Maui and Oahu still get more visitors and more exposure. But travelerslooking for a different, a "new" or a more adventuresome Hawaii are turning tothe Big Island. The bustling West Coast, where the big resorts and mostexcursion 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 onthe waves, and not too many minutes will go by before one of their numbervaults over the retaining wall to break in a watery crescendo over unwarystrollers. Surprise!
This question-mark-shaped bay is the nexus of the Kona Coast, sendingsnorkeling parties and fishing charters off from the pier, welcoming backrecord marlin catches, challenging Ironman triathletes, nursing the area'sseveral histories. There's always a nice breeze here, the cooling shade of abanyan 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 bayand generally overlooked, is the reconstructed heiau (hay-ow), or temple, thatserved 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. Getused to his name; it's everywhere.
Ahuena Heiau, a small complex of thatched shelters, carved figurines and anoracle tower, was where King Kam, for short, performed rituals, prayed, ranhis 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, theyhold the Island Breeze Luau on the adjacent shore.
Huilhee Palace, completed in 1838, dozes by the bay's southern end. It's atwo-story summer cottage that wouldn't be out of place in New England, exceptfor the palm trees and the fact that its 3-foot-thick walls, now stuccoed, arebuilt of lava stones and coral mortar. A double porch, with a dieter's dollopof gingerbread, looks out to sea.
It sustained damage during the Oct. 15, 2006, earthquake and is stillundergoing repairs. If you could see it in all its glory -- you can't rightnow because most of its artifacts are in safe-keeping until the building isfully restored -- you'd find doors and furniture made of koa, a lustrousdark-auburn hardwood native to Hawaii; a reproduction Hawaiian sled, testamentthat surfing wasn't the only radical sport of the pre-contact era; anddecorative redwood pillars that King Kalakaua picked up on a state visit toCalifornia. He and his queen, Kapiolani, bought the building in 1884 andcommissioned the massive and ornately carved koa wardrobe that took the silvermedal at the Paris International Exhibition of 1889. The wardrobe's rightfulplace is here, and, according to the nonprofit Daughters of Hawaii thatoversees the palace, it survived the quake intact.
Across Alii Drive, and older than Hulihee Palace, is Mokuaikaua Church, thefirst in the Hawaiian Islands. According to church historians, at least someof its stones came from pre-contact Hawaiian temples, destroyed on the ordersof King Liholiho even before missionaries arrived. The sanctuary's exposedbeams are of ohia, another native Hawaiian hardwood, plucked from the slopesof Hualalai Volcano that rises above the town. On either side of the altar arethose strange standards, called kahili, that look something like a lampshadecovered in feathers. They're one of the symbols of Hawaiian royalty.
Another old-timer is the red-roofed Kona Inn, the 1928 hotel, now arestaurant, responsible for putting Kona on the marlin-fishing map. It's atits 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: juststrolling Alii Drive, enjoying the sun and fresh air and music floating frompassing cars, prowling the warren of souvenir shops and eateries, stopping atmom-and-pop coffee kiosks to sample 100 percent Kona brews -- bagged beans gofor about $19 a pound -- feeling lucky to be here. Nobody seems to care thatthe stores are on the shabby side and could stand more than a fresh coat ofpaint. This place is possessed of a mood, a vibe, a spirit, a glow, asomething that transcends the clutter, maybe even legitimizes it.
There's no such thing as a bad Kailua sunset. Every restaurant along AliiDrive overlooks the water. Bar hoppers haven't very many teeters to totterbetween one watering hole and the next, especially near the night-volleyballcourts (no one seems to use them during the day). And a lot of the same placesthat were hot spots the night before are even busier with the morningbreakfast 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 condostake over.
There's more to Kailua than this; there are banks and supermarkets and autorepair shops and a Wal-Mart at the top of a hill with a knock-out view overthe town, its bay and cruise ships when they're anchored off shore. Butthey're not worth leaving the waterfront unless you're headed out of townanyway.
Hawaii Highway 270 starts at Kawaihae and ends in frustration, but that'sno reason not to take the drive. Heading north from the junction of HawaiiHighway 19, there are good views of Maui and the imposing height of Mt.Haleakala across the Alenuihaha Channel on all but the cloudiest days. Inwinter this is a good vantage point for spotting humpback whales, nobinoculars necessary. Beyond the desolate, arid stretch, the road turns eastto Hawi and Kapaau and becomes a jungle trek.
The Big Island boasts 11 of the Earth's 13 climate zones, and this drive isjust one study in how quick the transition is from the emptiness of drygrasslands to dense tropics, with papayas and bananas growing beside the road.
Hawi and Kapaau are a pair of villages where gift shops and eateries havemoved into storefronts built during the island's sugar era. A painted statueof King Kam stands here -- he was born nearby -- but there's a better one inHilo. 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, andthat's too bad. The best views are a hike down the mountain on the trailtourism officials say has reopened after sustaining damage in theearthquake.
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 theridge of the Kohala Mountain Range, and when it clears the eucalyptus andironwood 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 andup, up again, almost 14,000 feet up to the summit of Mauna Kea, possiblysnow-capped, and of Mauna Loa beyond that. It's one place that really bringshome 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 horsebackrides are all but ignored by the glut of passersby. So is the museum dedicatedto Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who lost his life in the 1986Challenger space shuttle disaster.
Expensive resort hotels gave the Kohala Coast its cachet. But there are a few other reasons to venture thisstretch of Hawaii 19 besides fluffy bathrobes and high-thread-count sheets.
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is a platform temple finished in1791 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 toappease the war god Ku, and then sacrificed a rival chieftain here to seal thedeal. It's not striking: It'll never give the Parthenon or the Pyramids reasonto fear their place among the world's must-sees. It is, however, important inthe 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 itis 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 tentcity that has sprung up here doesn't make you nervous. There's a makeshiftsecurity station, also in a sort-of tent.
Everyone says the best beach on the island is Hapuna Beach State RecreationArea and they're right: a loooong stretch of clean, honey-blond sand andadequate parking, facilities and rentals -- water tricycles seem especiallypopular. Get there by taking the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel exit.
At Mauna Lani, past the shopping center with the Ruth's Chris Steak Houseand the Tommy Bahama's Restaurant, past the Fairmont Orchid Resort, lies afield of petroglyphs believed to have been etched here before Westernersarrived. Getting to them means a three-quarter-mile hike through a Halloweenforest of gnarly tree branches. The reward is looking at human stick figuresthat, from the viewing area, look to be at least 18 inches tall. Many of themare drawn in pairs and are holding hands.
Absorb the petroglyphs, and the modern rock-art messages along the highwaybetween Mauna Lani and Kailua don't seem so out of place. These are arecyclable graffiti -- "Happy Birthday Brenda," "Kyle + Julie 12/'06" --posted in bleached-white coral that stands out against the earthscape of blacklava. Robbing stones from someone else's message to create your own is part ofthe tradition.
There's another beach of soft, brown sand at Anaehoomalu Bay, adjacent tothe Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. Maybe it's the competition from thedesigner retail and dining at the Kings' Shops, but nobody seems to pay anyattention 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 stringstogether several hillside towns so closely that there's no telling them apart:Honalo, Kainaliu, Kealakekua and Capt. Cook. Browsing their historicstorefronts is more intriguing than in Kailua -- H. Kimura Fabrics, forinstance, seems to have been here from day one -- and less expensive than atthe coastal resort hotels. These shops aren't overcrowded. Neither are thesnack bars, such as Sandy's Drive-In, that are a local mainstay. It's alsoeasier 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 theflavor of its beans and the view from its cafe out over trellis-trained coffeetrees all the way to the sea. The scenery at diminutive St. Benedict CatholicChurch is mostly indoors. Clouds and palm branches spread across itsceiling. Biblical tableaux cover its walls. This wedding-chapel-size landmarkbuilt at the turn of the last century is remembered by all as the PaintedChurch.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park takes a little moreexplaining. It's actually two ancient sites in one. The first part was once aroyal resort off limits to commoners, with fish ponds, reconstructed huts andan exclusive canoe-landing beach where these days endangered Hawaiian greensea turtles come to sun themselves.
The second part is more esoteric, a stark peninsula of black lava, cut offfrom the rest of the island by a wall 17 feet thick and accessible only bysea. It was set aside as a place of refuge for soldiers and civilians on thewrong side of a war, for example, and certainly for lawbreakers. Anyone ableto reach this place would have been not only safe, but forgiven.
Park rangers say some visitors stay for hours and feel somethingprofound and that others walk through in a few minutes and leave shruggingtheir shoulders. Most don't leave, though, without taking a picture of thereconstructed thatched-roof temple and its clutch of wooden gods, especiallythe two large ones, called Kii, whose fierce, grimacing faces have become theicons 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'ssouthernmost pleasant spot in the road. When the trees give way to grassyhillsides there are thrilling views of the coastline.
A side road leads down to Punaluu Black Sand Beach, where a ragged companyof palm trees take whatever punishment the winds decree. The sand is a littletoo much on the coarse side for bare feet, but you have to try it anyway. Itreally is jet black: lava that's taken a pounding by the surf long enough tobe pulverized into this state. In fact, the wave action keeps most people outof the small bay and on the shore at water's edge, a respectful distance fromthe Hawaiian green sea turtles that come ashore here.
There's a progression on Hawaii 11 where pastures give way to a forest ofdead trees, then lava fields supporting a stunted growth of vegetation. Then awarning comes into view. "Caution. Fault zone. Watch for cracks in road." It'sa sign that the volcano, the active one, Kilauea, is just ahead.
Rental car rates at the Kona airport start as low as $245/week (taxesincluded) for an economy car from Thrifty. In Kailua-Kona, you probably won'tbe lucky enough to find street parking. The attended lot at King KamehamehaHotel charges $1.50 per half hour. Unattended lots are less. Most hotels andresorts 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 PizzeriaRestaurant on Alii Drive. That dish plus soft drink and tip comes to justunder $16. A shave-ice all the way -- that is, a snow cone with ice cream andazuki 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 ahamburger steak plate for the same price: $7.75. Add a coconut 7-Up -- a housespecialty -- 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 restaurantis one of the stars in chef Roy Yamaguchi's crown and a regular stop on thefoodie circuit. The takeout deli at Merriman's Market Cafe, from celebritychef Peter Merriman, always seems to attract long lines. The shopping centerat 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 OceanTerrace costs $29.17 with tax.
South of Kailua-Kona: Breakfast at Kona Joe Coffee farm comes with a viewfrom its carefully tended hillside all the way to the ocean. A slice of warmchocolate bundt cake and a cup of coffee total $5.72, tax included. Sandy'sDrive-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, allfor $4.64 tax included. At the Sheraton Keahou Bay, an omelet ($13.50) andcoffee in Kai restaurant come to $17.17, including tax. In Naalehu, Hana HouRestaurant, southernmost restaurant in the U.S.A., will charge you $9.63 for agrilled cheese sandwich, Diet Coke, peanut butter cookie and coffee, taxincluded.
Contact Big Island Visitors Bureau at 808-961-5797 or www.bigisland.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times