Hawaii’s eponymous Big Island serves up an ongoing, up-tempo movable feast of the islands’ heritage, and it is not without reason that the Hilo-based Big Island Visitors Bureau markets the destination as “Hawaii’s Island of Adventure.”
“The reason people love [the island of] Hawaii is that the people here embrace Hawaii values and culture,” says Executive Director George Applegate. “This is the melting pot of the Hawaiian lifestyle.”
Although 75 percent of all visitors to the Big Island are return guests, according to Applegate, their travel priority often changes when they get here. “People are looking for value when they travel. Whether traveling with family or friends, they want to say they went somewhere and experienced something of value together.”
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s viewing area is the island’s everyday star attraction, and is more popular than ever before, thanks to a new vent that opened on Mt. Kiluaea on March 11. The volcanoes, however, are only the start of island activities.
Starting Labor Day weekend and through mid-September, during Hawaii’s 2008 Island Festival called “30 Days of Aloha,” we were able to experience some of what the Big Island has to offer, including official festival events and others hosted by non-festival venues sharing in the Aloha spirit. Many similar events go on throughout the year.
Parker Ranch, the Big Island’s upcountry home of the Hawaiian paniolo cowboy, hosted its 34th Annual Round-Up Club Rodeo on Labor Day weekend. According to Parker Ranch President Chris Kanazawa, the event drew about 2,500 visitors over two days, 30 percent of whom were guests from other states and countries.
The crowd cheered Hawaii’s bronco busters in nonstop calf roping, bull riding, horse jumping and other events at the outdoor Parker Ranch rodeo arena. The 2008 event celebrated the 100th anniversary of the three paniolos who put Parker Ranch on the national map in 1908 by taking first, third and sixth place finishes at the famed Frontier Days U.S. championship rodeo in Cheyenne, WY. Today, Parker Ranch, founded by New Englander John Parker in 1809, is the fifth-largest working cattle ranch in the U.S. with 33,000 head of cattle.
The same weekend the cowboys were in competition, 1,800 representatives from canoe clubs around the world were competing in the world’s largest canoe-racing event in Kailua-Kona harbor. Over the course of two days, teams of 16 rowers each competed in 18-mile men’s and women’s distance races up and down the Kona coast. These were followed by high-speed short races for teams of six and two and solo canoers, all cheered on by locals and visitors gathered around Kailua’s town harbor area.
A highlight was a Saturday night ceremonial torchlight parade in which hundreds of the canoe racers marched through the main street of Kailua-Kona carrying fiery, oil-fueled bamboo torches toward their celebratory evening luau near the King Kamehameha Hotel.
According to “Uncle” Bo Campos, president of Kona’s Kai Opua Canoe Club, which hosted the event, the canoe races drew 67 clubs from Hawaii and others from Hong Kong, Japan, California, Canada and elsewhere, as well as an estimated 6,000 spectators. “This is a growing sport, and canoers love to get together and compete,” said Campos. “They also love the Big Island and this event is the perfect excuse for them to come here every year.”
Kona visitors, however, can look forward to viewing exciting local canoe club races in Kailua-Kona harbor during many weekends throughout the year. When we visited the Big Island in 2005, local Hawaiian clubs were competing in equally thrilling sprint races during weekends in the month of May.
30 Days of Aloha
The Waikoloa Land Company, operators of the Waikoloa Beach Resort, including the Marriott Waikoloa, stepped up this year to pick up sponsorship of the Hawaii Island’s 30 Days of Aloha Festival from the previous, now-departed sponsor, Aloha Airlines. A committee selected a “royal court” and entourage from among community leaders. This court appears annually at each festival event in colorful royal costumes accompanied by traditional chanters and musicians.
Over the course of a weekend, it was possible to watch a “Ms. Aloha Nui” [Ms. “Big Aloha”] contest showcasing the large-sized Hawaiian beauties favored by generations of the island’s traditional royal courtiers and leaders. This was followed by a hotly contested falsetto singing contest event in which male singers and tellers of traditional Hawaiian songs and stories competed for cash prizes and a recording contract. Following the music and beauty competitions was a cooking contest in which the island’s leading makers of “poke,” a favorite Hawaiian combination of raw fish and local spices, vied for more prizes and the accolades of an island-wide population of poke lovers.
More music took place on Labor Day weekend at the Sheraton Keauhou Resort, which hosted the 16th annual Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival. Producer Milton Kau of the Honolulu record company Kahoku Productions organized the event on the lush green, palm-fringed lawns of Sheraton’s luxury hotel just south of Kailua-Kona town. Some of the top traditional guitar players in Hawaii, a total of 15 recording groups, were introduced in successive performances at the four-hour concert event.
“We are working with Brad Doyle, the sales and marketing director at the Sheraton, who has created weekend packages for festival guests and is hosting the performing guitarists,” said Kau. “We are also hoping to create a festival DVD to promote the event. We are trying to do what we can to help [bring] visitors to the out islands, which have been suffering this year.” Kau noted that attendance was noticeably lighter than in recent years.
Travel agents with gourmet food fans bound for Hawaii should check with the Big Island Visitors Bureau to ask about frequent charity events featuring top chefs from around the island and the state. There were at least three major events in the first two weeks of September.
We attended the spectacular “Evening in Paradise” for the United Way of Hawaii at the Mauna Lani Resort on the Kohala Coast. The event featured 15 chefs, each with their own booth serving oversized appetizers of their signature dishes, as well as several wine distributors and island microbreweries. Island musical entertainment ran throughout the evening, which allowed a prime opportunity for visitors to meet both local residents and discover favorite hotel and island restaurant chefs, all anxious to discuss their food creations and wine pairings with the visiting tasters. A similar event benefiting cancer research was held the same weekend at the nearby Four Seasons Hualalai Resort. In each case, the host hotel offered a charity golf tournament and weekend packages that attracted hungry golfers to the gourmet charity evenings.
High Adventure on a Cycle Tour
Agents with physically fit clients in search of high adventure on the Big Island should recommend a “Bike Volcano” tour starting from Hilo. Not for the couch potato, the bike tour on sturdy Sedona sport bikes covers a rolling, 18-mile route to the area of the latest lava flows of Mt. Kileauea on the island’s southeast coast near the villages of Pahala and Kalapana. Guided by a trained University of Hawaii geologist and two additional guides operating a support or “sag” wagon for those who would like to ride when tired of pedaling, the tour is challenging but exhilarating. After a two- to three-hour ride, a stop for dinner and a visit to Hawaii’s newest black beach, guests hike into the Kileauea volcano viewing area. Guests are hushed in awe when darkness descends around the spectacular white plumes and fiery red rock and ash spewing skyward into mushroom clouds and into the ocean from the new vents below Kileauea.
Guests might also consider an easier day tour with Bike Volcano to Kilauaea, including a vineyard visit with a wine-tasting stop. The after-dark portion of the evening itinerary can be a bit daunting as bikers make their way back to a van pickup location, due to heavy auto traffic exiting the volcano viewing area. It will be easier for less-adventurous cyclists to take the relaxing day bicycle hike, and then come back in their rental cars for evening volcano viewing, or with a driver guide without the bicycles.
Hotels on the Horizon
The variety of experiences available on the Big Island is exemplified by two very different properties scheduled to open by the end of this year. One is the renowned Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, located north of the Waikoloa Resort on the Kohala Coast. The Mauna Kea, built by Laurence Rockefeller in 1965 as the island’s first mega resort, has been closed for renovations since being damaged in an earthquake in October 2006.
According to Jon Gersonde, the property’s new general manager, the emphasis at the Mauna Kea is on a new world-class golf experience and on expanded individual accommodations. The property’s original 310 rooms are being reduced to 258 luxury guest accommodations featuring larger, more luxurious baths with their own lanais. The resort’s golf course, having undergone a “tee-to-green renovation” under the direction of designer Rees Jones, will be ready for play in November. “We are shooting to be one of the top 100 courses in the world,” says Gersonde.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel itself will have a soft opening on December 20, and a gala grand opening at the end of March 2009. “We will also have a luxury signature on our new spa, which we will be announcing at a later date,” Gersonde adds.
A different experience is soon to be ready for visitors on the north coast of the island near the village of Hawi. The 16-room luxury retreat called Ahu Pohaku Ho’omaluhia is the creation of Jeanne Sunderland, who previously worked in and managed a health spa at the island’s former Ritz-Carlton resort for 30 years, and her husband, the developer Robert Watkins. The property, situated on 60 acres of farmland, is in the style of a traditional royal Hawaiian marble villa with open courtyard, sweeping views, no two rooms alike and a completely green, self-sustaining campus operation. Ahu Pohaku features a solar energy plant, a fruit and vegetable farm, a cattle and sheep ranch, a goat dairy and other self-sustaining features.
The Ahu Pohaku spa will have bungalows, men’s and women’s changing areas, treatment rooms, eight spa therapists and an outdoor infinity pool. The Ahu Pohaku, due to open in late November, will host island wedding parties, yoga courses, corporate meetings, retreats and affinity groups. Guests will be able to refresh their spirits on private, forested hiking trails leading to dramatic ocean vistas, Sunderland said. Evenings will be highlighted by communal dining experiences hosted by a European gourmet chef, who will relocate to the retreat and begin creating memorable dining experiences for the new property’s guests.