We started off 2017 with a bucket list trip to Hawaii. We only had about a week so we limited ourselves to visiting two islands– the Big Island and Oahu– knowing we wouldn’t get to fully experience either place in our limited amount of time.
We flew into Kona late on a Friday night. The airport is almost entirely uncovered and open and we couldn’t get over everyone waiting for their flights outside. It was still warm out as we grabbed our rental car and headed to our hotel in downtown Kona.
It was completely dark when we arrived so we didn’t get to see any of downtown or really understand where we were in relation to the coast that night. The next morning we were up just after sunrise and set off to walk around the surrounding neighborhood and get a feel for Kona.
As it turned out we were only about a block from the water on one on the main streets- Ali’i Drive. We were up early so the shops were still closed and there were only a few other people on the sidewalks. We didn’t have far to go before we were in the middle of the two points of interest on my list– Hulihee Palace and Mokuaikaua Church.
The palace was the vacation home of the royal family and still has prime real estate along the water with beautiful grounds. Across the street is the church, which was the first Christian church in Hawaii.
Although we were too early to go inside, we were able to take in the grounds as the sun continued to rise and stood along a rock wall watching the waves crash as everyone and everything slowly began to awake.
As we returned to the shopping district, a few coffee shops were unshuttering. I picked a small one and went to buy a small Kona coffee, only to remember I had left everything in the room! Thankfully no one was in a hurry and I was able to track down Brian, who was taking pictures by the water, to help me make my purchase.
We walked quite a ways along the water, taking pictures and watching as more and more people flowed out of their hotels to take their morning walks. The sun had peeked over the nearby volcano and everything was flooded in soft morning light.
We found Brian a local doughnut shop, Holy Donuts, where he picked out a couple of gourmet treats for the road. We also stopped at a surf shop to check into renting fins. I had looked into several places we could pull over along the coast and snorkel on both the Big Island and Oahu, and while we wanted to use our own snorkels and masks, we didn’t see a point in packing our fins, which are meant for cold weather diving and use with accompanying boots.
The shopkeeper was very nice, and I thought we would quickly have our gear and be on our way. However, as we were preparing to check out, he informed us that we’d likely have to cart our gear around with us for the duration of our stay because they were experiencing a significantly rough surf along the western side of the island, meaning most beaches would be closed.
Unsure of how we would be able to return our fins before catching our flight to Oahu, we decided to wait on renting gear until the tides literally changed and we knew we would actually be able to use them.
Instead, we finished our walk downtown, returned to the hotel and packed up our things, deciding to get an early start on our three-hour journey south along the Kona Coast.
It was easy navigating out of the city and before we knew it we were winding our way south. As we headed away from town, the land started to open up, and we could better see the major hills and valleys toward the island’s interior.
We cut toward the water and Kahaluʻu Beach Park, one of the beaches I found close to Kona that was supposed to have great snorkeling. As we pulled in, we immediately saw people standing in groups near the lifeguard hut, clearly assessing the giant waves crashing down on the beach. The beach itself had signs up indicating it was closed.
We slowly pulled through the parking lot, accepting that the shop owner had been right and that we wouldn’t be getting in any snorkeling today. I was bummed, but we accepted our fate and turned our attention to another activity I was really looking forward our first day in Hawaii–touring a coffee plantation!
Kona Coffee Plantation Tour
When I was researching our trip, a number of different plantation tours came up on the Big Island, covering vanilla, macadamia nuts, and coffee. They all sounded interesting, but I was most interested in coffee! While Brian isn’t a coffee drinker, he is always interested in how things work and how things are made and agreed a plantation tour sounded interesting.
There were a variety of places offering tours, but I found several recommendations for the tours at Greenwell Farms, which was right along our route from Kona to Volcano Village. Somehow we managed to drive right past it at first, returning to see the tractor and trailer with a small sign indicating the farm’s daily tours and coffee tastings.
A tour group had just started as we arrived, but we were able to catch up with them under some incredible avocado trees (I didn’t know avocados grew on trees!) to hear more about how the region came to be known for coffee, which is not native to Hawaii.
The original plantings were brought to Hawaii from Brazil in the early 1800s, and thanks to sunny mornings, rainy afternoons, and mild nights, the Kona Coast turned out to be perfect for cultivating coffee plants. To officially be ‘Kona’ coffee, it has to be grown in the Kona districts, and it’s one of the most expensive coffees in the world!
While Greenwell Farms does grow its own coffee plants, which it reserves for its private labels, it also purchases a significant amount of beans from nearby farms through a high-quality selection process.
We were able to walk through the area where the beans are brought in for examination, weighed, and purchased, as well as the buildings where the coffee cherry (which is the pod picked off the plant) goes through a process to separate the beans from the pulp before the beans are fermented and laid out to dry.
Our tour guide was great and answered all of our questions as we walked through the rows of coffee plants, around to the production buildings, and along the road back toward where we had parked.
There was a small shop near where we had started the tour that was full of both whole bean and ground coffee in each of their varieties. They were also selling produce from their farm, including the largest avocados I have ever seen!
Before I got completely distracted with what I was planning to purchase, I spotted a row of carafes full of hot coffee ready for us to taste! I was really excited to try the peaberry, which is the result of the two beans in the cherry fusing into one bean, and the Jeni K, which is one of their reserve coffees. I ended up liking the medium roasts the best, as well as some of the flavored coffees, like the macadamia nut coffee.
I bought one of the variety packs and splurged on a whole bean bag of the peaberry so I could try everything again at home. I also bought one of the giant avocados for a later meal. Our tour guide was nearby and showed us how to prick the area underneath the avocado stem to see whether or not the avacado is ripe. It was a neat trick that I will have to remember when I’m at the store and considering avacado varieties that don’t always use a black body as an indicator of ripeness.
We both loved this tour and tasting and would absolutely recommend it to anyone who is interested in coffee production. Even if you’re not a coffee fan, you might enjoy hearing about the history of the region, seeing the coffee growing and production process, and taste-testing some varieties you haven’t tried before!
It was mid-day by the time we concluded our tour, and we were ready to continue on our journey south. We headed toward Pu-uhonua O Honaunau Bay, one of the highlighted national parks of the Pacific, where I was hoping we could explore the ancient grounds, but once again we were turned away. The site was closed because of the rough surf, and two police women were standing next to the closed signs, turning people away.
As we turned to leave, we asked if there were any beaches along the coast that were accessible. They recommended a small private beach up the road where we could at least take a few pictures so we set out to find it!
It was definitely a private beach and at the end of a private road I probably couldn’t find again if I tried. We skirted around a few people who had apparently been given directions here by the police women as well and finally managed to park and walk down to the water.
Even in this protected space the waves were rolling in, crashing against boulders far out in the water. We took a few pictures before putting the water to our backs and climbing high up into the hills around Captain Cook in search of a lunch spot called the Coffee Shack. We were able to get a nice table for two outside on a patio overlooking the hillside. We savored our meal and the incredible morning we had spent exploring Kona and the coast.