This question-mark-shaped bay is the nexus of the Kona Coast, sending snorkeling parties and fishing charters off from the pier, welcoming back record marlin catches, challenging Ironman triathletes, nursing the area's several histories. There's always a nice breeze here, the cooling shade of a banyan tree and something to eat. It has been a lure for a good 200 years.
At the northern end, apart from the water traffic on a platform in the bay and generally overlooked, is the reconstructed heiau (hay-ow), or temple, that served as the seat of government 1812-1819 for Hawaii's most famous king, Kamehameha the Great. He unified all the islands into a single nation. Get used to his name; it's everywhere.
Ahuena Heiau, a small complex of thatched shelters, carved figurines and an oracle tower, was where King Kam, for short, performed rituals, prayed, ran his government and brought up his son, Liholiho, in the old ways. Today, toddlers play safely on the shard of beach nearby. Five nights a week, they hold the Island Breeze Luau on the adjacent shore.
Huilhee Palace, completed in 1838, dozes by the bay's southern end. It's a two-story summer cottage that wouldn't be out of place in New England, except for the palm trees and the fact that its 3-foot-thick walls, now stuccoed, are built of lava stones and coral mortar. A double porch, with a dieter's dollop of gingerbread, looks out to sea.
It sustained damage during the Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake and is still undergoing repairs. If you could see it in all its glory -- you can't right now because most of its artifacts are in safe-keeping until the building is fully restored -- you'd find doors and furniture made of koa, a lustrous dark-auburn hardwood native to Hawaii; a reproduction Hawaiian sled, testament that surfing wasn't the only radical sport of the pre-contact era; and decorative redwood pillars that King Kalakaua picked up on a state visit to California. He and his queen, Kapiolani, bought the building in 1884 and commissioned the massive and ornately carved koa wardrobe that took the silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1889. The wardrobe's rightful place is here, and, according to the nonprofit Daughters of Hawaii that oversees the palace, it survived the quake intact.
Across Alii Drive, and older than Hulihee Palace, is Mokuaikaua Church, the first in the Hawaiian Islands. According to church historians, at least some of its stones came from pre-contact Hawaiian temples, destroyed on the orders of King Liholiho even before missionaries arrived. The sanctuary's exposed beams are of ohia, another native Hawaiian hardwood, plucked from the slopes of Hualalai Volcano that rises above the town. On either side of the altar are those strange standards, called kahili, that look something like a lampshade covered in feathers. They're one of the symbols of Hawaiian royalty.
Another old-timer is the red-roofed Kona Inn, the 1928 hotel, now a restaurant, responsible for putting Kona on the marlin-fishing map. It's at its most charming during a dinner of ono, a mild, sweet white-meated fish, accompanied by the flicker of tiki torches and the sound of the surf.
The best pursuit, though, is to do what most people are doing: just strolling Alii Drive, enjoying the sun and fresh air and music floating from passing cars, prowling the warren of souvenir shops and eateries, stopping at mom-and-pop coffee kiosks to sample 100 percent Kona brews -- bagged beans go for about $19 a pound -- feeling lucky to be here. Nobody seems to care that the stores are on the shabby side and could stand more than a fresh coat of paint. This place is possessed of a mood, a vibe, a spirit, a glow, a something that transcends the clutter, maybe even legitimizes it.
There's no such thing as a bad Kailua sunset. Every restaurant along Alii Drive overlooks the water. Bar hoppers haven't very many teeters to totter between one watering hole and the next, especially near the night-volleyball courts (no one seems to use them during the day). And a lot of the same places that were hot spots the night before are even busier with the morning breakfast crowd.
Alii Drive's tourist zone peters out at the Royal Kona Resort, an aging -- or call it retro -- landmark recognizable by its ski-slope profile, reminiscent of the curving helmet of Hawaiian chiefs. Beyond that, the condos take over.
There's more to Kailua than this; there are banks and supermarkets and auto repair shops and a Wal-Mart at the top of a hill with a knock-out view over the town, its bay and cruise ships when they're anchored off shore. But they're not worth leaving the waterfront unless you're headed out of town anyway.
Hawaii Highway 270 starts at Kawaihae and ends in frustration, but that's no reason not to take the drive. Heading north from the junction of Hawaii Highway 19, there are good views of Maui and the imposing height of Mt. Haleakala across the Alenuihaha Channel on all but the cloudiest days. In winter this is a good vantage point for spotting humpback whales, no binoculars necessary. Beyond the desolate, arid stretch, the road turns east to Hawi and Kapaau and becomes a jungle trek.
The Big Island boasts 11 of the Earth's 13 climate zones, and this drive is just one study in how quick the transition is from the emptiness of dry grasslands to dense tropics, with papayas and bananas growing beside the road.
Hawi and Kapaau are a pair of villages where gift shops and eateries have moved into storefronts built during the island's sugar era. A painted statue of King Kam stands here -- he was born nearby -- but there's a better one in Hilo. The road stops at Pololu Valley Overlook, but you might not be able to: The half-dozen or so parking spaces at road's end are perpetually taken, and that's too bad. The best views are a hike down the mountain on the trail tourism officials say has reopened after sustaining damage in the earthquake.
The real reason to come out this way is the drive back on a different road, Hawaii Highway 250 southbound from Hawi to Waimea/Kamuela. It follows the ridge of the Kohala Mountain Range, and when it clears the eucalyptus and ironwood trees, at about the 3,000-foot level, there are arresting vistas: down and out to sea, down and across the wide valley of the Parker Ranch and up, up again, almost 14,000 feet up to the summit of Mauna Kea, possibly snow-capped, and of Mauna Loa beyond that. It's one place that really brings home the size, the mass of this island.