by Jay Prasuhn
Kona has become innocuous. “Kona.” Say it enough times, and it becomes evident that there’s ever only one thing going on there in October. The Ironman. Underwear runs. Expos. Triathlon things.
Or is there? We have to step back and remember this is a sleepy but thriving town when it’s not overrun with athletes from around the world. Certainly, the athlete spouses, friends and family among us want to know that the island doesn’t stop for Ironman. They want to know what else is there to do here other than cheer on their athlete? We’ve culled five aspects of the island that are simply not triathlon things, but island things. Good food, drink, experiences, and history that speak to the vibrant place many inhabit for a week but so often forget to experience
The Poke Shack, 76-6246 Ali'i Drive, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740 Dapokeshack.com
Da Poke Shack used to be a bit of a secret, but that’s been blown out of the water…. So forget Kona Inn or (lol) Bubba Gump, the secret is now yours: this is hands down the best place to get poke in town, that uniquely Hawaiian lunch or dinner. Situated along Alii Drive and butted up against Kona Bali Kai Condos, it’s as advertised; a little shack right on Alii. Whether you’re grabbing lunch or an early dinner, bank on a little line to get the freshest poke on the island. With 14 different varieties of poke (and for the uninitiated, poke is sushi grade tuna or salmon, in a bath of spices, sesame seed, shoyu, ponzu or teriyaki sauce for a cacophony of sweet, bitter, sour, or spicy wrapped around that fresh fish). Add some sticky rice, some fresh seaweed salad and maybe furikake, and it’s an unforgettable plate lunch (or dinner).
How fresh? Last year, I was lucky enough to hoist a fresh tuna that was coming in off the truck, getting set to be filleted and diced for the next batch of seafood goodness. Go in, get a killer plate lunch, maybe run into local surf legends like Shane Dorian or Makua Rothman that hang in the tiny shack when they’re not out at Banyans getting shacked.
Captain James Cook Monument
In 1778, British sea captain James Cook became the first person from the western world to set sight on the shores of the Hawaiian Islands. A year after he found the islands of O’ahu and Kauaii, he set sail for the shores of the Big Island. After anchoring in Kealakekua Bay, he was by the local Hawaiians, who thought he was Lono, the god of fertility. A week later, the Hawaiians learned he wasn’t a god and after a fight with several of Cook’s fellow sailors, killed Cook. In 1874, a white obelisk was erected in Cook’s honor in Kealakekua Bay.
All that history aside, the bay hosts placid waters, making it one of the most popular snorkeling spots to find a rainbow of colorful fish, coral and urchins. A hike to this historic location (it’s over two miles in and two miles out), but if you bring a lunch, a towel, some sunglasses and some sunscreen, it’s a day well spent. From Kona, take Highway 11 for 15 miles south before turning right onto Napoopoo Road (Highway 160), which takes you to Kealakekua Bay.
End of the World
Out beyond the famed “Pit” along the old run course is a road with a lava rock walkway along the shoreline. You’ll be shocked by the waves crashing against the rocks, with water exploding into the air. Just 100 yards beyond that is a spot called “End of the World” where after the race, many athletes (as well as friends and family) will hurl themselves (or more accurately, simply “jump”) off a 30-foot cliff into the cool Pacific. It’s a short hiking trail, but leave your flip-flops back at the condo; it’s pretty rocky with lava, so be sure to wear close-toed shoes in and out of there.
There are stories of folks being injured jumping, or trying to scramble from the surging surf back up the lava cliff rocks, so jump at your own risk. But the water is plenty deep, and scrambling back up the cliff from your jump is pretty easy….unless a bit of water surge bangs you up against the rocks.
Kona Coffee Plantation Tours
While Kona town is, well, a town, it doesn’t take long to drive up the slopes of the island to find that things get a bit more temperate and tropical. With that, the soil gets good. So good, that it’s one of the best places in the world for coffee to grow…Gaining Kona the repute as some of the finest coffee beans world over. As we’ve found, 100 percent Kona coffee makes one of the best holiday gifts for friends to take home after the race.
While there are a lot of middling “Kona Coffee” spots in town, be aware that some of these are only 10 percent Kona coffee. Seeking out the 100 percent coffee can be done, and the best way is to take an excursion up the hill to visit a working coffee plantation and tasting room.
Many of the plantations live along a band just above Kona Town. We’ve been to Holualoa Kona Coffee Company (konalea.com) and can vouch for an authentic self-guided tour that takes you from bean to the roasted final product. There are several others that are a short jaunt from town, from Greenwell Farms (greenwellfarms.com) to Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation (mountainthunder.com). Tip: when choosing whole bean versus ground coffee, get whole bean; you get all the taste in the bean oils, making for a stronger, more flavorful cup.
Old Kona Airport State Recreation Area
Let’s say you’re just not into the whole Ironman thing. You’d love to get away from it all and just enjoy some quiet. Luckily, there’s a spot close to town where you can: the Old Airport. Just past the Kona Pool, you’ll find this long, broken pavement airstrip, with folks parked to the left. All along its length, there are rocky shorelines with a few little breaks of white sand. With no triathletes, no traffic and no noise, it’s the perfect place to bring a folding chair, a floppy hat, some sunscreen and a good book to just relax and listen to the waves lap against the shore.