Waikoloa Village
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Waikoloa Village

Story Written by Rick Archer
November 2012

Waikoloa Village is a luxurious Hilton resort located on Hawaii's Big Island. It is 25 miles north of Kona on the Kohala Coast.  At 62 acres, it covers an enormous area the size of nearly 60 football fields laid side by side.

Waikoloa Village is known for its lush foliage, wonderful view of the ocean, and its beautiful system of interlocking swimming pools and lagoons. 

What makes Waikoloa interesting is that the resort represents a great human triumph over the cruelty of nature.  Behind its incredible beauty, Waikoloa has a secret.  Waikoloa Village was built right on top of a lava field! 

Just 30 miles in the distance, the enormous dormant volcano Mauna Kea looms over the resort like an ancient sleeping monster.
 Waikoloa was built right on top of the path the burning lava once took on its way to the ocean.

Marla and I took the group to Hawaii once before in 2007.  Out of 26 cruise trips, Hawaii remains Marla's favorite trip of all.  Although I have a passion for the Barcelona trip as my favorite, Hawaii is a close second.  Hawaii is without a doubt the most beautiful area I have ever visited. 

There are five volcanoes on the Big Island.  Kohala and Hualalai are extinct. Mauna Kea is dormant.   Kilauea, the baby at 300,000-600,000 years, is an emerging volcano.  Although Kilauea is the new star, Mauna Loa is still definitely active. Mauna Loa's recent eruptions in 1984 and 1990 decimated an area you will be able to visit.  Many beautiful oceanside homes were destroyed and vast forests were ruined by the lava flow.  The damage is still very much in evidence.  Today the landscape is so ugly and barren it reminds you of pictures from the Moon or from Mars.

When our group visits Hawaii on September 29, 2013, we will spend two days at the Big Island.   The first day we will dock at Hilo.  This will give everyone an opportunity to tour the amazing Volcanoes National Park.  If you visit this spectacular site, I have one suggestion - pay attention to where you are stepping.  Otherwise you might lose a foot. 

As it turns out, the Mauna Loa lava field you will visit is still active.  New lava is forming all the time.  The danger is that the new lava is just one shade of grey different than the solidified lava.  I would say I came within three feet of learning this lesson the hard way.

On the day when Marla and I visited the desolate area created by the 1984 eruption, I wasn't paying very good attention.  They warned us to watch where we stepped, but I was too busy playing a computer chess game to bother listening.  I was back on the bus amusing myself.

Consequently I had no idea there are active lava pockets in the places you will visit.  I was actually headed right towards a danger area when one of the guides warned me to stop immediately or lose a foot.  True story. 

You can read it here - Rick's Visit to the Volcano Field

Before I forget, I need to explain that "Hawaii" is actually the official name for the Big Island and for the State itself.  Notice in the picture where it says "Hawaii, Hawaii".  In other words, Hawaii is the official name for the group of eight islands that make up the state of Hawaii and also for this island specifically.  I don't know what caused this mix-up.  However, to avoid confusion, most people simply call this place "The Big Island".

After our day in Hilo, that evening our ship will circle towards the south.  During the night we will be treated to the spectacular sight of the active volcano Kilauea as it spills red hot lava into the ocean.  As you watch the red lava flowing to the sea, you will gasp in delight.  The lava flow lights up the night.  It is quite a display, definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

On the following day, September 30, our ship will dock on the other side of the island in Kona.  Although there are many excursions to choose from, Marla and I plan to visit Waikoloa Village and spend the day hiking through its vast array of lush gardens. 

Mauna Kea towers over Waikoloa Village.  It can be easily seen 30 miles in the distance.  This giant menace stands as a grim reminder of its violent past.  You assume the volcano is sleeping, but you never know... Mauna Kea is not "extinct", but rather "dormant".  Let us hope the sleeping giant doesn't wake up any time soon.

If you like volcanoes, you will love the Big Island.  The Big Island is Hawaii's newest island.  It's amazing to realize that the Big Island is still "growing".  It turns out there is a Hot Spot down in the ocean floor.  It is this Hot Spot that created each Hawaiian island until they drifted away. 

Due to a phenomenon known as Continental Drift, the Big Island is actually slowly moving towards Japan. However, I wouldn't worry about the cruise ship having trouble finding the islands.  The rate of the drift is perhaps an inch per year. 

If you look at the islands using Google Earth, you will see an entire string of Hawaiian islands.  Each island was once stationed over the Hot Spot.

The Hot Spot stays put and the ocean floor moves over it like a conveyor belt. Hot Spot lava has punched up through the ocean floor repeatedly, each time at a new spot as the ocean floor moves above.  This forms new islands.

The Hot Spot is about 50 miles in circumference.  It keeps two volcanoes about 25 miles apart active at a time. Mauna Loa is at the distant edge while  Kilauea, the 5th volcano to hit the Hot Spot, is right on the center.

A 6th volcano,
Lōihi, is beginning to stir. Loihi is underwater about 22 miles southeast of the Big Island.  It is due to appear above water in 10,000 years and begin making the newest Hawaiian island.

As the Big Island moves, once a volcano is no longer over the "Hot Spot", it goes dormant, then extinct like Kohala and Hualalai.  Mauna Kea's day is over and Mauna Loa's days are numbered.  I previously wrote about this process in great detail - the Hot Spot phenomenon.

Here is a picture of the lagoon at Waikoloa.  When you see how lush and fertile the grounds of this resort are, it is unimaginable to think this entire area was recently wasteland created by Mauna Kea's devastation eons ago. 

Believe it or not, just thirty years ago this entire area was still a barren desert of black lava rock.  The two pictures below tell the story.  The dark area is lava.  The green area is a Waikoloa golf course built on top of the lava.

Using Google Earth, an aerial view of the area shows vast areas of brown, grey and dark grey surrounding the coast line.   Those dark areas are hardened lava fields created by nearby Mauna Kea.  Wikipedia says it has been 4,600 years since Mauna Kea last erupted. 

To me, it seems like forests would have regenerated after four thousand years. I would think in all that time more vegetation would have had time to develop, but apparently not.  I tried to find the rate of nature reclaiming lava fields but found no statistics to help.

 I think a major part of the problem is that this area is very arid.  There is little rainfall here.  The only thing that grows is some wispy brush and that's it.

A look at the countryside surrounding Waikoloa shows nothing on all sides but barren landscape.  Using Google Earth, the only trees I could find in this area showed up alongside the stream beds that carry rainwater from Mauna Kea out to the ocean.  So I guess the absence of water is the problem.

The three pictures below depict the surrounding countryside.  Note the stark contrast of the green land side by side to the lava field in the third photo.

Waikoloa Resort History

I found the story behind the development of Waikoloa Village to be interesting.  A quick retelling of the previous 200 years of Hawaiian history will help understand the story of Waikoloa's origin.  

They say the history of Russia is divided into "Before" Peter the Great and "After".  The same thing can be said for Hawaii.  When it comes to the history of Hawaii, everything revolves around King Kamehameha.  This legendary strongman united the eight Hawaiian Islands into one kingdom back in 1810. 

Kamehameha's destiny was directly influenced by the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by England's James Cook in 1779.  Kamehameha actually observed Cook's visit, but he was just a curious teenager in the crowd at the time.   (Note: As it turns out, Cook landed just south of Kona. If you come on our trip, you can easily visit this location).

As it turned out, Cook's appearance was both a curse and a blessing.  It was a curse for Hawaii and a blessing for Kamehameha.

Hawaii had remained isolated during the era of European exploration due its unusual location.  In a time when the explorers preferred to sail along coastlines,  Hawaii's location in the exact center of the Pacific Ocean equidistant between Asia and North America made it hard to find.

However, once Cook revealed the existence of these lush islands, Hawaii began to get some visitors. 

This was a curse because the Europeans inadvertently introduced viruses to the Garden of Eden.  A plague hit that killed 150,000 natives in 1804, half the population of the islands.

However, it was a blessing to Kamehameha.  Thanks to certain helpful Europeans, Kamehameha used their modern weapons and their knowledge of European battle tactics to gain the upper hand in his attempts to conquer all the islands. 

Kamehameha had just finished defeating the Big Island in 1791 when he received another stroke of fortune.  In 1793, George Vancouver arrived at the Big Island.  Vancouver was still just a sea captain at the time.  The two men struck up a friendship.  In parting, Vancouver left behind a gift that would have far-reaching consequences... one bull and five cows.

Kamehameha didn't know what to do with this gift, so he set the animals free to roam around the Big Island.  That had to be the luckiest bull in world history. The cattle multiplied at a dramatic rate.

In 1809, a man appeared who would become very useful to Kamehameha.  John Parker, who hailed from Massachusetts, jumped off a ship visiting the Big Island. Parker hid on shore till the ship left the harbor.  He was 19.

It is unclear how John Parker came to the attention of King Kamehameha, but apparently the King took a shine to the young man.  He gave Parker several important tasks.  John traveled to China during the War of 1812, returning to Hawaii in 1815.  Upon his return, Parker brought back a new toy.  It was a state-of-the-art American musket.  How Parker managed to obtain a modern rifle in China is unexplained, but the gun played a pivotal role in his fortunes.

Kamehameha was impressed with the gun's range and accuracy.  He gave Parker the privilege of being the first man allowed to shoot some of the thousands of feral cattle that now roamed the Big Island's remote plains and valleys.  Kamehameha then made another decision.  From now on, John Parker would be in charge of overseeing all this cattle. 

Parker made a smart move of his own.  He married Kamehameha's granddaughter.  The King made a wedding gift of a small parcel of land on the Big Island.  That was the start of the Parker dynasty which would figure in the next two centuries of Hawaiian history.

The family first settled at a farm in the Kohala district near where the Waikoloa Resort would eventually be developed.  In 1835 he was hired by Honolulu merchant William French to start a commercial operation selling meat products of the wild cattle near the town of Waimea, located about 20 miles east of Parker's farm.

When private ownership of land became legal in 1850, Parker was in the right place at the right time.  He bought all the land he could and switched over to ranching.  Sandalwood had been the traditional export.  The Europeans loved the fragrance of the sandalwood oil.  However, the entire tree had to be cut down to harvest the oil.  Now Hawaii's forests were rapidly disappearing.

Parker's unique position allowed him the rare opportunity to replace sandalwood with beef as Hawaii's new main export.  The Big Island was practically deserted.  Only 2,000 people lived there at the time.  So Parker was able to acquire vast amounts of acreage for his new business. 

It was about this time that Parker switched from hunting wild animals to domesticating and raising them in fenced paddocks.   He brought some Mexican vaqueros over to help with the round-up.  These vaqueros trained the local Hawaiians as well.  The Hawaiians quickly became adept cowboys.  Hawaii's cowboys became known as paniolo, a corruption of español, the language the vaquero spoke. The term still refers to cowboys working in the Islands and to the culture their lifestyle spawned.

At its peak, Parker Ranch extended over 250,000 acres.  It was the single largest ranch in America at the time, but King Ranch in Texas would soon surpass it at 825,000 acres.  In case you are curious, the world's largest ranch is the 6 million acre Anna Creek station in Australia.  

Parker was a hard-working man who was said to never take a day off.  Unfortunately, after Parker died in 1868, the quality of the leadership dropped a notch with each new generation.  Sometimes the talent wasn't there and sometimes the interest wasn't there.  Over time, although the ranch remained huge, it lost much of its profitability.  By the time Richard Smart, the last owner, came along, the ranch was no longer prosperous.  It didn't help that Smart was far more interested in dancing on Broadway than he was in running the ranch.

Smart was realistic.  His ranch was far larger than it needed to be.  Furthermore, he had control over land such as the lava fields that were worthless for grazing purposes.  Plus the lack of rainfall on the western side of the island was always a problem.  Plagued by drought and rising costs, Smart authorized the sale of low-yield pasture lands that would eventually become the site of several world-class luxury resorts along the Kohala Coast .

This began with the sale of the Hapuna / Mauna Kea property in 1963 to Lawrence Rockefeller.  It was then followed in January 1969 by the sale of the Waikoloa property to Boise Cascade.

These were hard decisions.  Both ocean-front areas had long been the private domain of the ranch.  They were popular gathering places for the ranch hands and their families. 

Waimea, an inland community to the north of Mauna Kea, was about 20 miles away from the Kohala Coast.  Few people lived on the Kohala Coast and the absence of any roads made this area hard to reach.  Due to its inaccessibility, members of the Parker Ranch had the use of this area all to themselves for 150 years. 

Smart knew his ranch hands would be broken-hearted.  Picnics, camping, swimming and boat rides made this a popular place for their own vacations.   The children and families of ranch employees would ride horses over and hold long weekend luaus full of laughter, food, story, song and dance. 

Smart was sorry to see the end of this era for his community.  However, he sensed that the land his estate controlled wasn't being developed properly.  It was time to yield to march of progress.

As justification for the sale in 1969, Richard Smart wrote: 

“No longer are the Boise Cascade developments just plans to be read about in the newspapers and no longer is our village the quiet and remote place we have always known and loved.

New faces, new businesses, new advantages, and let us face it – new problems too - are becoming more evident. Along with the advantages of better shopping, and employment opportunities there are the problems of more traffic, higher prices, and lack of adequate housing.”

The next figure in the development of this area was Ron Boeddeker.  Boeddeker headed up the real estate subsidiary of Boise Cascade, a timber-products giant, here on the Big Island. 

After the acquisition of the lava field in the late 1960s, Boise Cascade envisioned a massive project from the start.  Planning began in the early 1970s to convert more than 30,000 acres of volcanic ash into a resort with golf courses and outlying communities of upscale homes.  A great deal of thought and imagination was invested into the project.

However, something must have gone wrong.  Unfortunately, I was unable to determine what the problem was.  All I know is that in the mid Seventies, Boise Cascade decided to sell off its oceanside property. 

Apparently Boeddeker was assigned the task of liquidating the Boise Cascade's real estate portfolio after it decided to get out of the real estate business in Hawaii.

After selling most of the properties, Boeddeker formed his own company, Transcontinental, to buy the remaining assets.

Transcontinental’s Hawaii property was located on an arid part of the island with a terrain of hard, black lava.

After crushing lava and installing drip irrigation, Boeddeker's Transcontinental Corporation began the metamorphosis.  4,000 acres of lava wasteland slowly became Waikoloa Village.  The wasteland was transformed into a terrain of lush seaside golf courses and rainless rain forests.  Next came two golf courses, two hotels, more than 400 condominium units and a shopping center.

At some point during the Waikoloa development, a flamboyant entrepreneur named Chris Hemmeter entered the picture.  Somehow Hemmeter ended up taking all the credit for creating Waikoloa Village. 

For example, here is a brief clip of what the Hilton Waikoloa website says about Hemmeter:

Chris Hemmeter was a prolific developer of mega resorts and always preferred to start with a gigantic slate - which meant a lot of digging and grading through lava.

I might add the website has nary a word about Boeddeker.

Considering several websites gave Boeddeker the credit for overseeing this project all the way back to Boise Cascade's initial purchase, I thought it was odd that Hemmeter's name managed to become the one most frequently linked to the success of Waikoloa.

So I Googled "Chris Hemmeter" and "Ron Boeddeker" and "Waikoloa" together.  Unfortunately, I was unable to find any account that explained the relationship between the two men.  Of course, there was no Internet in those days, so it is not that surprising that the details are limited.

All I can tell is that Hemmeter became an investor in Boeddeker's massive project... and ended up with most of the credit.  How he pulled that off... and how Boeddeker felt about it... I will never know. 

Boeddeker's obituary makes it very clear that he was directly involved in the project.  For starters, this picture shows him present at the Grand Opening.

Ron Boeddeker's Obituary

The name Ron Boeddeker may not be as well known to resort guests as Bill Marriott, Conrad Hilton, or other titans of the leisure industry.  But that is exactly how Ronald F. Boeddeker would have wanted it.

Boeddeker did not seek the spotlight, spoke to the media infrequently, and preferred to remain low-key and behind the scenes.

Without Boeddeker's vision, though, Waikoloa Resort may never have happened.

"My dad had a special gift," says Cary Krukowski, Boeddeker's daughter, who spent many months as a youngster living with her family on the Big Island while the resort was being developed.

"Dad was the kind of visionary that doesn't come along very often. He had no fear of failure, no boundaries to his vision.  He was always looking to create something extraordinary."

Boeddeker first laid eyes on what today is Waikoloa Resort in 1972. At the time, the land from makai to mauka (beach to inland) was not much more than vast lava fields as far as the eye could see.

But Boeddeker saw something more.

"He took my mom to look at the property," Krukowski tells. 'Look at this land,' he said to her. 'Can't you see golf courses and hotels?'

My mom looked around and said, 'Are you crazy?'  All Mom could see was a desert of black lava and a beautiful ocean."

Not one to be easily dissuaded, Boeddeker persisted.  Eventually he found others who saw the same potential in the land that he did, and were willing to invest. Early investors to the project included the Texas-based financiers the Bass brothers, hotel developer Chris Hemmeter, and Johnny Bellinger, the longtime powerful head of First Hawaiian Bank.

Krukowski added, "Dad would run into all kinds of people who would say 'No!'  But Dad had a way of making people believe in his vision."

"“My dad was very fond of the Hawaiian culture, and of the people of Hawaii,” Krukowski says.

“He embraced everything Hawaiian. He greatly respected the deep traditions of the islands, and loved the fact that the culture is so family oriented. He was very family oriented himself, and that gave him a strong bond with the people of Hawaii.”

Boeddeker passed away in 2010 at 71 years of age. His family installed a plaque to his memory that guests pass on their way to the beach from the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. Krukowski says that is exactly where her dad would want to be.

“Waikoloa is a beloved place to our family,” she says. “This is where my dad really started to dream big, and it is so gratifying to see this special place he envisioned more than 40 years ago become a world-class resort enjoyed by so many.”

This obituary is practically the only place on the Internet that explains
Boeddeker's contributions.  Otherwise his relationship to Waikoloa is practically invisible. 

I think we can infer that Boeddeker needed Hemmeter's money and political influence to get his project properly funded.  Then perhaps we can assume that once the resort was built, the media-savvy Hemmeter managed to take most of the credit for himself.  The one who does the majority of the talking has an advantage here. 

As it stands, today Chris Hemmeter, a longtime friend of President Jimmy Carter, is the only person given any credit for the project on the Hilton Waikoloa Village website. 

Here is what the Hilton Waikoloa website says about Chris Hemmeter:

Hilton Waikoloa Village was originally drafted on a simple cocktail napkin.  Chris Hemmeter was a prolific developer of mega resorts and always preferred to start with a gigantic slate - which meant a lot of digging and grading through lava.

Hilton Waikoloa Village is the amazing result of his endless imagination. Construction began in 1986 and the resort was completed in 2 years time in 1988 with a budget of $360 million.

Hemmeter's vision evolved into a tropical paradise complete with three towers with 1240 rooms, trams, canal boats, a saltwater lagoon, three pools, eight restaurants, a seaside putting course and $7million in artwork.

Hemmeter had a knack for seeing possibility where others did not. He once said, “You have to serve customers the wine they want, not the wine you think they should have…”

Hemmeter spent a week in one of our elite suites, suitably named the "Hemmeter Suite" just before he passed away in 2003.

The resort actually opened as a Hyatt resort and later sold in 1993 to a Chinese company, Global Resort Partners, and Hilton Corporation.  In 2002, Hilton Hotels Corporation purchased Global Resort Partners' shares, making Hilton Waikoloa Village 100% Hilton owned.

With the strong resources of Hilton Hotels Corporation, we have worked hard to ensure Hilton Waikoloa Village is the resort of choice for our guests and visitors. Our tropical paradise continues to evolve as we renew, refresh and establish ourselves as a true resort destination.

With a capital investment of over $101 million in projects since 2005, we strive to distinguish ourselves through our continuous improvement efforts. We have completed numerous improvements and additions to the resort's offerings, increasing levels of comfort while instilling the unique Hawaiian culture into hotel décor and services.

As you can see, Boeddeker's name is not even mentioned.  Very odd.

The High Stakes Game of Resort Development

Ironically, despite their amazing success at Waikoloa and later projects as well, both Hemmeter and Boeddeker would suffer humiliating defeats late in their careers.  Here are the two stories.

Boeddeker's Dreams Die in the Desert

Ron Boeddeker's original vision was to re-create a Lake Como-like, Mediterranean enclave 17 miles from the Las Vegas strip.

In the grand pantheon of great visions, this was one of the most expansive. Multi-million dollar residences would be built along the lake, there would be fine hotels, excellent food, substantial golf courses.  It was a vision that had legs.  Thanks to Mr. Boeddeker's unusual expertise -- his University training in civil engineering and his previous experience in Hawaii -- he almost pulled it off.

Boeddeker was one of the few developers who could envision a 320 acre lake in the middle of a desert and also know how to create it from a practical engineering standpoint.

The dark side of such a vision was its dependence on a recession-resistant economy over a fairly lengthy period of time.

But the economy was not recession-resistant. The Las Vegas real estate market soon deflated and the community's three golf courses went into foreclosure.  Even with celebrities buying houses and the exceptional hotels and golf courses in active use, Lake Las Vegas was deeply affected by the downturn in the economy.  

Boeddeker's Transcontinental defaulted on $540 million in loans in the fall of 2007 and went into foreclosure.


Hemmeter's Waterloo

In 1991, Chris Hemmeter began to develop casino gaming projects. His biggest project was a proposed $1 billion casino in New Orleans. It was billed at the time as "the world's largest casino".

The developers estimated the casino would attract one million additional visitors to the city and would generate annual revenues of as much as $780 million, estimates that were based in part on the proven success of dockside gaming in the Mississippi Gulf Coast area.

In 1993 a partnership of Hemmeter and Caesars World obtained the lease on the Rivergate property, which by law was the only place the land-based casino could be built in Louisiana.  They beat out a rival bid by Harrah's.  However, in August, 1993, the State Casino Board awarded the state's sole casino license to Harrah's and not to Hemmeter.

The impasse of one company owning the only license and the other owning the only lease was resolved when the two entities formed a joint venture under pressure from then-Governor, Edwin Edwards.

Titled "Harrah's Jazz", the new partnership established a temporary casino in the Municipal Auditorium in order to establish a cash flow while the main facility was under construction at the Rivergate.  The temporary facility opened in May, 1995, and a week later was closed due to a flood.  

The poor location of the site resulted in the actual gaming take falling 60% below projections at only $13.1 million per month.

Harrah's Jazz halted construction on the permanent facility at 3 am the day before Thanksgiving, 1995, and laid off 1,600 construction workers, 2,500 casino employees, and filed for bankruptcy.  Later, the project was taken over by Harrah's who built the Harrah's New Orleans Casino on the site of Hemmeter's project.

Hemmeter filed personal bankruptcy in 1997.  His attempt to enter the casino business in New Orleans became what one associate called his Waterloo.

Hemmeter told The Times that he had plummeted "from a net worth of $750 million down to zero in a matter of months." Court documents showed that he had about $720,000 in assets and $87 million in liabilities.  Hemmeter spent his final days explaining how the dirty politics in Louisiana had done him in. 

Ironically, Harrah's went on to make the venture very successful under its own brand.


The Icarus Effect

So you might be curious why I wrote about the economic miseries of the two Waikoloa founders.  I am fascinated by people who develop huge projects.  The risks involved are so great that I cannot imagine having the guts to roll the dice like these people do.  It seems like developers must have some type of confidence which tells them they can't fail.  Invariably 'confidence' turns into 'conceit' and one day these guys seem to bite off more than they can chew. 

I call it The Icarus Effect.

Take Bugsy Siegel for example.  Bugsy was the first guy to see the potential in Las Vegas.  However, he didn't get the results fast enough to satisfy the impatience of his mob buddies who bankrolled the project.  They shot him.

Historically, the greatest failures are often preceded by amazing success.  In 1854 Ferdinand de Lesseps of France received permission to build the Suez Canal.  His project was so successful that investors from around the world lined up to back his next project, the Panama Canal

De Lessups got nowhere.  After 10 years of futility, losses of $20 million dollars plus the yellow fever deaths of 20,000 men, France totally gave up.  France sold the rights to the canal to the United States.   De Lessups' disastrous Panama Canal effort was perhaps the greatest engineering flop in the history of man.

I read that Atlantis in the Bahamas was a miserable failure when it first opened.  Merv Griffin and Donald Trump both tried to make a go of the place only to give up in disgust.   For that matter, the Waikoloa project did not succeed the first time around.  The Hyatt was forced to sell it to the Hilton.

It takes a lot of guts to invest in a project like Waikoloa.  These places don't always succeed.  And even when they do succeed, it ain't always the early bird that gets the worm, but rather the second mouse that gets the cheese... if you know what I mean.  There are unseen pitfalls everywhere.


Waikoloa Village

Building Atop a Lava Field

Of all the things I read about Waikoloa, the one thing I find the most fascinating is how they built the resort on top of a lava field.  The picture above clearly shows the underlying rock foundation.  Rising from an endless sea of black lava, Waikoloa is a perfect example of man working in harmony with nature.

If you study the golf course pictures, wherever you look, it is obvious that the greens are basically carpets laid on top of lava.  Notice how the course designers used lava to line each golf hole.  When you hit a golf shot in the rough, like as not it gets stuck in the lava field.  Try chipping out of that!

The designers transformed this stark moonscape into a tropical garden by spreading thousands of truckloads of topsoil over the lava.  They sprinkled it with tons of grass seed.  Next they transplanted more than 1,600 palm trees at $1,000 apiece.   Now they had to solve the problem of the arid climate.   As a final touch, they built a giant irrigation system to nurture this former wasteland into a stunning oasis.  The pictures are testimony to their success.  When man decides to assist nature, the results can be stunning.


Waikiki Beach, Oahu

Hanauma Bay, Oahu

The Great Mystery of Waikoloa

Everybody knows that Hawaii is home to some of the most stunning beaches imaginable.  In fact, Waikiki Beach in Honolulu is one of the most famous beaches in the world.  Nearby Hanauma Bay is a close second. 

Something that always startles the guests at Waikoloa is the discovery that this fabulous resort has one of the ugliest beaches they have ever seen.

That just blows their mind.  How does a multi-million dollar resort in Hawaii, home to some of best beaches in the world, end up without a decent beach?

When I was poring over the literature for Waikoloa, it seemed strange to me that they never said a word about their beach.  Considering they hyped everything under the sun, why was there no mention of the beach?

Curious, I visited Google Earth.  (Note: If you don't have this application on your computer, go to the Internet and get it.  It's free and it's fun.)

As I zoomed in on the Waikoloa Village, it sure looked like they had a beach.  Check out the picture with the pink arrows.  What do you think?  Doesn't that look like a white sand beach to you?

One of the features of Google Earth are the ubiquitous Panoramio photos.  Anyone is welcome to upload pictures of the various places they visit.

Curious, I clicked 20 different icons near the Waikoloa beach for clues.  Nada.

All I got were sunset pictures, pictures of the ocean, and pictures of the resort.

Where is the damn beach?  Where are the palm trees, the lounge chairs, the swimmers and the beach towels?  Not one single picture.  Nothing.

Then I clicked on the photograph you see to the right.  White rocks.  Hmm. 

If you had lots of white rocks and you were taking a picture from outer space, would white rocks show up looking like white sand?   You betcha!!

I laughed out loud.  I had just discovered a secret.  Waikoloa doesn't have a beach.  And they don't want you to know that!

I think I can understand their frustration. 

How would you feel if 29 out of 30 beaches in Hawaii were stunningly beautiful and you just spent millions of dollars buying the ugly one? 

You're the publicity agent.  What are you going to say?

"Come to Waikoloa and see the most sensational sunsets, the finest golf courses, and the ugliest beach in the state!"  

Nah, probably not.  That's not what you are going to write.  More likely, you won't even mention the word 'beach'.  Well, to their credit, they did say they had a 'beach', but they left it at that.  Caveat emptor.

As it turns, yes, the various Hawaii islands do have many sensational beaches, but at this particular spot on the Big Island, Mauna Kea's ancient lava flow made certain to ruin everyone's fun. 

It's one thing to bring in tons of dirt to make a golf course.  After all, dirt is cheap!  But apparently they didn't bother to cover those nasty rocks with beautiful sand.  For one thing, it might be dangerous to try. 

It crossed my mind that as the sand gets washed out to sea in the high tide or in a storm, someone walking barefoot could easily cut their foot on sharp lava rock barely hidden by the remaining sand.  But if everything is rocky, then people have the sense to wear shoes or sandals.

I noticed in a travelogue there might be one section of sandy beach.

Because Waikoloa was carved out of a wasteland of lava that flows to the ocean itself, it was necessary to create a beach. The truth be told, it's not much of a beach. Furthermore, it was necessary to haul in each little grain of sand.  One can windsurf, but it is a disappointingly short ride.

I was unable to find a picture of the alleged sandy part of the beach.  However I did find a picture that shows Waikoloa definitely has a beach.  However, if you take a second look, you will notice something is missing.  What could it be?

There are no people.  What does that tell you?  It says the beach is so uncomfortable, no one wants to use it.  In fact, it is so uncomfortable, no one wants to walk on it either.  Obviously that is the white rock beach.  

Oh, so what.  If you are a developer, why let owning a lousy beach stop you? 

If you can overcome a vast range of black lava rock, then there has to be a solution for a rocky beach.  Why not build your own series of water venues and add a protected beach?  For starters, at least you have a perfect supply of good clean ocean water.  I think that's exactly what they decided to do.

In this case, compensating for their lousy beach helps to explain why Waikoloa developed such an incredible collection of stunning water vistas. 

The four acre system of pools at Waikoloa Village are something to behold.  A guest can whisk down a 175-foot-long twisting water slide, admire Hawaii's colorful fish or relax with a book in a swinging hammock.  

There are boats and floats everywhere for people to take out in the water.

It is the best of all worlds.  Sun worshippers can bask out in the open and people who hate the sun can hide under palm trees.   No one ever breaks a sweat in the balmy climate.  Even better, in addition to the gentle ocean breezes and the perfect 72° temperature, there are no bugs! 

The resort boasts three freshwater swimming pools and a saltwater lagoon, each unique in its own right.  One million gallons of water fill the trio of pools, with an additional 5,000 gallons of saltwater pumped each minute to circulate through the Saltwater Lagoon and canal system.  The water is sparkling.

Largest of the three, the Kona Pool features a dramatic waterfall that cascades into the pool from overhead. Swimmers can duck underneath, giving them a feeling of being inside a water-cloaked cavern.  Three Jacuzzis are set within rocks and caves, a swinging bridge crosses the oversized pool and a sandy-bottomed children's section makes this place safe for kids.

At Waikoloa, I noticed a lovely area titled "Lagoon Beach".  I have included a picture of it.  Here you can see a small beach overlooking the Lagoon.  This is another example of the lengths the developers went to overcome the beach problem.  They succeeded well. 

The pictures make it clear that just like Atlantis in the Bahamas, the developers turned Waikoloa into an amazing water paradise.   In fact, Waikoloa may have even served as the inspiration for Atlantis. 

So there you have it.  Thanks to the lava problem, Waikoloa became a resort with man-made grass, man-made jungles, man-made canals, man-made lagoons and man-made waterfalls cascading over man-made cliffs.

In the greatest irony of all, the man-made cliffs are made out of man-made lava.

Personally, I don't care if these vistas are artificial or not.  I can't imagine many spots on earth much prettier than this Lagoon Beach shown here.

The White Rock Beach

Another Look at the White Rock Beach

Lagoon Beach


Canal on one side, Lagoon on the other, Ocean in the background

If you study the map, you will see a series of wavy lines in the water.  This is actually a canal.  You can take a shuttle boat from one end of the complex to the other.

Using the ruler function of Google Earth, I estimate the length of the canal at close to a mile.  Whether you can also swim the canal I do not know, but I doubt anyone wants to.

In addition to the Grand Canal, you have lagoons and swimming pools in every corner of the complex.  If you look, they even have a "Lagoon Beach" with sand.

One of the lagoons features dolphins.  A favorite attraction is a swim with the dolphins.

since Waikoloa possesses only six dolphins compared to dozens of requests, they conduct a daily dolphin lottery

Thus only a handful of guests win the chance to swim with the dolphins. 

Nevertheless, it is a charming spectacle for everyone to watch the lucky guests as they interact with these friendly creatures out in the water.

The complex is divided into three towers: Lagoon Tower, Palace Tower, and Ocean Tower.  These towers are where the guests stay in the 1,240 rooms

There is a giant inlet that adds to the attractiveness of the resort.  Rather than line up all the different areas in a square or a rectangle, the designers were able to wrap the structures into a U-Shaped complex (see map above). This means the people in the different areas can see the other hotel towers.  

The complex stretches nearly a mile from end to end.  So in addition to the canal, they installed a monorail to help people get to their spot among the .  If you look at the map above, you will see the rail runs parallel to the canal.

The Main Lobby and Grand Promenade is a fourth area that serves as the central location.  Here the guests can check in, as well as find restaurants, meeting places, convention halls, and shopping areas.

In addition to the rail shuttle and the boat shuttle, there are plenty of trails connecting the facilities for an old-fashioned mode of transportation known as "walking".  Imagine that. 

There are several bridges throughout the complex that connect the walking trails to the four different sectors of Waikoloa. 


Protecting the Environment

One of the original predictions of Waikoloa developer Chris Hemmeter was that the entire Kohala Coast would be someday be lined with hotels, homes and condominiums -- from Mauna Kea nearly to Kailua-Kona -- in much the same way the Jersey seaboard has become an endless series of interlocking boardwalks. 

Now that the thirty years report card has come in, it looks like Hemmeter's prediction was on target.  Although there is quite a bit of land still open for development, the irresistible lure of a home on the ocean has led to a series of well-heeled communities that dot the coastline.

Google Earth makes it easy to spot them.  Black lava fields are interrupted by a green oasis, then more black lava fields, then another green oasis. 

As America's baby boomers look for second homes or a place to retire, the coastline landscape of the Big Island is changing rapidy.

Those who knew and loved the old Hawaii may find places like Waikoloa beyond comprehension.  Gigantic and expensive, it is representative of other mega-resorts that stand in stark contrast with the old, unspoiled Hawaii

When you realize that Waikoloa transformed a wasteland into a paradise, maybe this change isn't such a bad thing.

As the fragile beauty of this unique island nation disintegrates, perhaps the resorts can be looked to preserve the original beauty of the tropical forest in much the same way that a game preserves protects its animals.

More and more, humans are learning not only to protect the environment, but to make improvements where possible. 


I haven't mentioned that for the rich, I ran across an article that suggested various delights that exceed the pocketbook of ordinary people like me.

At the of the list of Waikoloa fantasies is a private picnic for two at 3,000-foot Lauhala Point, a secluded spot that's reached by helicopter. The two-hour jaunt, which includes a flight over ranches and volcanoes, comes to a whopping $1,325 per couple. An extra hour runs the tab up another $760.  Let me add these prices should be adjusted up inflation.

Other couples can embark on sunset dinner cruises, complete with a valet. Back at the dock, the couple is whisked away by chauffeured limousine back to the womb at Waikoloa. The five-hour package figures out to $1,470 per twosome.

There are a myriad other choices. Take the five-course meal at historic Hulihee Palace, the former retreat of Hawaii's kings and queens in the village of Kailua-Kona. This dinner features the favorite dishes of King Kalakaua and a check for $2,745--the price for four guests.

The same foursome can join an eight-hour tour of the 2,200-acre Kahua Ranch, helping round up cattle with the paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) for a mere $2,150, which figures out to a few bucks under $270 per hour.

Still, not all fantasies pay off in favor of Waikoloa. A while back, a group of yuppies guzzled $2,600 worth of Dom Perignon at a luncheon that was pre-billed at $450. The hotel took a bath; the yuppies walked off with hangovers.

One idea that never got off the ground, much to the relief of vacationers searching for solitude, involved formula car-racing lessons. Imagine coming to this laid-back island and gearing up like Mario Andretti.  On the other hand, you never know, maybe this idea will come back into fashion. It isn't like those lava fields have any other pressing practical value.

On Hawaii's famous Parker Ranch, Waikoloa's guests can hunt wild boar, wild turkey, goats and sheep that wind up on the dinner table back at the hotel. The price for playing Jungle Jim is $825 for the first hunter and $395 apiece for others joining the safari.

Not all fantasies are so expensive. A six-hour bird-watching safari is bid at $226, and there are horseback rides ($40), tours of Parker Ranch ($30.80), a trip by ocean submarine ($67), visits to the volcanoes ($45) and star-gazing cruises by sailboat ($55). Waikoloa lists other choices, including golf at two major courses ($60 and $75 for 18 holes).


Waikoloa bills itself as "the most spectacular resort on earth." A brochure gushes: "The senses are indulged, passions are requited and the pursuit of happiness is limited only by your imagination."

Before his passing, James Michener, the author of Hawaii, got carried away as well. "Waikoloa is the kind of place God would have built if he had sufficient cash flow."

There is so much to describe.  For example, the centerpiece of the resort is a $2 million dollar Grand Staircase (pictured) which descends to a saltwater lagoon teeming with tropical fish.

Then there are the statues. Waikoloa displays these works of art throughout the complex. Peering from the foliage are Buddhas, nymphs and an assortment of other creatures. It gets downright spooky at times. Especially at night when one comes eyeball to eyeball with a marble dragon.

The statues are just part of the $7 million dollars Chris Hemmeter spent to decorate his prize.  Guests who decide to skip the gondola or the train can stroll down the a mile-long Museum Walk with $3.5 million worth of Pacific and Asian art

Of course, as always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  One curator labeled the collection "pure junk" while a guest praised the holdings as "inspirational."

The path is strewn with tribal masks, ceremonial masks, drums, spears, Thai carvings and paintings, along with dozens of other artifacts gathered from Bangkok to Bali. A fountain from Italy gurgles in one courtyard.  And there's a "Chinese" vase that was cast in Encino, Mexico. 

Still, Hawaii creates its own magic. Look one direction and see Mauna Kea stare back at you.  Or look across the water and see the island of Maui just 50 miles away to the north.  Obviously Maui was on the Hot Spot just prior to the Big Island's debut as the new kid on the block.

Trade winds continue to funnel up volcano slopes, and the sky smolders at sundown.  As the skies darken, guests board the train to pick up a mai tai at  the "End of the Line Bar", then cross a swinging bridge with camera in hand to capture one of Hawaii's memorable sunsets on the terrace.

There are joys scattered throughout the grounds.  In one spot one can view the royal fish ponds.  In another spot, there is a water hole filled with bright orange koi fish. 

For the archeology buffs, there are petroglyphs preserved on the estate that date centuries before the first tourist waded ashore.

In every direction, there is dense tropical foliage, stately palm trees and thick grass.  There is so much natural beauty that it is hard to imagine that just thirty years ago this entire area was covered in a lava flow. 

Considering how much money and "love" was put into the building of this resort, it is hard to believe Waikoloa stumbled badly getting out of the gate.

Perhaps there was a Hawaiian curse.  There are all kinds of curses on these islands.  This place is filled with more superstition than a dark alley in the New Orleans voodoo section. 

One curse says never to take anything that belongs to Hawaii home with you.  I know a friend who took a Maui rock home as a souvenir, then fretted for months when her sister had a sudden stroke upon her return.

I heard the same curse and immediately threw my own rock over the balcony of my cruise liner while we were still docked in Kauai.  I don't take curses lightly.

When the Hyatt Corporation proposed building a resort at the location there was an injunction slapped upon them by naturalists who saw the area as the home of a protected species of birds.

One story has it that the injunction expired and before it could be renewed, contractors gathered at the site at night and started construction.

Maybe this was sign as effrontery by the Gods of Mauna Kea.

The Waikoloa Hyatt Hotel was opened in 1988 offering "ways to your room via monorail, grand canal boats, coronation carriages pulled by Clydesdale horses, or a moving sidewalk which offers the visitor a trip through Polynesian history."  It definitely seemed like a promising start.

Nevertheless, for various reasons, the resort failed in 1993.  It was sold to Hilton.  Soon the Hilton Waikoloa Village was born.  It has been a success ever since.  Obviously the second mouse got the cheese.

Competition down the Road

Waikoloa isn't the only game in town.  In fact, Waikoloa is considered "reasonably priced" when compared to three nearby luxury hotels.

5 miles up the road are the exquisite 5-star Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and the Hapuna Hotel.  Don't tell anyone, but both hotels have pristine beaches unaffected by lava flows.  In fact, Mauna Kea is said to have the finest natural beach on the entire island.

The development of the Kona coast began 25 years ago with Laurance Rockefeller's magnificent Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. 

In 1960 Hawaii Governor William Quinn invited American venture capitalist Laurance S. Rockefeller to visit the Big Island and scout beachfront sites for potential resorts.

A noted conservationist and lover of the outdoors, Rockefeller believed that buildings should conform to, not intrude on, beautiful natural surroundings.

As they flew over the white sand crescent of Kauna‘oa Beach, Rockefeller asked if he could go in for a swim. From the water, he looked upslope at the towering summit of Mauna Kea.  That was his lightning bolt moment.  He was inspired to create a great hotel that reflected the spirit of this special place.

When it opened in 1965, at $15 million, the Mauna Kea was the most expensive hotel ever built at the time.  Praised by travel writers and critics worldwide, the luxury resort hotel was named one of the "Three greatest hotels in the world" by Esquire magazine, one of "10 best buildings of 1966" by Fortune, and presented with an honors award by the American Institute of Architects.

And although Rockefeller has long since bid aloha to the Big Island, Mauna Kea remains spectacular nonetheless.

Only a few miles down the coast, the spectacular Mauna Lani Bay Hotel at Kalahuipua'a gets similar raves by the Marco Polos of this world, who come to snorkel, sail, play golf and tennis, join picnic cruises and give chase to Big Horn sheep and boar in the wilds of Hualalai. With its grace and style (its atrium is an art work), Mauna Lani has proved immensely popular.

The Kohala Coast continues to be developed.  Other openings are planned by Ritz-Carlton, the Prince hotels, Hilton and the Four Seasons.  Hemmeter was right... someday there will be a boardwalk stretching all the way up from Kona.

A Nice Place for a Walk

Fortunately that day is pretty far in the future.  For now, it is reassuring to know that Waikoloa practically guarantees everything we could ask for in a day of exploring the premises. 

There might be an entrance fee, but no matter what the cost, it will not begin to approach the cost of the ship-sponsored excursions.  For example, the last time we came to Kona in 2007, Marla and I spent $300 on an excursion to see some pretty backwoods waterfalls

Although we had a wonderful day, I might point out that almost all we did was walk around... and half the walk was in a cow pasture.  Now we walk around again for a fraction of the price and see exquisite beauty in the process.

Marla and I love to walk and explore. That's our favorite thing to do on every trip.  We figure we can take a taxi and spend the day taking a leisurely stroll through the various gardens.  For starters, privacy is a given. The grounds are so far-flung, there will never be a fear of a bustling crowd at this place.

We can walk along the ocean, sit and reflect at Buddha Point, find a hammock for a while, then wander the interior grounds.  At some point, we can put on our bathing suits and visit the beach facing the huge salt water lagoon.  I plan to grab one of those kayaks and take Marla for a ride. 

A day spent in Paradise is surely good for the soul. 

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