In Search of “Old Hawaii” on the Big Island
The names of some places belie their true nature, but this isn’t the case with Hawaii Island Retreat. Looking very much like a Hawaiian monarch’s palace, the boutique hotel sits alone on a cliff overlooking the North Kohala coast. Access from the nearest highway — two miles distant — is via a winding private drive through a majestic forest of ironwood trees.
One of my goals for a recent trip around the island was to avoid the busyness of big hotels. Instead, I was in search of the Hawaii I’d encountered on a solo adventure several decades earlier. I honestly didn’t know if it still existed, but my first look at Hawaii Island Retreat was encouraging. Nary a waterslide or corporate logo was in sight. (www.hawaiiislandretreat.com)
I was further encouraged by host Jean Sunderland, who appeared in a muumuu and just naturally included Hawaiian words in nearly every sentence. Jeannie came to Kohala in 1974 and is steeped in the local culture. She knows authentic hula and traditional lei making, and teaches both to interested guests. She’s also learned about native medicinal plants and local legends from the elders in the community. She shared her knowledge with my husband and me as we drove around the 50-acre property in a golf cart.
Hawaii Island Retreat offers ten spacious rooms with large bathrooms, Oriental rugs, and authentic 19th-century furnishings. In addition to savoring the peace and quiet, we loved our lomi lomi massages in a lofty open-air pavilion. In the garden below, we could see the 1,500-year-old ceremonial hula platform that Jeannie and her husband discovered when they were clearing the land prior to planting groves of mango, banana, citrus, papaya, breadfruit, and guava trees. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this boutique hotel often hosts yoga and spiritual retreats.
As we continued across the island, I was glad to see that the small towns had retained their original rustic appearance. My favorite of these was Honoka’a, which is very close to the Waipo Valley Lookout. We stopped here to take in the breathtaking view of the lush, undeveloped North Kohala coast.
Just north of Hilo, in Honomu, we stayed on a former sugar cane plantation that sits right on the edge of Pohakumanu Bay. All eight spacious rooms at The Palms Cliff House Inn come with ocean and garden views, a delicious breakfast, and the warmest aloha hospitality on the island. Hosts John and Michele Gamble can arrange hula or lei making experiences in a local home. They also collect Hawaiian antiques and artefacts and have a shop on the premises. (www.palmscliffhouse.com)
The magnificent grounds here include clumps of tall palms and tree ferns, which make it a beautiful place for an intimate wedding with up to 40 guests. It’s also a good spot to be from February to April when whales and spinner dolphins — sometimes hundreds in a pod — fill the bay.
Waterfalls, rainforests, and tropical gardens abound in the area around The Palms Cliff House Inn. I was glad John and Michele suggested we stop at Mr. Ed’s Bakery in Honomu, where I bought some positively divine peanut butter cookies. I will also be forever indebted to our hosts for recommending Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It’s easily the most stunning collection of orchids, bromeliads, anthurium, heliconia, ferns, and palms I have ever seen. In addition to the plant life, the extensive grounds include multiple waterfalls and a rocky coastline where waves crash and splash. (www.htbg.com)
On this trip — and especially in this garden — there were times when I lost track of where I was. The Big Island we experienced felt more like a foreign destination that a U.S. state.
I loved hearing the Hawaiian language being used in everyday speech and listening to locals speak of King Kamehameha with reverence. When I browsed the community bulletin boards outside several general stores, I saw notices about upcoming hula contests and neighborhood yard sales.
I understand that the large-scale tourism we mainlanders love is critical to the island’s economy. But on this trip, I’m glad we stayed at boutique hotels set in stunning locations unaffected by commercial activity. In these places, natural elements — not water slides — are the focus, and are a refreshing reminder that the Old Hawaii I remembered still exists. Elizabeth Hansen
Photography courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS