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Awesome Kona Shore Excursions On the Big Island

Painted Church in Kona

Kailua-Kona is a sun worshipper’s paradise with a diverse list of outdoor activities to appease the adventurous. With tropical temperatures, constant trade winds, and endless sandy beaches, water activities bring most travelers to the Big Island. Whether you’re staying in Kona or stopping during a Hawaiian cruise, there are plenty of Kona shore excursions.

I’ve taken three Hawaii cruises to escape Canada’s cooler temperatures during the fall and spring months. Cruising from my home in Vancouver to Hawaii is my preferred mode of transportation because I don’t need to choose between Oahu, Maui, or Kauai. After all, the ship stops at three to four Hawaiian Islands.

In Hawaii, kayaking, boating, stand-up paddleboarding, and snorkeling are all activities I like to do. However, when I’m not relaxing on a beach, I love to explore this faraway land by taking as many port excursions as I can fit into my itinerary. Here is a list of the best excursions in Kona, Hawaii.

Kealakekua Bay And Captain Cook Monument

I remember my first cruise to Hawaii, a repositioning cruise from Vancouver, Canada. I researched every port of call thoroughly to book my port excursions in advance.

The one I looked forward to the most was a snorkeling excursion to swim with dolphins at Kealakekua Bay. Unfortunately, the boat broke down two days before I arrived, and my tour was canceled. 

Fast forward three years, and I was finally able to enjoy this excursion to see the Captain Cook Monument and snorkel in the bay.

My snorkeling tour to Kealakekua Bay was three and a half hours long, of which one hour was spent in the water. The boat ride in the zodiac was exhilarating, and I enjoyed the views of the rugged Kona coastline and the exotic blue waters calling my name.

On route to Kealakekua Bay, I was thrilled to spot a giant hawksbill turtle. Unfortunately, the turtle didn’t feel the same about us, even though we were a lengthy distance away.

Kealakekua Bay’s waters are crystal clear, and the coral is teeming with tropical fish. Spinner dolphins frequent the area, and during my snorkel excursion, they delighted me with their presence.

It was amazing to watch them leap out of the water and do their aerial pirouettes.

Explore Kula Kai Caverns  

For adventurous travelers, exploring Kula Kai Caverns (lava tubes) is a must. There are a variety of tours from a basic one hour to a more extended, more in-depth excursion.

The Kula Kai Caverns are a hidden treasure and a great option if the Thurston lava tunnel in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closed.

The guides are informative and make the tours fun regardless of your age. Examining the formations of rock inside the tunnels, I learned about the geology of the area and how lava tubes are formed.

For the extremely adventurous, consider the crawling tour. With knee pads, gloves, and lighted helmets, you’ll crawl in the dark with your enthusiastic tour guides through 1000-year-old fascinating caves made by lava.

Night Snorkel With Manta Rays

Of all the Kona shore excursions, a manta ray swim was top of my bucket list. While there are numerous places where you can dive with manta rays, 

Kona is the only place where you can snorkel with them. Having seen a bunch of YouTube videos, it was on my bucket list to take this tour for a very long time. Happily, I was finally able to swim with the giant manta rays on my Hawaiian honeymoon.

Manta rays are graceful creatures that pose no danger to the public. They have no stingers at the end of their tails or teeth in their mouths.

At night, they gather at Manta Village in Keauhou Bay to feed on the shallows’ abundance of plankton. Divers view the giant mantas in the deeper waters while snorkelers gather in the shallows.

This Kona excursion is suitable for all ages, and you need to be able to swim. Belly-band floatation devices are provided during the snorkel.

Mauna Kea Summit 

Mauna Kea summit tour is a popular Kona excursion
Mauna Kea summit tour is a popular Kona excursion

While the Big Island has six volcanoes, the most popular for visitors to Kilauea and Mauna Kea, The summit of Mauna Kea draws visitors from around the world for its dreamy landscapes, breath-taking sunsets, and magnificent stargazing opportunities.

Ascending the world’s tallest volcano, the geographic landscape ranges from lush and tropical to almost moonlike at the summit.

Summit tours are available from tour operators or a DIY excursion. Four-wheel drive vehicles are necessary to navigate the steep and gravel road to the summit.

While the summit is 13,796 ft (4205 m), it’s advisable to stop at the visitors’ center to acclimate to the altitude change. Bring a warm jacket for the journey because the temperature can drop 40 degrees from your starting point.

Book with a tour group for the best stargazing experience. The guides bring telescopes to view the moon, star clusters, and other galaxies. They also provide warm parkas and thick gloves for the walkabout at the summit.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park 

Located in South Kona, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau provides a rich history of the Hawaiian culture. The Place of Refuge is a beautifully preserved historical site documenting the location where lawbreakers took shelter to escape the punishment of death.

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Park is a popular Kona excursion

Expect to spend two hours at the cost of USD 10 per adult or USD 20 per car, to enjoy the 180-acre park. This includes the sacred grounds, preserved shrines, serene fish ponds, and photogenic carved tiki statues.

Honaunau Bay Snorkeling  

Outside of the park, the nearby beach offers amazing snorkeling with an abundance of yellow tangs and during my visit, lots of sea turtles. Honaunau Bay is well-known as a favorite snorkeling spot because of its calm currents, crystal-clear waters, and variety of aquatic wildlife.

There is no real parking lot at this bay, so get there early in the day to snag a parking spot along the beach area.

Close to the shoreline, the depth of the water is about 10 feet, perfect for beginner snorkelers and those not comfortable in deeper waters. Further out in the bay, the bottom to depths of over 100 feet, a popular place for scuba divers.

Due to the calm, warm waters, Honaunau Bay attracts spinner dolphins and green sea turtles.

Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm

You are traveling with a family and looking for things to do in Kona for the little ones? Consider an excursion to the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, where you can learn the life cycle of a seahorse, learn about the breeding process and hold a seahorse in your hand. How cool is that?

It’s a unique and exciting experience that educates the public on what can be done to save the seahorses in the wild. The kids are fascinated by the majestic creatures, and having a tiny seahorse wrapped around your finger is a memory you’ll not soon forget.

St. Benedict’s Painted Church

I visited the Roman Catholic painted church as part of a private tour during my port day in Kona. My Kona shore excursion included a visit to a Kona coffee farm, a lava tube, The St. Benedict’s Painted Church, Honaunau Bay as well as a few other stops.

Inside the St. Benedict's Painted Church, Kona
Inside the St. Benedict’s Painted Church

On the outside, the humble white church is nothing special, but its gardens are a treat to see. However, I soon learned, the tiny church is ornately adorned with spectacular interior paintings that delight the eyes. I also discovered its history is as colorful as its interior design.

Still an active church, the building dates back to 1899. Father John Berchmans Velghe, a Belgian priest, had been stranded in Hawaii by accident, so he built this beautiful church for the local Kona coffee farmers.

Being an artist, he decorated the walls and ceiling with intricate Biblical and spiritual murals. The spiritual messages in his artwork served as a teaching tool to the faithful who attended church services.

Being a painter myself, I was surprised that the paintings have stood the test of time and still radiate beautiful colors.

The St. Benedict’s Church is the first painted churches in Hawaii. The other, the “Star of Sea Painted Church,” was built by Father Evarist Matthias Gielen in the late 1920s. Like its predecessor, it’s magnificently painted with colorful murals telling the story of Father Damien De Veuster.

Veuster was a Molokai missionary who helped those suffering from leprosy. Later, Veuster himself contracted the disease, which eventually took his life.

Years later, Veuster became known as St. Damien of Molokai. Visiting the St. Benedict’s Church, a statue of St. Damien of Molokai greets visitors near the entrance.

Visit A Kona Coffee Farm

What’s a visit to Kona without sampling some famous Kona coffee? Coffee farms are in abundance on the Bid Island and during one of my vacations, I stopped by Royal Kona Coffee Center to sample some coffee, tea, macadamia nuts, and see a working coffee mill.

One of the bonuses of this little treasure is the lava tunnel which runs under the processing area. Another bonus is the picturesque views of the Kona coastline from the balcony. The gift shop has a variety of items from soaps, essential oils, rum cake, as well as the much-loved coffee.

Royal Kona Coffee Center is worth a stop even if you’re not a coffee drinker. May I suggest the mango tea or green tea with yuzu instead? And don’t forget to walk through the lava tube.

Hulihe‘e Palace 

Located in Kailua-Kona, the Hulihe‘e Palace once served as a summer home for Hawaiian royalty.

Today, the restored house is a museum showcasing beautiful koa wood furniture, period pieces, and artifacts from the late 1800s. Constructed initially from lava rock, the exterior is now stuccoed, and the interior walls plastered.

While the building is small for a Palace and the self-guided tour is short, it’s still worthy of a visit, to learn the history of Hawaiian royalty. A short walk from the Kailua Kona port, the Palace is easily accessible by foot for cruise ship passengers, and entry is just SD 10.

The Hulihe‘e Palace is one of three palaces in the United States. The other two are the Iolani Palace and Queen Emma Summer Palace, located on Oahu.

Hulihe‘e Palace, Kona
Hulihe‘e Palace

Atlantis Kona Submarine Adventure

A Kona submarine adventure is the perfect shore excursion for the non-swimmers and those with young children. What better way to explore the ocean than from the comfort of a submarine?

At 100 feet beneath the sea, the waters are teeming with tropical marine life, captivating corals, and picturesque underwater sceneries.

While snorkeling is a fun Hawaiian activity, taking a submarine ride allows exploration of some sunken ships and hidden treasures. This excursion is as close to a diving experience as you can get without getting your feet wet.

The submarine is spacious, air-conditioned, with lots of large windows for optimal viewing.

Kanaloa Octopus Farm

Another big hit with families with children is the octopus farm. Why not even combine it with an excursion to the seahorse farm too?

The octopus farm is a research facility that aims to educate the public on these fascinating creatures. They also provide the sustainability of octopi by learning their life cycle.

Each tank has one adult octopus, which all have names. Some are more social than others. During a tour, the adults will enjoy the excursion’s informational part, and the kids will enjoy touching the octopi and feeding them.

It’s interesting to watch the octopi change color and texture, especially when a GoPro was added to the water tank. A unique tour experience suitable for any age.

Happy travels ~ Karen