The Big Island of Hawaii—not to be confused with the state of Hawaii, (it's made up of eight major islands of which the Big Island is the largest)—has always been a special place for me. I honeymooned here 33 years ago and it remains one my top five places to visit. As Thanksgiving and my anniversary rolled around, it seemed like a good time to revisit the island, and the places and things that captured my heart three decades ago. Here’s my takeaway.
The Big Island is Big
Hawaii (the island not the state) is nicknamed “the Big Island” because, well, it’s big; it’s more than twice of the size of the other seven islands combined. It’s 93 miles long, 76 miles wide, 266 miles in circumference, and still growing from constant volcanic eruptions. You can drive around it (more or less) on 221 miles of paved roads, but it will take you all day. The Big Island is the southern most of the Hawaiian Islands and the youngest—less than half a million years old—a baby geologically speaking. It’s also the southernmost part of the United States.
The Big Island has the Wow Factor
Hawaii’s biggest attraction for me is its topography, diversity and the breathtaking power of nature that whispers of the mysterious and sacred divine, and shouts with black sand beaches, cool highlands, stark lava fields, lush rainforests and soaring mountains. It is the only island where you stand in the snow on top of its highest peak, Mauna Kea in the morning and be swimming in the balmy Pacific two hours later. The Big Island boasts 11 of the world’s 14 climate zones and includes Kilauea, one of the world’s most active and visible volcanos, which has been spewing molten lava and increasing the size of the island since 1983.
It is the only island where you stand in the snow on top of its highest peak, Mauna Kea in the morning and be swimming in the balmy Pacific two hours later.
Most of the luxury resorts and golf courses are on the Big Island’s central west coast (the Kona Coast), a 35-mile strip along the ocean north of the Kona airport, because the areas’ perpetually sunny climate receives less than nine inches of rain a year, and daily high temperatures range from 78 to 85 degrees year round. Because of the Kona Coast’s warm water, predictable temperatures and abundance of good restaurants, visitors can become too comfortable basking in the lap of luxury and miss the best part of the island, which is Mother Earth, herself, in all of her glory.
The even slightly adventurous can drive inland and uphill for five minutes and find themselves in weather that calls for a sweater and possibly an umbrella; or, drive north and west into the sub-tropical forests, where annual rainfall averages a hundred inches or more; or, drive up Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa, both over 13,000 feet, and be in winter’s snow. And there’s much more.
The Hawaii Volcano National Park is about a 100-mile drive from the Kona airport through a rain forest to the west side of the island. The Park spans 330,000 acres from the summit of Mauna Loa to the sea, and is home to Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, who is working her magic increasing the size of the island with a constant flow of lava. The park is simply awesome: an active volcano, constant earthquakes, sulfur vents, rising and falling magma floors, excellent seismic and geological exhibitions, and friendly and knowledgeable professional staff showing informative films and giving guided tours. You might think you’re on the moon, but drive a mile away, and you are back in the rain forest.
The Big Island is Convenient
It is easy to get to the Big Island. United has one daily non-stop from Houston to Honolulu (on the island of Oahu), as does American from Dallas, and from there it is just a 30 minute flight to Kona on the West (dry) side or Hilo on the east (wet) side. For those who would rather change planes in Los Angeles (United and American), San Francisco or Chicago (United) or Atlanta, Salt Lake City, San Jose, Portland, San Diego, Seattle or Las Vegas (on Delta or other airlines), you can fly non-stop to Kona, about a five-hour flight from the West Coast. I prefer Honolulu. No security rescreening.
The Big Island does not lack for luxurious and extravagant resorts, although surprisingly, the last five-star hotel built on the island was the Four Seasons, which opened in 1996. Probably the result of economic cycles, environmental concerns and increasing regulation. The island has hotels for every budget and taste, but because of its sheer vastness, it does not feel crowded, and the 1-stars are quite separate and distant from the 5-stars.
The Big Island does not lack for luxurious and extravagant resorts, although surprisingly, the last five-star hotel built on the island was the Four Seasons, which opened in 1996.
Interested in a room looking out on a dormant volcano? Or a tree house in a rainforest? Or a suite in the Hilton’s 1240-room convention hotel? It is all there. For those seeking a hotel with the best beach on the island and one of the best in the world, an architectural marvel that is timeless even 50 years later, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel will literally take your breath away. Located 35 miles north of the Kona airport and developed by Laurence Rockefeller (yes, of that Rockefeller family), I do not know of a hotel with a better sense of place.
Because of public opposition, regulatory burden, high cost and the cyclical market for hotel developments, most of the luxury hotels have been just the first phase of broader and more ambitious developments of high-end second home communities. And that is true with the Kona Coast. These communities range from the modest to the luxurious, and some are developed in conjunction with the hotels and shares the hotels’ amenities (golf, tennis, swimming, dining, etc.).
On this trip, we found a second home development combined with a vacation “experience” that is a new twist on the concept. Kohanaiki is a 450-acre planned development five miles south of the Kona airport, which has been in planning since 1997 and is the brainchild of well-known real estate investment groups, Kennedy, Wilson Inc. and IHP Partners. It combines a private golf and tennis club membership that includes the use of on-site one- to four-bedroom residences, with a luxury second-home community development. Members may, but are not required to buy a second home; they may just stay in one of the residences during their vacation visits, all included in their membership fee and dues. More about Kohanaiki later.
Hawaii is one of the great places to play golf and Hawaii golf gets no better than on the Big Island where black lava rock and roaring surf contrast with the green, green grass of the course. Throw in some golf holes where players must hit their ball off of high cliffs over raging surf on to beautifully framed greens, and you have heaven on earth for golfers.
The Golf Experience
Golfers know there is the golf course and then there is the “golf experience,” which includes the history and traditions associated with the course, the food, the cachet, or simply the buzz. On Hawaii, a great golf experience coupled with an attractive real estate development can make one want to sign on the bottom line for a second home in the time you can say “fore!”. Kohanaiki, the newest luxury home community, delivers a golf experience that will be hard to top.
On Hawaii, a great golf experience coupled with an attractive real estate development can make one want to sign on the bottom line for a second home in the time you can say “fore!”.
For starters, the community just opened a Rees Jones course. Jones, arguably the nation’s top golf architect (designer of Shadow Hawk, Houstonian and Redstone Shell Open courses) created his first Hawaiian original design (he had updated his father’s legendary Mauna Kea) with his 7,329 yard par 72 course at Kohanaiki.
The course has the look of a traditional Jones routing laid out over dramatic lava rocks and ancient Hawaiian ponds, with six waterfront view holes. Environmentalists will be impressed with the preservation of wildlife, the protection of Hawaiian ponds and artifacts on the course, and the impressive systems to conserve and reclaim water, a precious commodity in western Hawaii.
Kohanaiki’s literature states the course “has two Golf Hales (houses) where you can help yourself to an assortment of gourmet snacks and beverages, and step out of the sun for a bit to refuel and quench your thirst.” What an understatement! The golf houses are equivalent to walking into a cross between a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s, with not a cashier in sight.
Home baked chocolate chip cookies, seven kinds of home-made ice cream, a margarita machine, a frozen yoghurt machine, a refrigerator full of cold drinks—soft and adult beverages, another refrigerator full of frozen fruit, individual servings of fresh salads, and literally fifty jars of every type of candy imaginable. And with no one else on the course at the time, we took our numerous snacks to teak rocking chairs on the hale's front porch to soak in the warm breeze and take in the spectacular views.
Marty Keiter, the director of golf, and his staff, made sure we felt welcome, and upon learning it was our anniversary, couldn’t wait to show off the chef’s talent by presenting us with a bottle of fine French champagne and a special anniversary cake.
As we drove off with our new bag tags we dreamed of a life post work on the Big Island.