Swimming the Big Island
I’m a triathlete, a triathlon coach and an open water swim coach. So, when my husband and I decided to FINALLY take a honeymoon for our seventh anniversary, of course I suggested Kona. Being the good sport he is, he of course agreed and when someone asked him if I was taking my bike he said “Of course she is!’ Because on a honeymoon, you’re supposed to do things together, but you’re also supposed to do what makes you happy! Swim bike run make me happy, so we planned on me training every day, and us spending time together every day.
Little did I know my non-swimming husband would have so much snorkeling the first day he asked “Where are we swimming today?” every day after! As a result, I got in a LOT of swim, bike and run, but I also got in a lot of snorkeling and just plain splashing around in the sea. We had no super planned agenda, but we tried to get to a new beach everyday.
During training for Ironman Cozumel, when I was wiped out, I’d spend a little time researching and planning our trip, and my workouts. I definitely wanted to experience the Ironman World Championship course while there, but where else could we swim and explore and see new things?
I found a lot of resources online, and Yelp and Google Maps were invaluable. But one of the best online resources, for me, was a site called Love Big Island, and their guide to Big Island Beaches.It breaks beaches out by area of the island, has a decent map, and has enough info that we could prioritize which beaches we HAD to go to, and which we hoped to go to.
We had 8 days. How many beaches and swims could we squeeze in (along with other activities!)?
Day 1, Kahalu’u Beach Park
We landed around lunchtime, got our car, and got some food. Then we checked into our Airbnb and headed for Kahalu’u Beach Park. It was mid afternoon and we’d been traveling since 4 am PST, but we were determined to do a little something, get some food and then early to bed.
Kahalu’u didn’t disappoint. There’s a small gray sand beach, facilities, and lots of families. It’s also just past the run turnaround of the World Championship course so I would see it later too ;) We walked off the lava rocks and into the water and right into some amazing reefs of fish. There were a lot of families, and this is probably one of the two best places you could go to snorkel with kids on the island. There’s surf off over by the tiny church, but most of the little beach is protected by a rock breakwall, and so the water is pretty placid and you can just float around in what feels like an aquarium. Rob the Iron Spouse isn’t a swimmer, but he too had a blast - and it set the right tone for the trip! It’s not a beach to get any serious yardage in, but it’s well worth putting on your goggles (or a mask) and checking out the fish!
Day 2: Swimming in Holy Water
The Ironman World Championships looks big on tv, as do the pier and Ali'i drive. Intimidating even. It’s the big show after all. But in person, it’s warm and inviting and not intimidating at all. It’s actually a rather small pier, and a rather small beach with an easy entry. A few steps, a small patch of sand, and you’re in the crystal clear water, swimming along the well marked buoy line (well, until the 1.2 turnaround buoy but that story is coming). The water was low to mid 60s each day I swam from the pier. I hadn’t brought a wetsuit, but many of the locals and visitors were wearing them. According to the locals I met in the water, it was a bit chilly and murky, but I thought it was quite warm and so clear. Since I swim in the SF Bay a lot now, it’s all relative! :)
Locals: Meh, not so great today, can’t see much.
Me: Look at all the FISHIES!!!!!!!!
I was so happy to be in the water, sans wetsuit and where my face didn’t hurt. I felt like I could swim for days, though my training plan called only for a short swim. This proved to be the case for our whole trip (what off season?) so I only recorded about half of my swims :) I still overachieved my workouts, but hey, this was MY vacation so if I wanted to workout extra, that’s my choice!
I hung with a group past the first set of buoys,along a reef then the buoys thin out. The group stopped at a buoy and I chatted, and they were turning around. I could see the next buoy, which is the 1.2 turnaround, so I carried on. Was rewarded by being surrounded by a big school of silvery fish, swimming over another reef and met 2 guys coming back from the 2.4 buoy who asked if I’d seen the pod of dolphins that had swum past them on their way out. Sadly, I had not, but we talked about the course and I asked about sighting to the next buoy since you can’t see it from that one. There are a handful between 0 and 1.2 but only the 2.4 buoy after that. It’s a long way sans buoy :) One was local and gave me a few landmarks to sight on, and I was on my way. It felt like an awfully long way, but discovered later I’d been swimming against the current as it was MUCH faster on the way back in.
Still, I was enjoying the scenery and still all a-giggle that I was swimming the WC course. My Iron Spouse was there as I got out and we made our way for coffee and acai bowls which became our post-swim ritual all over the island! After, a run on Ali'i, a nap, some yummy food and an early night and we were ready to hit it again.
Kona Pier Day 2
After posting about my swim online, a friend from my swim family, SMOG, who was on the island visiting family messaged and asked if we could swim! Swimming with friends in paradise? ALOHA!
This was bike course recon day, but what better way that to get a swim in first! There’s always swimmers heading in, so I got to chat while I waited as Rob headed out for coffee. Alison arrived, and we took off. Alison hadn’t gotten a swim in a while, but probably got in just under a mile, while I did 1.2 and was ready to head out. And I got to see a turtle my friend Courtney had befriended when she was out here for WC. I’m certain it was the same one.
A snack, a pic of the SoCal/NorCal SMOG meetup in Kona, and a kiss and I was on the bike and headed to Hawi!
Thanks for meeting up Alison!
Kiholo Bay and Queens Bath
I rode up to Hawi, checking out the course, and met Rob for lunch and a stroll through town.
On the way back to Kailua-Kona, we decided to try to see more fish! Rob drove and I plotted the course for Kiholo Bay, where it looked like we might get to sight some turtles AND check out the Queen’s Bath, a tide pool in a lava tube. Like a Mexican cenote, lava tubes have created some salt and some fresh water watering holes which you can swim in, and this sounded like a must do.
Yelp suggested we needed 4WD, and our budget Jeep wasn’t, but we decided to try. Made it to the parking lot, and the beach is a few short steps. No signs to the queens bath, but the snorkeling wasn’t awesome right there, and the beach was long, so we hiked a bit hoping to see a good spot.
The bath is in the bushes a couple hundred yards from the sea and not well marked, but luckily a small family was there and checking it out so we didn’t miss it. I eagerly climbed in and Rob decided he’d stay on photo duty - it was fresh water and definitely colder than the ocean! It was super cool to be down there and swim from opening to opening, but the echoes off the walls and the tiny caves that spread out from some of the main openings were, not going to lie, a little creepy. I stayed with the openings in clear eye shot, and didn’t swim long. It DID feel like a great ice bath after a long hard bike ride, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the full body ice bath, so I climbed back out. I had really impressed the 3 year old little girl from the family. Mission accomplished!
We were still hoping for a little snorkeling, but the surf was a little big- not for swimming but for snorkeling for sure. We settled for tidepool exploring and hoping for turtles. We were about ready to give up when we saw this:
I’d created a fishy-finding monster. Rob wanted to see more fish, and there was still plenty of daylight. So, we drove down to Captain Cook to a beach known as Two Step that was supposed to have great snorkeling.
Two Step didn’t disappoint. Basically, you take two steps off lava rock and you’re in a ton of reefs, with lots of little inlets and almost-caves. Tons of bright colored fish and not as many people as Kahalu’u. There’s also, if you have little ones, a little sandy beach in a protected cove.
Pro tip: Don’t decide to swim over and swim over the rocks and into the cover to walk up the sand. This is probably ok to do, but I misjudged the waves and got knocked around on the rocks. A few cuts and scrapes weren’t enough to diminish my spirits, but, this happened:
Yep. Lost the top of my finger. A friendly fisherman grabbed bandaids out of his truck but they didn’t go very far. Losing the tip of your finger bleeds a lot. Rob wanted to head to urgent care, but, afraid they’d tell me not to swim the rest of the trip, I managed to talk him into the drugstore for Neosporin and some Extreme Sport bandaids. Does Longs Drugs sponsor triathletes? Because if anyone should be sponsored by Extreme Sport bandaids, it is ME.
Fingertip update: In case you’re wondering, I bandaged this thing carefully daily and swam every day. I was not letting a little finger loss stop me. It actually didn’t start healing well until the flap fell off and I truly lost my fingertip and then it began regenerating. I do have some nerve damage and typing with it tickles. So, yes, I am smiling while typing this!
Time to explore more of the island, after Fingergate, we got up the next day, checked out of our little apartment, and headed north, and then toward Waimea after breakfast and a little run near the water (and probably an acai bowl and coffee). Our next residence was in Peepeoke, just north of Hilo, and we wanted to make it by afternoon. We stopped for coffees, explored a lot, and decided to check out Laupahoehoe. Rob was intrigued by the history - a small sugar mill town that had been decimated by a tidal wave. I loved watching the waves crash on the rocks. Definitely not a good beach for swimming, which is often a dealbreaker for me, this beach had rocks, waves, cliffs and lush greenery so was worth a stop. High winds too!
I was a little worried that all the beaches on this side of the island would be this rugged and my swims would be short, sweet and tough but I didn’t need to worry.
After finding our farm and a fab smoothie place in the wilds of Peepeoke, Rob and I slept well. I had an hourish run to do in the rain, so decided to head down towards the water and meander and then have Rob come meet me. The run was lush and glorious, but the meeting was harder than expected thanks to GPS issues. I ended up at Onomea Falls and Trails near the Botanical Gardens and texted him, but Google sent Rob 5 miles south.
Ignorant to his goosechase, I ran down to the beaches and had a wander and a look. Very tropical and you go through part of the Botanical Garden paths. The beaches were rocky and wild, but the break was further out, so I ventured in for a quick dip. This felt great, and surprised a few tourists, but hey, if it’s water, wet I get! I thought Rob would have arrived so I got a tad worried and hiked back up.
Unfortunately, the bugs really really liked me as I hiked up and I got eaten to bits! Itchy, tired and hangry, my husband was nowhere to be found. And it turned out he was far away! I just kept hiking hangry back out until he found me and we rectified my hangry hunger!
Carlsmith Beach Park Aka Adventures with RADAR
After food and saying sorry for being hangry when we picked me up, we decided the day needed FISH and turtles to end on a high note. Reviews said Carlsmith Beach Park was the place to go. After driving through Hilo and then what felt like a really industrial area, we found Carlsmith. We parked, walked around, and as reviews suggested, entered at the pool ladder into one of the lagoons behind there bathrooms.
Carlsmith has a bunch of lagoons with soft white sandy bottoms that are interconnected and surrounded by lava rock. That one is definitely the easiest to get into. We didn’t see any turtles and were a little sad, but our disappointment didn’t last long. Since the lagoons are fed by freshwater springs, the water is colder than many other beaches. Rob was entering gingerly, and I heard him call me from behind. I was quite surprised to find a GIANT honu next to him, checking him out.
Apparently, Radar was retrieved by turtle rescue because he was injured in nets. You can see a chunk missing on the back of his shell. After returning to health, the rescue released him in Maui. He swam back to Carlsmith which is definitely HIS beach. He’s sure to let you know you’re a visitor and should behave accordingly! We didn’t want to break the 10 foot from turtles rule, but Radar has decided HE can get within 10 feet of humans. Rob is a known animal whisperer, and they follow him everywhere for snacks. We’re pretty sure they can just smell them on him. But he didn’t have any treats in his jammers! :D
After our close encounter with Radar, we swam around some of the other lagoons to give him some space and try to see more fish. I also wanted to stretch out and get some yards in, which I was able to do in the very large lagoon! Rob was busy turtle whispering and checking out fish, so it was a win-win. When we got chilly and hungry, we headed back to where we got in. Of course, Radar couldn’t let Rob leave without saying goodbye, and swam right up and body slammed him in the shoulder! Radar. Alpha male turtle!
Time to make our way down to the South end of the island for a day or so en route back to Kona and then, sadly home. After coffee on the farm and a last acai bowl at Makani’s Magic Pineapple Shack, we headed for Volcano National Park. This is definitely another post, but the government shutdown and pouring rain definitely put a damper on this part of the trip. Luckily, once we headed down the mountain, the sky had cleared and we could get at least one beach in. We made the most of it and decided to check out Black Sand Beach. Crowded with tourists, and the beach’s turtles all in one pile with lots of tourists, this beach was quite beautiful, ok but not fab for a swim, and worth the stop but definitely not on my favorite’s list for the island. It’s a must do especially if you haven’t been to a black sand beach, and I had fun swimming in the surf, but overall, an easy afternoon visit. Watch out for the NeNes crossing the road as you leave!
Cliff at South Point
We stayed overnight in Ocean View, which sounds more elegant than it is. We did like our rustic little dragon fruit farm cabin, but the food choices were slim. Maybe it’s just the lack of acai bowls!
I got up early and we went to check out Naalehu. It was New Year’s Day, so much was closed, but I needed to get a bike ride in and there was a decent Strava segment off the main highway. What was supposed to be an easy ride with efforts at the end turned into a big climb up the side of the volcano with a speedy decent down and a 5k sweaty run off the bike. Rob met me at the car after exploring the very closed town - except for the graveyard - and we went to search for coffee and a beach.
Having read about the Cliff jump at South Point, I warned Rob that if we went, I would have no choice but to jump in. Never phased by my hijinks, or comforted by my excellent life insurance policy, Rob headed straight there. The drive was great, and we stopped and checked out a coffee farm on the way which was open and quite yum.
We pulled up to the parking lot and I changed right away. If my suit’s on, I’m committed. We walked down and watched a bunch of local boys jump off, despite the giant signs that said no jumping and warned of injury or death. Rob gave me the look, but he knew. We watched a German guy do backflips, and I was very disappointed there was a distinct lack of women jumpers. Frankly, the dodgiest part to me didn’t look like the jump itself, but the ladder back up held together with bamboo, duct tape and hitting the rocks in the wind!
After watching a nervous young lady face her fears, I knew I had to show some solidarity. I asked the German guy for any tips - the most solid of which was to straighten my legs but not locked knees for entry and NOT to hit the water in a sitting position! A bit of a running start and OFF I went, jumping right into the new year!
The best part but also the saddest part was coming off the ladder and a bunch of women being very excited I jumped - but then saying they could never do that. Ladies, if I can, anyone can. It’s my Ironman motto, and now, it’s my life motto. If I’m going, I’m going for broke, right?
Not content with Cliff jumping for the day, we wanted to check out the famous Green Sand Beach. Once again, reviews said you needed a 4WD to get there or hike in, There’s the “locals lyft” which are locals that will charge you $10 each way to the beach and back from the parking lot. I highly recommend this, thought it is a bumpy ride standing in the back of the truck! Even if you have a 4WD, you REALLY REALLY need to know how to use it. We saw 4WD Jeeps getting stuck. Follow the locals tracks, or leave the driving to them.
After reading conflicting reports that the hike was either 1.5 miles or 4 miles, we opted to hike in and Locals Lyft back. Turns out, it really is 4 miles in, and it was very windy. It was gorgeous and sunny and not a bad hike, but it was a tad far for me after a ride, run and, well, jumping off a cliff. Plus, I had definitely not eaten enough!
Rob and I both swam, me heading in and out past the break, and Rob tumbling around at the shore with the little kids. We climbed back up and took our bumpy ride out, eager to go find food! Totally and utterly worth the trip. Pack drinks and snacks, and take the ride. You won’t get yardage in, but it’s a nice beach for swimming and exploring.
Last Day : Back to Kona Pier
Neither of us wanted to leave and I really could have stayed longer. The swim out from Kona pier is amazing, and I could do it again and again. So, I did.
We left Ocean View early so we’d be near the airport in plenty of time. We got to Kona after 9, so the swimmers were thinning out. But that wasn’t going to stop me. I told Rob I’d be a little over an hour, but I took the long course route and was gone longer. He knew I was squeezing everything out of that the last swim, and I was busy swimming against the current, looking for dolphins and fish and rays, and just basking in the warmth knowing we’d be back in my beloved but chilly bay very soon. I swam between 1.2 and 2.4 every day while we were on the Big Island, but I was never sick of swimming.
Are there any Kona swim spots I missed that we need to go back for? I’m already ready to plan my return.
Last stop before the airport: Big Island Running Co for one of these and a stop at Bike Works to return my CO2, which they take back for store credit!
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