Healthy Travel Guide: Kona, Hawaii
You don't have to be an Ironman to swim, bike, run, and hike through the triathlon capital of the world, where healthy travel meets sun and fun
Sure, Hawai'i invokes dreams of lazy days on sandy beaches sipping umbrella drinks. But every year, more than 2,300 triathletes trek to Kona on Hawai'i Island to make it big-Big Island big-at the Ironman World Championship.
The race has athletes tackle a 140.6-mile course around Hawai'i Island, along with celebrities like actor and first-time Ironman Sean Astin and inspiring age-group athletes like blind former Marine, Steve Walker, heart transplant recipient and cancer survivor, Derek Fitzgerald, and Tammy Nicholson, who was told she'd never walk again. And you can watch all the action unfold during the Emmy-winning broadcast of the race, which airs Saturday, November 14 at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC. We're getting verklempt just thinking about setting our DVRs.
But you don't have to be an Ironman to swim, bike, run, or get your sweat on in Kailua-Kona, the triathlon mecca of the world. Hawai'i's residents are the second most prolific runners in the U.S., with only Massachusetts logging more miles per capita on RunKeeper. The state also has the second lowest obesity levels in the U.S., behind only Colorado, according to Retale.
It's no wonder. Just north of Kona, the rugged black lava fields give way to sunny, white sand beaches on the Kohala Coast, where water sports abound. The area came in seventh on our list of the healthiest beach towns in America, while the Kona District ranked 19th. (Find them all in The 35 Best Beaches in America For Fitness Lovers). Inland, Waimea is home to Hawai'i's tallest mountain, the snowcapped Mauna Kea, which rises 13,796 feet and has hiking and horseback trails galore. And we can't forget Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, with 150 miles of hiking trails around one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Yep, we said volcanoes.
Inspired to get your Ironman on? Hawai'i Island makes healthy travel easy with year round warm weather, world class sporting events, mountains and more. Say Aloha to Kona!
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel sits on the loveliest stretch of sand on Hawai'i Island. Originally opened in 1965, this hotel is for the Don Drapers of the world, with sleek mid-century modern design and a world-class 1,600-piece Pacific and Asian art collection. If you came to swim, bike, and run, you won't have to look much further than the Mauna Kea property itself. You'll find swimmers doing laps in the crystalline water of Kauna'oa Bay, a crescent-shaped sandy-bottom lagoon. Grab your bike and ride the Ironman course along Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway just beyond the resort's gates. Or drive 25 minutes to Mana Road in Waimea to run more than 40 miles of rolling hills. If you prefer to workout indoors, try the 2,500 sq. ft. fitness center, which also offers oceanfront yoga. At the hotel's new Beach Club, you'll find stand-up paddleboards, body boards, snorkel gear, and bikes for rent, along with surf lessons, outrigger canoe adventures, SUP classes and more. (Check out The Beginner's Guide to Stand-Up Paddle Boarding.)
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, Mauna Kea's sister resort, sits atop Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, which draws rave reviews from beachgoers on Foursquare as the fifth fittest beach in the U.S. and regularly tops "Best Beach" lists. The largest of Hawai'i Island's white sand beaches, Hapuna is ideal for swimming, boogie boarding, and snorkeling. Or hit the links at the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. If tennis is your jam, serve it up at the 11 ocean front courts at the Seaside Tennis Club at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, ranked ninth in the world by Tennis Resorts Online.
If you're Kona or bust, the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay is perfectly situated for running Ironman's famous Ali'i Drive. The entrance to the resort is just a quarter mile away. Alternately, the treadmills at the 24-hour fitness center and morning yoga on a bay view lawn face spectacular ocean views. Fancy a swim? Dip in the 14,100-square-foot pool tucked into oceanfront lava cliffs.
Stay In Shape
Athletes must earn a spot at a qualifying race, gain entry through a lottery, or win a bib at a charitable auction to compete in the Ironman World Championship. But there are many other ways to race on Hawai'i Island. The Ironman 70.3 Hawai'i on June 4, 2016 is the only Ironman World Championship qualifier in the state, with a start and finish on the Kohala Coast.
Before you visit, check Big Island Races, which lists all the island's swimming, biking, and running events year round. Not there to race? Triathlon Hawaii School runs a year-round series of triathlon training camps.
If you want to train on your own, jump off Kailua Pier-the start and finish of the Ironman World Championship course-to swim the waters of Kailua Bay, or head to the quarter-mile long, crescent shaped lagoon at Kauna'oa Beach, where a reef keeps surf to a minimum.
Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway is the place to ride. A generously-sized bike lane seems built with triathletes in mind. You'll see plenty pedaling beside cars and that iconic black lava rock. From the center of Kailua-Kona, you've got 50 miles of road to the northern tip of the island in Hawi.
Get your run on at Ironman's iconic Ali'i Drive-seven-miles long from start to finish with markers every mile as it winds through Kailua-Kona. Expect a few big hills along with some flat stretches and lots of gorgeous scenery. Or venture to Mana Road in Waimea, which runs for more than 40 miles around Mauna Kea. Be prepared for erratic weather from strong winds to rain or sun. But the views are worth it.
Not to be missed is Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the island's south end, with 150 miles of trails and two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Consider one of many in-depth hiking tours led by Hawaii Outdoor Guides, which organizes 3- to 12-hour treks through the park's lava flows, lava tubes, steam vents, craters, and more. Or head out with Native Guide Hawai'i's Warren Costa, a former ranger who knows all of the park's 333,000 acres, history, geology, flora, and fauna. (Here, 10 More Picturesque National Parks Worth Hiking.)
Fuel Your Trip
No trip to Kona is complete without a stop at Da Poke Shack and Umeke's. These top rated counters serve up only the freshest poke, a traditional Hawaiian dish of cubed raw fish marinated in salt, seaweed and an array of other seasonings. If you love sushi, we promise you'll love poke.
Vegans will love Under The Bhodi Tree, the only certified locally-sourced restaurant in the state. Most ingredients are grown on Hawai'i Island, and the restaurant even offers an employee-led running and hiking club with free weekly runs and monthly hikes.
And, of course, you must sip some Kona coffee. Oceanfront Kona Haven Coffee serves up the good stuff, 100 percent locally grown on 40 acres in the Golden Belt of the Kona coffee growing district.
Want that umbrella drink we mentioned? Try Mauna Kea Beach Hotel's signature cocktail, the Fredercio. The light rum and whiskey concoction also includes pineapple, passion fruit, guava, and orange juices. So it's basically a smoothie.
If chocolate is your guilty pleasure, visit Big Island Candies in Hilo for truly exquisite chocolates and shortbreads. It's the perfect place to pick up a few gift boxes for folks who'll be jealous you left them behind at home.
Want to shop? Stop into the Big Island Running Company, a Kailua-Kona institution with the motto "Run Big." The company hosts weekly group runs and sells running gear in two locations. This is where you'll find a "Run Aloha" shirt to remind you of Hawai'i on every run.
To see the island in all its grandeur, consider a visit to Mauna Kea, where visitors can hike or drive to the summit at 13,796 feet. The mountain is home to the world's largest observatory (and biggest collection of telescopes) for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy. Hawaii Forest & Trail's Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure takes guests from sea level to the mountain's peak for sunset, where temps average 32 degrees, followed by high-powered stargazing. Hawai'i Forest & Trail will provide everything you need including a hooded parka, gloves, and hot dinner complete with warm cocoa and cookies.
If you need to give your legs a rest from too much running, hiking, and biking, head to Kohala Zipline in North Kohala for an aerial tour of Hawai'i's tree tops.
And it's not a trip to Hawai'i without some water sports. SUP, surf, or kayak Kealakekua Bay with Kona Boys outfitters. Or snorkel with Kohala Sail & Sea in the waters of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. You might spot spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and humpback whales in the winter season.
Fun fact: The boogie board was invented and tested in Kailua-Kona in 1971. Laalao Beach near Kona town, famous for its "magic" disappearing sands during tidal shifts, is one of the best body surfing and boogie boarding beaches on the island. (Ready to go? Find out How to Plan Your Healthiest (and Best!) Vacation Ever.)