Touring the Kona Coast, a diamond in the rough

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KONA COAST, the Big Island -- At first glance this rocky, dry and desolate strip of coast seems like a pretty strange place to put a resort.

There are actually five major resorts here, with eight hotels and numerous condominium projects among them, and more hotels and condos farther south in Kona town. It's a commissionable paradise for travel agents.

But from the air on the approach to the Kona airport and on the two-lane road leading to the resorts, I didn't think it looked like paradise.

Was I wrong.

The resorts themselves, built on lava fields landscaped with topsoil and grass, are self-contained, with golf courses, palm trees and everything you'd expect to find in Hawaii.

Then get out on the road for a day trip along Highway 270 to North Kohala and beyond, and there you'll find paradise.

Ancient heiau, or Hawaiian temples, dot the coast; black and brown lava flows stretch for miles from mountain to ocean; and three volcanoes, Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Kohala, are visible from the highway. Too, there are beaches, restaurants and funky little towns.

Suggested stops are Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site; Cafe Pesto in Kawaihae; the town of Hawi and Hula La's Mexican Kitchen & Salsa Factory; and the lush Pololu Valley.

At Puukohola Heiau, which means Temple on the Hill of the Whale, the visitor center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The heiau was built by King Kamehameha I in 1790.

Also at the site is Mailekini Heiau, which was "possibly a war or agricultural temple used by the ancestors of Kamehameha," according to the National Park Service.

A mile north of Puukohola Heiau is the seaport town of Kawaihae.

Cafe Pesto in Kawaihae is one of the best restaurants on the island. It seemed an oddity to have such a good restaurant in a town that has just a handful of buildings, but that's what made it even more of an interesting place to eat.

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and serves gourmet pizza and calzones, pasta, fresh seafood, salads, soups and sandwiches.

For more information, check the Web at www.cafepesto.com.

Driving north from Kawaihae, the dry and barren landscape turns a sudden green in the region of North Kohala. One of the more interesting towns in this area of ranches and farms is Hawi.

Hawi could never be called a tourist mecca. It's simply a fine place to stop, look around and take in the slow pace of rural Hawaii.

And as incongruous as it sounds, Hawi has a tasty little taco stand. Tucked away in a closet-size space in the Kohala Trade Center, Hula La's has four or five tables and serves some of the best Mexican food I've found in the state.

Continuing north, visitors pass through Kapaau. This area is said to be the birthplace of Kamehameha I, and there's a statue of him in town.

At the end of Highway 270, is the majestic Pololu Valley. This is where the coast is too rugged and the coastal valleys too steep for roads.

There's a lookout where travelers can view the valley and the uninhabited terrain. A trail leads down the valley and to a beach.

The site of the valley is a fitting end for a day spent tooling around the northwest side of the Big Island.

A list of the five major resorts and hotels and condomiums in the complex follows:

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai

Accommodations: Four Seasons Hualalai
Phone: (800) 332-3442
Web:www.fourseasons.com
Commission: 10%

Kona Village Resort

Accommodations: Kona Village Resort
Phone: (800) 367-5290
Web:www.konavillage.com
Commission: 10%

Waikoloa Resort

Accommodations: Hilton Waikoloa Village
Phone: (800) 445-8667
Web:www.hilton.com/hawaii/waikoloa
Commission: 10%

Outrigger Waikoloa Beach
Phone: (800) 688-7444
Web:www.outrigger.com
Commission: 10%

Aston Shores at Waikoloa
Phone: (800) 922-7866
Web:www.astonhotels.com
Commission: 10%

Mauna Lani Resort

Accommodations: Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows
Phone: (800) 367-2323
Web:www.maunalani.com
Commission: 10%

The Orchid at Mauna Lani
Phone: (800) 845-9905
Web:www.orchid-maunalani.com
Commission: 10%

Windows on the World House; Mauna Lani Point; The Islands
Phone: (800) 642-6248
Web:www.classicresorts.com
Commission: 10%

Hapuna Beach

Accommodations: Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
Phone: (800) 882-6060
Web:www.hapunabeachprincehotel.com
Commission: 10%

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Phone: (800) 882-6060
Web:www.maunakeabeachotel.com
Commission: 10%

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