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As October draws near, the hype around Kona builds on a daily basis. Each year more and more athletes flock to the Big Island, whether to race, support or spectate at the Ironman World Championship, or even to enjoy a training camp and escape winter’s chill later in the year. One age group triathlete who has spent a fair share of time in Kona is Bill Ng, a former investment banker and American expat living in Hong Kong who recently traded his day job for more meaningful pursuits, including an opportunity to work with the Kona-based charitable organization More Than Sport. After an extended trip to Kona over the summer, Ng was eager to share his newfound expertise on where to go and what to do in and around Kona. If you and your loved ones are headed to Hawaii as Big Island rookies, Ng’s insider tips will help you navigate where to swim, bike, run, refuel, recover and relax. Aloha!
Note: Look for the More Than Sport booth on Ali’i Drive during race week in Kona. They’ll be highlighting their Kids of Kona campaign, raising funds to buy backpacks and supplies for needy children on the Big Island.
• There’s nothing better than heading out on the Ironman World Championship course (start and finish at the Kona pier). Be sure to explore around the pier area and the Coast Guard buoy (about 250 meters from the 1.2 mile turnaround), keeping an eye out for bait balls (huge spherical swarms of fish) and spinner dolphin pods out to play.
• Hapuna Beach (the venue for the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii swim) is widely considered one of Hawaii’s best beaches. It won’t disappoint with powder white sand and endless views. There’s not as much sea life as at the pier in Kona, but given that it’s a serene 45-minute drive north from downtown, it may be the perfect place to escape the intensity of the Ironman scene and calm those final pre-race jitters. Head north on Highway 19 (the infamous “Queen K”) and look for the sign for Hapuna Beach near the 70-mile marker.
• About 30 minutes south of Kona, Kealakekua Bay offers an amazing swim (and rewarding snorkeling). The underwater cliffs fall out quite sharply, which might frighten some. Conquer your fears because the views are amazing as you swim out to the historic Captain Cook monument. From Kona, take Highway 11 (Mamalahoa Highway) south to the Napo’opo’o turn off, then continue four miles down past coffee and fruit plantations to the bay.
• If you just can’t curb that black line craving, the Kona Community Aquatics Center (75-5530 Kuakini Highway) offers free admission and is open 6:15 a.m.-7:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:15-11:45 a.m. and 1:00-5:00 p.m. on weekends.
• Two organizations well worth hooking up with are the Hawaii Cycling Club and Coffee Talk Riders. Both groups welcome cyclists of all abilities and they’ll take you on some great rides–both flats and hills.
• For a nice short scenic climb out of Kona town, try Hualalai Road! You can either start on Ali’i Drive downtown next to the Kona Inn (where Hualalai Road begins, approximately 10 miles round-trip) or further up at the intersection of Highway 11 and Hualalai. It’s a beautiful gentle climb up to Hualaloa Village and I highly recommend an espresso and pastry (or an amazing brunch) at the top at Holuakoa Cafe.
• For a stunning scenic route, head south along Highway 11, turn right down Napo’opo’o Road to Kealakekua Bay and continue along the beach road to the Place of Refuge (a national historic park). You’ll tour past coffee farms, lava tunnels and to-die-for views. (Approximate round-trip distance from Kona = 42 miles.)
• The climb up from Kawaihae to the turnaround in Hawi is famous as part of the Ironman course, but detour by turning right in Hawi town, continue through the Kohala mountain pass and out to Honoka’a, where you’ll be rewarded with delicious Portuguese style donuts at Tex’s Malasadas. (Round-trip from Kawaihae to Honoka’a = 109.5 miles; round-trip from Hawi to Honoka’a = 72.6 miles.) Alternatively, start in Waimea and head out to Honoka’a for a shorter (29.5 miles round-trip) donut run!
• A run up and down Ali’i Drive is the obvious place to people watch and stare down your competition, but other options exist.
• Hook up with Big Island Running Company (in the Coconut Grove Marketplace on Ali’i Drive) for their weekly group runs (Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings).
• When it heats up in town, drive up the mountain to Walua Road to enjoy incredible views and a quiet shaded running path that passes by beautiful local homes.
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• Island Lava Java (75-5799 Ali’i Dr) is the see and be seen breakfast, lunch and coffee hang out hot spot during race week, with a line forming far past the door, but it quiets down to a more peaceful pace during the rest of the year. Be extra nice to the staff–you’ll likely see them all over town and they’re a helpful resource for local goings on and having fun on the cheap in Hawaii.
• Killer Tacos (74-5483 Kaiwi Street) has exceptional fish tacos.
• My favorite is to grab sushi from Hayashi’s You Make The Roll (75-5725 Ali’i Dr) or Killer Tacos and sit on the beach or grassy area in front of the King Kamehameha Hotel (next to the pier) to enjoy a sunset picnic.
• Stock up on fresh local organic produce at the downtown farmer’s market. Avoid the vendors right at the front–you’ll find better deals when you venture inside.
• For a decadent post-race or post-training treat, you really can’t beat the Kona Inn’s (75-5744 Ali’i Dr) signature Kona Inn Mud Pie!
Recover & Relax
• Relaxation aloha-style is all about the beach, and one of the best you’ll find is Kukio Beach, north of Kona. Follow Highway 19 past the airport roughly six miles, then turn left on Ka’upulehu Drive. Stop at the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort guard shack for a pass and directions to the public parking lot.
• Head to Waipio Valley (an hour and a half drive from Kona) for amazing off-road adventures leading to a beautiful black sand beach.
• One of the closest beaches to downtown Kona is Magic Sands (at the 3.5 mile marker on Ali’i Drive), but it’s generally packed with people. It does serve a purpose as a quick cool off spot in town, or an easy access boogie-boarding venue, as the waves can be quite good.
• Nightlife in downtown Kona is it’s own animal–a mix of super touristy and kitsch, but the scene at Huggo’s (75-5828 Ali’i Dr) is always a good place to start. Enjoy a relatively upscale meal in the main restaurant, or sip umbrella-accented mai tais at the bar, with a background soundtrack of crashing waves.