Kailua-Kona spruces up for influx of visitors

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KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii--The historical town of Kailua-Kona is stirring from the lethargy of the 1990s.

horse cartThe Big Island is seeing the biggest growth in mainland arrivals this year, and the town is benefiting. More Japanese are staying here, attracted by the moderately priced hotels following the yen's decline.

Also, the number of cruise ships anchoring off shore has more than doubled in 1998. This focal point of the Kona Coast is being rediscovered.

The old part of town has started to smarten up as it emerges from years of slumping hotel occupancies, which began to turn around two years ago. Hawaii County completed much-needed improvements to Alii Drive, the main sea-front road, in June. The big news is the two-story, 6,100-square-foot Hard Rock Cafe, which opened in August at the Coconut Grove Market Place, a new shopping center on Alii Drive across from the Royal Kona Resort.

Then in September, Starbucks opened in the Kona Coast Shopping Center. The center is one of three major new shopping facilities that have opened in the past five years. They are off the main highway.

Early this year, a firm called Hawaiian Dreams started horse-drawn-carriage rides. Kailua-Kona cruise passengers, like those at Lahaina, Maui arrive smack in the historical part of town, with attractions and shopping within walking distance. They are shuttled by boat to Kailua-Kona pier, where tour buses and cruise boats await those who prebooked tours and activities.

The town will end up with 41 ship arrivals this year, up from 15 last year (excluding the weekly American Hawaii Cruises' Independence). They explore the town and take sightseeing or helicopter tours or snorkeling cruises.

Last century, Kailua-Kona grew from a small village to be the commercial and political hub of the west coast. By the pier, at King Kamehameha Hotel, is a thatched replica of part of the royal compound of King Kamehameha. Here, after conquering the islands, Kamehameha spent the last seven years of his life. The New England missionaries arrived several years later and, in 1837, built Mokuaikaua Church, the state's oldest church. Across from the church is Hulihee Palace, built in 1838 and later the Kona home of monarchs. Open daily, the palace features memorabilia of Hawaii's monarchy era.

From a later era is Kona Inn, built in 1928 and converted to a shopping center. Three years ago, the Kona Historical Society started walking tours. According to a spokesman, business has grown because of the cruise lines, five of which sell the tour.

Body Glove Cruises, which has catamaran snorkeling excursions from the pier, has seen its business boosted from contracts with cruise lines such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.Destination Kona Coast has concentrated efforts on welcoming cruise passengers.

For the past two years, the group, with help from volunteers, set up tents on the pier, providing Hawaiian entertainment, shade, drinking water and information for passengers. Arrivals were January through mid-May and started again Sept. 15 for the fall and winter.

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