Tips for anyone planning a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii and, specifically, anyone planning to snorkel on the Big Island.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Hawaii three times now—once to Maui, and twice to the Big Island—and, not surprisingly, I’ve loved every trip.
An activity that I tried for the first time while on my first visit and have since become addicted to is snorkeling. During my first two trips, my snorkeling excursions were largely limited to the grounds of the hotels at which I was staying. That was a great, safe way to get started, but while planning my most recent holiday to the Big Island this past February, I sought out locations that were further afield. That research led me to three spots that piqued my interest and were in regions of the island that my wife and I were already planning to visit: Mahukona Beach Park to the north; Kealakekua Bay (aka the Captain Cook Monument) along the Kona Coast; and Two Step (aka Pae’a, City of Refuge and Honaunau Bay), also on the west coast, but a bit farther south.
Unfortunately—and I use that word lightly given that I’m talking about a vacation in Hawaii—the surf was very high for the entirety of our week on the Big Island. As such, when we visited Mahukona Beach Park along the northwest coast, we found the conditions far too rough to snorkel safely. And, even if we did have the hutzpah to get into the choppy water, the turbulence within the harbor was such that we wouldn’t have been able to see more than an arm’s length in front of us due to the sand and debris kicked up by the currents.
So, we were left with a decision: Go for Kealakekua Bay or Two Step? My research leading up to the trip suggested strongly that Kealakekua Bay offered the best snorkeling on the Big Island, but we ultimately opted for Two Step, and I’m very glad we did. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first, I’ve embedded a video below to give you a taste of our absolutely unforgettable experience snorkeling at Two Step...
Okay, so why Two Step? Three factors most strongly influenced our decision: accessibility, cost and time commitment, all of which are inter-related. Starting with access, as noted in the video, getting to Two Step is dead simple: It’s about a 40 minute drive south from Kona, and the route leads straight down to the Bay. If you’re lucky, you can park for free on the road that abuts the Bay, but, worst case scenario, you’re looking at a $5 fee to park at the nearby Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park—and that fee also gets you access to the Park, which is beautifully maintained and absolutely worth a visit after your swim. Either way, you’re just a few minutes walk away from access to the water.
By contrast, the best way to get to Kealakekua Bay is by kayak, which, by state mandate, requires signing on to a guided tour from one of only three authorized kayak tour companies. On the upside, the tour companies provide all of the gear you’d need—mask, snorkel and fins—and a guided tour really is your best option if you’re new to snorkeling or on your first visit to Kealakekua Bay. The downside is that you’re looking at a fairly significant investment of time and money. For example, the least expensive tour we could find from any of the three authorized operators cost $100 per person and lasted four hours, not including the time required to get to the departure point. These tours also kick off at fixed times, generally between 7am to 8am—the reason being that visibility in the water tends to be best during the morning hours.
I should note that it is possible to hike to Kealakekua Bay on foot, but the journey is a bit over three-and-a-half miles each way along fairly rough terrain. Getting to the Bay is easier in that the route is almost entirely downhill, but that means the hike back—which includes over 1,300 feet of elevation gain—is almost entirely uphill. And remember that you’ll have to bring all of your snorkeling gear down and back up with you, which can get old pretty quickly during the hotter parts of the day, particularly given that long stretches of the trail offer no shade. The hike is by no means impossible—this guy managed to get down in 40 minutes and back up in just under 46, but most people report that it takes 50 minutes to an hour to reach the Bay, and an hour to an hour-and-a-half to get back to the nearest access road.
If you’re okay with the cost and time commitment, I’d absolutely encourage you to go snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay. The fact that so many people make the trek is a testament to the epic beauty of the Bay and its reefs. But if you’re short on time or cash, or simply don’t want to be locked in to a specific activity at a specific time while you’re on holiday, Two Step is an amazing alternative. For those who already own snorkeling gear, you’re looking at a grand total of $5 to park all day at the nearby Historical Park—or you may not have to pay for parking at all if you manage to find an open spot along Honaunau Beach Road. For those who don’t have gear, shops like Snorkel Bob’s rent complete kits for under $40 for an entire week, and far less than that for kids sets.
Snorkeling Report provides an excellent primer on what to do once you get to Two Step. If you’re new to snorkeling, I’d suggest starting out in the Keoneele Cove, which is to the left if you’re looking out towards the water. A boat ramp offers incredibly convenient access to the water in the Cove, which is shallow and better protected from the surf than Honaunau Bay proper. Once you’re feeling confident and comfortable, take the namesake Two Step entry into the broader Bay and prepare to be amazed.
A quick post-script: If you’re heading back towards Kona after your visit to Two Step, you have to stop at a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant called Ka’aloa’s Super J’s that’s less than a 15 minute drive from Two Step on Highway 11. The place looks a little scary, I won’t lie, but they offer the most legit and delicious Hawaiian food I’ve tasted in my three trips to the islands. Order double portions of their LauLau and Kalua Pig—trust me, they’re both amazing—and make sure to try their authentic Hawaiian desserts as well.
I hope this proves helpful and, as always, if you have questions or want to keep this conversation going, shoot me a note on Twitter @edotkim. Aloha!