South of Kailua-Kona, Highway 11 hugs splendid coastlines and rural towns, leaving busy streets behind. The winding, upcountry road takes you straight to the heart of coffee country, where fertile plantations and jaw-dropping views offer a taste of what Hawaii was like before the resorts took over. Much of the farmland is in leasehold status, which explains why this part of the Big Island has remained rather untouched by development. Tour one of the coffee farms to find out what the big deal is about Kona coffee, and enjoy a free sample while you're at it.
A 20-minute drive off the highway from Captain Cook leads to beautiful Kealakekua Bay, where Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, dying here not long after. Hawaiian spinner dolphins frolic in the bay, now a Marine Life Conservation District, nestled alongside immensely high green cliffs that jut dramatically out to sea. Snorkeling is superb here, so you may want to bring your gear and spend an hour or so exploring the coral reefs. This is also a nice kayaking spot; the bay is normally extremely calm. One of the best ways to spend a morning is to kayak in the pristine waters of Kealakekua Bay, paddling over to see the spot where Cook died. Guided tours are your best bet, and you’ll likely see plenty of dolphins along the way.
North of Kona International Airport, along Highway 19, brightly colored bougainvillea stand out in relief against miles of jet-black lava fields stretching from the mountain to the sea. Sometimes visitors liken it to landing on the moon when they first see it. True, the dry barren landscape may not be what you’d expect to find on a tropical island, but it’s a good reminder of the island’s evolving volcanic nature.