The roughly six-mile-long road that snakes along West Hawaii Island’s white sand coast from downtown Kona heading south to the small exurb of Keauhou is known as Ali’i Drive (“AH-LEE-EE”).
It’s a windswept, often tree-lined route that takes crowds of shoppers, restaurant-goers, sightseers and departing cruise ship passengers past eateries, spas, trinket shops, resorts and ancient churches at its northern end, and brings surfboard-clad cars past a string of highly popular beach parks and surf breaks – places like Lyman’s Surf Spot, Kahalu’u Beach Park and Magic Sands Beach – along its southern stretch. Some locals refer to its commercial section as “Big Island’s Waikiki”, after the City of Honolulu’s world-famous tourist row of postcard-level beaches, novelty restaurants and glitzy shops found on the Island of Oahu.
Most visitors experience Ali’i Drive in this order – north to south – starting the day in Kona town with gift shopping and a hearty brunch at places like Kona Inn Shopping Village, Kona Farmers’ Market, Journey Cafe Big Island and Kona Wave Cafe. One of the island’s best ethnic restaurants, featured in its own dedicated review on this blog, is Kamana Kitchen, which serves up an authentic, mouth-watering Indian cuisine menu of rich curries, aromatic rice dishes, tandoori meats and homemade naan bread at its open-air dining area located on the first floor of the Waterfront Row Shopping Center. Kamana starts serving lunch at 11:00am, and their to-go meals make for healthy, savory picnic snacks.
For souvenirs, the north end of Ali’i drive boasts plenty of choices; high-end shops like Kona Marketplace, Pacific Vibrations, Pueo Boutique, Big Island Jewelers, Hilo Hattie and Tasty Boutique, but also cheaper spots selling run-of-the-mill items like shell necklaces, Aloha print shirts, handmade bags and purses, jewelry and carved woodwork. The best deals on these trinkets and much more can be found at the craft-heavy Kona Farmers’ Market, open from 7:00am to 4:00pm Wednesday through Sunday.
The market can be easily spotted while heading in either direction along the drive; a sprawling complex of white pop-up tents inhabiting a parking lot just beyond a long, stout wall of mortared black lava rocks bordering the sidewalk. This is one of the busiest spots along Ali’i Drive, and during high tourist season and on holidays it’s common for drivers to get stuck at crosswalks here for a minute or two – no crossing signals means wandering pedestrians more or less own the road. Traffic can also get backed up in this area due to the Kona Trolleys – the colorful open-air public busses that ply the drive every hour and tend to make frequent stops. The Trolleys operate seven days a week from 7:00am to 9:00pm and service every beach park and business mentioned in this article, as well as many other locations in downtown Kona.
With full shopping bags and contented bellies, visitors to the city – whether driving rental cars or riding the Trolley – will usually head south at this point to spend the afternoon at the beach. Just a few miles outside of town the commercial facade of tidy shops, convenience stores, bustling eateries and outdoor market complexes quickly melts away, turning into an undulating coastline of sandy bays, rocky points and waves crashing over offshore reefs, lined with sporadic pockets of resorts and vacation rental homes crammed between expansive beach parks of towering palm trees, parking lots, lifeguard towers and volleyball courts. All of these spots are excellent for swimming, snorkeling, boogie boarding and sunbathing, from Pahoehoe Beach Park to Kahalu’u Bay and the many smaller informal stretches of sandy beach in between.
Usually, those new to the Kona coast will just cruise south along Ali’i Drive until they spot some promising looking beach park with a vacant parking lot and go for it. Since so many great swimming spots can be found right next to each other virtually in a line along the main road, it’s possible to visit several different beaches in a single afternoon.
End Of The Drive and Accommodation Options
The large green golf courses of Keauhou, along with its famous Kona Coast Resort and Kona Country Club, mark the southern terminus of the drive, which promptly turns into “Ali’i Highway” before becoming Mamalahoa Bypass Road heading further south to the towns of Kealakekua and Captain Cook.
Visitors who get an early start and find themselves in Keauhou on a Saturday morning have a great opportunity to visit Keauhou Farmers’ Market, found in the parking lot of Keauhou Shopping Center next to Bianelli’s Gourmet Pizza. The plastic folding tables at this market are usually overflowing with perfectly ripe, locally grown tropical fruits like avocados, mangos, lychee, papaya and citrus. They offer a much better selection of produce at a more reasonable price when compared to the daily Kona Farmers’ Market vendors, who seem crowded out by an army of craft and trinket sellers. The weekly Keauhou market opens at 8:00am and wraps up at noon on Saturdays.
At this point visitors have only traveled a little over half-a-dozen miles, but have visited several different beach parks, markets, souvenir shops and restaurants. They’ve tried their hand at riding a surfboard, bought much-needed sun hats, sampled some strange and exotic new fruits, spotted dolphins and sea turtles milling around in the bay, and caught some sun at a beach of white sand and bright turquoise water that should be in a brochure.
Few people come to Big Island for the “luxury” Hawaiian vacation experience. It is, after all, considered an “outer-island”, largely rural, full of country folk and devoid of mega-condos and never-ending suburban sprawl. Most people make the extra airplane jump out here to see things like magnificent waterfalls, smoking volcanic craters, raw black sand beaches, striking rainbows, towering lush green valleys and orchards full of tropical fruit. But for those wanting to eat well and stay well while exploring all of these quintessentially Big Island sights, and even to bring a special piece of the island home as a memento or gift for loved ones, Ali’i Drive is the closest thing the island has to Honolulu-level lavishness.
For accommodation, it features some of the most centrally located, best-outfitted, and highest-rated lodging on the island, including two and three-star spots like Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Kailua-Kona, Kona Islander Inn, Royal Kona Resort, Club Wyndham Kona Hawaiian Resort, WorldMark Kona, Kona Tiki, and Club Wyndham Royal Sea Cliff. Toward the drive’s southern end is the 4-star hotel Aston Kona By The Sea, located right next to the beach and surrounded by tranquil forests. It’s an easy walk from this hotel along the shore to Ali’i Saltwater Swimming Pool.
In addition to hotels, there are countless less-formal vacation rentals stretching up and down Ali’i Drive and beyond, from beach villas to condos to guest houses, many of which are pinned on Google maps and found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. As a general rule, accommodation tends to become cheaper the farther you go away from the drive, and with Kona towns’s easy drive-ability and relatively efficient and wide-reaching bus service, it’s possible to get a room in a farther-flung neighborhood and still take full advantage of everything Ali’i Drive has to offer.
How To Get There:
For those wanting to explore the entire length of Ali’i Drive, its northern terminus is located at the bottom of Palani Road, roughly three blocks down the hill from Kona Walmart, next to a long flat-topped rock wall running along Kailua Bay. Ululani’s Shave Ice, Big Kahuna Beach Grill, Seiji’s Sushi and Cherry Hill Kona Coffee Outlet can all be found near the start of the drive, and Gertrude’s Jazz Bar and the historic Hulihe’e Palace are immediately after.
Moku’aikaua Church, Hawaii’s oldest Christian church dating back to the early 1800s, is an easily recognizable landmark located at the top of Ali’i Drive, with its tall white arch and walls of roughly hewn lava boulders sticking out from the much more modern buildings surrounding it.
The Hawaiian word “ali’i” (AH-LEE-EE) means royalty. Ali’i Drive got its name because Hulihe’e Palace was once used by the Royal Family of Hawaii as their home, and the nearby Ahuena Heiau was where King Kamehameha, the first monarch to rule over a united Hawaiian archipelago, spent his retirement. Today the palace is often used as an outdoor music and art venue, where sweetly sung Hawaiian songs drift out onto the sidewalk accompanied with riffs of iconic “slack key” guitar. At one end of the palace grounds is Niumalu Beach, a tiny speck of white sand offering a great photo opportunity of the bay.
Important Note: This stretch of the drive is used as part of the racecourse for the Ironman World Championship held in Kailua-Kona annually, usually in the beginning of October. During the events, the road is closed to vehicle traffic and congestion in the city becomes pretty extreme.