Many people visit the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Maui, or even Kauai, but relatively few make their way to Hawaii, the Big Island. Hawaii Island offers something special to the discerning traveler: the Kohala Coast. Located just north of Kona, on the island’s dry side, the Kohala Coast is home to seven of the world’s finest luxury hotels that rival anything this author has experienced in terms of cuisine, service, amenities, activities, and ambiance. We visited all seven hotels and sampled cuisine and activities from each with the result that we simply can’t wait to go back for more.
Hawaii is so big, at 4,000 square miles, the other seven major islands could easily fit within it. The most fun way for a pilot to see the island’s diversity is to fly over it. It will take more than tip tanks on your Bonanza to get there, so hop an airline to Kona International Airport and pay a visit to Michael Lauro at Tropicbird Flight Service. He has a 180-horsepower Cessna 172 and a Diamond Eclipse with a large canopy for great views. Take the Island Adventure Flying Course and fly around Hawaii Island to see turquoise waters, mystical waterfalls, and the active Kilauea Crater, with smoking cones and red lava.
Water sports are an integral part of a Hawaiian vacation, with multiple pools and activities available at each hotel. Hawaii state law mandates open access to all beaches, so anyone can visit Anaeho’omalu Bay at the newly renovated Waikoloa Beach Marriott. Ocean Sports has a beach hut here; you can rent a canoe, stand-up paddle board, kayak, hydrobike, boogie board, or snorkel equipment. Plus, they operate a variety of cruises like whale watching, scuba, snorkeling; we took a catamaran champagne/sunset cruise.
You can get face-to-face with sea life here. Kayaking just beyond the Fairmont’s lagoon, we were approached by several sea turtles. Back on the sand at the Fairmont, we grabbed masks, fins, and snorkels, piled into an outrigger canoe, and paddled out of the lagoon, passing more sea turtles before heading to the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel to snorkel with thousands of yellow and blue tangs, huma huma triggers, Moorish idols, butterflies, wrasses, angel fish, and more turtles. After dropping the canoe back at the Fairmont, we snorkeled its excellent lagoon and reef, where a 6-foot turtle scraped algae off the coral as I watched. After its meal the turtle swam up to my face, just inches away, and gave me a long look with each eye before slowly flapping off into deeper water. At the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Dolphin Quest fulfilled my wish to interact with a dolphin and then some (see the slideshow caption).
The Four Seasons’ ULU Ocean Grill serves some of the finest seafood in Hawaii, but it’s rivaled by the Mauna Kea’s Manta and Pavilion Wine Bar—gorgeous breakfast buffets, a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and superb dinners. Just as we finished dessert we heard someone exclaim, “The mantas are here!” We walked down a short path toward the water where a bright light shone on the waves. Suddenly something moved beneath the surface—something huge. One, and then two giant manta rays, each over 10 feet across, swam in circles right beneath us. The light attracts plankton, and the mantas arrive to feed on the plankton—just another miraculous encounter here on Hawaii Island, where you can live your dream vacation. Alas, only an hour before our departure did we learn about night snorkels or dives with manta rays; Kona Honu Divers and other companies take you out and shine lights to attract plankton, and then suddenly multiple manta rays up to 14 feet across are winging around you, within inches of your face.
Whether your dream is the finest in golf, spectacular flightseeing, a sunset cruise, lounging in a tropical breeze beside turquoise waters, or reveling in farm-fresh, innovative cuisine, the Kohala Coast has it all, anchored by seven of the world’s top hotels. For me, paradise is connecting up close with wildlife, and I’ll be heading back for a night dive with the mantas—you can do it too!
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