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Where to stay on the Big Island, Hawaii

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All of the Big Island's resorts come in pairs and are found on the west coast between Kawaihai on the north and Keauhou on the south. Each of the resorts in this corridor are located on or near a beach and are designed with vast airy lobbies that frame panoramas of tropical landscaping, exotic pools or waterfalls and, of course, the ocean. Their grounds are lush. Their public spaces serve as art galleries, displaying museum-quality paintings, sculpture and historic artifacts. They all offer non-motorized water sports and can arrange adventuresome day trips. Golf courses are next door if not on property; most have tennis courts, a spa or both.

At each, the standard guestrooms are oversized, elegantly comfortable and vary in decor only by degree: They're all furnished with warm woods against a palette of contemporary neutrals; accents come in earthy tropical tones. While none of these properties is especially new, they go beyond providing luxury and relaxation; they inspire a sense of privilege and of having arrived.

MAUNA KEA AND HAPUNA

Just south of Kawaihae, the beaches at Mauna Kea and Hapuna are the best on the island. These wide crescents of sand are clean, powder soft and golden hued. No wonder that one of the Big Island's most respected resorts, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, was built here. Unfortunately, the earthquake of Oct. 15, 2006, left structural damage that caused the hotel to close its rooms indefinitely for repairs. Even so, the Tuesday luaus and Saturday clambakes ($84 each; 808-882-7222; princeresortshawaii.com) continue; and the Mauna Kea Golf Course and Seaside Tennis Club remain open.

For the time being, anyone wanting a resort stay in this area will have to check in at the Hapuna Beach Prince (888-9-PRINCE; princeresortshawaii.com). This hotel is best appreciated by those looking for rest and seclusion. Although Hapuna Beach proper -- and every Hawaii beach, for that matter -- is open to the public, this beach is a long one, and the resort has sequestered itself at the northern end, away from the day-use crowd. Beyond the resort's 32 acres, there are no attractions, restaurants or shops within walking distance. The place seems particularly wheelchair-accessible. One of the most pleasant pastimes here is to start the day at the breakfast buffet ($29/person, tax included) in the Ocean Terrace. The open-air restaurant overlooks the grounds' mature, terraced landscaping down to the pool and, beyond that, to a flock of beach umbrellas set in the sand. Room specials that include buffet breakfast, rental car or $100 in resort credits start at $295/night; most are good through Dec. 22. No resort fee. Parking is free.

MAUNA LANI

South of Hapuna Beach are the resorts of Mauna Lani, a complex that includes shops and restaurants -- Tommy Bahama and Ruth's Chris Steak House, to drop a couple of names -- and a hike to see ancient petroglyphs.

The Fairmont Orchid (800-257-7544; fairmont.com/orchid) fosters Hawaiian culture through its beach-boy-led activities -- outrigger and double-hulled canoe sails, the making of traditional crafts -- and established its place in the luxury firmament with services such as oceanside massages in its seminal Spa Without Walls. One of the best ways to spend an afternoon on these 32 acres is to stretch out under a clamshell umbrella after snorkeling, possibly with Hawaiian green sea turtles, in Pauoa Bay. Room specials that include buffet breakfast, guided adventure treks, golf or spa services start at $395/night; most are good through Dec. 20. No resort fee. Self-parking is $9; valet is $15.

Also at Mauna Lani is the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel (800-367-2323; maunalani.com). The welcome mat here comes close to disappointing: a central atrium and weary-beige lobby that feel vacuous, as opposed to spacious. This design trespass is most easily forgiven from the private terrace of the private pool of a private bungalow (from $5,500/night) that comes with airport limo, breakfast, afternoon hors d'oeuvres, an open bar and 24-hour butler. Clearly, this resort has put its money into its private spaces. Guests staying in the ordinary rooms -- and these rooms aren't so bad, either -- can stroll the beach or wander these 29 quiet acres to find the shark and sea-turtle ponds. Room specials that include breakfast, golf, scuba, helicopter tours, spa services or honeymoon elements start at $415/night; most are good through Dec. 19. No resort fee. Parking is free.

WAIKOLOA RESORT

From Mauna Lani, the next resort complex south along the coast is Waikoloa Resort, not to be confused with Waikoloa Town, which is about 6 miles inland and at a higher elevation. In addition to golf, the complex includes the busy-and-still-expanding Kings' Shops plaza, where familiar names such as Starbucks and DFS Galleria keep company with trendy restaurants such as Roy's and Merriman's.

Hilton Waikoloa Village (800-HILTONS; hiltonwaikoloavillage.com) is Las Vegas without the casinos, Orlando without the mouse ears. Its grounds -- covering 62 acres -- are vast enough to encompass 1,240 rooms scattered among three buildings, a snorkeling lagoon, 18 restaurants and bars, three swimming pools, various waterfalls and a Dolphin Quest. It's a good choice for families or adults looking for a livelier scene. There's so much here that many guests may not realize that there's no beach, or even miss having one. Part of the fun is exploring the place by canal boat and tram, both of which operate from one end of the resort to the other. But the sheer size of the place is also a drawback: It can be daunting to actually get off the property for shopping and dining; and long waits for the tram (now under renovation but still operational) combined with high prices at in-house restaurants are frustrating -- and make room service an attractive alternative (an order of quesadillalike chicken wraps and a fruit plate, each enough to serve two people, costs $46, tax and gratuity included). Room specials that include parking, discount vouchers, resort credits, golf, meals or spa services start at $289/night; most are good through Dec. 20. No resort fee. Self-parking is $9; valet is $17.

Settled on the fringes of the historic Anaehoomalu Fish Ponds and Beach, the 15-acre Marriott Waikoloa Resort & Spa (808-886-6789; marriott.com) rests on one of the island's most idyllic bays, known for outstanding snorkeling. Now the hotel itself (still under wraps when I was there in January) should be more equal to its setting when it emerges from a comprehensive renovation of its 555 rooms and lobby. An infinity pool is part of the improvements, as is a Mandara Spa. Room specials that include fifth-night free and daily breakfast start at $425 and are good through Dec. 22. Parking is included in the additional $15 resort fee.

KAUPULEHU

Between Waikoloa Resort and Kailua-Kona, very near the airport, a massive construction project is under way. Behind the construction clutter is Kona Village Resort (800-367-5290; konavillage.com), a collection of 125 luxuriously appointed thatched-roof bungalows, built in the style of various Polynesian islands. They're anything but huts. These 82 get-away-from-it-all acres include a fitness and spa center, fish ponds and a small beach. Activities include petroglyph walks and watching manta rays swim by night. One-room bungalows start at $625, a price that includes three meals a day, non-motorized water sports and special events such as the Friday night luau; 2007 rates are good through Dec. 20. Resort fees and parking also are included.

People who like to mix mainland hobbies with tropical ones will find a rock-climbing wall and a private snorkeling lagoon at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu (888-340-5662; fourseasons.com). The hotel and its 600 acres are otherwise geared to relaxation. On its narrow beach of peach-colored sand, even the sea turtles come ashore to rest. Paying guests may best achieve the same thing beside the classical pool or the naturalistic lagoon, drink in hand. One thing about the lagoon: It's formed from and surrounded by black lava that amplifies the sun's energy; the only refuge is under the shaded chaise longues. Room specials that include a full-size rental car and valet parking start at $726 and are good through Dec. 18. No resort fee. Self-parking is free; valet is $12.

KEAUHOU

Past Kailua-Kona, well south of the town's cluttered bay front, are the resorts of Keauhou Bay. This area is quiet, populated mostly by condos and golf greens. The gift shops and restaurants of Keauhou Shopping Center are a bit of an uphill hike -- a short one from the Outrigger, a long one from the Sheraton.

The name of Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort (800-OUTRIGGER; outrigger.com) is a bit misleading; it's not on a beach, at least not a sandy beach of the sort that most vacationers expect. Kahaluu Bay Beach Park -- good for snorkeling but still not a real beach -- is next door. However, the hotel's western elevation juts out over the water, so anyone finding themselves in the first-floor bar or the guest rooms above it would be in a good position to supervise the surf breaking over the reef. These 13 acres encompass tide pools, ancient Hawaiian ruins and a replica of the cottage where King David (the Merrie Monarch) Kalakaua once vacationed. There's also a spa. The hotel's 309 rooms are pleasantly above average but not luxurious; it makes this list because of its setting and grounds. Room specials start with a fourth-night-free deal from $169 that's good through Dec. 21. No resort fee. Parking is $5.

Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, (808-930-4900; sheratonkeauhou.com) follows the black lava flow on which it rests with its own flowing architecture in contrasting white. Its 22 acres encompass a manta ray program, pools with a water slide and a waterfall, and cliff walks that come as near to the pounding surf as safety permits. The air here smells sweetly of passion fruit and plumeria, and the real treat of its 521 renovated and oversize rooms are the balconies: spacious, and furnished with bar-height table and chairs. Anyone wishing to dine on property after 11 p.m., though, had better bring their own provisions. By that hour, the hotel's restaurants and room service have closed, so has the local pizza delivery, and all that's left is the pop from the vending machines. Room specials start at a best-available online rate of $179, good through Dec. 31. No resort fee. Self-parking is $5; valet is $10.

KAILUA-KONA

Stroll, shop or eat your way through Kailua-Kona, but have a care where you spend the night.

The waterfront Royal Kona Resort (800-222-5642; hawaiianhotelsandresorts.com) has remained open during ongoing renovation. If you get one of the north-facing refurbished rooms like I did, Alii Tower room No. 614, you'll have a fill-it-yourself mini-fridge and a balcony that overlooks town, the entire bay, breaking waves and any cruise ships that might be in port. I stayed two nights at $194/night (all prices include tax and -- for hotels -- parking) and enjoyed the Old Hawaii feel of the place, although I thought it was overpriced. Royal Kona Resort guests who don't get an updated room may not find their stay so pleasant. Either way, don't eat at the in-house Don the Beachcomber restaurant (repulsive breakfast, $16.62) and maybe everything will be OK.

At the other end of town, the younger-but-aging-badly King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, at the far end of Kailua Bay, smelled of mildew the moment I entered the lobby, an odor that dogged me to West Tower room No. 566. I paid $143.07 for a view of the town and part of the bay; no extra charge for the fill-it-yourself mini-fridge whose condensation had been dripping who-knows-how-long into the carpet. To err on the side of caution I avoided the in-house restaurants, used the in-room safe even as I slept, covered the pillow with a towel, slept in my clothes and checked out as soon as possible.

I wish I'd had a chance to spend a night at the modest Kona Islander Inn & Hotel (800-244-4752; konaislanderinnhotel.com), across Alii Drive from the waterfront and right in the center of Kailua shopping and bar hopping. Not only was I unable to get a reservation before I left, but the place was so busy after I arrived that I couldn't even take a peek at the rooms. As fate would decree, some Californians I ran into -- actually I backed into their rental car in the parking lot of the Painted Church -- said they were staying at this place and found their room to be clean and comfortable, and quiet once the revelers next door checked out. At the very least the Kona Islander Inn's lobby is tidy and its small pool and garden seem well-tended. Rates run $100. Its exterior has a good paint job, sports gingerbread balcony railings, and the roof looks relatively new, which is worlds more than I can say for the nearby Uncle Billy's Kona Bay Hotel, where the outside looks so crumbling and moldy that I sped up to get away from it.

However, I would be willing to take a chance on the Kona Seaside Hotel (800-560-5558; konaseasidehotel.com). I spent a couple of nights at its sister property in Hilo (the Hilo Seaside Hotel, which I'll detail later), and found it simple but clean. Standard rooms start at $104.

AWAY FROM THE COAST

A nostalgic favorite is up at Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In recent years, several inns and B&Bs have opened a few miles away in the village of Volcano, but there is only one hotel that sits on the very rim of the caldera: Volcano House (808-967-7321; volcanohousehotel.com). It has the curb appeal of a vintage roadside lodge in the mountains, and a grandmotherly charm right down to the rocking chair in Crater View room No. 26. I paid $223 for the chance to sleep like a kitten a dozen strides from the precipice. Because of the 4,000-foot elevation, I kept the room's electric space heater running all night to fend off the chill.

Even in its current incarnation -- there have been several predecessors -- Volcano House feels historic. Mark Twain marveled at an earlier version: "The surprise of finding a good hotel at such as outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did." Meals here are unusual, too. Buffet breakfasts ($12) or full dinners ($40 for moonfish and sides, dessert and coffee) proceed with picture-window views of Kilauea Crater from the Ka Ohelo Dining Room.

In Capt. Cook, everyone recommends the Manago Hotel (808-323-2642; managohotel.com), which of course is the reason it was booked solid when I dropped by. Double rooms with private bath start at $62. For about $20 more you can reserve the Japanese Room, set with traditional Japanese bedding-on-the-floor.

In the cowboy town of Waimea, which also goes by the name of Kamuela, there are a couple of mom-and-pop hotels. This is Parker Ranch country, where the topography has more in common with Montana than with Waikiki. I didn't have a chance to personally inspect either hotel here; one was booked solid and the other's parking lot was inaccessible because of construction. But for what it's worth: The Kamuela Inn (800-555-8968; hawaii-bnb.com/kamuela.html) is a motel that bills itself as a B&B; rates start at $66 for a standard room with no air conditioning -- though that may not be necessary because of the town's higher elevation. I'd have a hard time giving Waimea Country Lodge a chance; its affiliate in Hilo smelled too much of mildew for my taste.

HILO

When I win the Lotto, one of the things I dream of doing is buying up the hotels of Banyan Drive: the Hilo Hawaiian, Hilo Bay Hotel and Naniloa Volcanoes Resort. I'll either bulldoze them and start from scratch or put them through the sort of gut/detox/rehab that is bringing post-Katrina New Orleans up to standard. No, these places haven't been submerged recently, just allowed to molder for years on end.

Room H-320 in the Hilo Hawaiian, at $106, smelled only slightly less of mildew than the hallway outside my door. But that was much to be preferred over the wet-dog odor of the room I was shown at Naniloa Volcanoes Resort hotel next door. Asking price: $179 for the night, walk-up rate. I walked, and passed up the overgrown Hilo Bay Hotel on my way.

There is a better choice on this end of town: the unassuming Hilo Seaside Hotel (800-560-5557; sand-seaside.com/Hilo_Seaside.aspx?HotelID=2). I spent two nights in room No. 256, a partial ocean view whose balcony overlooked a koi pond, for $91. Nothing fancy, and I'm still trying to forget the glimpse I got of the backside of the complex.

But the sheets were clean, the TV worked, I felt secure enough to sleep with the windows open, and its adjacent restaurant, the Coconut Grill, served a perfectly decent Belgian waffle with coffee ($6.50). I'd stay there again for the price and for the koi pond.

Or I'd check in again at the Dolphin Bay Hotel (877-935-1466; dolphinbayhotel.com), located in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. I was able to score only one night at this oft-recommended spot, which looks like it was an apartment building in a former life. And, in fact, Superior Studio No. 3, for which I paid $110, turned out to be a spacious room with galley-style kitchen. Coffee and fruit in the breezeway gave a "welcome home" cachet to the place and made all the maneuvering in the tiny parking lot seem less irritating.

One final budget choice is the Hilo Bay Hostel (808-933-2771; hawaiihostel.net). It is located on the second floor of a vintage building in Hilo's historic downtown. Translation: creaky floors, thin walls and ceiling fans instead of air conditioning. But private rooms with bath ($72) are clean and tidy and offer a bit of cheer in the Hawaiian-style quilts that cover the beds.

THE RENTAL ROUTE

If you are going to rent a condo on the Big Island, more than likely it will be on the Kona or Kohala coasts. A condo stay is worth considering because you'll have a larger space, can save on meals by doing some of your own cooking and -- the best reason, I think -- can pretend for a few days you actually live there. You can up the ante by renting an entire house.

Keep in mind that each house or condo unit will be privately owned, and individually furnished and decorated. So be sure to ask about the smoking policy; linens and maid service; size and number of beds; the presence or absence of TVs, VCRs, phones, ceiling fans, dishwashers, microwaves, cooktops, ovens, toasters, blenders and washer/dryers; beach accessories like snorkel gear, boogie boards and inflatable rafts; outdoor grills; nearest swimming pool; and whether guests have golf or tennis privileges.

And, a cultural note: When Hawaiians enter a home, they leave their shoes at the door. You should, too.

A directory of rental agencies can be found through the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau (800-464-2924; gohawaii.com).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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