Dispatch: Kona’s Café Society And Beyond

For those wanting a brief respite from the Speedo-swaddled swarm, there are two close-by escapes from Kona worth exploring.

“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for special daily editions of “Dispatch” from now until the Ironman World Championship, only on

If you’ve been to Kona and haven’t spent a morning lounging amid the see-and-be-seen crowd at Island Lava Java, your head is surely stuck in the sand. The place is constantly packed and with good reason – be it the luscious fruit and nut filled muffins, the innovative breakfast plates (my current favorite is the Roasted Veggie Wrap, stuffed with scrambled eggs, roasted veggies, Big Island goat cheese, macadamia nut pesto and avocado accompanied by a side of fresh fruit) or the 100% Kona coffee espresso drinks. Local musicians pluck perky tunes while triathletes from around the world congregate, wondering if indeed that was Craig Alexander that flew past them while running Ali’i Drive earlier, or if they’ll be lucky enough to sample Linsey Corbin’s signature Big Sky Brewing Company beer.

But for those wanting a brief respite from the Speedo-swaddled swarm, there are two close-by escapes from Kona worth exploring. Venture 20 miles south of town along Rte 11 (aka Mamalahoa Highway) and you’ll run smack into the small town of Captain Cook. Pull into the Up Country Bakery & Café (82-6127 Mamalahoa Hwy) for breakfast or lunch to delight your every organic, all-natural and locally sourced desire. I tried an open-faced bagel sandwich slathered with garlic cream cheese and topped with turkey, lettuce, tomato, red onion, sprouts and avocado, which was to die for. Had there been an ounce of space left in my stomach following that feast – which featured a small slice of homemade organic banana bread as a garnish – I would have been tempted to try some of the café’s other menu items, including banana bread French toast, crepes, southwestern-inspired dishes and acai berry bowls and smoothies. Between a sign over the counter declaring the place a “negative free zone”, and a paint-your-own-pottery corner, Up Country oozes a decidedly hippie-esque laid-back Hawaiian vibe.

To work off your meal – or to work up an appetite prior to dining – try a kayak or snorkeling excursion to Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Monument. The turn off to the bay is at the 110.5-mile marker prior to reaching the town of Captain Cook, and proceeds to wind four miles down toward a stunning ocean setting. Kayaks are easily rented at any of numerous shops along the road between Kona and the turn, or even at the entrance to the public parking lot. On the return trip, be sure to pull off at the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative for a cool drink and a sample of their dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts (or any other of their treats on offer).

Even closer to Kona, just a 10-minute drive (or a quad-busting bike climb) up Palani Road (then turn right on Rte 180/Mamalahoa Hwy) you’ll find the community of Holualoa, an artist’s village replete with small-scale galleries showcasing local talent. Wood turners, wood sculptors, painters, photographers and furniture makers are equally represented in this tiny mountainside town where an added benefit is an escape to slightly cooler temperatures than in Kona proper. I was particularly impressed with the Cliff Johns Gallery (76-5936 Mamalahoa Hwy) where, in addition to Cliff’s own incredible woodwork, I discovered the fanciful Hawaiian hula prints of artist and children’s book illustrator Esther Szegedy.

Craving a coffee, I wandered over to the Holuakoa Café, where a latte satiated my caffeine addiction but a glance at the neighboring restaurant’s menu (Holuakoa Garden Restaurant) left my mouth watering yet again. I was there during the afternoon down time between lunch and dinner, but I vowed to return, as the slow food restaurant’s regularly changing menu promised lovingly prepared gastronomic luxury. So whether you’re in Kona for just a few days or perhaps a few weeks, be sure to explore a bit beyond the heavily triathlete-trafficked six-mile stretch of Ali’i Drive to uncover local arts and crafts, ocean adventure and all types of delicious eats.