By Deston Nokes
GOLF TODAY NORTHWEST — It wasn’t the first time I heard laughter after my golf swing, but it was the first time I could attribute it to a flock of birds. The Hawai’ian laughing birds, called Erckel’s Francolin, were cackling in the brush as my errant drive thudded into the bunker. One has to take these things in stride, golfing along the Kona Trail. You never know when you might have a peacock strutting across the fairway or a herd of long-hair sheep ambling by or hear a flock the wild turkeys gobbling about.
Kona Trail’s four golf courses on Hawai’i’s Big Island — the Makalei Golf Club, the Big Island Country Club and Kona Country Club’s mountain and oceanfront courses — offer diversity, breathtaking scenery and all levels of tropical island play that Pacific Northwestern golfers dream about during their cold, wet winters and springs.
The Kona Trail partnership was launched last spring to spark to boost recognition and to make playing and staying in Kona a lot more affordable. The concept combines discounted hotel stays at name-brand resorts with tee times at each course.
For those unfamiliar with the charms of the Big Island, it’s the youngest of the Hawai’ian Islands geologically, but the oldest in terms of civilization. It is believed to be the first island Polynesian explorers set foot upon 1,500 years ago. Hawai’i is the birthplace of King Kamehameha I, and the Kona Coast is dotted with fascinating historical ruins, sites and artifacts, which are all well worth exploring.
Hawai’i is twice the size of all the other Hawai’ian Islands combined, and has a large variety of terrain, active volcanoes, rain forest and arid stretches of land. Kona is located on the sunnier side of Hawai’i, and is easily accessible with nonstop flights or no-hassle stopovers in Honolulu. Even though the hotels are nearby, you’ll definitely want to rent a car and have maximum flexibility to get to your tee time and explore the rest of the island.
Tee off along the ocean
Once you check in, hit the course. At the Kona Country Club, you have a choice between their mountain course (which has the more spectacular views) or the ocean course. We opted for the latter. Something about just getting off the plane from Portland, and teeing off with the ocean breezes at my back and the sun in my face was too delicious to pass up.
I found Kona Country Club’s ocean course to be wide, smooth and a great way to get warmed up, as it’s an easier round than Kona Country Club’s sister course in the mountains. However, the Ocean Course’s devilishly placed bunkers and the black ribbons of jagged lava bordering the fairways add to the fun. Banging a ball into the jagged a’a lava often means taking a drop.
Designed by William Bell and built in 1966, the Ocean Course’s signature holes are #3 and #12, as both are right on along the ocean, but hole #13 was my favorite because of the great blow hole shooting seawater into the air on the left hand side. In addition, golfers may see a humpback whale during November and March. The course has a fully stocked pro shop, driving range, locker rooms, putting and chipping greens, and a restaurant.
Head for the hills
The next stop was the Big Island Country Club, which recently underwent a $2 million renovation to its fairways and greens.
“It’s become my favorite place to play,” said Chuck Okazaki, general manager of the nearby Outrigger Kanaloa condominiums. “You use all of your clubs, and I just love its layout. Every hole is different, and the views are spectacular.”
At 2,200-foot elevation, players can enjoy 360-degree views of the ocean and all the surrounding mountains: Haleakala in Maui, Kohala to the north, Mauna Loa Volcano and Hualai. Plus, it’s about 25 miles from the resorts and vacation properties in Kona.
Designed by famed golf architect Perry Dye, the par 72 course features wide, gently rolling Bermuda grass fairways, medium-size, undulating bent grass greens, and water in play on nine of the 18 holes.
“The course upgrades were like a mini stimulus project, and it has paid off with wonderful conditions,” said John Kitchen, marketing director for Big Island Country Club. “We just installed a comfort station at the ninth hole, and work on the clubhouse is next.”
All the refinements may not have helped my haphazard game much, but the enchantment of the setting is enough to make you forget a missed par or three.
With five sets of tee boxes, the course provides plenty of challenge for the more polished players without making life miserable for novices. Plus, it has the only Island green in the state of Hawai’i – its signature 17th hole.
My favorite fairways included #4, where you golf toward the ocean; #6, which is affectionately referred to as the “Child of Satan;” and #12, which has a huge crescent to the left, so hook away. It has a nice landing area, but it’s double trouble for the hard hitters with water to the left and a bunker to the right.
The club’s website offers an animated fly over of all 18 holes.
Wildlife is a fun distraction on this course. Happily, the Hawai’ian State Bird, the native Nēnē, or Hawai’ian Goose, are back in larger numbers. According to Kitchen, Nēnē were down to about 50 in the 1950s, and have been seeing their numbers rebound due to captive restoration practices.
Also, Big Island Country Club may be the only course in the islands with a flock of 16 sheep munching about. Leonidas, the ram, has kept adding to his ever-growing family. The sheep, which came from Waikii Ranch, are hair sheep instead of the wool variety, which are bred for the warmer Hawai’i climate.
Further up the road lies Makalei Golf Club, a mountain course with elevations between 1,800 and 2,850 feet, so you’ll want to stow a windbreaker for your round, just in case it gets nippy.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the beauty of the course, with views of the Kona-Kohala Coast and Maui’s Haleakala Volcano in the distance. Makalei is completely tree lined with koa trees, silver oaks with yellow flowers, and purple jacarandas. The club also stands out for its bent grass tees and greens, which are found at only four extreme-elevation Hawai’i golf courses.
In addition to the color and greens, I enjoyed the stone-terraced tee boxes, lava tubes, cinder cones and a 100-year-old stone wall. It truly makes the visitor appreciative of the site’s heritage. Then there was that elevation with many of the holes making us hit up the mountain onto a plateau (Hole #1) or down the mountain. “Don’t worry about topping the ball here, you get a lot of roll,” Birch laughed.
Designed by Dick Nugent, the layout suggests caution by first-time players. The course also is regarded as one of the most challenging on the islands. “Makalei is probably the third toughest course after Ko’olau on Oahu and Princeville on Kauai,” said Ross Birch, PGA pro and general manager of Makalei Golf Club.
“The par threes are where you’re most challenged,” Birch added, “whereas the par fives are almost all reachable with a driver and a wedge.”
Makalei’s par three #15 is the signature hole, with a lake on the left, bunkers on the right and Maui off in the distance. “It’s probably a player’s best chance for a hole in one on this course,” Birch said.
Makalei also has quite a bit of fowl on its course, and is especially known for its peacocks (including a rare, white female), pheasants and turkeys.
Once back in the clubhouse, treat yourself to a Pika Burger loaded with jalapenos.
Where to stay
The Kona Trail program’s three participating properties are the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, Royal Kona Resort, and the Courtyard Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel — three different price points starting $607 for a 3-night room/Kona Golf Trail package, double occupancy, for one golfer.
The Courtyard at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is $607 for one guest, or $767 for two, to spend three nights and have three rounds of golf for one player.
The Royal Kona Resort costs $1,065 for two golfers, for five nights of oceanfront accommodations, and three rounds of golf for two players.
Sheraton Kona charges $777 for two golfers, for three nights with partial ocean view accommodations, and three rounds of golf for two players.
However, a rational human can’t adequately fit a vacationer’s desire for Big Island adventure, golf and pure, luxurious sloth into just three days. What I found handy was the discounted rate for extended nights, since anyone who’s ever been to Kona will tell you that just three days isn’t going to cut it. This author stretched his stay out to 10 days in order to fit in a trip to Hawai’I Volcanoes National Park to watch the crater glow at night, a day riding the ziplines over waterfalls, enjoying the island’s best snorkeling (for free) in Kailua Village, and a couple of days doing a whole lot of nothing.
Getting to Kona is a snap, with nonstop flights and no-hassle stopovers in Honolulu. While the hotels are nearby, you’ll definitely want to rent a car to explore Big Island and have maximum flexibility.
Deston Nokes is a freelance business and travel writer based in Portland, Ore. For more information, go to www.destonnokes.com