Our experience in this west-side "metropolis" (pop. 9800) is probably far from typical. It is the major resort hub of the Big Island, but we didn't even see the big hotels, except briefly, and from a distance, at the highway 190/11 intersection. I'm sure the more resort-y northern part of the Kona district (Kona is the name of the district, similar to counties in Hawai'i, and Kailua is the local name for the town) is very nice, and we heard there were some good snorkeling areas up there. But we really liked the more laid-back, less crowded and less glitzy (we assume)—in short, more hippie-like—southern area where our hotel was. Not only was the lodging cheaper, but we felt we saw more of the "real" Big Island there. And it was close to the BEST snorkeling spot in the islands (not just our newbie opinion)—the area around the Capt. Cook monument, the spot commemorating where the explorer was killed by native Hawaiians in 1778.
We kayaked across the beautiful Kealakekua Bay over to the monument (which is the easiest way to get there) and spent an enjoyable few hours swimming around in this giant aquarium. I wish we had pictures of what we saw there, but underwater photography lies somewhere in our future. Here we are at the place where we rented our kayak and snorkeling equipment, and a shot of how nicely our little rent car transported the boat:
Here is a panoramic shot of the coast south of town, taken looking back at the area as we were leaving. We think nearer bay might be Kealakekua, or it might be the one further back:
We stayed at the Manago Hotel, run by the eponymous family since its founding in 1917, in the little town of Captain Cook, just south of Kailua-Kona. What a neat place! A spare but comfortable room (with no tv) and an old-fashioned lobby and dining room, where we had a couple of good dinners and breakfasts. They apparently just kept adding on to the structure over the years, building down the slope toward the sea. The bottom two pictures in the set are views south and north from our room's balcony. All this beauty and charm, and for far less than the resorts up the coast—we'll stay here every time! (A knowledgeable couple at our Volcano B&B also recommend it.)
The sky was hazy most of the time we were in Kona, so our views of the ocean weren't as clear as we might have hoped, but there still were good Hawaiian sunsets, this one seen from our balcony:
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