KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- There are many choices when it comes to a luxurious golf-and-beach resort hotel along the Kona-Kohala Coast of the Big Island.
Seven of them, to be exact: A Four Seasons, Fairmont, Marriott, Hilton, two Prince Resorts Hawaii hotels and one unique independent property line the highway north of the Kona International Airport.
I stayed at three of them -- plus ate meals at the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii and the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel -- on a recent weeklong trip, my first stay on the island. First impressions? Anybody who critiques any of them is nitpicking. Here's an insider's tour of which one might be right for you:
Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
Strengths: The 533-room Marriott sits on 15 acres facing the Anaeho'omalu Bay. Ancient fish ponds near its beach provide the perfect place for a walk at sunrise. Having Hawaii Ocean Sports right on the beach behind the resort is a big bonus. Guests can schedule cruises for whale and dolphin watching, sunset romance and more.
My wife participated in its yoga on the beach one morning. The restaurants at the Kings' Shops and Queens' Marketplace add many convenient dining options. I liked the Marriott pool complex the best of the three resorts. A waterslide and a zero-entry pool attached to a sandy beach-like playground area caters to families with young children.
Weaknesses: Long-time guests worry about the sustainability of its narrow beach, which has shrunk over the years. The King's and Beach golf courses play fine but not spectacular, featuring only one hole (Beach no. 7) with ocean views. My room, while nice, didn't feel as warm and welcoming as the other two.
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
Strengths: What's not to love about the modern architecture of Mauna Lani? The interior looks like a Garden of Eden. Everywhere you turn, there's a pond or stream stocked with fish, turtles and sharks. Flora and fauna and towering palm trees decorate the interior corridors with a landscape more lush than the outdoors (remember Kona is essentially a dry desert-like climate). The 341 guest rooms of the hotel were refreshed in 2013 (the bungalows were updated in 2012).
I only got a chance to sample the breakfast buffet at the Bay Terrace (which was superb), but the CanoeHouse appeared to be a magical spot for a romantic dinner. Instead, my wife and I dined at Monstera, a sushi joint superbly run by a former Fairmont chef at the Shops at Mauna Lani. For golfers, the North and South Courses are an unbeatable combination. They're well maintained, and each has a different style. The more beautiful South Course on the ocean uses wide fairways so all handicaps can enjoy the round. Mauna Lani's North Course demands more shots. Both boast cool signature par 3s.
Weakness: It's a minor inconvenience that nothing is within walking distance. Guests must shuttle to the courses, the spa/fitness center and the Shops at Mauna Lani.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Strengths: I fell for the elegant Mauna Kea the hardest. Developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1964, Mauna Kea is blessed with the best public golf course and the best beach on the island, both conveniently adjacent to the hotel. All 252 rooms have been renovated since 2008, so the property sparkles heading into the 50th anniversary of the Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course at Mauna Kea this December.
Just the drive in, winding past the iconic oceanfront cliffs of the third hole, sets the tone. The nearby Hapuna Golf Course by Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay gets overshadowed by Mauna Kea, but its hilly terrain and panoramic views are worth seeing, too. The resort's pool and excellent tennis club overlook Kauna'oa Bay. Drinks at the Hau Tree bar right on the beach will spice up any sunset. Consider dinner at Manta afterward, a splurge worth experiencing. The shoreline observation deck near the restaurant uses spotlights at night to attract plankton, which in turn brings the manta rays to feed.
Weakness: Such luxury comes at a cost, and there aren't really any off-property restaurants nearby to escape those prices.