Located along Hawaii Island’s scenic Kona coast is Kailua-Kona, a historic seaside village full of natural beauty, royal history, and plenty of charm. In honor of the National Parks Service’s 100th anniversary, Smithsonian Magazine’s
“Top 20 Best Small Towns to Visit In 2016” exclusively features towns near America’s greatest national parks. And, for obvious reasons, Kailua-Kona made the list for being just 22-miles from the famed Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Park.
1. Best Beach: Manini’owali Beach
Manini’owali, or Kua Bay as it is often called by the locals, is a secluded and small white sand beach located near the Kona airport. The beach is a popular spot for bodysurfing, or just catching a signature Hawaiian sunset.
2. Historic Establishment: Hulihee Palace
Built in 1938 by King Kamehameha I’s brother-in-law, Hulihee Palace is one of only three royal palaces in the United States. Once used as a vacation home for Hawaiian royalty, the Daughters of Hawaii converted Hulihee Palace into a museum in 1927.
3. Panoramic Views: Kailua Pier
The beautiful Kailua Pier was once the location where paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) loaded cattle, and today serves as a popular destination for extreme sports and fishing alike. The pier is also the start and finish line of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship, held each October.
4. Restaurant: Da Poke Shack
No guide to Kailua-Kona is complete without mention of Da Poke Shack – according to Yelp, this seafood joint is one of America’s greatest restaurants. That’s a pretty high honor for a seaside eatery nestled in a condominium complex known for their takeout poke, as well as local specialties and salads.
5. Luxury Resort: Four Seasons Hualalai
Rated as the best hotel or resort in Kailua-Kona by Trip Advisor, the Four Seasons Hualalai is perfect for a family vacation. There are a variety of activities catered towards children and teens, including King’s Pond, a unique swimming “pool” made from lava rocks where kid’s can learn to snorkel.
6. Culturally Significant: Ahu’ena Heiau Temple
Built during King Kamehameha's reign, Ahu'ena Heiau, was a temple dedicated to Lono, the Hawaiian god of fertility, peace and prosperity. The king lived many of his last years here, and though many ritual prayers took place, there was no human sacrifice.
7. Informative Tour: Historic Kailua Village Walking Tour
For a fun history lesson, consider taking a walking tour of the historic Kailua Village.
8. Family Friendly Activity: Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm
One of the area's greatest tourist destinations, this unique aquarium of sorts is fun for those of all ages.
9. Coolest Adult Hangout: Kona Brewing Company
For the best Hawaiian beer out there, hit up Kona Brewing Company for a pint - don't forget the burger and fries!
10. Best Sunset Viewing: Honl’s Beach
Rated as the third best place in Hawaii for sunset viewing by Hawaii Magazine, Kailua-Kona provides a glimpse into old Hawaiian history, as well as stellar sunsets made dramatic with the dark, volcanic rocks along the coast.
11. Crazy Adventure: Big Island Divers
For a wild adventure, head to Honokohau Harbor to embark on a night time scuba dive cruise with Big Island Divers. Opt for the two tank charters, where you will enjoy a twilight reef dive before watching the sunset and taking to the water again - where the boat's dive lights will attract plankton and feeding manta rays.
12. Best Shopping: Ali’i Drive
For the best shopping and collection of restaurants in Kailua-Kona, head to Ali'i Drive, park, and take a leisurely stroll along this seaside street.
13. Most Haunted Place
King Kamehameha is rumored to have been buried on or near the hotel grounds. Anyone who seeks the supernatural will want to visit the hotel’s top floor, where guests have heard sounds of battle, and apparitions of warriors. A portrait of Queen Liliuokalani, located on the ground floor, has been said to inhale and exhale before your very own eyes.
14. Religious Establishment: Mokuaikaua Church
Christianity’s introduction to the Hawaiian Islands is an important one in island culture, and Mokuaikaua became the island chain’s first Christian congregation in 1820. Founded by Asa and Lucy Goodale Thurston, American missionaries given permission to teach their religion by King Kamehameha II, the first official structure was constructed in 1823. Though damaged by a series of fires, the current structure is still in use, and open to the public for tours.
15. Historic Park: Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park
This famous national historical park was established in the 1960s, and was once the site of an ancient Hawaiian settlement. The archaeological site is home to ancient Hawaiian aquaculture fishponds, petroglyphs, house site platforms, and sites with religious significance.
16. Best Snorkeling: Kahaluu Beach Park
Perhaps the Big Island’s most popular snorkeling spot, the waters of Kahaluu are home to a wide variety of fish, as well as green sea turtles.
Do these 16 places of interest in Kailua-Kona make you want to put this charming beach town on your summer bucket list? If you’re looking to explore more charming towns in Hawaii, check out
this list of some of our most photogenic neighborhoods.