While cruise ships call it "Kona," this stop on the western part of the island of Hawaii is actually a region rather than an actual city. Ships anchor in Kailua Bay and tender their guests to the Kailua Pier, which is right in the middle of Kailua Village, the historic heart of Kailua-Kona.
Kona's sunnier and dryer than Hilo to the east -- it almost never rains -- and features the island's best beaches, snorkeling and surfing. (The east coast is more tropical, with waterfalls and mountainous regions closer to the town of Hilo. Believe it or not, the island has 11 climatic zones!)
Coffee grown in the hills above Kailua-Kona (the one place where it rains more in the summer than in the winter) is very delicious and highly prized. Beaches in the area range from black sand to sugar white, with sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins and -- in season, November to May -- humpback whales visible from the surf or the shore.
Whereas Hilo is the business anchor of the Big Island (with a more authentic, local feel), the area just north of Kailua-Kona -- the Kohala Coast -- houses the island's most desirable resorts, with renowned restaurants, spas and golf courses.
Tenders arrive in the middle of downtown Kailua Village. Shopping shuttles will pick you up at the pier, as will rental car company shuttles. Local tourist representatives set up a small table with brochures and maps and can answer questions.
Just across from the tender pier is the King Kamehameha Hotel, a historic Hawaiian temple and a small beach with water sports rentals. Head right for a quick walk to restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops, the farmers market and a few historic sites; head left and up the hill for more restaurants and shops, as well as the larger stores like Hilo Hattie's and Long's Drugs.
Ocean safety is a top concern. The water might look calm and peaceful, but conditions can change quickly. Never turn your back on the ocean and obey all signage or official warnings about beach and water use. If you don't see locals in the water, it might be best to stay on dry land, and don't disobey posted regulations just because someone you meet tells you it's no problem to go swimming.
On Foot: If you're just going to visit Kailua Village, you can easily do it on foot. It's small and compact.
By Bus or Shuttle: Shuttles at the pier will deliver you to Hilo Hattie's, Kmart, Wal-Mart and the Kona International Market. The Keauhou Trolley is a local area shuttle that makes two alternating loops around Kona area attractions for a couple of bucks. It picks up at the pier and does a shorter loop to retail/restaurant areas and a longer one to nearby beaches; service is limited, so make sure you have a copy of the schedule, available from the tourist reps at the pier.
By Car: You can take advantage of the easy accessibility and reasonable prices of Kona's car rental agencies. Just be savvy about which agency you choose; some have in-town branches, while airport locations might not provide courtesy shuttles for cruisers. (If not, you'll need to hire a cab for the seven-mile ride.) It's best to book ahead, if you can, because if the cars sell out, last-minute rentals can increase the price exponentially. Discount Hawaii Car Rental is one great source for discounted rentals and information on pickup service.
Local currency is the U.S. dollar. There are plenty of ATMs around the little city, including at the Courtyard King Kamehameha Hotel, retail stores on Alii Drive and at the Lanihau shopping center. An American Savings Bank is located at the corner of Kuakini Highway and Palani Road. Almost all shops, restaurants, car rental companies and tour companies take credit and debit cards.
English, but try your hand at any Hawaiian phrases you pick up. Aloha means hello and goodbye, mahalo means thank you, and aloha ahiahi means good night. If you hear Aloha, e komo mai, don't panic. It means "Welcome!"
Lunch in Kona can be almost anything you want, from extravagant elegance in the hotels around Waikoloa to cheap eats just a few blocks from the tender dock. Fresh fish is a Hawaiian staple; look for mahimahi, opakapaka, opah and ahi. Fresh fruit (including tropical ones like pineapples and coconuts) are also a good bet.
One very typical Hawaiian meal is the plate lunch. It consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and one protein: Choose from options such as barbecue chicken, kalbi ribs, hamburger steak, beef stew or the fish of the day. A mixed plate lets you choose two different meats. For a perfect dessert on a hot day, stop in any shave ice shop. Hawaii's version of the snow cone consists of ice shaved off a large block then topped with flavored syrups. You can even order them with a scoop of ice cream in the center.
If Hawaiian food isn't your thing, don't worry. Restaurants in Hawaii are quite diverse with ethnic cuisines including standard American, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and French. Cruise Critic members have been pleased with several of the near-to-pier options, including Splasher's Grill and The Fish Hopper.
Kona Inn: Sit on the open terrace for lunch, where the prices are lower, the views of the bay fantastic and the mai tais are potent. It's located on Alii Drive, not far from the pier and attached to a shopping center. The food's good, but the Hawaiian atmosphere, ocean breezes and views make it special. (75-5744 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona; 808-239-4455) For a more casual vibe and sports on the TV, stop at Kona Canoe Club, in the same marketplace. It has a similar menu and prices.
Kona Brewing Co.: If you want to try local beer, it's worth the uphill walk to the Kona Brewing Co. to sample their brews -- including ones you can't find in the supermarket. Lunch is typical salads and sandwiches, pizza and pupus (appetizers). It's a bit pricey but typical for Hawaii rates. Get here super-early (before noon) or be prepared to wait for a table. Don't worry -- you can sip a Longboard Island Lager or Pipeline Porter while you wait.
Hawaii Calls at Waikoloa Beach Marriott: If you're heading north toward Waikaloa and the Kohalo Coast, this is a fabulous place to have lunch. It's open air, with a koi pond and waterfalls, and serves fresh fish and produce. It's pricier than some of the other recommendations, but it's well worth it. (69-275 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Kohalo Coast; 808-886-8111)
Huggo's On the Rocks: Located about a mile south of the tender pier, On the Rocks is the place to eat with your toes in the sand. The casual menu offers up sandwiches, burgers, tacos and fish and chips -- not to mention an array of "exotic tropical potions." In season, you might even spy a few humpback whales diving offshore. (75-5824 Kahakai Road, Kailua-Kona; 808-329-1493; open Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. )
Scandinavian Shave Ice: This small downtown shop is in the running for the title of Hawaii's Best Shave Ice. We're no experts, but we loved the choices of sizes, flavors (65!), toppings and ice cream or frozen yogurt centers. A small can easily be shared by two; the larges are enormous. Eat it there or sit on the seawall across the street as you indulge. (75-5699 Alii Drive)
Kona Coffee is your best bet for coffee drinkers. Try to buy at one of the plantations or at a grocery store rather than in a tourist outlet. You'll get a much better price in the grocery stores although the packaging might not be as pretty, and at the plantation, you'll find coffee varieties you can't find in retail stores.
For other food souvenirs, head to a KTA Super Store or Long's Drugs to pick up local favorites such as ulu (breadfruit) chips, Kona Chips potato chips, mochi (a sweet rice cake) and manju (a confection filled with red bean paste), or Donna's Cookies. If you're looking for shot glasses, keychains and the ubiquitous chocolate-covered macadamias (which you can also find in your hometown Costco), head to an ABC Store, Wal-Mart or most any shopping area. You'll find the bigger chains up Palani Road from the pier and a variety of tourist shops along Alii Drive.
You can't go wrong with a Hawaii-themed cocktail like a Lava Flow (a cross between a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada, made with light rum and coconut rum plus strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut cream) or a Blue Hawaii (a concoction of rum, curacao, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix). For something a bit more local, order a beer from the Kona Brewing Co. or a drink made with Ocean Vodka, made with water sourced from deep sea water off the Big Island's coast.