YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Finding the Best of Old, New on the Big Island

July 09, 1989|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

We just got back from our first visit to Hawaii. All we had known about those islands before we went was what we'd read and a few things we'd heard from friends.

One of them, talking about Waikiki, said, "Nobody goes there any more because it's too crowded."

Worse, others said that the Old Hawaii was "fading fast and that the old ways would soon be gone."

Our first three days were at Waikiki. The palms; the trade winds; the scent of plumeria and dozens of other flowers, a sea with hundreds of greens and blues. We loved it all. That Hawaii was intact.

But the other complaint, that Hawaii "was slipping further and further from the old ways," was a little harder to deal with or even define.

On our fourth day we flew to the Big Island. We were going for a continuation of our vacation, but because some of the experts had said that the first settlers had gone to the Big Island first, it seemed a likelier place to look for answers.

Biggest Island

The state of Hawaii is the whole archipelago. But the southernmost island of Hawaii, the "Big Island," is the largest of the group. It is also, at a million years, so young that it's still under "construction."

Mauna Kea, one of its two volcanoes, is in eruption. Its lava, flowing across the land and into the sea, makes the island a little bigger each day. Evidence of earlier eruptions is everywhere.

Kona Airport is on part of an 1801 lava flow. For the entire 25-mile drive north from the airport to our first hotel, the Mauna Lani Bay, the road was over uninterrupted lava beds.

At a small sign saying Mauna Lani Bay, we turned off the highway. Suddenly, we weren't driving through the shiny black flow-lava anymore. We were in a green belt of golf courses and trees, then lush vegetation.

The hotel and its grounds were startling. Just past the reception area was an atrium, a half-acre open to the sky, with growing flowers, shrubs, trees reaching up six floors, birds and even a lagoon and waterfalls.

For the next three days, though, we both felt some mistake had been made, that we were in Shangri-La rather than Hawaii.

We moved to our next hotel, the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, a few miles farther up the road, simply because we'd heard so much about it.

If the Mauna Lani had seemed a little out of place, the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa was another world entirely. It had 1,600 rooms, and you had the option of taking either a boat or a train to get to and from the main lobby. Management advised you to allow 15 minutes to make the trip.

It didn't seem to bother Joyce, so I kept myself in check, figuring I could always wax indignant later. But what with the pools, lagoons, trade winds and flowers, after an hour or so I couldn't remember, to save my neck, what I had wanted to be indignant about. The New Hawaii wasn't so bad.

Later, at dinner with other hotel guests, the subject of the Islands' past "slipping away" came up again. There was some debate as to just what that past was.

Was it Don Ho and a rum drink? Was it ukuleles and hula girls? Or was it a people living on fish, poi, breadfruit and pineapple, waiting and never knowing what they were waiting for, unless it was for Pele to make her next move?

One woman told me that if I was really looking for the Old Hawaii I ought to be talking to an old Hawaiian, and she had just the right person in mind.

"The man is 64 years old. . . ."

"Incredible," I said. "People still get that old?"

His name was Jimmy Tohara and he was the chief plumber at another hotel, the Mauna Kea.

Golf Courses and Gardens

The next morning while Joyce had breakfast in bed, I drove to another oasis of golf courses and gardens, in the center of which was the Mauna Kea. It was magnificent.

Jimmy Tohara had a smile that filled his whole face. As we walked to a place where we could talk, I told him how impressed I was with his workplace. He seemed to take it personally.

"You know, this is one of the oldest hotels on the Kohala Coast," Jimmy said. "I've worked here for 25 years and I still notice the beauty every day. Everything belongs--art pieces, even the people.

"Some of us have been here most of our lives, and our children come to work here, too. We get second-generation guests. When something gets this right, you don't want to change it."

He led me into a dining room that was not serving and we sat down. Jimmy's reaction to my "old ways" question surprised me.

"You want to know whether we're getting away from the old ways? I hope so. This is a land where, at one time, the penalty for letting your shadow fall on the pathway of the king was instant death. Where a child born with anything wrong, even a birthmark, was not allowed to live. Old ways? "

A Little Problem

He raised his brows, took off his glasses and polished them.

"I don't think people even want the 'not-quite-so-old' ways."

Los Angeles Times Articles