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HAWAII: Fantasy Isle

June 21, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

W AIKALOA, Hawaii Trade winds blow across desolate lava beds and funnel up the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and the sky smolders with the sun's final flame. It is here, along the peaceful Kohala Coast, that Hawaii's sunsets are legend; few places on earth are more haunting. Except for the fiery glow of lava during near-forgotten eruptions, the stretch of shoreline between Kailua-Kona and Mauna Kea has been left untouched through the centuries.

It was during an earlier visit that these words were written, words that no longer ring true. While the sea and sky remain blue as ever and rainbows still bend across the earth, the Kohala Coast is awakening and this once-undisturbed corner of the Big Island will never be quite so peaceful again.

One man is responsible for this new beginning, the developer of what promises to be the largest destination resort in the world, one featuring lagoons, lakes and waterfalls that will stretch over once-barren, lava-encrusted earth that previously rejected nearly all life.

When it opens next year the new low-rise Hyatt Regency Waikaloa will offer 1,244 rooms in three buildings facing nearly a dozen man-made islands, lakes, lagoons and waterfalls. Deer will peer from forests. Exotic birds will make their voices heard, swans will glide across lakes, and peacocks will strut alongside waters boiling with porpoises, manta rays and tropical fish.

It is the fantasy of Christopher B. Hemmeter, the entrepreneur who built the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki and the enormously successful Hyatt Regency at Kaanapali Beach on Maui. Still, the Maui project will be dwarfed by Hemmeter's new development at Waikaloa where eventually five hotels numbering 6,000 rooms will be surrounded by five golf courses spread across hundreds of acres.

The first hotel--it's scheduled to open early next year--will be like entering Disneyland with the Pacific pounding at the door. A Japanese restaurant will face a lake; guests will dance in a disco and find themselves dwarfed beneath the world's largest atrium. They'll ride horse-drawn trolleys and air-conditioned trams featuring cocktail service.

Rising in a sea of black lava, the Hyatt Regency Waikaloa promises to be an oasis unto itself. And all it is costing Hemmeter is loads of cash, thousands of truckloads of topsoil, tons of seed and nearly half a million bucks worth of trees.

At Waikaloa, honeymooners and other romantics will ride gondolas across lagoons of an evening; by day they'll snorkel and windsurf among schools of tropical fish in a man-made lagoon with coral and antique anchors scattered on the sandy bottom.

Others will paddle to a grotto bar in a one-acre swimming pool fed by waterfalls. Besides golf and tennis, guests will saddle up for rides up to Mauna Loa and ski down Mauna Kea. Hemmeter's oasis will be a jungle of palms and banyans along with forests of hau and bamboo and gardens ablaze with African tulips, plumeria, hibiscus and poinciana.

Doing business in this super-resort will be nine restaurants and 13 cocktail lounges; columns five stories high will support an immense trellis. Says Hemmeter: "Julius Caesar never saw anything like it."

Hemmeter figures the construction will figure out to $260,000 per guest room, meaning that Waikaloa will be a resort for the affluent vacationer. Or others who've saved a lifetime for one grand and glorious fling.

Surveying the peaceful scene between Mauna Kea and Kailua-Kona, Hemmeter predicted that one day the entire Kohala Coast will be lined with hotels, homes and condominiums, a disappointing prospect for environmentalists and others who recall the island as a wildlife refuge, a peaceful retreat where an old island hand, Johnny Peacock, once buzzed wild goats in his single-engine airplane.

To old Hawaiians who have spent their lives on the Kohala Coast, Waikaloa is a moment to mourn.

Still, if the Hyatt Regency Waikaloa promises to be a show place on the Big Island, Hemmeter has even more grandiose schemes for his newest resort on Kauai. In a $95-million deal, Hemmeter bought the old Maui Surf on Maui and the Kauai Surf on Kauai, both to be operated by Westin Hotels (the Maui property reopens in August with still more man-made lagoons, waterfalls and other Hemmeter touches, while the Westin Kauai will welcome guests beginning in September).

Bigger than Disney's Epcot Center, the Westin Kauai will be a $360-million attraction spread across 580 acres between the airport at Lihue and Kalapaki Beach on Kauai's Nawiliwili Bay.

At the Westin Kauai, Hemmeter is adding more rooms as well as a lake with a 10-mile shoreline around which nearly 100 outrigger canoes and five 40-passenger launches will deliver guests to three shopping villages peddling high-fashion jewelry, clothing and art. On Kauai, already world-famous for its beauty, Hemmeter is creating more waterfalls, fish ponds and grottoes as well as a 2.1-acre reflecting pool with marbled sculpture.

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