Keeping Kona Country

Pacific Vibrations Surf Shop back in the day.

For more than four decades, Pacific Vibrations Surf Shop and founder Simmy McMichael (below) have put community first, advocating for a heavy focus on family and healthy living.

The oldest — and smallest — surf shop in Kona is currently operated by three generations of McMichaels. Pacific Vibrations Surf Shop, established in 1978 by matriarch Simmy McMichael, measures in at a compact 500 square feet. Yet it remains a strong community hub, where locals pop in to say hi or talk story, and where visitors come to reconnect with a slower-paced Kona town that some feel is disappearing too fast.

“When I first moved to Kona from Waikīkī in 1978, there were only about 5,000 people here and no streetlights in town,” McMichael remembers. “There were no surf shops, so I decided to open one.”

Old timers will recall the family’s first surf shop located at Hualālai Road and Ali‘i Drive that once served as the Kona Inn’s manager’s quarters. The “Old White House,” as it was affectionately known, came complete with ’70s shag carpeting and a pay phone that operated on a nickel.

“When there were tsunami warnings, parents would call asking if their kids were out surfing,” McMichael remembers with a laugh. “Or kids would call to tell their moms they would be late for dinner. So many good memories in that cool house.”

It was from that spot that McMichael got involved with Hawai‘i Surfing Association and ran youth surf contests statewide. Her team sponsors provided surfboards, clothing and travel for the kids.

“A lot better than selling sweetbread to raise funds,” she says with a laugh.

She’d carry the sponsor’s products in her store, and they would bring pro surfers to her contests in Kona. Those connections led her team riders into the highly territorial North Shore of O‘ahu, where their talents could shine and break-out stars would emerge. Indeed, McMichael was an early champion and supporter of surfing phenom Shane Dorian, who was born and raised in Kailua-Kona. Dorian surfed in McMichael’s contests and moved on to surf the WSL World Championship Tour for more than a decade before retiring to ride the biggest waves on the planet.

Together with husband Michael, Mc-Michael raised their children, Lokelani, 42, and Makai, 39, in the store.

Simmy McMichael’s son Makai

“As babies, they would sleep under the clothing racks,” McMichael fondly recalls. “Eventually, we taught them the register and they learned how to sell stickers to customers. Everyone helps with the store. The shop is truly a family affair. It’s our life.”

When the property was sold in the 1980s to make way for a parking lot, the McMichaels could not bear to see the beloved white house demolished. Its legacy for local surfing was too important to allow a bulldozer to plow it into rubbish. So they had it cut in half and moved up to Hualālai Road, where it’s been a rental house ever since — no doubt dispensing good surf vibes on its occupants.

In 1991, the McMichaels moved Pacific Vibrations to its present location on Ali‘i Drive, tucked away across the street from the seawall. The shop carries surfboards, surf accessories, clothing, sunglasses and its biggest seller, GoPro cameras. At one time, bikinis were their most popular product line, but retailing in Kona began to change when big-box shops rolled into town and the online market became more competitive.

Pro surfers hang out at one of Simmy McMichael’s Kona surf competitions.

Despite the challenges, Pacific Vibrations has hung on, continuing to sell to locals and tourists alike, many of whom appreciate logo T-shirts emblazoned with the store’s famous slogan “Keep Kona Country.”

McMichael says many customers come back every year to buy their T-shirts.

“It’s something unique that can’t be found anywhere else and makes us proud to be a part of Kona,” she says.

Indeed, one of the family’s greatest points of pride has been the international renown of daughter Lokelani “Loke,” who shot to fame after becoming the youngest woman to qualify and finish an Ironman World Championship event in 1995, breaking the Guinness Book of World Records and holding the record for years.

An all-star athlete in swimming and running, Loke grew up watching and volunteering for Ironman. At age 12, she was on her surfboard, helping her dad with the water patrols. Competing in the event herself was the next, natural step.

McMichael and husband Michael were part of a water patrol group in the 1980s.

Things happened fast after her first Ironman, with Nike, Speedo and other sponsors picking her up. Soon, multiple magazine covers followed, including the first-ever cover of Sports Illustrated Women.

In all, Loke graced 32 covers with her athletic, fit figure, among them Esquire, Vogue, Seventeen, Triathlete, Runner’s World, Outside and Bicycling. She also appeared on billboards and even on a nine-story building, often completing her shoots in one take.

“She’s very photogenic; a natural model,” says McMichael.

As genes would have it, the McMichael grandchildren (Makai’s daughters) have also shown super athleticism in swimming and surfing, and have excelled in difficult swimming events, including a recent 1.2-mile open-ocean swim challenge. They look to their Aunty Loke for inspiration.

The McMichaels’ daughter, Lokelani, has graced many a magazine cover.

Speaking of inspiration, the entire family remains involved in local activism. They’ve fought the development of surf spots such as Banyans, where McMichael was recently a petitioner in a contested case hearing against a proposed condominium.

They’ve also opposed the building of seawalls (“detrimental to the reefs and takes away the inside waves,” McMichael adds); the practice of longline fishing and the chasing of dolphins, among other causes that affect the community, ocean and ‘āina.

“The legacy for us has been rewarding,” says McMichael. “Kona is home. It’s a place for family and athletics, sports and healthy living. It’s not a fast-paced place. This is why we want to keep it country for future generations to enjoy as we have.”

For more information about Pacific Vibrations Surf Shop, call 329-4140 or visit the shop at 75-5702 Likana Lane, Suite B in Kailua-Kona.