Hawaii is an incredibly special place. Those lucky enough to visit are overwhelmed with far too many excellent options, but one of the best is Kona, also known as Hawai’i or the “Big Island.” Its combination of volcanoes and beaches is unmatched. I visited with my family in the winter of 2020.

One of the early highlights of our trip was the hike out to Kiholo Bay. The walk takes you past the Queen’s Bath, a freshwater pool bored dramatically into the volcanic rock. In ancient Hawaii, only royalty were permitted to enter the pool; today anyone may swim in the waters once reserved for the Hawaiian elite.

Kiholo Bay itself is a gorgeous tropical inlet. It’s supposed to have good snorkeling as well, though we were stymied by a large swell that muddied the waters enough that little was visible. We did, however, get an excellent view of a sea turtle sunning on the rocks surrounding the bay.

We stayed in Wai’ula’ula, on the island’s north west coast, so it was about a two-and-a-half hour drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park offers views of and hikes through recently active volcanic areas. We drove along the Chain of Craters Road, stopping at overlooks above the Pauahi and Hi’aka Craters. Then we did short hike from the Pu’u Trailhead to the top of Pu’u Huluhulu Cinder Cone.

On the way back we drove by some of the waterfalls on the island’s east coast. We stopped at Rainbow Falls, just outside the town of Hilo. Then we continued on to Akaka Falls State Park, where we walked a short loop to see the stunning waterfall.

The next day we drove north to Pololū Beach, a jewel of a beach netsled at the bottom of a stunning valley. A short but steep hike takes you down to the valley, and the trail continues to wind along the coast to a number of stunning viewpoints and more beaches (unfortunately we didn’t have time).

The town of Waimea is about twenty minutes east of the coast. It’s reminiscient of old Hawaii, full of interesting shops and restaurants, and boasts several great farmers markets. After walking around Waimea, we drove north on Highway 250 along the slopes of Kohala Mountain. The weather was foggy and cloudy and threatened to spoil our sunset horseback ride. But as we approached Ponoholo Ranch the clouds disappeared, and we were rewarded with an awesome of the ocean, and the island of Maui to the northwest.

Ponoholo Ranch is an historic working cattle ranch. It’s also the site of Paniolo Adventures, which offers horseback riding adventures around Kohala Mountain. We trotted along the trails to get an incredible view of the gorgeous sunset, then returned to Waimea for dinner.

The next morning we toured Greenwell Farms, a working coffee farm on Kona’s southwest coast. Then we visited Pu’uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park. It was the site of an ancient Hawaiian royal palace, as well as the Puʻuhonua (city of refuge), where lawbreakers, defeated warriors, and civilians during wartime could not be harmed.

Our next stop was Kanaloa Octopus Farm. The farm is a commercial venture seeking to learn how to raise octopuses in aquacultural envrionments. It’s also invested in octopus conservation. When you visit you get a tour of the farm, an explanation of the farm’s research, and an opportunity to meet the octopuses. They enjoy gently wrapping their tentacles around hands and fingers.

That evening was the most magical of the trip. We boarded a boat in Keauhou Bay. Just around the point, the bright lights of the Sheraton Kona Resort shine on the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The lights stimulate plankton growth, and manta rays feed on plankton. The result is that manta rays flock to the bay every night to feast. Several companies offer tours that let you snorkel with the manta rays.

Manta rays swim around us in Keauhou Bay

We dove into the warm ocean and hung onto a large float that shone lights down into the water, giving us a great view of the rays. The mantas aren’t afraid of people—in fact they flock to the lights—so we floated in the ocean as the rays swam and swirled all around us. Returning to the boat, we sailed back to the harbor and had a great dinner at Magics Beach Grill.

We spent our last full day in Hawaii on a snorkel cruise. Normally the trip takes guests to two or three dive sites along Kona’s west coast. Unfortunately a big swell made conditions unsafe, so we were confined to the gentle waters of Kealakekua Bay. We still got plenty of time in the water and saw all sorts of marine life, a fantastic way to spend our last day on the island.