Hawaii on a Budget: What To Do In Kona For Cheap (Or Even Free!)

Adventure and Travel
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While I do think of myself as extremely fortunate, I don’t usually think of myself as a lucky person.

For example, if there were one hundred guests at the quilt guild luncheon and ninety-nine door prizes, I would be the one going home empty-handed. And those people who go to the mall and always find a parking spot near the door, even during the annual Black Friday Christmas shopping melee? Yeah. I am so not that lady.

However, this week I am beginning to wonder if I laid down on the grass for a nap and accidentally picked up a four-leaf clover in the process. As most of you are aware, basically the entire country has been plunged into the deep freeze known as the polar vortex.

But where am I this week? Hawaii. Specifically the Big Island, on the Kona Coast.

Living on Island Time Can be Expensive

I know, I know. Don’t hate me.

As I mentioned earlier this week in my packing guide for island adventure, we use our timeshare points to visit Hawaii almost every winter; it’s only a five-hour flight from the West coast. This year, our timing was particularly good, even lucky. But, then again, I’ve felt lucky every single time I’ve been to Hawaii. It is one of the most magical places on earth, a true island paradise. Not only is Kona a breathtakingly beautiful spot, there are tons of fun and interesting things to do.

You can take a helicopter tour around the island, attend a Hawaiian luau, book a spot for a snorkel, scuba, or sunset boat charter, take a zipline tour (assuming you’re not afraid of heights), play golf overlooking the ocean, or visit one of the island’s many luxury spas for a relaxing lomi-lomi or even a whole day of pampering. The only downside to these suggestions is that they will definitely put a hole in your wallet. If you can afford it, any one of these experiences would be an amazing addition to a very special vacation. If you visit Hawaii, I highly recommend booking at least one memorable, pinnacle splurge.

But I’ve got good news for budget travelers! There are plenty of things to do in Kona that won’t make your heart palpitate after you get home and open up the Visa statement. Here are a few of my favorite inexpensive (and even free!) things to do in Kona.

Paradise Is Just Outside The Door

Outdoor activities are the very best thing about visiting Hawaii. There’s usually plenty of sun. But the constant, gentle kiss of the trade winds mean that even when it’s hot, it’s not too hot for my favorite free activities – a nice long walk or run. If you’d rather ride, Bikeworks Beach and Sports in the Queen’s Marketplace at Waikoloa Beach rents hybrid or cruiser bikes for as little as $30 a day. State of the art racing bike rentals start at $85 a day but are discounted if you rent for multiple days.

Swimming more your style? Fulfill your Ironman (or Woman) fantasy with a morning swim at the pier in Kailua-Kona, home of the swim event for the famous Hawaiian Ironman. Afterwards, enjoy a delicious, relatively inexpensive, and well-earned breakfast at nearby Splasher’s Grill or take a stroll down Alli Drive through the picturesque downtown to Huggos. (a little more expensive but the view is worth it. Banana and Tahini Stuffed French toast? Yes, please!)

Snorkeling cruises are great, but hopping in the rental car and heading to one of Kona’s many beautiful snorkeling beaches can be just as fun and much more affordable. One of my favorite snorkeling spots is Hapuna State Park. This gorgeous white sand beach has been voted one of the best in the world. Admission is free but you’ll pay about $5 for parking. If you don’t have your own snorkel gear, you can rent some (as well as umbrellas and boogie boards) at the Three Frog’s Café.

History!

Hawaii has a rich and fascinating history. Thanks to a wonderful state and national park system, you can visit many (and even most) of Kona’s historic sites for free.

Take a hike through the Puako Petroglyph Preserve or the Waikola Petroglyph Field to see thousands of markings and drawings that date as far back as the 1600s. Be sure to bring water as there is no shade in these areas. Also, this is a look but don’t touch experience – taking rubbings or touching the rocks is kapu!

I would need several posts to tell you about the historic parks you can visit in Kona. Check out the options by clicking this link. 

One of my favorites is the Puukohola Heiau, site one of the last major temples built by King Kamehameha I. The visitor center has some interesting videos and exhibits explaining more about the site and the park rangers are very helpful. There’s also a free audio tour you can download on your phone while you’re hiking the half-mile, paved trail through the historic area.

Lapakahi State Historical Park is just a few miles farther up the coast. This partially restored site of a 600 year old Hawaiian fishing village is fascinating and has some incredible scenery. There are bathrooms here but no real visitors center. However, brochures are available for a self-guided tour. The paths are rocky here, so you’ll need sturdy shoes.

Culture!

If you’re interested in more recent history, stop by the Parker Ranch headquarters in Waimea to learn more about Hawaii’s ranching culture. There are two historic buildings you can visit for free. (And as long as you’re in Waimea, stop in at the Isaacs Art Center. Admission is free and the exhibits are well worth seeing, especially the paintings of Madge Tennent)

When you’re in Kailua-Kona, be sure to visit the Hulihe’e Palace, the summer home of Hawaiian royalty. There is a $10 admission charge to enter but guided tours are free. The palace offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Hawaiian monarchy. Also, be sure to visit to the Mokuaikana Church, Hawaii’s oldest Christian church. There is an interesting exhibit about the Thaddeus, the sailing vessel that brought the first missionaries to Hawaii.

Coffee Break!

Kona Coffee is famous the world over, and rightfully so! I have been enjoying lots of it during this visit and my suitcase will be packed with packets of dark, rich coffee beans when I leave.

Coffee lovers can visit a score of plantations for tours, free tastings, and direct from the grower or roaster shopping. Here’s a link with more information.

But for a coffee experience that’s more in depth and definitely out of the ordinary, be sure to visit the Kona Coffee Living History Museum. There’s a $15 admission but you’ll learn a lot about coffee cultivation, processing, and how Kona’s coffee culture impacted the island. If you time your visit for Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, be sure to take advantage of the free “Hands on History” programs!

Honestly, there is so much more I could tell you about beautiful Kona! If the surf and sand weren’t calling my name, I would.

Suffice it to say, if you ever have the inclination or opportunity to visit the Kona Coast on the Big Island, do! It’s definitely a bucket list location.

Aloha!

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