Day 3: Snorkeling, Mauna Kea, Diving with Manta Rays
Day three of your 5 days in the Big Island offers a variety of choices – something for everybody. My personal favorite option is #1 as it includes both the best snorkeling on the Big Island and the spectacular sunset and stargazing on Mauna Kea (suspended as of Jan 2019 due to renovation).
Option 1: Captain Cook Monument & Sunset on Mauna Kea
I recommend starting this action-packed day early, out and about by 8:30 am give or take. Start your day in the center of Kailua Town with a visit to the Kona Farmers Market (open every day 7 am-4 pm, free parking). The market is very much geared towards tourists, so you’ll find here all the ‘classic’ Hawaii souvenirs to take home but also lots of locally grown fruits and vegetables. In fact, I used to come down here from the farm I was volunteering on to barter with the vendors for produce we were short on. It’s a decent place to browse and stock up for the rest of the day.
You will need to have a packed lunch and plenty of water for the next segment, so do not leave Kailua without these!
Alternatively, if it’s Friday or Sunday, begin the drive south and stop at the Pure Kona Green Markets near Captain Cook Village. The market is oriented around food, Kona coffee, and crafts – a refreshing and quick stop before the hike.
Captain Cook Monument Hike
In 1779, the great Captain James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay and forever changed the history of Hawaii. The first white man to come in contact with native Hawaiians, Cook and his crew were treated to a very warm reception, likely because their visit coincided with a festival – a four-month affair packed with lots of food, sexual activity, games and no tribal violence.
Three weeks later, Cook departed the Big Island but returned after encountering rough seas. By now, the holiday was long over and life returned to normal. There were no parties this time around and tensions were high. In what is considered a huge misunderstanding, the natives – who greatly revered the explorer – violently killed him when Cook fired a warning shot that killed one of the chief’s guards. In his honor, a monument was erected years later at the site and the tiny plot of land was ceded to the British Crown (this is technically UK territory).
You can only reach the monument, and the awesome snorkeling spot in Kealakekua Bay, by hiking down from the coastal road or joining a snorkeling tour from Kailua (or kayaking). I highly recommend the hike if you are fit and the boat tour if you have small children.
To reach the trailhead, park your car at the top of Napopo Road (see accompanying map), don’t leave anything in your car, and look for the Ka’awa Loa Trail sign which marks the start of the hike. For about 45-minutes, you’ll be hiking downhill and the interesting views start after about 20 minutes. In front of you, a barren lava field tumbles down into the blue ocean and to your left, the rugged cliffs that shelter Kealakekua Bay. On a clear day, there is no shade around here so be sure to pack lots of water and always wear a hat (and sunscreen if you easily get burned).
The trail ends in a wooded area, the spot where Cook lost his life and where a commemorating obelisk stands today. It is here that it is time to change, put your snorkeling gear on and jump from the decaying cement ledge into the pristine waters of the bay.
The Best Snorkeling on the Big Island
This is considered the best place on the Big Island for snorkeling. Visibility is excellent and tropical fish are abundant. If you are extra lucky, you might spot sea turtles and even dolphins. This spot can get very busy on weekends and when boat tours arrive from Kailua. It’s best to get here late afternoon or early morning. Post snorkeling and before the hike back up, this is a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Logistics: hiking down takes about 45 minutes and back to the top approx 60-90 minutes. Bring plenty of water and sun protection and wear either shoes or waterproof sandals. For the snorkeling part, fins are not a must but do have some foot protection (reef shoes or sandals). Bring a full change of clothes for after the hike.
End of the World Sea Cliffs
Driving back in the direction of Kailua, take the coastal road this time (Mamalahoa Bypass Rd) and stop at the End Of The World sea cliffs. Despite its close proximity to town, not too many visitors are aware of this beautiful spot. It is here that you’ll witness the shaping powers of the Pacific Ocean, as waves strike the lava cliffs with intense power. Even on the rare calm day, the beauty of the place is totally worth the drive. In fact, I recommend snapping a few photos from the usual spot at the start of the path, and then continuing for a private viewing of the spectacle from the surrounding cliff (brave locals sometimes practice cliff jumping from here).
The End of the World is also a site of historical significance. It is here that King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) battled his cousin after the former broke the traditional kapu system by eating at the same table with females – a highly forbidden act in those days. The battle was bloody and ended with Liholiho’s victory and the end of the rigid system. Rocky terraces near the entrance to the cliffs are all that remain from a battle that shaped the future of Hawaii.
Takeaway Dinner at Da Poke Shack
Together with Umeke’s (see day 1 itinerary), Da Poke Shack is the best place on the Kona coast for poke (aside from supermarket poke which is really not bad – see Things To Know Before Visiting Hawaii). It’s only open until 6 pm, prices fluctuate daily and they often sell out quickly. Expect to pay $10-15 for a poke bowl: fish, white rice, and a side of salad.
Sunset & Stargazing in Mauna Kea
You now have a 75-90 minute drive from Kailua to Mauna Kea (50 minutes from Hilo) and you want to get here at least 45-60 minutes before sunset. This evening is one of those experiences that vividly live in your memory for eternity, and I strongly recommend making the drive.
Rising out of the depths of the ocean to a height of 4,207m, Mauna Kea is the highest point in the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, if the height of mountains was measured from their base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea would be the tallest mountain in the world! It is a shield volcano, one that gradually rises to immense proportions and resembles a shield lying on the ground with its protective-end facing the sky. A sacred site to ancient Hawaiians, Mauna Kea’s summit is often covered in snow. Due to its immense height, the lack of light pollution in the area and the thin air – Mauna Kea is a prime location for observing the heavens. In fact, the summit is home to the largest concentration of high-powered telescopes in the world!
It is a magical spot to witness a glorious sunset and to observe the night sky. However, do check weather conditions to ensure it is worth the drive. Only come here when the forecast calls for a clear night, preferably one without a strong breeze as it is freezing up here after the sun sets.
To reach Mauna Kea, drive on Saddle Road (Highway 200) – a scenic highway that slices through the mountainous interior of the island on the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. If driving from the Kona side, expect to climb what seems to be a never-ending ascent until reaching the saddle and if driving from Hilo, roadwork to realign this section of the highway should be complete by now. The scenery is interesting throughout the journey, with the tropical changing to desert-like and even to green pastures reminiscent of the Irish countryside. The weather is also interesting up here, with storms quickly disappearing as you ascend past the clouds with nothing but intense sun and the bluest of skies.
You’ll turn off Saddle Road and drive up to the Mauna Kea Visitors Center where you’ll park your car (2,800m). If you have a proper 4WD and the road to the summit is open, you can drive all the way up and watch the sunset in the company of the massive telescopes. If you do not have a 4WD, change into your winter gear and begin the 20-30 minute hike to sunset hill. Grab a spot, get your camera ready and enjoy the breathtaking views of cinder cones beneath your feet and Mauna Loa in the distance.
However, it is the radiating sunset that draws the crowds and it is absolutely worth the trip. As the sun begins to set above the clouds, things quiet down as an inability to utter a word takes over. Truly magical is the sunset in Mauna Kea, not to be missed.
Once the sun sets, things get even colder. Walk back to the visitor’s center to warm up, watch the informative video, buy some souvenirs or something hot to drink, and wait for darkness to fall. On most days, the volunteers at the visitor’s center set up large telescopes that point to interesting spots in the night sky. Depending on the season, you might get to see Venus, Orion, Jupiter and other celestial bodies that make you realize just how tiny we are. The friendly staff also use ‘magical laser pointers’ to point out the stars while they explain what it is you’re seeing and how it all ties back to ancient Hawaiian history. The stargazing is an absolutely fun experience, especially for kids, unless it’s a busy night with lots of tour groups making the stop.
In January 2019, the stargazing experience was suspended and visitor center opening hours were shortened in light of a renovation program. Stay up to date via the official website for information about opening hours and activities.
Logistics: check weather conditions before driving up here. Understand that at this altitude, physical activity is much harder so take it easy, listen to your body and drink plenty of water. Pack ultra-warm clothes (think Canadian winter), flashlight, tissues (you’ll have a runny nose), lip balm and comfortable shoes.
Bring with you some tea bags or ramen noodles as hot water is available for free (food + drinks can be purchased). When driving back down, put the car into low gear (D2) to avoid unnecessary strain on your breaks.
Hiking Mauna Kea
It is possible to hike to the summit of Mauna Kea from the visitor’s center. This will be a full day hike that takes about 10 hours to complete (16 miles return). It is very (very) challenging since it begins with a 1,400-meter ascent lasting for 8 miles! The trail pretty much parallels the 4WD access road to the summit. The first few miles are a treacherous climb on Mars-like loose sand and rock. The scenery is, however, out of this world, and you’ll likely not see a soul on the trail.
After about 3.5 hours of hiking, you’ll reach Lake Wai’au – the third highest lake in the US and a peculiar site amid the desert landscape.
From here, it’s just a final climb to the observation area and a further 1-mile ascent on the paved road to the summit. The views from here are, needless to say, some of the best in Hawaii. On a clear day, you can see the island of Maui in the distance. To get back down, you can either try your luck with hitchhiking, walk back on the paved road, or hike on the very same trail you used for climbing. Good luck!
Logistics: check weather conditions at the summit and be at the visitor’s center by no later than 10 am to check-in with the rangers, sign an information sheet, wait 30 minutes to acclimate to the altitude, and grab a trail map. The name of the game here is layering: wear two pairs of socks, long pants, and a few layers of shirts (sweat-repelling t-shirt, long-sleeve t-shirt, fleece and rain jacket). Pack: winter hat, gloves and scarf, 3L of water per person, enough food and snacks, lip balm, tissues, a garbage bag and sun protection. Be aware that the weather can quickly change. When I hiked, the forecast called for a sunny day, however, clouds quickly moved in and it started to snow midway through the hike! Do not hike past the visitors center if you went scuba diving the day before.
Option 2: Green Sand Beach
Start the day with a visit to either the Kona Farmers Market in Kailua or the Pure Kona Green Markets in Captain Cook to shop and buy a packed lunch and snacks for the day. Then, visit the spectacular sea cliffs at the End of the World before beginning the long drive south to Green Sand Beach (see full details in option 1).
The drive south to Green Sand Beach takes about 90 minutes. If you haven’t found anything you fancy for lunch in the markets, there are lots of food and drink options along the way until the turnoff to Highway 160. I recommend stopping for a stretch and fresh juice at the South Kona Fruit Stand before the last leg to the beach.
Eventually, you reach South Point – a peninsula extending to the southernmost spot in the 50 states. Follow South Point Road until it ends. Due to the fragile natural environment, driving to the Green Sand Beach is not permitted, not with your own 4WD or with locals who might offer a paid ride to the beach. From the parking lot, you must hike to the beach.
The hike to the Green Sand Beach takes you along the beautiful coastline for about 1 hour. It’s a flat-going easy hike where the views keep getting better and better. When you round the last corner, you’re rewarded with the ‘money shot’ of Papakolea Beach, a.k.a Green Sand Beach! If it’s a sunny day, you’ll easily understand how the beach gets its name. The greenish colors are the result of finely eroded sand from a volcanic rock somewhere around here.
To reach the beach, walk down the makeshift path and enjoy one of the prettiest beaches in all of Hawaii! As for swimming, it was fantastic. The water was absolutely clear, the waves not too high, and I felt very protected inside the hidden cove. That said. I have read about dangerous currents at this beach. Note that no facilities are present so bring everything you’ll need and take everything out. If swimming, I recommend bringing a change of clothes to ensure a smooth hike back to the parking area.
Before Driving Back
If there’s still time, stop at Ka Lae – Hawaii’s southernmost tip. If you still fancy more beach, Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is one of the best on the island and Honomalino Beach is a favorite with locals (and sea turtles).
Option 3: Snorkeling, Ancient Site & Locals Beach
Just like with option 2, start the day with a visit to either the Kona Farmers Market in Kailua or the Pure Kona Green Markets in Captain Cook to shop and buy a packed lunch and snacks for the day. Then, visit the spectacular sea cliffs at the End of the World before beginning the drive south to Two-Step Beach (see full details in option 1). En route, you’ll find lots of other food options before the turnoff to Highway 160 and Two-Step.
St Benedict’s Painted Church
A few miles after the turnoff from Mamalahoa Highway (HWY 11), look for the easy-to-miss sign on the right to the painted church. Step inside and be whisked away to a tropical version of a holy paradise. The church’s wooden interior is beautifully painted in true Hawaiian fashion by a Belgian missionary John Velghe in 1899.
City of Refuge
The combination of easy access and state of preservation makes the visit to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park a worthwhile stop before snorkeling at the adjacent Two-Step Beach. Plus, it’s just $5 to enter with a car or $3 to walk in. Meaning ‘place of refuge’ in Hawaiian, this was a residence of Hawaiian royalty that also doubled beyond its stone walls as a safe haven for ancient Hawaiians who broke the strict kapu system. By taking refuge here and receiving ‘treatments’ from the priests, violators of kapu could avoid a death sentence.
If you’re really interested in the history of the place, park rangers offer free tours. Otherwise, grab a map and explore the grounds at your own pace. Check out the ancient heiaus (stone temples), outrigger canoe and reconstructed tiki statues. It’s nowhere near as impressive as the ancient Polynesian temples of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, but this is one of the best ancient sites I visited in Hawaii.
Snorkeling at Two-Step Beach
It’s not actually a proper beach but rather a collection of smooth lava rocks leading down to the secluded bay. Find a spot somewhere on the rocks, put your gear on, and enjoy the vivid marine life. It’s the best place for snorkeling on the Big Island after the Captain Cook Monument (see option 1), but since it is easily accessible by car, it is a popular place.
And why is it called ‘two-step’? Because all you need to do is take two steps beyond the lava ledge and you’re inside the pristine coral garden. Enjoy!
Logistics: I recommend wearing reef shoes at the very least because exiting the water can be a bit tricky, especially in rougher conditions. Fins will make life easy for you but not 100% required. There is no shade or places to buy food, but there are portable toilets across the beach.
Ho’okena Black Sand Beach
Back on the main road, stop for a smoothie at South Kona Fruit Stand and continue on the short drive to one of the best beaches on the Big Island. Ho’okena is a favorite among locals and you’ll hardly find any tourists over here despite the close proximity to Two-Step. The beach’s full facilities (outdoor showers included) and campsite, make this place super popular on weekends.
The sand is a mix of black and gray and the vibe is totally relaxing – the Hawaii you envision. Swimming can be very rough in the winter months, but there’s a good chance of spotting spinner dolphins and humpback whales offshore.
On the way back to Kailua, stop at the Original Donkey Balls Factory if they’re still open and buy some quirky chocolates to take back home with you.
Option 4: Dive with Manta Rays
A must for many visitors to the Big Island, diving with manta rays is a popular activity on the Kona Coast. Expect to pay around $190 for a two-tank dive, which includes a ‘regular’ morning dive and a night dive with manta rays.
Between the dives, I recommend spending more time in Kailua Town, grabbing some delicious poke and paying a visit to Magic Sands Beach – one of the prettiest on the Kona Coast and a prime spot for sunsets. The beach gets its name from its ‘disappearing act’ during winter months when currents and waves strip the beach of most of its sand. There’s still enough of it to place a towel on, but the swimming can be rough (and very rocky).