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The Big Island's big side
Maui and Oahu still get more visitors and more exposure. But travelers looking for a different, a "new" or a more adventuresome Hawaii are turning to the Big Island. The bustling West Coast, where the big resorts and most excursion headquarters are located, is the logical place to start
The waters of Kailua Bay are capricious with their alohas, but predictable. Take a seat at one of the open-air eateries along Alii Drive, keep your eye on the waves, and not too many minutes will go by before one of their number vaults over the retaining wall to break in a watery crescendo over unwary strollers. Surprise!
This question-mark-shaped bay is the nexus of the Kona Coast, sending snorkeling parties and fishing charters off from the pier, welcoming back record marlin catches, challenging Ironman triathletes, nursing the area's several histories. There's always a nice breeze here, the cooling shade of a banyan tree and something to eat. It has been a lure for a good 200 years.
At the northern end, apart from the water traffic on a platform in the bay and generally overlooked, is the reconstructed heiau (hay-ow), or temple, that served as the seat of government 1812-1819 for Hawaii's most famous king, Kamehameha the Great. He unified all the islands into a single nation. Get used to his name; it's everywhere.
Ahuena Heiau, a small complex of thatched shelters, carved figurines and an oracle tower, was where King Kam, for short, performed rituals, prayed, ran his government and brought up his son, Liholiho, in the old ways. Today, toddlers play safely on the shard of beach nearby. Five nights a week, they hold the Island Breeze Luau on the adjacent shore.
Huilhee Palace, completed in 1838, dozes by the bay's southern end. It's a two-story summer cottage that wouldn't be out of place in New England, except for the palm trees and the fact that its 3-foot-thick walls, now stuccoed, are built of lava stones and coral mortar. A double porch, with a dieter's dollop of gingerbread, looks out to sea.
It sustained damage during the Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake and is still undergoing repairs. If you could see it in all its glory -- you can't right now because most of its artifacts are in safe-keeping until the building is fully restored -- you'd find doors and furniture made of koa, a lustrous dark-auburn hardwood native to Hawaii; a reproduction Hawaiian sled, testament that surfing wasn't the only radical sport of the pre-contact era; and decorative redwood pillars that King Kalakaua picked up on a state visit to California. He and his queen, Kapiolani, bought the building in 1884 and commissioned the massive and ornately carved koa wardrobe that took the silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1889. The wardrobe's rightful place is here, and, according to the nonprofit Daughters of Hawaii that oversees the palace, it survived the quake intact.
Across Alii Drive, and older than Hulihee Palace, is Mokuaikaua Church, the first in the Hawaiian Islands. According to church historians, at least some of its stones came from pre-contact Hawaiian temples, destroyed on the orders of King Liholiho even before missionaries arrived. The sanctuary's exposed beams are of ohia, another native Hawaiian hardwood, plucked from the slopes of Hualalai Volcano that rises above the town. On either side of the altar are those strange standards, called kahili, that look something like a lampshade covered in feathers. They're one of the symbols of Hawaiian royalty.
Another old-timer is the red-roofed Kona Inn, the 1928 hotel, now a restaurant, responsible for putting Kona on the marlin-fishing map. It's at its most charming during a dinner of ono, a mild, sweet white-meated fish, accompanied by the flicker of tiki torches and the sound of the surf.
The best pursuit, though, is to do what most people are doing: just strolling Alii Drive, enjoying the sun and fresh air and music floating from passing cars, prowling the warren of souvenir shops and eateries, stopping at mom-and-pop coffee kiosks to sample 100 percent Kona brews -- bagged beans go for about $19 a pound -- feeling lucky to be here. Nobody seems to care that the stores are on the shabby side and could stand more than a fresh coat of paint. This place is possessed of a mood, a vibe, a spirit, a glow, a something that transcends the clutter, maybe even legitimizes it.
There's no such thing as a bad Kailua sunset. Every restaurant along Alii Drive overlooks the water. Bar hoppers haven't very many teeters to totter between one watering hole and the next, especially near the night-volleyball courts (no one seems to use them during the day). And a lot of the same places that were hot spots the night before are even busier with the morning breakfast crowd.
Alii Drive's tourist zone peters out at the Royal Kona Resort, an aging -- or call it retro -- landmark recognizable by its ski-slope profile, reminiscent of the curving helmet of Hawaiian chiefs. Beyond that, the condos take over.
There's more to Kailua than this; there are banks and supermarkets and auto repair shops and a Wal-Mart at the top of a hill with a knock-out view over the town, its bay and cruise ships when they're anchored off shore. But they're not worth leaving the waterfront unless you're headed out of town anyway.
Hawaii Highway 270 starts at Kawaihae and ends in frustration, but that's no reason not to take the drive. Heading north from the junction of Hawaii Highway 19, there are good views of Maui and the imposing height of Mt. Haleakala across the Alenuihaha Channel on all but the cloudiest days. In winter this is a good vantage point for spotting humpback whales, no binoculars necessary. Beyond the desolate, arid stretch, the road turns east to Hawi and Kapaau and becomes a jungle trek.
The Big Island boasts 11 of the Earth's 13 climate zones, and this drive is just one study in how quick the transition is from the emptiness of dry grasslands to dense tropics, with papayas and bananas growing beside the road.
Hawi and Kapaau are a pair of villages where gift shops and eateries have moved into storefronts built during the island's sugar era. A painted statue of King Kam stands here -- he was born nearby -- but there's a better one in Hilo. The road stops at Pololu Valley Overlook, but you might not be able to: The half-dozen or so parking spaces at road's end are perpetually taken, and that's too bad. The best views are a hike down the mountain on the trail tourism officials say has reopened after sustaining damage in the earthquake.
The real reason to come out this way is the drive back on a different road, Hawaii Highway 250 southbound from Hawi to Waimea/Kamuela. It follows the ridge of the Kohala Mountain Range, and when it clears the eucalyptus and ironwood trees, at about the 3,000-foot level, there are arresting vistas: down and out to sea, down and across the wide valley of the Parker Ranch and up, up again, almost 14,000 feet up to the summit of Mauna Kea, possibly snow-capped, and of Mauna Loa beyond that. It's one place that really brings home the size, the mass of this island.
Waimea itself, which also goes by the name of Kamuela, is deceptively busy. With two shopping centers and more than its share of restaurants and traffic, there's a sense that something momentous vacation-wise is afoot. There's not. This once-drowsy little cowboy town has awakened to find itself suburbed. Parker Ranch headquarters and its historic homes, ATV adventures and horseback rides are all but ignored by the glut of passersby. So is the museum dedicated to Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who lost his life in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Expensive resort hotels gave the Kohala Coast its cachet. But there are a few other reasons to venture this stretch of Hawaii 19 besides fluffy bathrobes and high-thread-count sheets.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is a platform temple finished in 1791 with lava-stone walls 100 feet long and up to 20 feet high in places. King Kamehameha the Great himself joined his people in the building of it to appease the war god Ku, and then sacrificed a rival chieftain here to seal the deal. It's not striking: It'll never give the Parthenon or the Pyramids reason to fear their place among the world's must-sees. It is, however, important in the Hawaiian scheme of things. The best view of it is along the coastal path, a short walk from the parking lot of Spencer Beach Park next door.
As for Spencer Beach, it's not the best the Big Island has to offer. But it is a bona fide beach-with-sand on an island so new, geologically speaking, that it hasn't had time to make very many. It's relaxing, as long as the tent city that has sprung up here doesn't make you nervous. There's a makeshift security station, also in a sort-of tent.
Everyone says the best beach on the island is Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area and they're right: a loooong stretch of clean, honey-blond sand and adequate parking, facilities and rentals -- water tricycles seem especially popular. Get there by taking the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel exit.
At Mauna Lani, past the shopping center with the Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Tommy Bahama's Restaurant, past the Fairmont Orchid Resort, lies a field of petroglyphs believed to have been etched here before Westerners arrived. Getting to them means a three-quarter-mile hike through a Halloween forest of gnarly tree branches. The reward is looking at human stick figures that, from the viewing area, look to be at least 18 inches tall. Many of them are drawn in pairs and are holding hands.
Absorb the petroglyphs, and the modern rock-art messages along the highway between Mauna Lani and Kailua don't seem so out of place. These are a recyclable graffiti -- "Happy Birthday Brenda," "Kyle + Julie 12/'06" -- posted in bleached-white coral that stands out against the earthscape of black lava. Robbing stones from someone else's message to create your own is part of the tradition.
There's another beach of soft, brown sand at Anaehoomalu Bay, adjacent to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. Maybe it's the competition from the designer retail and dining at the Kings' Shops, but nobody seems to pay any attention to this picturesque spot or the ancient fish ponds here.
CAPT. COOK AND THE SOUTH
South of Kailua, Hawaii Highway 11 leaves the coastline and strings together several hillside towns so closely that there's no telling them apart: Honalo, Kainaliu, Kealakekua and Capt. Cook. Browsing their historic storefronts is more intriguing than in Kailua -- H. Kimura Fabrics, for instance, seems to have been here from day one -- and less expensive than at the coastal resort hotels. These shops aren't overcrowded. Neither are the snack bars, such as Sandy's Drive-In, that are a local mainstay. It's also easier to find a parking place.
Really, there are only three reasons to leave this stretch of highway: coffee farms, old churches and ancient sites.
To be specific: The aroma at Kona Joe Coffee Co. is outdone only by the flavor of its beans and the view from its cafe out over trellis-trained coffee trees all the way to the sea. The scenery at diminutive St. Benedict Catholic Church is mostly indoors. Clouds and palm branches spread across its ceiling. Biblical tableaux cover its walls. This wedding-chapel-size landmark built at the turn of the last century is remembered by all as the Painted Church.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park takes a little more explaining. It's actually two ancient sites in one. The first part was once a royal resort off limits to commoners, with fish ponds, reconstructed huts and an exclusive canoe-landing beach where these days endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles come to sun themselves.
The second part is more esoteric, a stark peninsula of black lava, cut off from the rest of the island by a wall 17 feet thick and accessible only by sea. It was set aside as a place of refuge for soldiers and civilians on the wrong side of a war, for example, and certainly for lawbreakers. Anyone able to reach this place would have been not only safe, but forgiven.
Park rangers say some visitors stay for hours and feel something profound and that others walk through in a few minutes and leave shrugging their shoulders. Most don't leave, though, without taking a picture of the reconstructed thatched-roof temple and its clutch of wooden gods, especially the two large ones, called Kii, whose fierce, grimacing faces have become the icons for the Big Island.
Continuing south, Hawaii 11 finds its way through hardwood stands, macadamia nut groves, real estate for-sale signs and Naalehu, America's southernmost pleasant spot in the road. When the trees give way to grassy hillsides there are thrilling views of the coastline.
A side road leads down to Punaluu Black Sand Beach, where a ragged company of palm trees take whatever punishment the winds decree. The sand is a little too much on the coarse side for bare feet, but you have to try it anyway. It really is jet black: lava that's taken a pounding by the surf long enough to be pulverized into this state. In fact, the wave action keeps most people out of the small bay and on the shore at water's edge, a respectful distance from the Hawaiian green sea turtles that come ashore here.
There's a progression on Hawaii 11 where pastures give way to a forest of dead trees, then lava fields supporting a stunted growth of vegetation. Then a warning comes into view. "Caution. Fault zone. Watch for cracks in road." It's a sign that the volcano, the active one, Kilauea, is just ahead.
Rental car rates at the Kona airport start as low as $245/week (taxes included) for an economy car from Thrifty. In Kailua-Kona, you probably won't be lucky enough to find street parking. The attended lot at King Kamehameha Hotel charges $1.50 per half hour. Unattended lots are less. Most hotels and resorts in the Kona/Kohala corridor charge $9 or $10 per night for parking. Parking in Hilo is plentiful and free. When I was on the island in January, gas was $3 a gallon.
See the "Where to stay on the Big Island " sidebar..
In Kailua-Kona: The eggplant Parmesan is homemade at Basil's Pizzeria Restaurant on Alii Drive. That dish plus soft drink and tip comes to just under $16. A shave-ice all the way -- that is, a snow cone with ice cream and azuki beans -- comes to $5.25 at Beach Dog Internet Cafe, off Alii Drive.
In Honokaa: Jolene's KauKau Korner serves a vegetable tempura plate or a hamburger steak plate for the same price: $7.75. Add a coconut 7-Up -- a house specialty -- and the bill comes to $9.64 before tip. A hot malasada (Portuguese doughnut sprinkled with sugar) costs 99 cents at Tex Drive In.
Along the Kohala Coast: Waikoloa Resort counts a Roy's Waikoloa Bar & Grill (Pacific Rim fusion) in the Kings' Shops shopping plaza. The chain restaurant is one of the stars in chef Roy Yamaguchi's crown and a regular stop on the foodie circuit. The takeout deli at Merriman's Market Cafe, from celebrity chef Peter Merriman, always seems to attract long lines. The shopping center at Mauna Lani has a Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe & Emporium (808-881-8686) that serves tortilla soup ($9 for the bowl) and chicken satay ($13 for six) with equal finesse. The breakfast buffet at Hapuna Beach Prince hotel's Ocean Terrace costs $29.17 with tax.
South of Kailua-Kona: Breakfast at Kona Joe Coffee farm comes with a view from its carefully tended hillside all the way to the ocean. A slice of warm chocolate bundt cake and a cup of coffee total $5.72, tax included. Sandy's Drive-In is as good a place as any to sample a loco moco (a stack of rice, hamburger patty, eggs and gravy, all in a takeout bowl) and medium Coke, all for $4.64 tax included. At the Sheraton Keahou Bay, an omelet ($13.50) and coffee in Kai restaurant come to $17.17, including tax. In Naalehu, Hana Hou Restaurant, southernmost restaurant in the U.S.A., will charge you $9.63 for a grilled cheese sandwich, Diet Coke, peanut butter cookie and coffee, tax included.
Contact Big Island Visitors Bureau at 808-961-5797 or www.bigisland.org.