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Part three of our Big Island of Hawaii guide will take us the rest of the way around the southern tip of the island. We follow the highway from the Volcanoes area, stopping for coffee, malasadas (pastries), and cliff diving along the way. Eventually, we reach the Kona Coast, which features the Painted Church, the City of Refuge, and an amazing opportunity to snorkel with giant manta rays!
We begin Part 3 of our guide by leaving the volcanoes area of the island, driving west along the southern highway.
Ka’u Coffee Mill & Visitor Center
I’m a total coffee nut, and the Big Island offers some great local coffee options. Kona Coffee is the most well-known variety on the island, but don’t miss the Ka’u Coffee location along the south coast. If you want to stop at the Ka’u Coffee visitor’s center, you should mark it on your map, because the road sign is easy to miss. You’ll take a quick 2-mile detour off the main road.
At the visitor’s center, you can sample various roasts of the Ka’u Coffee and different flavor options (definitely try the Peaberry). They also offer flavored macadamia nuts and delicious brittles (try the coconut flavor). If you have time, you can also take a tour of the mill area, but we were happy with our coffee samples and snacks.
Punalu’u Bake Shop
Definitely make a pit stop at the Punalu’u Bake Shop, America’s southernmost bakery. Here you can get some sweet treats and even a light lunch. You must try the malasadas, which are fluffy donut-like pastries. Some are filled with various creams or jams. We tried the plain and passion fruit-filled varieties, and they were SO GOOD!
South Point – The Southernmost Point in the USA
After leaving the bakery, heading west, you will have the option to turn off and visit the southern tip of the United States. After you make the left turn, you may begin to question whether you are on the right road… you are. You will pass through cow pastures and generally leave any evidence of civilization behind. Keep driving as the road narrows, hugging the shoulder. After a while, you will see a small road to turn right toward South Point. If you reach the parking lot for Green Beach (end of the road), you have gone about a half-mile too far.
When you arrive, you will likely find a small crowd gathered along the cliff’s edge. Look over the 30-ish foot cliff, and feel free to jump in! I went for it… three times! When you hit the water, turn around and swim into the cave and take a look around. Ladders are attached to the cliffside when you want to climb back out.
Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
As you reach the west side of the island, turn north along the Kona Coast. A great place to stop for a visit is the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, also known as the “City of Refuge.” In the ancient Hawaiian Kapu system, someone who broke the law could be immediately put to death. The only way to be absolved was to reach the walls of a pu’uhonua, where you would be safe and a priest could perform a purification ceremony.
At this national park, you can see the remains of the walled city of refuge. Tiki statues guard the entrance to the city and the bone hut, which contains the remains of former priests. Just outside the national park, you will find an area with excellent snorkeling.
St. Benedict’s Catholic Church is a beautiful place to visit along the Kona Coast. Built in 1842, this active Catholic church features an elaborately painted interior. Murals inside depict scenes from the bible in vivid colors. Interestingly, the only mural that has faded over time is the one depicting a scene from Hell.
Manta Ray Night Snorkeling
Night snorkeling with giant manta rays was absolutely one of the highlights of our visit to the Big Island! We booked a tour with Eka Canoe Adventures, and they provide an awesome experience. They offer tours at 7:15pm, 8:30pm, and 9:45pm (depending on the season). We booked the 8:30 tour, to be sure that it would be completely dark. The tours pick up at a dock near the Sheraton Kona Resort (where we stayed)… very convenient!
Eka Canoe Adventures uses a traditional Hawaiian sailing vessel, with two canoes connected by a deck. This keeps the group size small (only 8-10 people). We hopped aboard and set sail for nearby Keauhou Bay. After only 5-10 minutes, we reached the bay. Our guides passed our float noodles, gave a quick safety talk, and we splashed into the water.
We held onto the sides of a floating board, with a blue light attached to the bottom. The blue light attracts plankton in the water, which then attracts the giant manta rays for feeding. We had only been in the water for a couple minutes when the first giant manta ray appeared! These rays are HUGE!
We watched in absolute amazement as a second, third, and fourth manta joined the group. They swam below us in what can only be described as a “dance.” Flips, twists, and barrel rolls brought the rays up so close that they grazed us as they passed by! We floated and watched the dance in awe for nearly an hour, as our guides shared interesting manta facts.
When we returned to the boat, the crew served hot cocoa for the return trip to the dock. What a nice touch! If you’re looking for a unique experience during your time on the Kona Coast, I highly recommend booking a manta night tour with Eka Canoe Adventures.
Great Eats on the Kona Coast
While it may not look like much, Kaaloa’s Super J’s is one of the top recommended restaurants on Yelp and TripAdvisor. We had to stop in to try the authentic local Hawaiian dish – pork laulau. I’m so glad that we did! The pork is juicy and delicious. Don’t let the hole-in-the-wall appearance deter you; give this place a shot.
Brooke was seriously craving an acai bowl, so we paid a visit to Loko Wraps. She went with the Hula Girl acai bowl, which combines banana, strawberry, and mango… very refreshing and tasty!
Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay – 10,000 SPG Points/night
We spent two nights at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. The resort is a bit older, but the location is fantastic! Hawaii hotels are notoriously difficult to book on points at a good valuation. At only 10,000 SPG points per night, and an average nightly price around $250 (after taxes), we got a redemption value of 2.5 cents-per-point. You can earn 25,000 SPG points by applying for either the SPG Personal Amex or the SPG Business Amex card… or 50,000 points if you get both!
Our room was fairly basic, with a balcony overlooking the swimming pool. We had been offered an upgrade as SPG Platinum members, but the room was unavailable when we arrived… not sure what happened there. The hotel pool features a water slide, waterfall, and indoor/outdoor sections.
We also took advantage of Sheraton Lounge access as Platinum members. (The SPG Business Amex card also grants lounge access.) Each evening, they serve heavy appetizers (ribs, meatballs, veggies, onion rings, etc.) and wine/beer in the lounge. The food was significant enough to serve as dinner, and the view from the lounge is the best at the resort. Another nice Platinum benefit is free daily breakfast, served at the buffet. The main dining attraction, Rays on the Bay, was unfortunately closed (relocated inside) for renovation during our visit.
The south and west coasts of the Big Island offer some great activities. Be sure to take full advantage of your time here. Sample the delicious coffee and soak in the culture. Where else can you jump off the southern tip of the USA and then watch giant manta rays dance at night?! Cheers!