Meet the majestic Hawaiian coastline with what may be the greatest collection of dramatic seaside courses in the world
Cedric Angeles

If the Kohala Coast, on Hawaii's Big Island, is not the best collection of seaside public golf courses in the U.S., what is?The other Hawaiian islands?Isolated great venues, no more. The Monterey Peninsula?Four (terrific, yes) public courses. The Gulf Coast?I grew up there and recommend the fried shrimp instead. The southeastern states?Let's not compare the Atlantic Coast to the permanent sunshine, sparkling Pacific waters and enormous volcanoes of the Big Island.

Moreover, the Kohala Coast is arguably the most bizarre golfing environment on earth. You land at the airport on reddish black lava flows, turn left at the highway and drive north mile after mile across more of these flows. It is also one of the windiest golfing environments on earth. (On the Beach course at Waikoloa, they use crushed coral for sand, as anything finer would be blown out.) Still, the weather is your friend here, because when the trade winds slack off the volcanic smog, or vog, settles in, and you might as well be in L.A.

Starting with 13,796-foot-high Mauna Kea, the Big Island has enormous scale, so it dominates the tourists, rather than the other way around. The Kohala resorts are scattered along some twenty miles of coastline, all well downslope from the highway. That, along with the absence of much commercial development in the area, assures that there is absolutely, blessedly no sense of a resort strip here.

Mauna Kea Resort, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast; 808-882-5400. Yardage: 7,114. Par: 72. Slope: 143. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr. Green fees: $110 resort guests; $195 public. T&L GOLF Rating:****½
Mauna Kea, the grande dame of Big Island layouts, is one of the great resort courses in the world. Built on old lava flows covered by desert grasses and kiawe trees, it's a straightforward, tough-but-fair gem from Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s heyday, with stunning vistas of the water and surrounding mountains from almost every hole. To my mind, holes three through eleven are the perfect nine. Three is the world-famous par three across a little bay--one of the first and still the best of such holes in Hawaii--and eleven is a long par three to a green above the sea. In between are as great a set of rolling, slipping and sliding fairways as you'll find anywhere and large, crowned greens that make each hole the easy bogey but tough par that Jones envisioned--easy bogey, that is, for the short-game wizard who can convince himself that a putt really will break toward the ocean, though the eye says it has to move the other way. Don't expect to shoot your handicap the first few times around.

The Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai, 100 Ka'upulehu Drive, Ka'upulehu-Kona; 808-325-8480. Yardage: 7,117. Par: 72. Slope: 131. Architect: Jack Nicklaus. Green fee: $160 resort guests only.T&L GOLF Rating:****
This is about as mellow as Jack gets. The fairways are generous in the extreme, and the greens (in most cases) are accessible to the run-up shot. This Hualalai lava is relatively new--exactly two hundred years old--and therefore starkly barren and in-your-face. As with many new layouts, Hualalai could be criticized for being overdesigned, but the more radical terrain here probably does call for radical measures, and Nicklaus complies with dramatic teescapes and greenscapes, the terrific amphitheater on number two and the fairway alley through the tall lava on number seven. It's fairly flat overall, but lava flows do flow, and the golf course eddies and weaves right along with the dark stuff. Only one hole, the par-three seventeenth, reaches the ocean, but from only one hole, number twelve, do you fail to see the sea. It's a brilliant design with great shot values--and absolutely immaculate. (I imagine the same will be true of the new Weiskopf course under way. Those two guys are still competing.)

Mauna Lani Resort, Makaiwa Place, Kohala Coast; 808-885-6655. North Course Yardage: 6,913. Par: 72. Slope: 136. South Course Yardage: 6,938. Par: 72. Slope: 133. Architects: Ray Cain, Robin Nelson and Rodney Wright. Green fees: $115 Bay and Bungalow, and Orchid guests; $200 public. T&L GOLF Rating:***½ for each
Pictures of the thirty-six holes at Mauna Lani are what made Big Island golf famous. The first eighteen were built twenty years ago, the second ten years ago, with the two then mixed together to yield the North and South courses. In any event, the eye readily discerns that the newer eighteen holes, designed by Robin Nelson and Rodney Wright, are a bit more sophisticated, the green complexes a bit more intricate and dangerous, the lava features a bit more dramatic. However, the two most famous holes are from the older eighteen: the par-three seventeenth on the North course, a striking amphitheater with a huge boulder of lava in the middle of the bunker fronting the green; and number fifteen on the South, Mauna Lani's extravagant challenge to number three at Mauna Kea: all ocean, all wind, all carry, all the time, and almost all the tee shots (four out of five, I'm told) not strong enough. Holes don't get more dramatic than this.

Mauna Kea Resort, Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, 62-100 Kauna'oa Drive, Kohala Coast; 808-880-3000. Yardage: 6,875. Par: 72. Slope: 134. Architects: Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay. Green fees: $110 resort guests; $195 public. T&L GOLF Rating:***½
Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay's Hapuna layout, associated with the hotel of that name, is part of the Mauna Kea Resort. Upslope from its sister course, and therefore not technically seaside, Hapuna is more open than Mauna Kea, with fewer kiawe trees, and looks and feels more like a traditional desert course. Very little lava was moved around here, but very little had to be to achieve a surfeit of dramatic, clever golf holes and incredible vistas. In short, Hapuna has everything but that almost indefinable sense of place and wholeness that so characterizes the Mauna Kea. Developers are also building like mad everywhere you look, which never helps.

Waikoloa Beach Resort, 1020 Keana Place, Waikoloa; 808-886-6060. Yardage: 6,566. Par: 70. Slope: 133. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr. Green fees: $105 Hilton and Outrigger guests; $195 public. T&L GOLF Rating:***

Waikoloa Beach Resort, 600 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa; 808-886-7888. Yardage: 7,074. Par: 72. Slope: 133. Architects: Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. Green fees: $105 Hilton and Outrigger guests; $195 public. T&L GOLF Rating:***½
These two are a bit less renowned than others on the Kohala Coast, and this is unfair. On the Beach course, I'm a big fan of the lava amphitheaters at three and four; the fascinating petroglyph field bordering the sixth, seventh and eighth holes; and the par-five twelfth, which concludes at the sea. On this hole one day last March, as I sized up a birdie putt, a humpback whale breached just offshore, directly beyond my line. Wouldn't you like such a hole on such a course?The layout at Kings' is a Weiskopf-Morrish design featuring, along with the lava, arbitrarily high grasses in the Scottish style. It's a different look indeed, but solid and intelligent, like all of this twosome's layouts, and often on many statewide top-ten lists.

Feel like a change of scenery?Four courses within driving distance of the Kohala Coast fit the bill nicely.

78-7000 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona; 808-322-2595. Ocean Course Yardage: 6,806. Par: 72. Slope: 129. Mountain Course Yardage: 6,673. Par: 72. Slope: 133. Architects: William Bell (Ocean course); Bell, Robin Nelson and Rodney Wright (Mountain course). Green fee: $160. T&L GOLF Rating:***½ for each
When it's windy elsewhere, Kona can be calm, and the Mountain course has perhaps the most spectacular views on the island.

72-3890 Hawaii Belt Road, Kailua-Kona; 808-325-6625. Yardage: 7,041. Par: 72. Slope: 143. Architect: Dick Nugent. Green fees: $110; twilight $50. T&L GOLF Rating:***
Several thousand feet above the coastline, this layout rivals Kona Country Club for its views. A very tough layout, and often windy.

47-5220 Mamalahoa Hwy. (Hwy. 19), Waimea; 808-885-8777. Yardage: 6,661. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Architect: John Sanford. Green fee: $85. T&L GOLF Rating:***½
A cooler, sometimes rainy, often windy links-like course with stands of eucalyptus trees.

KOHALA RESORTS The great resorts of Hawaii's Kohala Coast cater mostly to couples and families and certain well-heeled corporate and professional groups. They don't, as a rule, see many favorite foursomes from the mainland. This is not Myrtle Beach by any means. Hawaii is too far away for that, and too expensive, and too alluring for the wives--or the husbands, for that matter. That said, the gangs of four I know might prefer staying at the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai, if only because this would give them privileges on the golf course.

MAUNA KEA BEACH HOTEL, 1 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast; 800-882-6060. Rooms: Start at $350.
HAPUNA BEACH PRINCE HOTEL, 62-100 Kauna'oa Drive, Kohala Coast; 800-882-6060. Rooms: Start at $350.
Almost immediately after opening in 1964, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel acquired its reputation as perhaps the finest such resort in the world, thanks to its wonderful setting, incomparable crescent beach, and the Aloha spirit of the place. Now under different ownership, no longer a Rock Resort, and with stern competition right on the Kohala Coast, much less elsewhere, the resort still earns honor after honor. The expansive, shaded grass beach behind the expansive sand beach might be the touch of touches. Laurance Rockefeller believed that the rooms should be simple because the resort experience should be outdoors. Before the recent renovation they didn't even have televisions. Fair enough--no, wonderfully enough--but times do change, and there's no doubt that these rooms are not nearly as large or as extravagantly appointed as the abodes elsewhere. The new Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel next door to the Mauna Kea is a very fine hotel with a much better swimming pool than the Mauna Kea, but with nothing like the quiet, elegant simplicity.

BAY HOTEL AND BUNGALOWS, 68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, Kohala Coast; 800-367-2323 (Bay Hotel); 800-628-7815 (Bungalows). Rooms: Start at $355; villas at $550; bungalows at $4,000.
THE ORCHID AT MAUNA LANI, 1 North Kaniku Drive, Kohala Coast; 800-325-3589. Rooms: Start at $385.
Five miles to the south of Mauna Kea and almost as venerable is Mauna Lani, which has two first-rate properties. The Bay Hotel has a similar feeling to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on a larger scale, with the well-preserved Kalahuipuaa fish ponds from ancient times and the famous beachfront bungalows from modern times; each of the bungalows has a private swimming pool, butler, chef and thousands-a-night tab. The Orchid is newer than its neighbor, snazzier, more European, top-drawer. Guests have playing privileges on the Mauni Lani Resort courses.

THE FOUR SEASONS RESORT, 100 Ka'upulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona; 800-340-5662. Rooms: Start at $475.
KONA VILLAGE RESORT, Queen Kaahumanu Hwy., Kailua-Kona; 800-367-5290. Rooms: Start at $480.
Just four years old, the Four Seasons Resort is already famous and justifiably so--Mauna Kea and the Mauna Lani may have all the tradition on the Big Island, but Hualalai now has a lot of the buzz. The Four Seasons folks have taken a barren, flat expanse of lava and created an amazing resort around their two-story bungalow accommodations, with four swimming pools--maybe more, you lose count--a swank sports club and spa, eye-catching architecture, a nice beach (though nothing like the Mauna Kea's, let's get that straight) and beautiful young couples and their kids. Next to it is Kona Village, the smallest resort on the coast, by far. It's also the ultimate hideaway: tennis, but no golf, although guests are allowed one round at Hualalai next door.

HILTON WAIKOLOA VILLAGE, 425 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa; 800-445-8667. Rooms: Start at $310.
OUTRIGGER WAIKOLOA BEACH RESORT (formerly the Royal Waikoloan), 69-275 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa; 800-688-7444. Rooms: Start at $265.
Waikoloa is admittedly the least tony of the resorts, although the setting on the coastline, about midway between the northernmost Mauna Kea and the southernmost Hualalai, is as good as it gets. About three times as big and garish as the other hotels, the Hilton Waikoloa Village is a family affair and about as distant from old Hawaii as you can get--or would want to. But the kids will love the tram and the boats that ply the canals between buildings. The frugal foursome might prefer to stay at the Outrigger Waikoloa Beach Resort, the least expensive venue on the coast.

All of the hotels on the Kohala Coast have fine dining and at least one beach or poolside grill. The best luau is at Kona Village or Mauna Kea. Elsewhere, good food is found at:

BAMBOO RESTAURANT (Regional) Hwy. 270, Hawi; 808-889-5555. $$

THE CANOE HOUSE (Pacific Rim) 68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, Kohala Coast; 808-885-6622. Long considered one of the island's best. $$$

KAWAIHAE HARBOR GRILL (Seafood) Kawaihae Road, Kawaihae; 808-882-1368. $$

MERRIMAN'S RESTAURANT (Regional) 65-1227 Hwy. 19, Kohala Coast; 808-885-6822. $$

PAHU I'A AT THE FOUR SEASONS (New American) 100 Kaupulehu Drive, Kaupulehu-Kona; 808-325-8333. One of the best--and priciest--on the island. $$$$

THE PAVILION AT MAUNA KEA (Continental) 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast; 808-882-7222. The best alfresco setting for brunch. $$ to $$$

ROY'S WAIKOLOA BAR AND GRILL (Pacific Rim) Waikoloa Beach Resort, Waikoloa; 808-886-4321. $$

Any short list of other activities does the Big Island a disservice, but the following must be included. The best guidebook for all details is Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, The Ultimate Guidebook, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman (Wizard Publications).

POLOLU VALLEY and WAIPIO VALLEY, each about thirty miles from the Kohala Coast as the crow flies to the northeast, are spectacularly different worlds on the wet, windy, windward coast.

HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, two or three hours around the island from Kohala, has a bizarre terrain and the most active volcano in the U.S. The Kilauea Iki hike into, across and then out of a quiet but still-smoldering crater is phenomenal, and not difficult.

WHALE WATCHING during the winter is a given. You'll see them--or at least their spouts--from the beach, the cabana and even the highway, but getting among them on a boat is hard to beat. Captain Dan McSweeney's Year Round Whale-Watching Adventures, 808-322-0028. Rates: Adult $54.50; children $34.50.

HELICOPTER TOURS of the coasts, waterfalls and volcanoes are a blast and the best way to get an overall sense of the variety on the island. One dependable outfitter is Mauna Kea Helicopters, 808-885-6400. Rates: $140­$310.

Because beaches require time--lots of time--to develop, and because the Big Island is the youngest in the Hawaiian chain, it has fewer beaches per mile of shoreline than the other islands. But it also has two of the best, and both are on the Kohala Coast. One is Kauna'oa, at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel; the other is Hapuna, a mile to the south and the premier amenity of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. It's half a mile long and often voted the best in the state. Admission here is not a problem.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast. Rates: Free for hotel guests; limited passes available for public.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, 62-100 Kauna'oa Drive, Kohala Coast. Rates: Free.

Feel like a change of islands?No problem. Hop on an 8 a.m. commuter flight, rent a car, play eighteen and be back to Kohala in time for a late dinner. The best golf on each of the other islands:

2000 Plantation Estates Drive, Kapalua; 877-KAPALUA. Yardage: 7,263. Par: 73. Architects: Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. Green fee: $220. T&L GOLF Rating:****½
Enormous course on enormous bluff overlooking the ocean.

5-3900 Kuhio Hwy., Princeville; 808-826-5070. Yardage: 7,309. Par: 72. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr. Green fee: $175. T&L GOLF Rating:****½
The best layout in Hawaii?Could be.

1 Manele Road, Lanai City; 808-565-2222. Yardage: 7,039. Par: 72. Architect: Jack Nicklaus. Green fee: $200. T&L GOLF Rating:****
An ocean-side stunner.

45-550 Kionaole Road, Kaneohe; 808-236-4653. Yardage: 7,310. Par: 72. Architects: Dick Nugent and Jack Tuthill. Green fees: $125; twilight $75. T&L GOLF Rating:***½ Spectacular setting, spectacular slope (162).