By George Fuller
Hawaii may be most famous for sun, surf and piña coladas, but triathletes the world over know the Big Island for the annual Ironman World Championship along the Kona-Kohala Coast. Last October more than 1,800 athletes from around the world gathered to compete in the grueling 140.6-mile race that includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon run through the lava fields and back to the finish line near Kailua Bay.
While you may want to train to compete in next year’s Kona Ironman, there are many less strenuous ways to nourish body and soul in this tropical paradise. When SoCal temps drop their average 16° and winter rains hit, here are 10 ways to enjoy the Big Island naturally:
1. Eat Like a Native
There’s such a bounty from land and sea on the Big Island that it’s easy to find fresh fish, organic and locally grown produce, hot-from-the-oven bread, grass-fed local beef and so much more. You’ll find morning farmers markets all over the island, and two of the best feature organic produce in famous Waimea on Saturday mornings: Parker School and Hawaii Homestead.
2. Swim with the Honu
Five fantastic snorkeling areas are lined up along the Kohala Coast: Puako Bay, Waialea Beach (Beach 69), Hapuna Beach, Mauna Kea and Mau‘ume. You’ll enjoy each for different reasons, but amidst the array of colorful sea life, more often than not you’ll encounter at least one of Hawaii’s gentle honu—green sea turtles. These protected creatures feed on the offshore coral reefs, making an encounter likely, but even if you don’t see turtles, there are literally thousands upon thousands of brightly colored fish, as well as the occasional manta ray or eel.
• Some say the reef at Puako Bay is the best snorkel and dive spot on the island.
• Just north, along Old Puako Road, is Beach 69—named for its location near telephone pole 69—located within a marine conservation district, so the undersea life is teeming, plus lots of white sand and shade trees make it a great all-day hangout.
• Hapuna Beach State Park’s half-mile stretch of sand is often voted one of the top beaches in the country
• The wide crescent of groomed white sand in front of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Kauna‘oa Beach) is great for paddleboarding and shorter snorkel excursions along the rocky edges of the bay. If you get thirsty, head up to the resort’s beachside Hau Tree bar for one of the best sunset views on the island. A limited number of passes are given each day at the resort’s front entrance, so get here early.
• If you can find it (with a little local help), you will most often have Mau‘ume Beach to yourself. There’s a short hike to get to it, but the payoff is a deserted stretch of white sand and a gentle bay. The rock outcropping on the south end of the bay is best for snorkeling, and although Puako and Beach 69 are better for serious snorkelers, how often do you get a beach all to yourself?
3. Ride ‘em, Paniolo
While most people dream of Hawaii’s beaches, there is also a colorful paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) history. In the town of Waimea, in the foothills of Mauna Kea Mountain, horses and cattle outnumber people and an oversized bronze statue of one of Hawaii’s most revered paniolo, Ikua Purdy, dominates the main shopping center. Whether you’re a novice or experienced rider, Harry Nakoa at Dahana Ranch will impart the wisdom of his paniolo elders while guiding you on an open range ride.
4. Urge to Splurge
Gluten free, raw, vegan, macrobiotic? No problem at the Fairmont Orchid, where at Brown’s Beach House you’ll find all of the above along with Lifestyle Cuisine Plus options that in no way sacrifice taste. The menu is pricey but worth it, as Chef Collin Thornton takes full culinary advantage of fresh-caught local fish and just-picked herbs, vegetables and fruits from his on-site garden and nearby sustainable farms.
5. Frolic with the Whales
From early December through mid-April each year, Hawaii’s waters are graced by the majestic kohola, humpback whales. They travel 3,000 miles from the gulf of Alaska to Hawaii for breeding and birthing in the warm shallow waters, and you can watch them play and breach right from the beach. Various whale watching cruise companies will get you a little closer, but Ocean Sports boasts five marine biologists on staff.
6. Bird’s-eye Views
Several tour guide companies can help you identify the Big Island’s hundreds of species of birds, including some that are rare and threatened, or take you to the active rifts of Kilauea volcano, a multitude of waterfalls, or Mauna Kea summit for nighttime stargazing at 13,796-feet. Another exhilarating tour is airborne via zipline, offered by Hawaii Forest & Trail. Traveling from tree platform to tree platform through the high forest canopy on the north end of the island via elevated suspension bridges and soaring ziplines, you’ll see Hawaii like you’ve never seen it before . . . and get the thrill of a lifetime.
7. Daily Sustenance
You won’t see Sprouts or Whole Foods markets on the Big Island, but many of your favorite organic foods and products can be found at four Island Naturals locations: two on the Kona side, and two on the Hilo side. In Waimea, Healthways II (Parker Ranch Center) is the place to find natural and organic foods.
8. Fire & Ice
The Big Island is truly a spectacular land of fire and ice. The “ice” appears in winter as the oft-snowcapped peak of Mauna Kea; “fire” refers to the active lava flow that has been spewing from Kilauea volcano for the past 25 years, running in bright red molten streams all the way to the Pacific. You can see both of these exquisite natural beauties, as well as the island’s plunging waterfalls, vast brown and black lava fields, dramatic cliffs and deep green valleys by helicopter, but the more eco friendly option (which also gets in a little training!) is by bike.
9. Jungle Adventure
What makes the Big Island unique is the dramatic contrast from one side to the other. On the southern Kona/Kohala coast, the terrain is predominantly dark lava fields spreading from mountains to sea. But on the northern Hamakua/Hilo coast, the landscape is deep green, overgrown with foliage and as tropical as Kauai. The wild botanicals on the Hilo side are spectacular, but to experience the flora of Hawaii in all its colorful glory, visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. Located eight miles north of Hilo is a 40-acre manicured jungle that leads through a valley and down to the ocean, replete with 2,000 different species of plants, including 200 types of palm trees and 145 varieties of flowering ginger, along with gushing waterfalls and squawking parrots.
10. Talk Story, Brah!
In Hawaii, “talk story” can mean anything from two old friends getting caught up on the lanai (a patio that is used more like a room) to the more organized storytelling celebration, Talk Story Festival, held every October in Honolulu. On the Saturday evening closest to the full moon, respected kahu (Hawaiian minister and cultural guardian) Danny Akaka hosts Full Moon Talk Story on the lawn next to Mauna Lani Bay Hotel’s Love Cottage. This free gathering is always thronged with locals and visitors alike, who hear everything from jamming Hawaiian musicians to island elders recounting oral histories of Hawaii. You might even want to time your Big Island visit around this event, as it is likely the closest you will come to understanding authentic Hawaii.