Big Island's Kohala Coast: Where Hawaiian Royalty Vacationed
The cultural footprints of the ancient Hawaiians can be found all over the Big Island's Kohala Coast, often in or near the series of resorts—most with tennis—that have sprung up in an unlikely desertscape of black lava. Royalty lived and vacationed there, setting up a summer residence at Hulihee Palace, now a museum in Kailua-Kona, and they and their ancestors built vast complexes of fishponds and carved cryptic petroglyphs in the ancient lava that had poured down the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa volcanoes.
Their shore- line footpath, the Ala Kahakai Trail, which is now being developed as a National Historic Trail, runs for 175 miles, stringing together a cultural necklace of heiau (temples), kahua (house-site foundations), loko 'ia (fishponds) ko'a (fishing shrines), ki'i pohaku (petroglyphs), holua (stone slides), and wahi pana (sacred places) all along this western coast and beyond.
As it happens, that same path—now supplemented inland by the bougainvillea-lined Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway—also connects a string of lush beachfront tennis resorts carved out of that forbidding plain of black lava. As often as I've visited, I still marvel the stark contrast between the ancient lava flows, which look like burnt brownies, and the subtropical oases of trees and flowers and rivers of golf fairways that thrive in this otherwise bleak, inhospitable landscape. It seems unthinkable that there would be any resort here at all, much less a series of them, and yet this corridor boasts some of the best tennis options to be found anywhere in Hawaii.
As the name suggests, Big Island dwarfs its sisters in the archipelago, and with size comes a diversity in terrain and sightseeing options, chief among them its active volcano. This is also the source for the fabled (and expensive) Kona coffee, many of whose plantations are open to visitors, and for macadamia nuts, worth a trip across the island to tour the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory Corporation's Visitors Center in Keeau. But on this particular trip, I concentrated on attractions and activities in or near the Kohala Coast, including short hikes to view rock drawings at Puako Petroglyphs Archeological Preserve and a stroll along the ancient Hawaiian fishponds at Mauna Lani and Kona Village Plantation. Serendipity and curiosity about the strange architecture of a building near the airport also led me to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), where plans to produce energy from seawater created an opportunity for me to taste the product of one of the largest abalone farms in the world.
Without getting too technical, scientists at NELHA have found a means to create energy by pumping up cold seawater from 3,000 feet below the Pacific and using the temperature difference that and the seawater on the surface to generate electricity. but it soon became evident that having all that cold, nutrient-rich water available afforded opportunities for dozens of other businesses, commercially raised abalone among them. So after a rather long introduction to NELHA in that odd building (which requires no air conditioning), I drove down the road to tour an aquafarm, Big Island Abalone Corporation, a visit that including a sample of extraordinarily tender and flavorful abalone grilled in its shell. Elsewhere (not all enterprises can be visited), tenants on the 40-acre property are producing nutraceuticals, desalinated water, marine algae for biofuel, black pearls, and endangered seahorses, to name a few.
Fortified by that abalone (OK, it was only a morsel), I headed back to the Fairmont Orchid for another go at stand-up paddling, something I'd first tried on a lake in the Florida Panhandle a month earlier). I was looking forward to this ocean adventure, to see how I'd fare when the water was not completely flat. Kalani, who'd been a beachboy in Waikiki, set me up with a very long board, went over some basics (like how to get back on if I fell off), and then together we headed out of a protected cove into the Pacific beyond.
Far from experiencing rougher water, the Pacific that day was dead calm—calmer even that the Florida lake. As we followed the coast I could look straight down and see coral and yellow tangs almost as clearly as if I'd been wearing a snorkel. After 45 minutes or so, we headed back in, and as we neared the cove I told Kalani I intended to fall off deliberately, if only so I could be sure I knew how to get back on. But stand-up paddling in an undulating sea will have to wait for my next opportunity.
Which Big Island Tennis Resort Is Best For You?
Drawn to greater the Big Island but unsure which tennis property to choose? Here's a quick comparison of the features of the major tennis resorts with links to my more extensive reviews.
The Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii. This 32-acre, 540-room property trails along a lava coast the culminates in a sheltered cove lined with white sand. That's where the watersports activity—like the stand-up paddling I did—take place, including outrigger canoe rides and snorkel rental and it is often a place to see green sea turtles. Sunworshippers gather there and around a vast swimming pool—the literature says 10 acres—set is a lush garden between the hotel and coast. Secluded within that garden are several small houses, or hales, where you can opt for treatments available from the Spa Without Walls. Other amenities include a well-equipped fitness center accessible 24 hours a day using your room key, a year-round children's program, and access to Mauna Lani's two 18-hole golf courses. The historical importance of this region to ancient Hawaiians is evident in fishponds on the property and the Puako petroglyphs just to the north.
The ten-court tennis center, with its sunken stadium court, has been through a series of directors in recent years. Rudy Embernate took over the director's post in April 2010. Born in Waimea, this former policeman took up tennis as an adult, but it became such a passion that he played daily, got a USPTS certification, and upon retirement began running programs at other hotels on the island. At the Fairmont he focusing on increasing activity, particularly for families. One of his pros, Jon Griesser, who played the tour until shoulder problems wreaked havoc on his 135 mph serve, has a local junior following, which guests' kids can take advantage of. Beyond that there is Cardio tennis each morning and some kind of adult clinic every day of the week.
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Banish thoughts of a typical hotel. The 243 rooms of this Four Seasons, which is part of the 865-acre master-planned resort/residential development of Hualalai, have been scattered through one- and two-story detached bungalows, some with private gardens and outdoor showers. Pathways lead to a rimless oceanfront pool behind a long stretch of beach as well as to several restaurants and bars, a Hawaiian Cultural Center, a man-made saltwater pond with tropical fish, and a recently redesigned sports club and spa, while golfers have access to a Jack Nicklaus course unavailable to outsiders.
For tennis players, the principal amenity of that Sports Club is its eight handsomely laid out Rebound Ace courts and solid staff under Mark Willman, a former satellite player from New Zealand. Willman and his staff cater to the needs of the Hualalai clients. "Our demand lies in kids' clinics and private lessons," he told me, so that's where he focused his energy, though the roster also includes a Hawaiian style Cardio tennis workout. And he currently has his eye on replacing two lighted sand volleyball courts with clay tennis courts. Whether he succeeds or not, the courts unquestionably benefit from the Sports Club they're a part of, since players also have access to an indoor/outdoor fitness center, fitness classes, climbing wall, lap pool, and the recently expanded spa, whose treatments focus on natural ingredients literally made specifically for you in the spa's Apothecary.
Hilton Waikoloa Village. Although none of the Hilton's three towers is taller than a palm tree, there's no getting around this resort's size: at 1,240 rooms this Hilton is huge. Mahogany boats and Swiss trams deliver guests to and from its many attractions and amenities, among them a Dolphin Encounter, a vast pool with grottoes and waterslide, a saltwater lagoon for kayaking and snorkeling, a 25,000-square-foot Kohala Spa, nine dining outlets and poolside bars, a luau, not to mention 51 chandeliers, and 1,800 pieces of art displayed n the public areas. Oh, and did I mention the Waikoloa Tennis Garden, a complex of eight hard tennis courts, one of them a 432-seat stadium, bordered by autograph trees on grounds landscaped with plumeria, palms, croton, and bronze statues? And it that weren't enough, the Waikoloa development that surrounds it adds two shopping plazas with additional restaurants, two 18-hole golf courses, and a 30,000-square-foot Seaside Putting Course.
Tim DiDonato, who has a tennis management company, runs the tennis operation. His great love is staging tournaments, and for several years Waikoloa was the site of a Challenger tournament. Nothing like that is on the calendar at the moment, so he's looking to lure clubs for camps, while offering guests clinics, Cardio workouts, Keiki (kids) tennis, and the opportunity to play on the stadium that hosted Andy Roddick, James Blake, and Mardy Fish when they were on their way up.
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. Walk across the lobby of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and you enter a soaring atrium with walls of windows on the Hawaiian coastalscape to the north and south. Shallow ponds filled with tropical fish begin outdoors near the swimming pool and extend into the atrium, passing through an indoor garden of swaybacked palms, flowering shrubs, and plashing waterfalls, before continuing out the other side. Take an elevator to your room and the odds are 9 in 10 that you'll have an ocean view. Like the Fairmont Orchid, this 343-room hotel stands on lands once sacred to ancient Hawaiians. There are petroglyphs to the east and a large complex of fishponds to the south.
That trail through the petroglyphs is one way to reach the Mauna Lani Racquet Club, which shares a location with the Mauna Lani Spa and Fitness Center. Tim DiDonato manages this club as well, though Neal Ohata is the important man in the pro shop if you're looking to be matched with an opponent. Otherwise, DiDonato has a stable of four pros who rotate through the club handling a full roster of adult clinics, junior sessions for every age group, and Cardio tennis.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Two things distinguish the Seaside Tennis Club at the Mauna Kea: its oceanfront location and the level of its tennis activity. No modern tennis complex would ever be built in such a prime location, but everyone who plays here is thrilled by the extraordinary setting. During the winter, play on the courts can be stopped dead by humpback whales breaching in the deep waters off shore or cavorting spinner dolphins. That is nothing like the usual resort tennis experience.
No doubt the setting helps encourage trips to the courts, but what keeps players coming back, year after year, is tennis director Craig Pautler, whose lively personality, commitment to personal service, and passion for tennis explains why the Mauna Kea ranks so highly among guests and on TRO's Top 100 list. That and the hotel's setting on one of the best beaches in all of Hawaii and its full-menu of amenities and creature comforts, from recently updated rooms and Robert Trent Jones golf course to the stellar cuisine that issues from the kitchen of Matthew Zubrod at Monettes, Artisan Fish and Steak.
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