Venture beyond Kona’s Ali’i Drive and discover a whole other island
Most triathletes descend on the Island of Hawai’i (aka “The Big Island,” a moniker the Hawai’i Tourism Authority is trying to move away from) in early October for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, but any time of year is a good time to visit. Even in the winter months, the average daytime temperature is a balmy 78 degrees F. (Just make sure to bring a jacket if you plan on any volcano hikes; weather at elevation can be unpredictable and downright chilly.)
There were more than 1.5 million visitors to the Island in 2015—there is no shortage of carriers or flights here. Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA) is seven miles from Kailua-Kona town and 25 miles from Kohala Coast resorts. Hilo International Airport (ITO) allows quick and easy access to the east side of the island, home to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Named after the island’s dormant volcano, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Maunakeabeachhotel.com) on the Kohala Coast was built in 1965 by Laurance Rockefeller, who wanted to create a luxury property worthy of the spectacular white sand beach it fronts. The stylish, high-end guest rooms reflect the hotel’s “understated elegance” design—spring for a room with a view of the bay, which is showcased by expansive floor-to-ceiling windows (even in the shower!). The iconic hotel hosts a traditional luau twice a week, a clambake, and don’t miss the Sunday brunch at the upscale Manta restaurant. Vino enthusiasts will also appreciate their excellent wine program. The recently remodeled Copper Bar is the property’s social hub and the spot for some of the freshest, tastiest sushi (and other inventive apps) and craft cocktails in a casual, breezy setting with postcard-worthy views. Also be sure to check out the hotel’s extensive fine art collection, which is on display throughout the property.
Just down the road, the Mauna Kea’s sister property, the sprawling Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel (Hapunabeachprincehotel.com) is a more modern (built in 1994), affordable option that sits on its own perfect stretch of coastline on Hapuna Beach. A reservation here gets you access to the Mauna Kea amenities, but there’s plenty to keep you happily occupied between the paradise-of-your-dreams beach (and 32 oceanfront acres to explore) and Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole golf course. All 350 guestrooms (including 36 suites) include a lanai (patio) that overlooks Hapuna Beach. At 600 square feet, a standard room feels roomy and is equipped with thoughtful details like a coffeemaker with Kona-blend coffee, and slippers and robes. The buffet game is strong here—go to the resort’s Ocean Terrace for an alfresco all-you-can-eat feast for breakfast or dig into the seasonal crab dinner spread.
Jazz and blues fest
The Big Island Jazz and Blues Festival (Bigislandjazzandbluesfestival.com) in June brings together Grammy winners and Blues Hall of Famers for a weekend of intimate performances, many of which happen at the Mauna Kea’s oceanfront venues. From New Orleans jazz to Chicago Blues, the rhythms and beats are as lively as the sunset views are picturesque.
KapohoKine Adventures’ Kilauea Hike & Glow Tour (Kapohokine.com) is an all-day excursion that is part nature hike and part crash course on Hawaiian history, geology and culture. During a couple-hour drive to the Hilo side of the island in one of the company’s tour buses, guides (who appear to be eager scholars in all things Hawaiian) highlight points of interest and answer all sorts of trivia questions. After a quick pit stop at the company’s Hilo HQ to retrieve picnic lunches, guests eat lunch in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park before going deeper into the park to explore the Thurston Lava Tube and active steam vents of the Kilauea Iki Crater (a massive cooled lake of lava). After an easy to moderate hike across the crater and along its upper rim, hikers are shuttled to the nearby Volcano Winery for a hosted barbecue dinner and complimentary wine tasting. Last stop before the return trip to Kona is the park’s Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, which overlooks the Halema’uma’u Crater. The red glow of bubbling and spitting lava inside the crater lights up the evening sky in a palette of orange and red.
Swimming with mantas
Guests at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel can take part in a guided nighttime standup paddleboard outing in the bay to view the huge (and super docile/harmless) mantas that arrive each night to the property’s Manta Point to feed on plankton. A light beneath the board illuminates the water below, attracting plankton and allowing for a close-up look of these eerie-looking sea creatures. For an even closer look, you can dive in with goggles and swim beside them.
For an adrenaline-pumping, big-picture view of the Kohala Coast, take a 3-hour zipline/trek/rappel tour with Kohala Zipline (Kohalazipline.com), which has nine lines and five bridges for exploring the lush canopy (at speeds of up to 45 mph!). Another option is the Zip and Dip, which includes the canopy adventure, lunch, a hike and waterfall swimming.
The Ironman World Championship (this year held on Oct. 8) may get the spotlight, but there are other travel-worthy races on the island. Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (June 3, 2017) lets you experience part of the world championship bike course, and the swim course at Hapuna Beach is one of the most raved about (turtles!) on the racing circuit. The Lavaman Waikoloa Triathlon (April 2, 2017) is a 1500-meter swim at Waikoloa Beach, 40K ride (also on part of the Kona Ironman course) and 10K run that traverses lava fields and single-track trail before finishing on a white sand beach with a beer tent and barbecue. There’s also a 5K and kid’s aquathlon during the three-day festival.