The Big Island is home to Polynesian heritage

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The sunny, 40-mile-long stretch of the Big Island's west coast -- partly in the district of North Kona, partly in the district of South Kohala -- has always been the Polynesian cultural heartland of Hawaii. Today, the area is also home to a number of master-planned, upscale destination resorts as well as midrange condominiums and hotels centered on the town of Kailua and the six miles of coast that lead south to the Keauhou Resort, itself a mix of midrange and upscale options.

In all price categories -- from the upscale resorts such as Hualalai/Kona Village, Waikoloa, Mauna Lani and Hapuna/Mauna Kea to the midmarket options -- wholesalers and resorts add value to packaged stays on the island of Hawaii with daily breakfast, rental cars and room upgrades.

The Big Island is the youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands and therefore does not, in general, have the large, time-worn beaches found on Maui, Oahu and Kauai. But the western Hawaii resorts are the exception to the rule. These resorts have noteworthy beaches as well as world-class golf and many recreation options. 

The best-preserved sites from the archipelago's Polynesian past are located in western Hawaii, for this stretch of coast was home to the islands' greatest chiefly families.

Other attractions include coffee farms in the upcountry, snorkeling and sightseeing sails, hiking and horseback riding in the North Kohala Mountains.

"West Hawaii's cultural importance ties in with our upcoming effort at rebranding the Big Island as the Island of Hawaii," said George Applegate, executive director of the Hawaii Island Visitors Bureau. "This island, and the Kona Coast in particular, is where it all began in terms of Hawaiian history.

"We're the island that gave the archipelago its name and its royal family," he added. "That cultural continuity is what we want to emphasize." 

Among western Hawaii resorts, Keauhou and Kailua-Kona at the southern end of the Kona Coast are closest to the town of Kailua, the upcountry coffee farms and Puuhonua o'Honaunau, a restored temple complex that is now administered by the National Park Service.

Waikoloa, Mauna Lani and Hapuna/Mauna Kea, at the northern end of the west coast, are closer to Puukohola, the last great temple built in independent Hawaii (circa 1791), the wilds of North Kohala and the historic ranch town of Waimea, where the Parker Ranch museums introduce Hawaii's 200-year-old ranching tradition.

Although gentrified, Waimea has small-town appeal, with bed-and-breakfasts and several small hotels as an alternative to a stay along the coast some 2,000 feet lower.

A host of developments at resorts on the island of Hawaii's west coast include:

Keauhou Resort

The Keauhou Resort comprises two 18-hole golf courses, two recently upgraded hotels, midprice condominiums and a large shopping complex that includes a market and other shops convenient for condo residents.

There are few beaches along this part of the coast, so swimming is focused on hotel and condo pools. The development includes the Keauhou Sheraton Beach Resort and the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort, with both enjoying higher occupancies thanks to upgrades. 

Keauhou Resort is leveraging the area's rich Hawaiian history, working on restoration of two local heiau, or temples, and other historical sites and opening a community learning center where visitors will be able to meet local people and learn a variety of traditional arts and skills.

"We're taking what we have at Keauhou and using it as a way to integrate the Hawaiian culture into the visitor experience," said Valerie O'Brien, a spokeswoman for Kamehameha Investments, owner of the Keauhou Resort.

Keauhou is a 25-minute drive south of Kona Airport and is 15 minutes from Kailua town. 

Kailua-Kona

This historical town, first capital of the Hawaiian kingdom of Kamehameha I, maintains a certain charm thanks to early historic buildings such as the restored Ahuena heiau and mid-19th century landmarks the Hulihee Palace and the Mokuikaua Church, both open to the public.

The town pier serves the tour and snorkel boats that sail the western Hawaii coast. Shops and smaller condos line Alii Drive, the town's oceanfront main street.

HTH Corp.'s 455-room King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel, which has been up for sale for some time, may soon be announcing a change of ownership, and a propertywide upgrade is likely to follow.

  The property, whose beach faces the heiau and Kailua's small harbor, is on the site of King Kamehameha's royal compound. 

Hawaiian Hotels & Resorts' Royal Kona Resort lies on the other end of town, with many of its recently renovated rooms offering panoramic ocean views.

There are also smaller hotels, such as the 146-room Kona Bay as well as moderately priced condos and bed-and-breakfasts, in town and along the six-mile-long stretch of Alii Drive between Kailua town and Keauhou. 

Kailua offers a variety of dining options, including several reasonably priced, seaside restaurants as well as gourmet options. The town is a 15- to 20-minute drive south of the airport.

Hualalai Resort at Kaupulehu

The 243-room Four Seasons Hualalai, which completed a soft goods upgrade in 2006, has established a solid following of repeat visitors that keeps its occupancies in the high-80th percentile.

With three main pools (one will close for refinishing and expansion from early September through mid-November) and low-rise buildings that stretch out along the coast, the properties provides an ideal setting for the well-heeled.

New homes have been added to the resort along with a members-only 18-hole golf course, the resort's second, which points to Hualalai's high percentage of residential owners.

The resort is a 20-minute ride from Kona International. 

Kona Village Resort

Recently bought by the same joint venture that purchased the adjacent Hualalai Resort in 2006 (MSD Capital, the private investment firm for computer magnate Michael Dell, and Rockpoint Group), the 82-acre, 125-cottage Kona Village Resort will see upgrades to its already luxurious beachfront and lagoon-side accommodations.

Opened in the 1950s, the property is in the style of Tahitian bungalow hotels rather than the destination resorts that have come to define Neighbor Islands tourism. According to representatives of the joint venture, the distinctive characteristics that define the neighboring resorts will be honored and embraced. 

The latest addition to the resort's activity infrastructure is Kona Village Ocean Adventures' Scooter Dives, which offers DPVs, or dive-propulsion vehicles.

Divers using the DVP scooters find their air supplies last up to 50% longer, as they expend much less energy and effort moving through the water. It is claimed users can cruise effortlessly, faster and farther as they glide above or below the water with the devices. 

Waikoloa Beach Resort

This upscale development has undergone an upgrade program, including the recent completion of a $50 million remake of the Marriott Waikoloa Beach Resort & Spa that included fully remodeled rooms and baths; a remodeled lobby, restaurants and pool; additional high-tech capability for guests; new meetings space; and the addition of a full-service Mandara Spa.  

"We have brought about magnificent changes that dramatically enhance the guest experience inside the hotel and throughout the grounds," said Rodney Ito, the resort's general manager.

An expansion of the King's Shops complex will be enhanced by the addition of a second commercial and cultural complex called the Queens' Marketplace.  

The adjacent Hilton Waikoloa Village has budgeted $21 million for room upgrades at part of a $61 million propertywide renovation to include development of the Dolphin Quest Village, restaurant overhauls and the introduction of technology such as self-service check-in/checkout kiosks and expanded high-speed Internet capability. 

Meanwhile, with more than 1,200 rooms, the Hilton Waikoloa Village is the largest Neighbor Island hotel and continues to be one of west Hawaii's most popular, with strong family, romance and meetings and incentives business.

Waikoloa's upscale condo component includes ResortQuest's Shores at Waikoloa as well as South Kohala Management, which peddles rentals at a number of area properties. There are three golf courses linked to the Waikoloa Resort, with catamaran and snorkeling tours departing palm-lined Anaehoomalu Beach. Waikoloa lies 30 minutes from Kona Airport.

Mauna Lani

Mauna Lani's two top-tier, beachfront hotels are the independent Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid at Mauna Lani.

There are also several deluxe condominiums, including Mauna Lani Point and Mauna Lani Terrace.

Low-density development takes advantage of the ponds and interconnected lagoons that provide Mauna Lani with a distinctive sense of place. There are two 18-hole golf courses, and the recently opened Shops at Mauna Lani includes specialty shops; high-profile restaurants such as Ruth's Chris Steak House; and the Hoolina show, a free presentation of storytelling through music and dance, held on Thursdays and Fridays. 

"This gives our guests a much broader range of dining options, which is especially beneficial with those here on longer stays," said Mauna Lani Bay general manager, Kurt Matsumoto, who notes that occupancies are up for the year, thanks in part to referrals resulting from nearby Mauna Kea's closing. 

Mauna Lani lies 40 minutes north of Kona's airport.

Hapuna, Mauna Kea

The focus in Hapuna and Mauna Kea for the next 16 to 18 months will be the Hapuna Prince and its adjacent 18-hole golf course.

The neighboring Mauna Kea Beach Resort, closed due to damage from the October earthquakes that shook the Big Island, is currently undergoing repairs that have led to a propertywide renovation designed to restore five-star status when it reopens in the fourth quarter of 2008. 

To make room for enlarged bathrooms, the upgrade will result in a modest reduction in room count when the hotel reopens. Mauna Kea's adjacent Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed golf course closes May 1 for installation of a new irrigation system, re-grassing from tee to green and the construction of a new clubhouse and restaurant, all set to debut when the hotel reopens. 

"We'll be maintaining the existing design of the course," said Denise Anderson, director of sales, luxury, leisure and corporate travel for Prince Resorts in Hawaii. "The course and the hotel have a loyal following, and we're restoring Mauna Kea with their expectations in mind."

For more on the island of Hawaii, call (808) 961-5797 or visit www.bigisland.org.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

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