south Queen Kahahumanu highway from the airport will bring you to the village of Kailua Kona. It’s a short five mile drive, and soon you arrive at Palani Road. A right turn toward the ocean will land you smack in the middle of the village. The pier and breakwater along Ali’i Drive begins here and a morning or afternoon drive down this road is a pleasant ride that follows the coast, ending at the community of Keauhou.
The image above is taken from a favorite viewing point of Kailua bay from in front of the Kona Inn. It’s a little hard to make out the pier but the King Kamehameha hotel dominates. When you turn around the ocean side of the inn has its distinctive look that can be seen from all parts of the bay.
It’s also a favorite viewing area for the start of the Ironman championship that’s held every October. We spent many an early morning, with a crowd of spectators waiting for the canon to go off, watching as the water churned with hundreds of participants beginning their day with a 2.5 mile swim.
The Kona Inn was a favorite sunset spot for years. We spent many an evening sitting at the outdoor bar, watching as the sun followed its course to the horizon, and maybe we would be dazzled by a green flash.
But it’s the primitive look of the Kona coast that intrigues.the curious.
The rugged coastline gives clues to the recent violent past this island has experienced, and if you can find a stretch of beach, or better yet, a secluded cove, you can enjoy what the royalty of Hawaii knew many years before.
North of the moku (region) of Kona is the is the mokus of North Kona and Kohala. A transition in the landscape occurs somewhere around Mauna Lani. Old lava flows are less obvious and there are more trees and shrubs. Kohala is an old and eroded volcano whose slopes are gentle and green grasses cover the land.
But the coast remains rocky and primitive.
Once you drive far enough north, trade winds begin to buffet the land, grasses become thicker and greener. Larger plant species with thick, green leaves are common, and then, you come to the little hamlet of Hawi. Although the town is remote it holds great importance. It is the birthplace of Kamehameha I.
And few realize that although Oahu (The Gathering Place) is the major population center, Kona is where the Ali’i (royalty) lived.
If you continue past Hawi the road will eventually come to an end. This is the beginning of the Hamakua coast. It is known for its cliffs that soar out of the ocean and its deep valleys like the massive Waipio valley.
* I just discovered these last 4 images on another hard drive. I can’t remember what camera I used. They were likely some of the last pics I took with my old Canon F1. I remember using it and having images put on CD’s, so the quality is much less than others on this site. I used them because they helped to tell the story.