Upon landing at the Kona International Airport, one might think they’ve landed on another planet or in a surreal land devastated by natural disaster. In fact, the latter is true, as much of the airport’s runway is built on opaque solidified lava from a volcanic eruption, on which three million pounds of dynamite was detonated to flatten it in order to build the airport.

But don’t let this blackened, otherworldly-looking area sully your impression; you did not land in Mordor, but rather the state of Hawaii’s largest and most diverse island whose Kona Coast hotels are the epitome of tropical paradise.

Unparalleled Diversity

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The aptly named Big Island is also one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth, possessing four of the world’s five major climate zones and eight of the 13 subzones. The island’s diversity is immediately apparent once I leave the airport: savanna land reminiscent of Africa rises in the hills above the airport, and further up, ivory snow caps majestic 13,796-foot Mauna Kea (White Mountain).  Proceeding south, on the mauka (side facing the mountain), tropical forests march up and over hills while the ever-blue Pacific shimmers on the makai (ocean side).

Historic Kailua-Kona

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Dropping down into Kailua-Kona, 15 miles south of the futuristic moonscape of the airport, I am suddenly in the Hawaii of centuries past. Kona was once a resort for Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) and where King Kamehameha the Great ruled his island empire.

Strolling down Ali’i Drive, I notice a plethora of island-style shops and restaurants but also spy the 19th-century Hulihe’e Palace, a vacation residence of Hawaiian royalty, and the thatched Ahuena Heiau, the restored personal heiau (temple) of Kamehameha the Great, which lies at the water’s edge. Although located on the grounds of the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, the heiau is open to the public.

Royal Accommodations

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Some of the more regal Kailua-Kona Hotels include the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Here you can relax at one of their pools, slide down a 200-foot lava tube waterslide, and learn how to hula dance.

Another great choice is the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, located on the grounds where the great king himself ruled. The beachfront hotel, which received the Award of Honor by The American Society of Interior Designers, features spacious oceanfront rooms that reflect Big Island themes.

On the south side of town, I stay at the Royal Kona Resort. Its “dramatic oceanfront setting,” in the words of Travelocity, includes a private beach and lagoon, an outdoor pool, an open-air seaside bar and restaurant, and the most verdant landscaped grounds I’ve ever seen at a hotel.

Events and Attractions

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Kailua-Kona also plays host to numerous attractions and festivals, including the annual Ironman World Championship. More than 2,000 international athletes descend on Kona in October for the three-part Ironman competition, which starts and finishes at the Kailua Pier next to King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel. Another attraction in Kona that draws big crowds is the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. The park allows visitors to experience the culture and natural history of Hawaii.

But whether you’re an Ironman or natural historian, you are bound to find adventure on Hawaii’s biggest and most eclectic island, and Kona is the optimal starting point.

What do you think about Kailua-Kona? Any other places on the Big Island you’d like to travel to?