It was early December and things were still very much business as usual. Like most mornings, I was up early and had already brewed a large pot of coffee. Sipping slowly on my first cup I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop - It dinged almost immediately. My eyes darted to the top right corner of my screen to see an email notification. I smiled as I read the subject line “Mele Kalikimaka” - I clicked on it. It was from Adam’s cousin Nashlyn and read “See you in Hawaii soon family!!”. Below, a link to Bing Crosby’s Mele Kalikimaka, the Hawaiian Christmas Song.
Up to this point planning our family Christmas vacation to Hawaii hadn’t been easy. Finding accommodations for all 13 of us was nothing short of grueling and had already led to two failed VRBO booking attempts. Now, being only a week out until the trip, things were looking up and I couldn’t have been more excited for what was to come.
Prior to takeoff and in my usual ‘type-a’ style I had tried to do some research about the destination only to find out quickly that unlike popular Hawaiian destinations like Oahu and Maui, there wasn’t much out there to go on. Regardless, having spent Christmas with Adam’s extended family before, I knew this trip was going to be fun and of course I was right. From boozing on the beach, to checking out some great snorkeling spots, to finding the most amazing classic rock cover band I have ever heard, our trip to Kona was one of the best Christmases I have ever had. If you are heading to The Big Island and want some recommendations, you can find what topped my list for best beaches, restaurants and nightlife activities below.
- Beaches + Snorkeling Spots -
It was our first day in Kona and we were off to a late start. Eager to get to the beach we decided to hit up one close by. After a quick google search we found out that there was a beach literally down the street from our VRBO. Magic Sands, a small, popular, local beach just outside the downtown strip of Kailua-Kona. When we arrived the beach was packed with locals and tourist alike and there was even a net (free to the public to use) where people were playing volleyball. I absolutely loved this beach and we ended up coming back here twice. It had such a great energy/vibe and even though it was small, it had some wicked strong waves and made you feel like you were really in the thick of it all. I didn’t submerge myself in the water here because the waves were a little too crazy for me, but the boys did and had lots of fun boogie boarding. As for me, I preferred to spend my time sitting on the side lines drinking rose, people watching, and basking in the ‘magic’ of Magic Sands.
Besides Adam losing his wallet at this next beach, spending the day at Makalawena was definitely a highlight of the trip. A 30 minute drive outside of Kailua-Kona, Makalwaena is a secluded beach that you can only get to by hiking through the lava fields. Before you even get to the beach path to begin the hike in, you first have to drive 10 minutes into a park on a long, unpaved road. Go slow because the road is bumpy and rough. Once you get to the parking lot, you will see the entrance which is where you will begin the first leg of your journey through the lava fields. All in all you are looking at a 25-30 minute trek but believe me when I say its a totally surreal experience. Walking through the lava fields is beautiful with black riggid rock all around you. Make sure to wear some good comfy shoes - you will thank me later. The lava fields are perfect for taking photos and Adam and I did just that - it was too epic to pass on. Getting to the beach felt long and a bit tough but when we finally got there it was so worth it. When we arrived there was maybe only 20 or so people on the beach (if that) and as soon as I dug my feet into the soft white sand I knew it was going to be one of my favorite spots. The best part about our day as Makalawena was that since the beach only had a slight incline and wasn’t insanely packed with people we had tons of room to play our annual game of family football.
Up to this point I hadn’t really wanted to go into the water - all the beaches we had gone to had big crashing waves and felt a little to crazy for me. I honestly vividly remember on multiple occasions looking out at the water as a big wave was coming in and people were running away, LOL. Yeah… not for me. It wasn’t until we spent a day at Kua Bay Beach that I finally had the urge to really get in and completely submerged myself. The beach was a 35 minute drive outside Kona and had just the right amount of people, not as busy as Magic Sands but not as quiet or crazy to get to as Makalawena. The waves were perfect for boogie boarding and I spent over an hour playing in the water and catching waves. It may of been the people I was with, the fact that I finally felt that it was safe enough to get in the water, or the epic ‘shade fort’ that I built that day, but this beach definitely took top spot in my books.
On Christmas Day, after we had all gotten up and had a nice breakfast together, Louis (Nashlyn’s fiance) suggested we head to Honaunau for snorkeling, and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Two Step (Honaunau) which literally refers to the two rocks that act like steps to help you get in and out of the water easily, is a small popular snorkeling spot about a 30 minute drive from Kuilua-Kona. Not to be confused as a beach, there isn’t really anything else going on here besides some flat rocks and some amazing snorkeling. Still though, having now gone, it’s pretty kick ass and I definitely recommend you add it to your list of things to do while in Kona. When we arrived it was pretty busy but we still managed to claim a spot on the rocks to leave our stuff while we discovered the beautiful underwater world of colorful coral and vibrant schools of fishes native to the area. A perfect way to spend Christmas Day if you ask me.
- Restaurants -
On our last day in Kona and on the way back from Kua Bay beach Adam and I stopped off at a local poké shop called Umekes that Adam’s cousin’s girlfriend Erica had heard about. Up to this point in the trip I had yet to try authentic Hawaiian poké and even though we had plans to have a big family dinner together back at the house, I needed to make this experience happen. As soon as we stepped inside I knew it was going to be good. The place was packed and the lineup was pretty much out the door. The poke was a little on the expensive side ($15) but they gave you a big, delicious helping and it was totally worth the chance to have a true Hawaiian poké experience. The only thing that I would say was a down fall to this place is that there isn’t much ambiance and it’s definitely not a place you would sit down and enjoy a meal. The only ‘seating’ you will find are some benches outside in the plaza where its located, but at least there’s free parking....
Since we were such a big group, it was usually easier and less expensive for us to just take turns cooking dinner at the house, but the one night we did go out as a group for dinner we went to Kona Brewery and Pub. The boys had been drinking a lot of Kona Brewery beer up to this point in the trip and Adam’s cousing Leiland had taken his girlfriend to their pub on her birthday for a little solo date night. When they got back to the house Leiland reported that their pizzas were amazing, and I think that’s all the real convincing it took to seal the deal haha. The restaurant is super casual and was easily able to accommodate all of is. We ended up sitting outside enjoying freshly made pizzas and cold brews before hitting up some bars in downtown Kona - a great start to an evening out.
Having arrived in Kona a couple days after Adam’s cousins, we had some catching up to do. They had already ventured to the other side of the island to see Volcano park and check out Hilo, but we were still due for that adventure. The drive from Kona to Hilo takes about 1.5-2 hours and with sightseeing/hiking and visiting Volcano Park its a full day activity. If you are up for it though, I definitely recommend stopping off for some cocktails and delicious island fare at Pineapples while in Hilo. I had their fish tacos which were amazing and tried a glass of their sangria, a perfect blend of wine and fresh tropical fruit. Adam’s cousin who was going crazy for Mai Tai’s said the one she had at Pineapples was the best she had on the entire island. The restaurant itself is an open-air concept and features a lineup of local musicians Tuesday through Sunday. The place was pretty busy when we arrived but the food, service, and vibe was great and worth the 20-minute wait.
- Nightlife -
On our first night in Kona, Adam and I joined his cousin and girlfriend for a night out exploring the town. None of us had any idea of what downtown Kona had to offer in terms of nightlife and only after walking down the main strip did we hear echoes of live music coming from a second floor bar. Enter Gertrude’s Jazz Bar, a fun cocktail bar with panoramic views of the ocean, and live music nightly. On that particular night we stumbled into the last set of a family band called ‘The Lucky Tongue’ and although it was the sound of their music that initially drew us in, it wasn’t till we settled in and ordered a drink at the bar that our heads cranked back around to see where the great music was coming from. They were captivating - dressed in vintage 70’s bell bottoms and played classic rock covers from The Guess Who, Billy Idol, and The Mamas & the Papas - it was amazing! We had so much fun we ended up staying there the entire night and completely took over the dance floor singing and dancing to all the songs.
After our first day at Magic Sands the entire Christmas crew took over Huggo’s On The Rocks for happy hour (3-5PM daily) and to watch the sunset. Huggo’s, as it is fondly referred to by locals, is a casual ‘toes in the sand’ restaurant that gives you the illusion of being at a beach bar while enjoying ocean front views. The food was okay but we stayed mostly for the drinks and live music. We ended up coming back to Huggo’s on the Sunday night because Lucky Tongue was playing again and we wanted to catch more of their set since we only got to hear a couple of songs at Gertrude’s a couple days earlier. If you are looking to spend a night out in downtown Kona, Huggo’s On The Rocks makes a great starting point (they close at 10PM during the week and 11PM on weekends) because it’s close to the main restaurant strip in Kona and you can easily walk to other spots.
- MORE PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP -