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Luxury on the Kohala CoastLuxury on the Kohala Coast

Hawaii, the Big IslandHawaii, the Big Island

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.

  • Fly over Hawaii Island with Tropicbird Flight Service. Flying the perimeter counter-clockwise from Kona, you’ll first note the extraordinary turquoise water and huge lava flows. Keep an eye out for dolphins and whales. Next, if weather permits, you’ll see the moonscape of the active Kilauea Crater, with smoking cones and red lava. Approaching Class D Hilo, on the island’s rainy side, the landscape becomes a green topical paradise; north of Hilo you’ll see Mauna Kea with its 13 observatories on top and deep canyons with towering waterfalls below. As you continue north, the canyons give way to the rolling green hills of former sugar cane plantations. Rounding the corner of the island, you’ll re-enter the volcano’s rain shadow. Lava dominates the land, and you’ll overfly the luxurious Kohala Coast resort hotels before returning to Kona International. Photo courtesy Michael Lauro.
  • The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel has a huge open-air atrium inside. Guests can enjoy bicycles, snorkel equipment, hula, ukulele, lei-making, or weaving lessons, and golf clinics. Its CanoeHouse features a plantation-style, sustainable menu right on the beach; dinner and entertainment nightly. Rooms offer private lanais and views of Mauna Kea, the gardens, or the ocean and fish ponds. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • There’s a quiet lagoon in front of the Fairmont Orchid, and most of the resort’s rooms are set somewhat back from the calm beach. Lavish landscaping and water features cover the grounds. We indulged in a room on the Gold Floor, with its own concierge. The Gold Lounge has coffee, tea, and honor bar 24 hours, plus complimentary breakfast buffet, afternoon tea, and cocktail canapés; listen to waterfalls and birdsong on the lanai. Photo courtesy Fairmont Orchid.
  • Danny Akaka, Jr. (front) and friends celebrate after blessing a new canoe during its first time in the water. This traditional, handmade koa outrigger canoe took two years to build. To get a personal understanding of Hawaii Island’s history and culture, we met Danny at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel’s Cultural Center. His tours of Kalahuipua’a, the native name for the area now occupied by the resort, are 60 to 90 minutes, free and open to all; schedule with concierge. Or hear Danny “talk story” monthly at the resort’s Eva Parker Woods Cottage. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • At the Hilton Waikoloa, Nimbus the dolphin allows the author to lift him and feel his considerable weight, just before rolling belly up for more attention. Nimbus let us stroke his back and fins, closely examine his teeth and eyes, feel his heart beat, and play with him. His trainer answered dozens of our questions. After about 15 minutes we gave Nimbus a hand signal; he rocketed off and launched himself high into the air several times before returning for the fish we had for him. Then Keo swam over to us so we could feel her belly, distended by the calf she was carrying, one of two healthy babies born shortly after our visit. Photo courtesy Dolphin Quest.
  • The Four Seasons Hualalai is not a high-rise but a collection of elegant bungalows set behind the resort’s pools and natural fish ponds, with the ocean beyond. Lush lava-accented landscaping, quiet, and luxury here are second-to-none. Guests can swim in the 1.8 million-gallon “King’s Pond,” shown in the foreground, that houses 4,000 fish of more than 98 species. Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hualalai.
  • Guests at the Four Seasons Hualalai relax around the infinity pool. Rooms feature natural hardwoods; full-granite baths have deep soaking tubs and huge glass-enclosed showers. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Anyone can also play at the Hilton Waikoloa’s ocean-fed, protected, white-sand 4-acre lagoon that’s great for youngsters. Green sea turtles often wander into the lagoon. This is the world’s largest Hilton, with 1,240 rooms in three towers joined by a Disneyland-worthy tram and boat system, and multiple restaurants. The grounds are home to an extensive collection of Asian art, including an enormous Buddha made of spent brass shell casings collected in Vietnam. Photo courtesy Hilton Waikoloa.
  • Winter snow whitens 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, even as the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel rises beside warm and sunny Kauna’oa Beach. Every Kohala Coast resort offers incredible golf. But the Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed Mauna Kea Golf Course, opened in 1964, has legend status. The par-3 third hole plays from a cliff-side tee, across a bay, to a cliff-side green surrounded by seven large, multi-undulated bunkers—it’s probably the most-photographed golf hole in the world. Photo courtesy Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
  • The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was founded in 1965 by Laurence Rockefeller. Designed to conform to its surroundings by Skidmore Owings Merrill, it was the world’s most expensive hotel at $15 million and was soon showered with design awards. The museum-quality Pacific and Asian art collection includes over 1,600 pieces, now shown to brilliant effect after a $150 million renovation. Photo courtesy Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
  • At the Mauna Kea you can sleep to the sound of gently crashing surf. Large rooms feature ultra-mod furniture and styling; main tower deluxe rooms have deep tubs and ocean-view showers. Photo courtesy Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
  • The white-sand Kauna’oa Beach in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is consistently rated one of the world’s top ten beaches. Photo courtesy Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
  • The enormous Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel’s open atrium is perched high above the ocean; its crescent beach is off to the side. If hearing the surf from your room is important to you, stay here in an oceanfront suite, or at the nearby Mauna Kea. Our expansive suite featured a kitchenette and lanai with sliding glass we left open to hear the waves all night. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Kona Honu Divers and other companies can take you out on a boat at night with scuba or snorkel gear. Once you’re in the water, they 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. Photo by Chris Wilson via Flickr.
  • At sunset, a black-crowned night heron perches on a lava rock at the Fairmont Orchid. The Hawaiian archipelago stretches some 1,500 miles across the central Pacific, with over 100 islands, atolls, and undersea seamounts. The islands are exposed peaks of a gigantic undersea mountain range, formed by volcanism over a “Hot Spot” in Earth’s mantle, where magma rises through the crust. Hawaii, the Big Island, is only 400,000 years old and is the southeasternmost island. Its landscape and weather are dominated by two giant volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, each rising to nearly 14,000 feet msl. From the sea floor these massive volcanoes measure some 33,500 feet, making them the world’s tallest mountains, measured from their bases. The windward slopes (think Hilo) receive around 280 inches of rain annually, yet their rain shadow is so complete that the island’s dry side, including the Kohala Coast, gets only about 7 inches of annual rainfall, making it the sunniest area of the entire Hawaiian Islands. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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.

The Kohala Coast is lined with uber-luxe resorts. Driving north from Kona Airport, you’ll note the entire landscape is covered by lava. Regardless of where you stay, you can visit any beach or restaurant at any hotel. Most provide similar activities like golf, tennis, spas, snorkeling, or luaus, but there are some unique offerings, a few of which are described below and in the photo captions.

A Lu΄au takes you back to classic 1960s Hawaiian entertainment. Have fun at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort’s Sunset Lu’au—pu-pus, roasted pig, hula and fire dances, and all. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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 Mauna Lani Bay Hotel has raised and released hundreds of green turtles, so the Kohala Coast boasts a large population of them. Get out in the water to meet them or see several that swim in the hotel pond. Photo courtesy Mauna Lani Bay Hotel.

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!

Guests at the Four Seasons Hualalai have complimentary access to the 1.8 million-gallon “King’s Pond,” a natural brackish pond with lava walls, 4,000 fish of more than 98 species, and a spotted eagle ray; free snorkeling equipment is provided—it’s like being in a giant aquarium! Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hualalai.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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