Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Road with Nancy Brown: 7 Days on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown shares insider tips for a Big Island adventure.

Photo courtesy of Winston Welborn

Landing at Kona’s International Airport is a bit like landing on the moon. Yet, instead of moon rocks, one is surrounded by lava rocks—or perhaps lava flow is a better description. Wide expanses of hardened black lava deposited during a 1981 volcanic eruption flank the highway. Still bubbling with energy, the Big Island’s Kohala coast offers endless activities for the adventure lover as well as lazy afternoons in a hammock accompanied by a good book.

Swim with Sea Turtles

While driving to the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, I glance to my left, to the Pacific Ocean, with hopes of spotting a whale. But it’s late November, still too early for spouts and flukes, but January through March, whale watching is big business for the Kohala coast. In fact, the English translation for kohala is whale.

As I speedily check in to my ocean view room, I’m drawn to the sound of inviting waves. Donning the hotel’s complimentary snorkel equipment, I swim past stand-up paddlers—or janitors as the locals call them—with their broad, sweeping paddle strokes that guide wide surfboards over the blue water. In no time under the surface, I am spotting yellow tangs and schools of brightly colored fish with long Hawaiian names like the Humuhumunukunukuapua. As if on cue, a green sea turtle glides under me. With that, my Hawaiian vacation has begun, yet I have only scratched the island’s surface.

Discover Hawaiian Heritage Riding Paso Finos

Kelly and Joe Vitorino riding Paso Finos. Photo courtesy of Winston Welborn.While some of my friends ride zip lines through the forested canopy with Big Island Eco Adventures, I opt for gaiting in paradise on Paso Fino horses in Kapaau. Former Bay Area residents Joe and Kelly Vitorino purchased their property 10 years ago, shipped a couple pregnant pure bred mares over to the Big Island, and Hawaii Paso Finos was born.

“Kelly always wanted horses,” notes Joe Vitorino. “We now have 10 Paso Finos!” Located on Kohala’s northernmost coast, equestrians will delight in riding these beauties along the coastal bluffs within a former sugar plantation. Smart riders will book a lomi lomi massage at Mauna Lani spa following their horseback riding adventure.

Petroglyphs at Kona Village

Those seeking privacy and romance in thatched huts should book the all-inclusive vacation experience at Kona Village. Over 100 hales (bungalows) are scattered about the 82 acre property. From Tahitian to Samoan and Marquesan-themed huts, these luxury accommodations are a far cry from Gilligan’s Island.

Kona Village Dancers. Photo by Nancy D. Brown.And while you won’t find the Professor or Ginger bellied up to the Shipwreck Bar, Steve Jobs could be a stand in for the Professor and Julia Roberts could play Ginger, as both have spent time as guests at Kona Village. Yet, celebs blend in as quietly as the Big Island sun sinks into the Pacific at the end of the day. The professional staff at Kona Village discretely welcomes repeat guests year after year to this village full of history.

Auntie Lei, the master of ceremonies for the weekly Aha’aina (luau), will proudly point out the sails of an ancient ship in one of 500 petroglyphs on the Kona Village property. Once a vibrant fishing village, Kona Village has preserved its petroglyphs dating back some 500 to 600 years. For more island history, visit nearby Pu’ukohala Heiau National Historical Park, the most followed national park unit on Twitter.

Above the Lava

While the Big Island boasts the world’s most active volcano, full of bubbling hot magma, I prefer to take in the view from above the crater rim. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters gets it done with the “Big Island Spectacular,” a two-hour tour of Mauna Kea, the Kohala coast, and the Waipio Valley—featuring 2,000-foot cliffs and 1,200-foot waterfalls. A flight seeing tour is a great way to take in the Big Island scenery. You’ll buzz over Parker Ranch and may even spot wild donkeys.

Ride with Paniolos

King Kamehameha once trained his mighty warriors on the 11,000-acre Ponoholo Ranch, a working cattle ranch once part of the famous Parker Ranch. The horse lover in me couldn’t call a stay on the island complete without a ride with a paniolo—the Hawaiian term for cowboy. I found my cowboy at Paniolo Adventures. Originally from Kansas, my guide now enjoys horseback riding in the wide open spaces of North Kohala.

While golfers may be disappointed that I haven't mentioned any courses, I will point out two top courses that merit visiting—Mauna Lani Resort's Francis H. I. Brown Course and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel's Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course. Both take advance reservations. Don't forget the sunblock!

There's so much to do on the big island (I hear you can swim with dolphins), it looks like I’ll have to come back to the Kohala Coast for more Big Island adventures. What are your favorite activities on Hawaii’s Big Island? Please leave a comment below.


A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at www.writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/Nancydbrown.