Courses and Travel

Play Golf in Mauna Hawaii

Photo: Evan Schiller

The commanding 15th on Mauna Lani's South Course

In the mid-1750s, around the time the Scottish forefathers gave birth to a new golf club called the Royal & Ancient, a keiki ("baby" in Hawaiian) entered the world on the rugged west coast of Hawaii's Big Island. The child would become a king, Kamehameha the Great. He would unify all the islands and be hailed a visionary (albeit an often vicious one, but hey, you can't conquer an archipelago without handing out some lumps). It's highly doubtful Kamehameha ever envisioned emerald fairways splayed across the lava rock of his beloved Kohala coast, but the myriad attractions that inspired the king -- dramatic landscapes, beautiful beaches, limpid waters teeming with i'a ("fish") -- are still there.

There are newer attractions as well, notably two grand resorts boasting a total of four posh hotels, four golf courses that are a kick to play even when they kick you around, food you just don't get at home, frolicking dolphins, breaching whales, and enough delicious dark rum and POG (passion fruit, orange and guava) juice to wash away your cares.

Mauna Kea ("Mountain of White") was Kohala's first great resort. Built in 1965 by hotelier Laurance Rockefeller, it faces the Big Island's most stunning beach. A pretty sister property, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, arrived a decade ago along with the Hapuna Golf Course, designed by another beloved king, Arnold Palmer, and Ed Seay. The front plays mostly uphill and into morning trade winds, although there was nary a breeze the day a friend and I played. Nary a birdie, either, though I almost hit my first mongoose.

Among the contributions Western sailors made to the island were venereal disease and rats. Someone had the bright idea to import mongooses to eat the rats -- forgetting that rats are nocturnal and mongooses are not, so the island wound up with a passel of both. Neither is pervasive today, but a mongoose scampering streaker-like across a fairway is an odd sight, to be sure.

Hapuna preys on your Napoleon complex. Take the 3rd hole, a 545-yard par 5, where a smooth drive, an easy mid-iron and 100-yard pitch set up a birdie putt. But you didn't really fly all this way to lay up, did you? (Evidently, I came to yank two into the drink.) It's the same game at the 10th, a 372-yard sharp dogleg-left. The play is 3-wood then short iron, but here on Fantasy Island it's like the old Larry Bird vs. Michael Jordan commercial: Fly the bunker, over the jacaranda tree, onto the narrowest strip of fairway. Nuthin' but lava.

There is nothing not to like about the Hapuna course or hotel -- they are just not the Mauna Kea.

Unlike her flirty kid sister, Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s Mauna Kea design does not make you wait for drama. Resist premature exhilaration at the 3rd hole, a 210-yard carry over a cove. The back tee is at 261; take enough club to reach Maui.

For my playing partner and me, the wind more than made up for its absence the day before, slowing our cart to a crawl up holes 4 and 5, 413 and 593 yards, respectively. The best holes on the back are the 555-yard 17th, marked by zigs, zags, humps and bumps, and the finisher, a 428-yarder dipping into a gaping maw that begs you to swing as hard as you can. (Any goof can .hit the fairway on the second try.)

Ten minutes down the Queen's Highway is the Mauna Lani ("Mountains Reaching Heaven") Resort, home to the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, completed in 1983, and the Fairmont Orchid, opened in 1990. Classy and tranquil, the Fairmont exudes a serene sophistication, but it's just not the Mauna Lani.

What is it about the Mauna Lani and the Mauna Kea? There's no disputing that their architecture and design are both mod and outdated -- think Mike Brady during the perm years. Also undeniable is the fact that substance trumps style every time, and these hotels are substantial in the best sense.

In 1981, Hawaii's most prolific golf course craftsman, Robin Nelson, split the original Francis H. I'i Brown course and added nine holes to each to create the Mauna Lani golf experience. The North Course was built on an ancient flow of pahoehoe, the smooth, braided lava that resembles twisted taffy. Many holes are lined by imposing kiawe trees, like the one found in the middle of the first fairway. The 421-yard dogleg-right carries the No. 3 handicap, providing a stout start.

Our group reached the 401-yard 4th hole just in time to see the sun rising behind Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain on Earth, topping Mt. Everest when measured from its base beneath the ocean). The hole features a tee shot over an archeological preserve now filled with Pro-V1s. The 455-yard 9th heads out to the beach, where what I imagined was a mirage turned out to be the Orchid's Spa Without Walls massage cabanas.

MAUNA LANI RESORT
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, 808-885-6622, maunalani.com, rooms from $385; Fairmont Orchid, 808-885-2000, orchid-maunalani.com, rooms from $399; Mauna Lani North and South Courses, 808-886-6655, greens fees $120 (resort guest), $185 (non-guest).
MAUNA KEA RESORT
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 808-882-7222, maunakea.beachhotel.com, rooms from $360; Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, 808-880-1111, hapunabeachhotel.com, rooms from $360; Mauna Kea Golf Course, 808-882-5400, greens fees $130 (resort guest), $195 (non-guest); Hapuna Golf Course, 808-882-3000, greens fees $110 (resort guest), $145 (non-guest).
Besides the 4 that I carded at the par-5 2nd, the only birdies we encountered were wild turkeys that heckled us at the 13th. Fortunately, they didn't tag along to the 17th, a dynamite 132-yarder played below -- or in my case off -- black walls of lava akin to the White Cliffs of Dover.

What a difference an epoch makes! The South Course, which hosted the Senior Skins Game for a decade is carved across the relatively recent -- 16th-century -- Kaniku flow, amid sharp, scraggly a'a lava. Pack your camera for the South's two boffo par 3s along the ocean: the 214-yard 7th and the epic 15th, 196 yards over Iliilinaehehe Bay (say that three times fast). Kamehameha don't fail me now. My buddy and I stuck a pair of approaches that dented the green. High-fives all around. After swapping Kodak moments, we strutted to the green and proceeded to three-jack.

As if we cared. We came, we saw, we ate, drank and were merry. That's why they built this place. Lava or leave it, the Big Island rocks.

While You're Out There

Twilight at Kalahuipua'a

Each month, under the light of a rising moon, Mauna Lani's historian, Danny Akaka, hosts a night of native music, dance and storytelling beside the oceanfront Eva Parker Woods cottage and Kalahuipua'a's seven fabled fish ponds. A 50-year-old father of five, Akaka is an instant friend whose infectious passion embodies the Aloha spirit. Call 808-885-6622 or visit maunalaniculture.org.

Fair Wind Cruises

For three decades, this family-owned outfit has trawled tourists out to snorkel in the crystalline waters of Kealakekua Bay. Morning cruises include everything from coffee and pastries to a barbeque lunch to diving masks with corrective lenses for bespeckled customers. Call 800-677-9461 or 808-322-2788 or visit fair-wind.com.

Ask for: Nino Kaai

He's the happy Hawaiian who fronts the trio Lawakua on weeknights at the Fairmont Orchid's Brown's Beach House. Kaai's silky vocals produce a perfect rendition of "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World." You may know the tune from the ER episode in which Dr. Greene went home to Hawaii to pass away. This is heaven.

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