- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

KOHALA, Hawaii — The Hawaiian Islands are ingrained in our consciousness in images of tropical perfection,paradise belonging to an idyllic past. The reality ofHawaiiis everything we imagined it to beand more, as connected to that unspoiled paradise as we imagined.

So, we go in search of the real Hawaii and explore the contradictions of modern life coexisting in material form with a spiritual paradise. Hawaii, known as the Big Island because it is the largest, is a perfect example.

Many people think of the Big Island as little more than a cluster of resorts strung out along the lava fields, but it is one of the most amazing and fascinating of all the Hawaiian Islands. It has a diversity of climates and terrain that is all the more astounding for their beauty and availability within short distances of each other.

The terrain varies from barren lava fields to sumptuous ranch land, from verdant tropical valleys to rolling highlands of translucent green, and snowcapped mountain peaks to boiling lava pits.

The island also has half a dozen or so of the finest resort hotels in the state, luxurious and distinct from each other, along its coastline. Each is a perfect base for finding the greater Hawaii that lies within, and all around you.

In the north of the Big Island, the Kohala Coast is sublime, a box of treasures that encapsulates much of what we will explore from Waimea to Honokaa, Hawi to Waipio Valley, and into the sky itself in search of something real and untrammeled.

We arrive at Kona International Airport and head north along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway through 35 miles of lava fields left from eruptions during the past 200 years.

Our first base of operations is one of the undisputed jewels in the crown of locations and traditions, one of the original resort experiences on the Big Island and in many ways the most treasured: the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Built by David Rockefeller in 1965, it remains a classy architectural landmark, set prominently and beautifully over what is perhaps the most astonishing picture-perfect crescent bay beach on the Big Island, maybe on the planet.

On days when the surf is up, it is a special place for awesome bodysurfing; otherwise, it is the most tranquil white-sand beach this paradise has to offer, stretching softly around the stunning sea in a wide arc.

Our rooms are in a beachfront villa, a sprawling suite just yards from the ocean. The looming structure of the main hotel towers above us. A large koi pond fills much of the first-floor area of the hotel, while an atrium stretches skyward to symmetrical layers of rooms that form a pagodalike environment. It is beautiful.

Large sweeping terraces flow along the hillside on the ground floor, opening up onto gardens and vistas of the bay and ocean. This all is surrounded by a championship golf course that creates an otherworldly barrier that convincingly says we have stepped into a distinctive time and space. The restaurants fit perfectly in a tropical resort that has been an amazing place to stay since it opened 41 years ago.

Just up the road is Waimea, famous for the Parker Ranch but just as noteworthy for its upland area of rolling hills, cooler temperatures, distinctive character and fine restaurants. Waimea is one of the most beautiful locations in the islands, with a feeling that exists nowhere else in Hawaii. It is also the way to Hawi, the end point of the fabled Kohala Mountain Road, a magic garden passage almost in the sky that redefines the meaning of scenic route. Locally it is known as the High Road.

Twelve miles up the highway from the Mauna Kea, just before Waimea, a turnoff leads up into the mountains. For the next 13 miles, we are treated to a cotton-candy fairy tale of what open pastures and glistening grassy hilltops are about.

Grasslands in a shade of green that usually exists only in movies jump out of the landscape; miles of open farmland with large herds of cattle and horses fill the farthest reaches of the towering hills on both sides.

Every time I come to the Big Island I am compelled to drive the High Road to Hawi, primarily because I am assured of driving back on this American highway treasure.

Hawi feels like the top of the world, not just the end of the island. It is the endpoint of the Kohala coast, a mere couple of miles from the town of Kohala itself, birthplace of Kamehameha, the first king of the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawi is little more than an unspoiled rustic town. It is largely unchanged from 50 years ago in look or pace, except for the collection of fine, eclectic and individualistic shops, boutiques and restaurants, especially the charming Bamboo Inn.

This northern end of the island has a splendid isolation, all the way down to the Palalau valley area, the true end of the road, where uninhabited coastal valleys begin and spread around the ocean barrier to Waipio Valley before emerging into civilization at Honokaa.

We return along the High Road as the sun is waning. The golden glow of shimmering light colors the trip back with visionary fields of undulating brilliance. The High Road descends into a mist above Waimea, emerging into a chilly rainfall before we reach the coastal highway down the plateau and back to the Mauna Kea hotel.

As the sun sets, we plummet into the roaring surf while row after row of perfect 4-foot waves explode around our heads and we ride them through the beach break. It is the joy of rebirth in the tumbling sea.

The following morning, we rise at dawn and head for the Dahana Ranch, a sprawling stretch of land on the great plain southwest between Waimea and Honokaa, for a day of horseback riding.

The family ranch of Harry Nakoa, the horse whisperer of Hawaii, is rolling grassland — 3,500 acres that have been in the family for more than 100 years. At the ranch house, a simple building beside the corral, we walk in and hear a young man speaking fluent Hawaiian, rapidly, naturally in conversation with a 9-year-old girl. He is Paakaula, Mr. Nakoa’s 17-year-old son and our riding guide for the day.

I have rarely met a more remarkable and brilliant young man. A Hawaiian Brad Pitt in looks, he was hanaied (adopted from his family) by his grandfather, a pure-blooded Hawaiian, and raised with him. His grandfather spoke only Hawaiian at home, so Paakaula spent the first seven years speaking Hawaiian before attending public schools and then tony private ones. He wants to go to Harvard.

We mount and ride. Over several hours, we amble and gallop and move across acres of open ranch land. With fascinating breadth, Paakaula avidly explains Hawaiian history, the antecedents of the Hawaiian peoples and the historical events surrounding the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1898.

We ride the horses playfully, letting them run when they’re ready, with plenty of open space in all directions. It is a remarkable day; Dahana Ranch offers an eye-opening equestrian experience that is as golden as it is unique.

We come back through Waimea in midafternoon, stopping at the far side of town, where the plateau begins to fall toward the sea, to the home, offices and studios of Grammy Award-winning Palm Records and Charles Michael Brotman.

“Slack Key Guitar,” featuring Mr. Brotman, Sonny Lim, John Keawe and other musicians, is one of a string of great albums featuring sensational Hawaiian artists playing open-tuned guitar. Mr. Brotman produces and records them here. His Palm Records label continues to show how Hawaiian slack key guitar artistry is exquisite and remarkable.

The day ends with yet another twilight bodysurfing extravaganza, and again the following morning, with the first rays of the sun and the tide rising, with perfect tubing crests of 3 feet arriving in ever more thunderous rows. Then, as the sun begins to come up, we head back up the hill through Waimea, then another 20 miles to Honokaa and then north to the edge of Waipio Valley. This is Hawaii as it was a century ago, an iconic, spectacular, largely uninhabited valley, deep and wide, with roaring streams and distant waterfalls carving the face of sheer mountain walls.

We take a van down the steep entrance, amble through several streams and down a muddy track and come to Naalapa Stables. Today we will ride through the wilds of Waipio Valley, a place without roads, where a handful of farmers raise taro and bananas, a small group of iconoclasts live in epoch isolation and intrepid bands of tourists seeking a glimpse of old Hawaii come to ride trails among the guava trees and waterfalls. It is an amazing experience.

It rains in squalls, pouring one minute and sunny the next. We ride through streams and around embankments, capturing a feel of life in the wilderness. Exploring Waipio Valley has long been a dream, and it lives up to expectations.

We change hotels, moving to the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort, a complex of impressive buildings spread out around a large artificial lagoon and connected by motor launches and monorails. This large family-oriented property is nicely designed and has excellent restaurants, troves of Asian art spread out along the outdoor passageways, and a special area for one-on-one dolphin encounters.

Our room is spacious and lovely, with views of waves breaking on the point and the outer lagoon. That first night, we have dinner at Kirin, a wonderful Chinese restaurant on the property that is as close to a colonial plantation house as you are likely to encounter.

The next day, we swim with the dolphins, a fantastic experience, oddly amazing in practice, and a major draw for the hotel. (Advance reservations definitely are required.) Operated by Dolphin Quest, this interaction with these iconic creatures of the sea is exhilarating. At night, we have dinner at Kamuela Provision Co., again, on property and on a rocky point next to the ocean. We watch the sun go down as we feast on a sumptuous meal.

We rise early for the next day’s adventure, a helicopter tour of the island. Operated by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, it proves to be a sensational, irreplaceable experience.

With a fleet of smartly colored jet helicopters, Blue Hawaiian pilots take passengers over Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to the fiery pit of Kilauea volcano, hovering over the lava hole and then following the stream of molten rock down to the sea, where it erupts in cascades of steam as it runs, riverlike, into the ocean along a ridgeline of a new plummeting seaside cliff.

After refueling in Hilo, we fly at low altitude up the incredible Hamakua Coast, past Akaka Falls, finally reaching Waipio Valley, which is even more amazing from the air. We glide up to 3,000-foot waterfalls and along the virgin valley floor next to the ocean, and then up and over the ridgeline into the adjoining Waimanu Valley, beyond the reach of the most intrepid hiker.

We sail over the precipice and along the coast to two valleys, one more isolated than the other, and then fly back along the coast and into the heart of paradise. We inch along the glorious ridgeline of Waimanu Valley and hover over waterfall after waterfall like giant hornets at a nectar fountain.

We reach the back of the valley and go up and over and into the clouds, and suddenly we are over Waimea. The land changes, and we return, blown away, to base.

A helicopter tour may not be cheap, but it is the most incredible way to see how much of Hawaii still shines with unspoiled tropical splendor.

We return to Waimea and have lunch at the Hawaiian Style Cafe, genuine local dining with the best lau lau — butterfish with ham, chicken or pork cooked wrapped in large leaves — and kahlua pork on the island. We stop next door for sweet wholeseed (a preserved plum) at the Crackseed etc. store. We go shopping at Antiques By across the street, and then drive to Honokaa to wander its main street and visit Grace’s, the best antiques emporium in the sleepy little town.

In the afternoon, we return to tropical elegance when we check into Kona Village, like the Mauna Kea resort an institution for 40 years, but with a significant difference. Kona Village is, simply put, the most amazing resort hotel experience in the islands. Individual hales — cottages — in different Pacific Island cultural styles line a rocky beach and compound of 82 acres.

Kona Village is splendid in its isolation and lack of amenities. There are no phones, no televisions; there is perfection, a retreat from civilization in your own thatched chalet on the shore — unspoiled, unhurried elegance and simple joy.

Our hale is on the beach, with its own rocky cove where a collection of giant sea tortoises bask in the afternoon sun. Waves crash against the rocks outside our door.

We have our own secluded beach with the ocean as our neighbor. For two days, we are lost in paradise, snorkeling in the cove, riding a glass-bottom boat, taking kayaks out into the bay, enjoying elegant breakfast and lunch buffets and fine dinners, including a fine luau.

Kona Village was designed to be a getaway from it all. In years past, one had to land at a flimsy airstrip or be dropped off by boat; 40 years later, it still provides a fine resort experience in an unhurried, old-school-meets-perfection kind of way. It is owned by Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner, who also owns the Four Seasons hotel in New York City and San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

One night, we enjoy a splendid five-course meal at Daniel Thiebaut’s eponymous restaurant, and the next night, we spend hours at a fabulous dinner at Merriman’s. The restaurants are about 100 yards apart in the heart of Waimea.

We check into the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai for the last two nights of our adventure. Adjacent to Kona Village on the beach, it is its own world, with sumptuous accommodations where Kona Village is more austere.

What can you say about a Four Seasons resort? First, there is the layout. The lobby area overlooks a postcard-perfect central infinity pool where guests gather to slumber and read under a tropical sun. It is L.A. by the sea, with bungalows and smartly dressed waiters.

Four arching groups of rooms in adjacent sections form thematic and environmental wonderlands that cater to sophisticates and families alike. We are serenely encamped in the most secluded section, our impeccably furnished room opening onto enchanting gardens that lead to the beach just beyond the berm.

And a beautiful beach it is, crystal-white sand set on a reef with breakers tumbling wildly 50 yards offshore, populated by surfers taking the seasonal swell and working it. Armchairs and ubiquitous ocean-side service are ever at the ready.

The Four Seasons caps it all off with beautiful workout and spa facilities, a championship golf course, an amazing collection of restaurants, and a second-story piano bar with views of the surf. You become so accustomed to the finery of a Four Seasons that it’s easy to overlook how fantastic it really is. Not here, though.

Sitting at the infinity pool, drink in hand, journey at end, with the sun baking down and a cool breeze blowing through the flowing muslin curtains, it’s easy to be in paradise when you’re at the Four Seasons.

We have seen the splendor and the wonder of an island still deeply in touch with its roots as a cradle of Hawaiian culture. We have explored four of the finest resorts in paradise and found reason to love them all. Each is different, but all are special enclaves on the golden shore from which the treasures of Kohala are laid at your feet. You cannot help but feel the pull of paradise when it joins the comfort of the resort experience with the reality of idyllic Hawaii bursting all around.

• • •

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 800/882-6060 or 808/882-5700, www.maunakeabeachhotel.com

Kona Village Resort, 800/367-5290 or 808/325-5555; www.konavillage.com

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, 808/325-8000 or 888/340-5662, www.fourseasons.com/hualalai

Hilton Waikoloa Village, 808/886-1234, www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com

Dolphin Quest Hawaii, 808/886-1234, Ext. 2875, www.dolphinquest.org

Dahana Ranch, 888/399-0057 or 808/885-0057, www.dahanaranch.com

Naalapa Stables, 808/775-0419, www.naalapastables.com

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, 800-745-BLUE (2583), www.bluehawaiian.com

Daniel Thiebaut restaurant, 808/887-2200, www.danielthiebaut.com

Merriman’s restaurant, 808/885-6822, www.merrimanshawaii.com

Bamboo Restaurant, 808/889-5555, www.bamboorestaurant.info

Palm Records, 808/887-0107, www.palmrecords.com

Crackseed, etc., 808/885-6966, www.crackseedetc.com

Antiques By, 808/887-6466

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