Kohala Coast boasts Big Island bliss
Most first-timers to Hawaii Island, better known as the Big Island, spend most of their time on its sunny west coast. From just south of the town of Kailua-Kona and north along the Kohala coast, posh resorts are nestled like oases in a desert of black lava.
It’s no wonder that this island, twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined, boasts a loyal following. It’s ideal for golfing, snorkelling, scuba diving and hiking, among other things.
Some people come here for sun and sand, or to see an active volcano. I came here for the resort life: wining, dining and spa treatments.
I wanted to drop permanent anchor at The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu, with its 26 hectares of immaculately landscaped grounds and several swimming pools. Soon after checking in, our first port of call was King’s Pond, where you can swim and snorkel in a veritable tropical aquarium that’s home to about 2,000 fish including white puffers, yellow tangs, green parrotfish and an eagle ray. After checking out the pond’s residents, we sipped Mai Tais poolside while learning more about them from the resort’s knowledgeable staff.
As an enthusiastic birder, I was also entranced by a tranquil natural pond just steps from my private patio and the pounding surf, where indigenous shorebirds allow you to get close enough to take a photograph.
I could have easily stayed here for my entire trip, but I had to check off at least a few things from my to-do list.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, or NELHA, near the Kona airport. A research facility associated with the University of Hawaii, NELHA also pumps both warm and cold sea water to commercial tenants that include the Big Island Abalone Corporation (tours and abalone tastings available) and Blue Ocean Mariculture, which raises kampachi (more on that later).
It is also home to the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm, the world’s largest sea horse aquaculture farm. It’s open for informative public tours, where you will see about 13 different sea horse species raised in tanks and actually get to hold one underwater. If you want to take one home for your own aquarium, however, you can’t — you’ll first have to pass a six-week online course in how to care for them, and they are only sold in pairs.
“The sea horses are monogamous and live a Romeo and Juliet relationship — if separated, they will starve themselves,” said Chelsea, a marine biologist and our tour guide. “For the past 15 years, we have been raising these creatures so that none have to be taken from the reef.”
From the ocean, we headed for the hills. I’ve always been curious about the coffee-growing process and Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is just a 20-minute drive from the airport, 975 metres up Mount Hualalai, where it’s about 10 degrees cooler than at sea level.
We booked the VIP tour which includes a tour of the plantation, the mill and a lunch of coffee-rubbed chicken tacos, a vibrant green salad and chocolate-covered coffee beans for dessert.
This is the highest organic coffee plantation in Hawaii, and its founder, Trent Bateman, said the farm exists because he likes a challenge. “People told me I couldn’t grow coffee here because it is too high,” Bateman said. “But when I bought a house here, I planted a coffee tree that was full of berries four years later.”
Now the operation includes almost 45 hectares of bushes (almost half of which are organic) and the retail shop’s walls are adorned with awards.
We learned the intricacies of separating and drying the red cherries, or coffee beans, which are laid out by hand in intricate patterns to dry before roasting. Knowing the amount of work it takes, I can appreciate why a premium cup of java is so expensive. And I bought a few pounds of beans to take home.
But even I can’t live on coffee alone. I am sometimes leery of hotel restaurants, but I was pleasantly surprised by my dining experiences at all the hotel restaurants I visited on the Big Island’s west coast.
In 1991, a dozen well-known island chefs launched the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement that features innovative ways to prepare local ingredients. The three resorts I visited have embraced this farm-to-table philosophy, evident in menus that are 75 per cent locally sourced foods.
Executive chef Chris Bateman oversees the Four Seasons’ three restaurants, all of which focus on the farm-to-table and sea-to-table concept. He works with local farmers who get high yields on little acreage, thanks to the mineral-rich volcanic soil. They can grow just about anything chefs request, from white asparagus to heirloom tomatoes to fingerling potatoes.
We started the day with an outstanding breakfast buffet and came back at sunset for dinner, lit by tiki torches dug deep in the powdery sand. I started with a glass of Riesling and classic ahi poke with seaweed salad — the taste of Hawaii. And kampachi, a whitefish with a rich taste and firm texture similar to white albacore, was an easy choice as an entrée.
I just can’t get enough of a good thing, so I also had kampachi sashimi at Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid resort on the Kohala coast. Here, as at the Four Seasons, menus focus on local and sustainable products whenever possible. I had to try Kona coffee-crusted steak from one of the Big Island ranches, but vegetarians won’t go hungry with offerings such as hearts of palm from Wailea Agriculture Farm, Kekala Farms spinach, Kiawe smoked potatoes and sautéed Hilo corn. And it goes without saying that the fruit is local.
Poolside dining at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay is also casual but good — and I discovered that fish tacos pair perfectly with margaritas, if you’re in the mood for both. Don’t have too many of either before trying out the giant water slide, which is just as much fun for adults as it is for kids.
Later in the day, I had kampachi yet again at Rays on the Bay, the Sheraton’s open-air restaurant, while listening to a local band playing Hawaiian music. In the evenings, you can often see manta rays gliding in the waters right by the restaurant, which is even more entertaining. You can learn more about them at the resort’s daily presentation.
But the best way to see the underwater ballet of the manta rays is by donning a wetsuit and getting up close to them. We booked a night dive with Jack’s Diving Locker, which sized us up for wetsuits and flippers at their office before heading out for the dive site. On the 30-minute trip there by speedboat, we learned a lot about the magnificent creatures we were about to encounter.
When we reached our destination, we paddled out to a modified surfboard with lights underneath and followed our guide’s instructions to lie flat on the water and look down through our masks. Right before our eyes, five-metre-wide manta rays glided below us, siphoning the plankton attracted by the lights into their gaping maws. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight.
And I couldn’t pass up an aah-inspiring experience at the Fairmont Orchid’s “spa without walls.” Its massage rooms are in bamboo huts set among tropical flora and waterfalls. The rushing water provided the ideal soundtrack for my lomi lomi massage, a technique that involves alternating deep and light strokes that’s used in ancient Hawaii to prepare dancers for ceremonial and religious occasions. It left me in a state of sheer bliss.
If you are looking for some beach time, the west coast’s best beaches are in the Kohala district, aptly called the “Gold Coast.” It is the sunniest part of the island with pristine white sand beaches sandwiched between resorts. We were advised by a local to visit Hapuna Beach State Park and Mauna Kea Beach, and he didn’t steer us wrong. And amazingly, these white-sand public beaches with warm turquoise waters weren’t at all crowded.
No wonder this place is known as the island of forgetting — you live in the now and forget about everything else until you have to board your plane home.
But I won’t forget to return.
If you go:
WestJet (westjet.com) flies direct from Vancouver to Kona International Airport, within easy reach of most of the resorts on the Kona and Kohala coasts.
The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu:fourseasons.com/hualalai
The Fairmont Orchid: orchid-maunalani.com
Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay: sheratonkona.com
Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm: seahorse.com
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation: mountainthunder.com
Jack’s Diving Locker: jacksdivinglocker.com