Category: Big Island

December 13, 2010

Hualalai and the ultimate Big Island getaway

Posted at 11:17 AM by Jeff Ritter


There are several ways to spot luxury at a resort golf course.

Sometimes it presents itself in the form of impeccable service. Other times you might see velvet fairways. Or a state-of-the-art clubhouse. Or dramatic ocean views.

Cookie-jar Hualalai Golf Course has all of these in spades. But for me, what really shatters the luxury meter is the jar of fresh-baked cookies awaiting hungry golfers as they make the turn. Would you care for chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin? One of each? A handful? Dive right in.

I visited Hualalai on a perfect morning -- clear skies, low winds and bright Hawaiian sunshine. Some readers may recognize the course as the annual home to the Champions Tour's Mitsubishi Electric Championship. Tom Watson beat Fred Couples by a shot last year, and I remember thinking the place looked pretty sweet in HD.

It's even better in person.

With play limited to guests at the Four Seasons, neighboring Kona Village Resort or invite only, the course gets about 18,000-20,000 rounds per year, a low number for the Kohala Coast. (There's also an ├╝ber-private Weiskopf-designed 18-hole course on property for Hualalai residents and their guests.) Hualalai is so pristine that guest are encouraged not to replace their divots or fill them with sand -- lest they do it improperly -- so maintenance crews swing through each evening to repair the displaced soil. I mentioned this place was luxurious, right?

Here's a look at the signature par-3 17th, which was playing 150 yards from the back tee. I can barely string together two coherent sentences and my swing stinks, but check out that ocean!

For those keeping score, I'm pleased to report that I two-putted from 60 feet; a much better result than the dastardly third hole at Mauna Kea.

Bungalow_200x216 As for rooms, I checked in at Kona Village Resort for a couple of nights, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the week. The property is comprised of 125 thatched-roof bungalows, or "hale" (pronounced ha-lay), and 82 sit right on the beach overlooking the ocean. Kona Village opened in 1965 as the second resort hotel on the Island, and it's a throwback to a different era. To illustrate what exactly that era entails, here are three examples:

1) Rooms do not have phones.
2) Rooms do not have clocks.
3) Rooms do not have televisions.

Turtle-sign_200x169 When I first arrived I found the serenity a little disorienting. What? How will I check my email? But after several hours in a hammock, a couple in the ocean and several more just listening to the waves crash around me in surround sound, I no longer gave a flying guava bean about anything happening on the mainland. The food is fantastic (see my breakfast photo below), and guests can grab a kayak or snorkel gear for no added cost, and for unlimited time. (Remember, no clocks.) As far as I could tell, the resort's only rule is to leave the turtles alone. Do that, and you're good. It's hardly a surprise that Kona Village has one of the highest return guest rates -- about 60 percent -- in all of Hawaii.

Count me among those hoping to fall into that 60 percent. But you can't plot a return trip without leaving first, so with that it's time to say aloha to the Big Island, and mahalo nui loa to those who made my trip an unforgettable experience. See you back on the mainland, America.



(Photos: Hualalai, Jeff Ritter)

December 07, 2010

Big Island Country Club: An underdog story

Posted at 2:40 PM by Jeff Ritter


The Big Island is known for some of the best golf in both Hawaii and the entire U.S. Most of the famous courses are located along the western Kohala Coast and are affiliated with their namesake resorts, including Mauna Kea, Hualalai and Mauna Lani.

Big Island Country Club is different. Located about 15 miles inland and at an elevation of about 2,500 feet, it's common for temperatures to run 15-20 degrees cooler than the coastal courses. After opening in 1997, the Pete and Perry Dye design enjoyed a nice little run, but ownership changed hands several times in a few short years, and the end result was a neglected course with browning grass and dilapidated grounds. A couple of locals told me that driving past it was a pretty depressing sight.

Those days are history.

A new owner, Moshe Silagi, came to the rescue last April and brought in more than 40 workers to begin a massive overhaul. The $1 million renovation calls for everything from restoring bunkers and reseeding fairways to trimming trees and constructing a new clubhouse.

"The previous owners just didn't put in the money to keep the course up, and the rep got out there that things weren't good here," says BICC marketing director John Kitchen. "Silagi has brought the course back to a much nicer state than it had been in. Golfers who have played it have commented on how much better it's been, and how much they enjoyed it."

The project still has long way to go, but add me to the list of golfers who had a good time. At $80 a pop, you can play it three times for less than the cost of one round at Mauna Kea, which I had visited earlier that day. BICC also boasts a few indigenous species not found on the coast, including the delightfully annoying Erckel's Francolin, or "laughing bird," which scoots around fairways and belts out sounds that are strikingly similar to human laughter. (It's a nice touch when the bird sings right after you mis-hit a shot.) The club is also home to the only island green in the entire state of Hawaii, and the par-3's yardage and setup are similar to the famous 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.

Here's Kitchen with more on the overhaul and his own shot at the signature 17th at BICC. If you listen closely near the middle of the video, you can hear a laughing bird happily squawking.

With so many heavyweight courses in the area, BICC has a steep hill to climb, but the project has potential. In fact, the endgame calls for a new residential community that rings the course. It could turn into a great bargain for folks looking for affordable real estate and good golf in comfortable weather.

And hey, it's fun to pull for an underdog.

Ocean-Hammock HAMMOCK THOUGHTS: Things I thought about while lying in the hammock pictured at right:

* Hammocks are awesome.

* It's easy to find a great place to eat on the Big Island (just ask somebody -- anybody -- and they'll give you a recommendation). I grabbed a lunch at Village Burger in downtown Waimea. The head chef, Edwin Goto, is the former executive chef at the posh Mauna Lani Resort, and his menu is loaded with meats and vegetables harvested on the island. The burger quality, but not the price, compares to Kobe beef. My Hawaii Rancher's Beef Burger ran me $8.50, and that included an extra buck for avocado.

* Another great spot: Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Queens Marketplace at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. If you perch yourself at the bar, you just might get a few recommendations for rolls that aren't on the menu.

Waterfall-hike2 * Let's face it, it's rare for someone to visit Hawaii soley to play golf. That's how I justified totally slacking off conducting further research with a waterfall hike by Hawaii Forest and Trail. A morning cup of coffee is nice -- especially at the Kohala Coffee Mill in downtown Hawi, where my tour ended -- but swimming under a waterfall is an even bigger, better jolt. If you take the tour, I'd recommend my guide, Mark, who keeps the mood light and can describe every plant and animal you'll encounter along the way.

* More underrated golf: the two courses at Waikoloa Resort, the Beach and the Kings'. Waikoloa has more rooms than any other property on the island, and it conducts a slew of family-friendly events at its resort and courses. The par-5 seventh hole at the Kings' (pictured at bottom), is worth the trip. Ross Birch, president of Hawaii Golf Connection and my playing partner for much of the week, called it, "The most spectacular oceanside par 5 in all of Hawaii," before slyly adding, "it's also the only oceanside par 5 in Hawaii." Still, it's pretty sweet.

* Finally, I spent a little time compiling mainland terminology and the Hawaiian equivalents. Here's a simple chart for tourists.

Thank you....................................Mahalo
Tastes really good.........................It broke da mouth
Sound of honking horns...............Sound of crashing waves
Denny's Grand Slam...................Loco Moco
Sterile, concrete office building............Sterile, thatched beach hut
Dating Lady Gaga...........................Playing No. 3 at Mauna Kea from the tips
Mangos shipped to a supermarket three days ago......Mangos cut from a tree three hours ago


(Photos: John Kitchen, Jeff Ritter)

December 01, 2010

Mauna Kea, Lady Gaga and the hardest par 3 in America

Posted at 5:54 PM by Jeff Ritter

Mauna kea resort Aloha and greetings from the Big Island of Hawaii, and the famed Mauna Kea Resort. This is my first installment on my journey to the Big Island, but first, a word on my current digs.


Sure, I could write more than one word, but they would all mean the same thing. Mauna Kea is open air and hard against the Pacific (even my bathroom has a balcony overlooking the ocean). Toss in some fine dining, a swanky art gallery and the illuminated six-foot manta rays swimming in the ocean just over the cliffs at night, and you're talking about the Ultimate Island Experience. In a related story, I may skip my checkout and see how long I can hide out in a laundry hamper.

As for golf, Mauna Kea Golf Course is a postcard come to life. The course closed for more than a year while undergoing renovations, and after re-opening in December 2009, it promptly reclaimed a spot in Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play. The renovation went heavy on bunkers, which now total 99, and they make a demanding yet photogenic track even more difficult. On the bright side, the course is immaculate, greens are receptive to iron shots and roll true, and, oh yeah, you can see the Pacific on just about every hole.

Mauna kea huge Then there's the signature par-3 third hole, which could double as the signature hole for all of Hawaii. (That's it at right. Click to enlarge.) To get the full experience, I decided to try the back tees, which extend the hole to a fairly absurd 272 yards into a cross wind and over a sea-filled gulch that, on this morning, had a few turtles bobbing around in it. The carry is a solid 230, and legend has it that when Jack, Arnie and Gary Player stopped by to christen the course in December of 1964, Player begged off the tips because he didn't think he could clear the ocean.

Playing this hole from the back tee is what I imagine it's like to date Lady Gaga: It's crazy. It's exciting. It's reckless. It makes you the envy of your friends.

And, most of all, you know it's going to end badly.

Here's Mauna Kea Operations Manager Josh Silliman with more info, no words of encouragement, and my ensuing shot at glory.

I gave it a decent rip but came up about 10 yards short. (I have no idea why I decided to pretend to be Matt Lauer at the end of the video; I think I was disoriented from the combination of serenity and a tough shot.) I believe this is the hardest par 3 in America, but go ahead and prove me wrong - what hole is tougher than this? Leave your answer in the comments section below. Until next time - Mahalo.

(Photos: Mauna Kea Resort)

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