In less than a month, thousands of athletes and IRON-fans will be making their yearly pilgrimage to the IRONMAN World Championship. But there is more to Kona than what happens on race day. So whether this is your first or in my case, 10th trip to the Big Island, here are a few of my Big Island insider tips while you’re soaking in all the Aloha…
Sun Dried Specialties. Everyone raves about Hawaiian poke bowls. Any Kona veteran will tell you about Da Poke Shack on Ali’I Drive. Well, that’s not where the kama’aina (locals) go for their poke. There’s a place a little off the beaten path that will require you to hail an Uber if you don’t have a rental car (Yes, Uber is now on the Big Island! Hooray!). Sun Dried Specialties is located about 10 miles south of Kona Village. In addition to poke, they serve up a variety of Hawaiian-style meats for your non-poke eating friends.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. I’m not a big fan on chain restaurants, but this one has always been a favorite. Chicken Katsu, Kalua Pork, and a breakfast favorite Loco Moco, L&L is far from lacking in flavor and a much needed break from all the touristy eats along Ali’I Drive. With two locations near Kona Village (Lanihau Center on Palani Rd and another in the Keauhou Shopping Center) and even two locations in Colorado (Colorado Springs and Aurora), you can start training your Hawaiian palate now before heading to the Big Island!
Queen K Tesoro . Sometimes gas station food is just downright good. This is no exception. I found this place after going on a witch hunt for some good spam musubi and a kama’aina led me to this sanctuary of yummy goodness. I fully admit with no shame that I stop here on my way to the airport every trip without fail. Head around to the back of the cash wrap and you’ll find spam musubi rolls of varying sizes, chicken katsu, and other to-go friendly Hawaiian foods.
Ali’I Drive is littered with souvenir shops, ABC stores, you name it. Kona Village used to be a major cruise port stop with ships coming to dock from all over the world. Then 9/11 happened. Most ships come to port on Wednesdays and primarily from the US Mainland, so that’s a good day to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ali’I Drive. If you’re looking for a way to stretch your hard-earned dollars even further, get off the beaten path (if you can) and buy your souvenirs elsewhere. Longs Drugs is my go-to place. Yep, the drug store that is now owned and operated by CVS Pharmacy. From Kona coffee to chocolate covered macadamia nuts, magnets, and everything else you can imagine, go to Longs Drugs. It’s the same stuff you’ll find at the ABC Stores on Ali’I Drive. There are two locations conveniently located near Kona Village. You can head there right after you eat lunch at L&L!
Mamalahoa Hot Tubs and Massage. This little piece of heaven I discovered after racing the Lavaman Triathlon back in 2011. About a 20 minute drive south of Kona Village, this place is well worth stealing your friend’s rental car for a few hours. Each massage includes a 30-minute soak in their six-foot teak wood hot tubs that sit in thatch covered tiki huts. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the middle of a rainforest jungle in a matter of seconds. With only two private therapy rooms (one single and one couples massage), sessions are by appointment only.
Manta Ray Night Dive/Snorkel. If there is one thing you need to do before leaving the Big Island, THIS is it. The Manta Ray Night Dive is the reason I got SCUBA certified. If you’re not SCUBA certified, no worries! Many dive shops offer snorkel options in conjunction with their dive excursions, which is great when there are both divers and snorkelers in a group. I would highly recommend Jack’s Diving Locker. This is the dive shop I finished up my open water certification after completing the classroom and pool training in Colorado. Jack’s has five boats in their fleet, professional staff of highly experienced guides, and offer free transportation from their main shop at the Coconut Grove Marketplace in Kona Village to their boat dock in Honokohau Harbor. Not to mention, the go-to dive shop for Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and vocalist of the Grateful Dead, with over 300 dives with Jack’s.
Paradise Helicopters. Pele has been acting up since May, and what a better time to witness her miracle than by helicopter. A few weeks after she started up I was lucky enough to snag a helicopter ride over the affected area. Definitely the way to go is the “doors-off” tour, where you’re clipped in a 4-point harness and have complete unobstructive views of the land below mid-flight. One of the few companies that do this is Paradise Helicopters out of Hilo. If you have a free day it is well worth the drive over to the other side of the island, but you’ll need to be flexible as weather conditions can always cause potential delays and cancellations. Advanced reservations are required.
There are probably a dozen more items I could add to this list to include Waipio Valley, Mauna Kea Observatory, South Point, and many more. If you’re looking for more suggestions, feel free to reach out to me via e-mail at email@example.com.
Khem Suthiwan is a staff content editor/media correspondent with 303 Endurance Network, a triathlete, triathlon coach with Mile High Multisport, IRONMAN Foundation Ambassador Athlete, member of the Palmares Racing Cycling Team, avid skier, SCUBA diver, finisher of the 2015 IRONMAN World Championship, and a Colorado resident since January 2001.