The leeward (west coast) areas of the Big Island are protected for the most part from the northeast trade winds, making for ideal near-shore kayaking conditions. There are miles and miles of uncrowded Kona and Kohala coastline to explore, presenting close-up views of stark, raw, lava-rock shores and cliffs; lava-tube sea caves; pristine, secluded coves; and deserted beaches. There's even guided kayaking in a hand-built irrigation ditch dating from the early 1900s.

Ocean kayakers can get close to shore—where the commercial snorkel and dive cruise boats can't reach. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for adventure, such as near-shore snorkeling among the expansive coral reefs and lava rock formations that teem with colorful tropical fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles. You can pull ashore at a quiet cove for a picnic and a plunge into turquoise waters. With a good coastal map and some advice from the kayak vendor, you might paddle by ancient battlegrounds, burial sites, bathing ponds for Hawaiian royalty, or old villages.

Kayaking can be enjoyed via a guided tour or on a self-guided paddling excursion. Either way, the kayak outfitter can brief you on recommended routes, safety, and how to help preserve and protect Hawaii's ocean resources and coral reef system.

  • Whether you're a beginning or experienced kayaker, choose appropriate location, distance, and conditions for your excursion.
  • Ask the outfitter about local conditions and hazards, such as tides, currents, and advisories.
  • Beginners should practice getting into and out of the kayak and capsizing (called a huli, the Hawaiian word for "flip") in shallow water.
  • Before departing, secure the kayak's hatches to prevent water intake.
  • Use a line to attach the paddle to the kayak to avoid losing it.
  • Always use a life vest or jacket, and wear a rash guard and plenty of sunblock.
  • Carry appropriate amounts of water and food.
  • Don't kayak alone. Create a float plan; tell someone where you're going and when you will return.

Equipment, Lessons, and Tours

There are several rental outfitters on Highway 11 between Kainaliu and Captain Cook, but only a few are specially permitted to lead kayak trips in Kealakekua Bay.

Aloha Kayak Co.. This outfitter is one of the few permitted to guide tours to the stunningly beautiful Kealakekua Bay, leaving from Napoopoo, including about 1½ hours at the Captain Cook Monument. The 3½-hour morning and afternoon tours include snacks and drinks, while the 5-hour tour includes lunch. Local guides discuss the area's cultural, historical, and natural significance. You may see dolphins, but you must observe them from a distance only, as this is a protected marine reserve. Keauhou Bay tours are also available, including a two-hour evening manta ray tour. 79-7248 Mamalahoa Hwy., across from Teshima's Restaurant, Honalo, Hawaii, 96750. 808/322–2868; www.alohakayak.com. Tours from $99.

Kona Boys. On the highway above Kealakekua Bay, this full-service, environmentally conscious outfitter handles kayaks, body boards, surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkeling gear. Single-seat and double kayaks are offered. Surfing and stand-up paddleboarding lessons are available for private or group instruction. Tours such as their Morning Magic and Midday Meander include two half-day guided kayaking and snorkeling trips with gear, lunch, snacks, and beverages. Kona Boys also run a beach shack fronting the King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel and are happy to give advice on the changing regulations regarding South Kona bay usage. The Kailua-Kona location offers Hawaiian outrigger canoe rides, SUP lessons, and rentals of beach mats, chairs, and other gear. 79-7539 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kealakekua, Hawaii, 96750. 808/328–1234; 808/329–2345; www.konaboys.com. Tours from $189.

Ocean Safari's Kayak Adventures. On the guided 3½-hour morning sea-cave tour that begins in Keauhou Bay, you can visit lava-tube sea caves along the coast, then swim ashore for a snack. The kayaks are already on the beach, so you won't have the hassle of transporting them. They also offer stand-up paddleboard lessons. End of Kamehameha III Rd., Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, 96740. 808/326–4699; www.oceansafariskayaks.com. From $79.

Flumin' Kohala. The Kohala Ditch was built by hand in the early 1900s to bring water from the cloud forests of the Kohala watershed to the arid lands where sugarcane grew. Like no other in Hawaii, this kayak tour takes you through miles of these fascinating concrete tunnels and flumes in four-man kayaks. 808/933–4294; fluminkohala.com. From $135.