I knew nothing of the Kohala Coast before we visited. In fact, my fatal error during my first visit to the Big Island in early 2007 was booking a vacation home just south of Kona. Don’t get me wrong, the place was nice—and, most importantly, cheap—but the area couldn’t hold a candle to the wind-blown beauty of the Kohala Coast.
While the other Hawaiian isles are lush and green, the Big Island is the youngest of all and decorated by volcanoes, craters, and black lava beds that flank the coastline. The two main cities—Kailua-Kona on the west, Hilo on the east—have a combined population of just under 60,000 people, and everything in between feels wide open and empty.
At the same time, you’ll veer off the road into the resort pockets and be met with greenery and flowers that come in every color on the rainbow. We toured each of the eight Kohala Coast resorts throughout our six days on the Big Island (talk about packing it all in). I don’t do too many service-y posts, but I figured if you’re looking to vacation in the Big Island like we did, I’d give my two cents. Here’s where I’d recommend staying for each type of traveler.
Romance and/or Luxury. I’ve already raved about the Fairmont Orchid, which is where I’d stay if I were to go on a second honeymoon (always a possibility with us!)—it is above and beyond, my new favorite resort—but the Hualalai area is equally as posh (if not more expensive). Originally, we were booked at the iconic Kona Village Resort—which is still closed due to tsunami damage, possibly indefinitely—but the community is also home to the Four Seasons, too.
We didn’t get to visit the actual Four Seasons property—though it’s a Four Seasons, so it can’t be half bad, right? heh—but we went to the private community part of Hualalai, which is the area by the coast that also houses Kona Village. Guests of the Four Seasons can use Hualalai’s facilities, which includes one of the most fantastic spas I’ve ever visited, a beautiful lap pool, pilates equipment, a couple different fitness rooms, a handful of tennis courts and more. SVV and I were trying to figure out who might be open to loan us $1.5 million so we could just go ahead and buy a “winter home” at Hualalai…the place is the stuff dreams are made of! (Andy Roddick also occasionally trains there for tournaments—reason enough for me!)
Family Vacation. The Hapuna Beach Prince, where we stayed the last three nights of our time on the Big Island, definitely attracts families, but it’s nowhere near as bustling as some of the bigger family resorts. However, if you want a true beach break for your family, I’d send you to the Prince. On the other hand, for the ultimate in non-stop action, head to Waikoloa Village instead. When you pull into the neighborhood from the main highway, you’ll pass the Kings’ Shops and Queens’ Marketplace, which house departments stores like Macy’s as well as high-end designer shops like Louis Vuitton. Definitely not what I was expecting to see in a resort area on a rugged stretch of the Big Island!
The Marriott is the first resort you’ll pass in Waikoloa Village, and it hosts a Royal Luau from 5 to 8pm each Wednesday night that is wildly popular with tourists. But the Hilton Waikoloa is arguably the most well-known spot on the Kona side—and best suited for families who like every last detail covered. Islanders call it “the Disneyland of the Big Island” and with good reason. There were canal boats and even a monorail (with three different trains) that ran through the resort every 15 minutes. Insane. I also learned that only half of its residents even pay to stay; the other half rack up HHonors points on the mainland (likely through business travel) then drain their rewards accounts to take the family on a Hawaiian vacation. That’s the way to do it, I’d say. (Speaking of, anybody have any HHonors points they want to gift me?!)
We went on a snorkel sail trip aboard a catamaran with Ocean Sports that departed from the Hilton, and while it definitely catered more toward parents and younger children—I felt like the cranky old person on board who grumbled every time a kid ran over her limbs while laying out on the boat or kicked her in the head while snorkeling—it’s only one of so many outings and activities the resort has on tap. (Plus, we saw a Hawaiian monk seal, which is apparently very rare! And whales—four humpback whales—on our journey back to the dock.)
Serene Escape. We had dinner one night at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the low-key sister to Hapuna Beach Prince, and it exuded that relaxed, old-money feel—fittingly, as it was founded by Rockefeller in 1965. The resort is worth a wander, as it houses hundreds of pieces of (expensive) art that seamlessly blend in with the subtle decor. Our meal at the on-site Manta Pavilion & Wine Bar was one of the best we had while there. I never did get the strength to order Kohala Coast’s signature drink, the Lava Flow (I love ice cream, but ice cream and liquor in one glass weird me out), but I did have a Blue Hawaii before dinner. Yum!
Likewise, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, which is in the same little pocket (also called Mauna Lani Bay) as the Fairmont Orchid seemed to have a quieter, more chill feel than some of the bigger resorts. They even have rescued turtles and sharks swimming around the various ponds on the grounds!
Hualalai aside, all of the resorts are open for outsiders to come in, mill about the property, dine in the resident restaurants if they wish—and oftentimes, use the spas, too—so take advantage of this and hop around the resorts a bit if you please.