The Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay is about as Hawaiian a location as you can find anywhere in the islands. Hawai’i is a land of mystery, with a language that is full of paradoxes and hidden meanings. There’s the Hawai’i that one sees on the surface—sun, sand, and palm trees—but there’s another, deeper meaning to life in these islands, and this resort is the place to seek a somewhat better understanding of that.
First, let’s dispense with the details. The resort is located on Keauhou Bay, just a few miles south of Kailua Kona and the Kona International Airport at Keāhole. Each of the islands are essentially the highest peaks of very tall ocean mountains. Hawai’i, the youngest of the islands, also has the most pronounced slopes, without the benefit of eons of rainfall and erosion that shaped the much older leeward islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i into much flatter islands. This means the main roads are significantly upslope from the shore, and the resort is first visible from the turnoff into the Keauhou Resort complex as one’s vehicle literally descends upon the resort from above, turns past lush tropical foliage and is whisked up a ramp into the airy porte cochere and into the stunning lobby.
The hotel’s vintage 1972 design is still readily apparent with slabs upon slabs of curved, painted concrete at every turn, but it’s a design that has worn impressively well, and for those old enough to remember gives of a comfortable nostalgia without feeling outmoded. A 2012 refresh overseen by local Hawai’i Island artist Sig Zane wound the bespoke ulukekoiau design imbued with accents particular to the hotel throughout the staff uniforms and tapestries color-coded to different towers of the structure. The design elements include the feather cape, the shark tooth, and schools of fish, all significant to the geography of the resort and the history of the area. Another design inclusion is the leaves of the ulu or breadfruit tree, which the hotel’s current owners have planted in a prominent oceanfront location as a symbol of prosperity and their dedication to pay reverence to the cultural and historical significance of the area.
There’s plenty around the property to entertain. There’s a breakfast restaurant, Ainakai, which does a sumptuous breakfast buffet overlooking Keauhou Bay, and Ray’s on the Bay, next door, does nightly hook-to-cook or farm-to-fork cuisine, as well as hosting Sheraton’s new Paired program, which combines wines with small plates. Coffee fans will be able to enjoy Mama’s 100% Kona Coffee along with luscious baked goods in the mornings poolside. Speaking of pools, there are several resort pools, one of which boasts a water slide, and beach lovers who absolutely must have sand between their toes can enjoy the “beach” pool with a sandy lounge area, for the hotel itself is situation on a rocky sea cliff above the bay.
The real heart of the hotel, however, lies within the cultural activities which seek to educate guests about the cultural and historical significance of Keauhou Bay and the remains of the ancient fishing village which lie immediately adjacent the resort’s structure. There’s a delicate balance to strike here, one that has to be in line with what in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian Language) is called pono, which roughly translates to “righteousness” or “to do what is right” (although it has a host of other meanings). It’s a concept that bears such significance it’s a part of the state’s motto, which was previously that of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. It’s important to share Hawaiian culture and history in a way that is pono, or a way that honors and preserves the legacy, rather than ways that are simply promotional or gimmicky.
Pono is of particular importance when it comes to relationships with the ‘āina (land) and kai (ocean). It’s oversimplifying, but the basis of ancient Hawaiian belief is that the land and ocean are the source of all life, and in return it is the kuleana, or responsibility, of mankind to act as stewards of the ‘āina and the kai. It’s succinctly summed up by the motto of the State of Hawai’i, which was the motto of the Kingdom of Hawai’i before it, originally said by Kamehameha III, who incidentally was born at Keauhou Bay: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono—The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
The sense of what is pono is not only verbal, shared from kupuna (elders); it’s also a sense that can be gotten from direct meditation with the ‘āina and kai themselves, says resort’s Director of Culture and Activities Lily Dudoit. Dudoit considers it her kuleana to share the history of the ‘āina surrounding the resort with guests, which is why she created the cultural programs that are provided daily, from hula lessons to lei-making to a cultural tour of the grounds immediately adjacent the hotel, which were conducted by the expessive Nani, a member of the cultural staff at the hotel who told the stories of the area she said, “as the kupuna would tell the keiki (children)”.
Nani emoted deep warmth and hospitality to her group, along with a wry Hawaiian sense of humor as she described holoholo the group explaining that the fishermen in her family would tell her “they would never say they were going fishing, for the fish would hear this, and swim away” she smiled, slowly moving her pointed fingers from her ears in a motion reminiscent of hula, and her expression and tone changed in a manner reminiscent of a chant that typically accompanies the hula kahiko, or traditional style hula with chants, rather than music. She leaned in conspiratorially to the group, as though sharing her secret out of earshot of the fish in the bay behind her, “He would always say he going go holoholo—he’s going out and about—and leave first catch here as mahalo” she indicated the Ku’ula Fishing Stones, where residents and guests today often leave lei as an offering of thanks.
The cultural tour is included in the daily resort fee charged by the hotel. For the more adventurous, the hotel also offers hour-long sailing voyages along the coast following the cultural tour, onboard a double-hulled canoe similar to those used by the ancient Polynesians. Of course it’s pono to say a prayer (for safety) and ask permission to board, which Nani chanted from the shore in Ōlelo Hawai’i while boat captain Kalani answered in kind. Then greeted the passengers with a hearty handshake, and Nani in the Polynesian way, by “sharing breath” or pressing noses and often foreheads together. “Aloha” in fact, is said by folk etymologists to describe this greeting as alo (presence) and hā (breath).
During the voyage, Kalani shared stories about the region, touching briefly on the birth of Kauikeaouli, who would later be known as Kamehameha III, whose birth stones sit feet from the dock, and the nearby Lekeleke Burial Grounds, where in 1819 the remains of warriors fighting on both sides of a battle to decide the fate of the kapu system, or Hawaiian Religion.
A schoolteacher by trade, Kalani shared the stories from the perspective of a historic scholar, pointing out that the battle was ultimately viewed differently by opposing schools of thought – pointing out that one view was that the battle ultimately decided the fate of Christianity in Hawai’i, although another view points out that the first missionaries did not arrive in the islands until the following year, and the battle was more of a catalyst for whether the ali’i would continue to enforce the old values or embrace a multicultural, pluralist perspective on foreign involvement in the affairs of the kingdom.
Kalani also pointed out the lyrical duality of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, explaining that Keauhou was likely so named because the shape of the bay was formed by a later lava flow at some point during human inhabitance of the island; Keauhou is descriptive geography that means “new flow”. However, in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i words often have several meanings.
The noun in Keauhou is au, which means both “era” as in time period, and “flow” as in lava flow. Appropriately, Keauhou was the site of this battle, which decided the fate of kapu, the end of which ushered in a new era. Kamehameha III was also a decidedly modernizing monarch who decreed that the entire population of the kingdom should be educated; indeed by the end of the 18th Century, Hawai’i enjoyed virtually universal adult literacy at a time when significant percentages of European and American populations could not read.
Akule Supply Co, which sits at the harbor just steps from the hotel, is a good stop for lunch, serving up fresh seafood in generous portions—appreciated, of course, for even an hour on the open ocean has a peculiarly exhausting effect that invigorates the appetite.
On the surface, the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay looks like any other oceanfront resort hotel in Hawai’i, and compared with some of the ultra luxe resorts up the coast, it can appear simple by comparison—but make no mistake—the experience here is so utterly authentic that the energy, or mana, that is present here will continue to haunt with pleasant memories long after departure.
Rates start at $159 for a mountain view room and can vary by season and occupancy. Oceanfront rooms start at $219.
Warmest Aloha to the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay for their hospitality and for furnishing accommodations and some meals in preparation for this story.