Affordable Luxury 001

Published on January 26th, 2013 | by Charu Suri


Discovering Centuries of History Along Ali’i Drive in Hawai’i, The Big Island

Ali’i means “royalty” or “kings” says the valet, as we drive our car to the Marriott King Kamehameha hotel (affectionately referred to as “King Kam”), located right off the drive.

All these Hawai’an vowels are music to my ears. Hawai’i. Ali’i. Kailua Kona. The written Hawai’ian language has eight consonants and five vowels, and so you can understand the number of permutations and combinations is not as extensive as the English language. But the result is a language that’s incredibly musical, and so mellifluous.

Matt, Erika and I were fortunate to stay right in the heart of downtown Kona as soon as we landed in The Big Island. The King Kam, a deliciously artistic hotel, is located right off the drive, and gave us a vantage of volcano silhouettes, coconut trees, and a glimpse of Ali’i Drive including the oldest catholic church in Hawai’i.

Ali'i Drive-- Seven Centuries of History in The Big Island Hawaii

Pedestrians will feel at home walking along the drive, which is flanked by numerous palms

Oldest church in Hawaii

Oldest Christian Church in Hawaii Molokuai Church

Mokuaikaua Church is The State of Hawaii’s oldest and first Christian Church

the Hulihe’e Palace in The Big Island Hawaii

The Hulihe’e Palace is just across the street from the church, and is the venue for Hawaiian music concerts and wedding receptions. It used to be the vacation home of the royals

Every visitor who comes to Kailua-Kona should brush shoulders with these seven miles of panoramic waterfront drive, where you can discover three centuries of Hawai’ian history. Ali’i Drive is lit with cafes, culture, Thai restaurants and bougainvillea-clad homes and condos. There’s also a long lava rock sea wall that gives pedestrians a luxuriously private area to enjoy everything along the drive.

Ali’i Drive offers so much in the way of cinematography options: you can watch surfers and stand up paddle boarding off Kamakahona Beach, see the sunrise and set over the magnificent restored heiau temple with its thatched roof and stone wall. In the ancient days when King Kamehemeha ruled, the heiau was the place of sacrifice, and also where he mentored his son.

The Drive offers you plenty of chances to come closer to The Big Island’s history, which is what we loved most about it. We started with Mokuaikaua Church, that tall white spire that’s unmistakable even from a distance. The State of Hawaii’s oldest and first Christian Church which was founded in 1820, this small, graceful symbol of peace has simple wooden pews and plenty of stained glass windows that shine like gems when sunlight filters through. Originally made of thatch, the church was founded by missionaries from Boston, Massachusetts.

The church is bereft of any visitors: Matt, Erika and I are the only ones. Earlier in the day, Matthew attended a Sunday Service and said that the church was packed to the brim, with the service performed in the Hawai’ian language too.

Alii Drive The Big Island Hawaii Kona Coffee Shop

Kona Pony Coffee on The Big Island Hawaii

You’ll find many shops along the way that sell pure Kona Coffee. Our hands down favorite was Kona Pony

Alii Drive Along The Big Island Hawaii Black Volcanic Beach

Along the drive, there are volcanic rock and pebble beaches a plenty. The contrast between the dark stones and the lush greens is stark

Jeweler in Hawaii The big Island

Boutique jewelry stores and art galleries abound

The Big Island Hawaii Native Plants and Trees

More than 90% of The Big Island’s flora and fauna develop locally, and the island is home to thousands of species of plants and wildlife

Plumeria on The Big Island Hawaii


Tradition is very much alive here, and the island’s tourist attraction status has not altered local pride in its customs.

Right across the church on the other side of the road is the Hulihe’e Palace, which is stately and lush albeit small. Not only is it a popular venue for festive events like parties and weddings, but it has stories to tell. It used to be the vacation residence of the royal family in Hawai’i (we’re talking the Kamehameha family), and today it houses some of the finest furniture, artifacts and local artwork and functions as a museum.

As we walk past the cafes and shops, we notice how many Thai restaurants line the drive—indeed, most of the island is filled with Thai, Chinese and local fare options, with plenty of cafes serving Kona coffee. Be sure to stay away from the Kona blend and you’ll be fine: most hotels serve the blend, but ask carefully for local grown pure Kona coffee and you’ll be happy you did.

St Petes by the Sea Church Alii Drive The Big Island Hawaii

St. Francis by the Sea Church in Hawaii The Big Island

The charming postage-stamp size St. Peter by the Sea church

Ali’i Drive is also studded with gorgeous hotels and condos, including the newly minted Sheraton Kona, so there’s the delicious juxtaposition of modern, minted digs sitting cozily with centuries of history. One of our favorite places where we lingered for hours included the charming little St. Peter’s By the Sea Catholic church, which was so very “island” in its colors of teal and white. It excited me because weddings are held there, and if I were to renew my vows, this is exactly the kind of place I’d choose: nothing too ornate and touristy, but simple and colorful. Behind the unassuming church, surfers tangoed on the waves, and colorful bonsai-like trees thrived on volcanic soil.

Ali’i Drive lives up to its name: if you do drive along it, enjoy its splendors, stop for a spot of coffee in many of the cafes, and soak in the centuries-old culture of The Big Island.


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9 Responses to Discovering Centuries of History Along Ali’i Drive in Hawai’i, The Big Island

  1. Lane says:

    When we visited Hawaii we were stunned by the culture and history. You assume it’s one of the states but it’s the most unique due to it’s heritage. Thanks for bringing that experience to others.

    • Charu Suri says:

      I’m so glad you had a chance to experience The Big Island…truly a magical place. I don’t know why it doesn’t get as much attention as the rest but it deserves to!

  2. So nice you got to visit there. We were on the Big Island on the north west side for part of our honeymoon. We did drive into Kona, but didn’t stay overnight on that side. We absolutely love Hawaii!

  3. Jam @icoSnap says:

    Alii look so beautiful and warm. I feel like going to Hawaii right now since its too cold here in Germany.

  4. Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been to the Kona side. I don’t recognize any of it! But glad it was a nice experience and that you got to hear some of the spoken Hawaiian language outside of what’s often commercialized.

    The Hawaiian language was dying out for a while but it’s been getting a shot of revival over the past few years and more people know and speak it.

    Also, very lovely photos!

  5. Karla says:

    I learned a lot about Hawaii thanks to you Charu thank you!

    It looks like such a beautiful place to visit and perhaps live there…

    I love your photo with baby E and having a coffee, life is so good isn’t it?

    Beautiful photos too ;)

  6. Well you don’t have to tell me twice to head back to one of our favorite islands. We were so happy to stay at about mile marker 2.5 on Ali’i. So close to town but still far enough that we got to enjoy the peace and quiet and also be super close to a great baby beach. And one of my very favorite breakfasts in the world was found on Ali’i at Island Lava Java. The guava bread pudding french toast can NOT be missed. Thanks for walking me back down memory lane! Great photos too!

  7. Love that little wooden church, it looks absolutely perfect for an island wedding! Very evocative photos, Charu.

  8. Christina says:

    That church really is a gem, and totally should be on a postage stamp! I’m tempted to use an adjective perhaps unsuitable in the context of a church, but I can’t resist… it’s so cute!

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