|Subject: Revisiting Kona After 20 Years(a long lament)|
People travel for diverse reasons and these reasons change over the
course of their lives. In my case I've never been particularly
interested in water sports or sunbathing (or at least have become
less interested over the years as my poundage has rearranged itself in
less flattering ways!) but I've always delighted at the unspoiled and
undeveloped Hawai'i. It's a given that the weather and the flora are
spectacular and the sheer number of things that can flower at any
given time is breathtaking. There will always be nothing quite like
the feeling of leaving the winter cold and bluster and spending time
baking in sunny climes. But beyond the climate lies a simpler and
slower pace (with perhaps a touch of exotica thrown in) that has
always characterized our 50th state. In the islands it was not
unusual to see panoramas of workers in rice paddies that looked
identical to Vietnam; it was possible to have a picnic at the beach
in Kauai where the movie South Pacific (I think) was filmed and not
have anyone else share the beach with you; dining options away for the
hotel-and what adventuresome traveler would eat at a hotel--were
pretty much restricted to an occasional restaurant and a variety of
small mom and pop ethnic cafes. A meal there allowed the mainlander
to talk story with the locals. Sure, businesses that catered to
tourists were around but they seemed to almost be an appendage to the
normal flow of everyday life. Everyday life and development seemed
to be based more often than not on agricultural rather than the needs
of the tourist.
It's been over 20 years since I've been back to Hawaii. As an adult what used to be a fairly regular winter trip to the sun to escape the weeks of gray Sacramento weather was put on hold as the kids grew up. Vacations for Kirsten and I tended to be weekend getaways to Monterey or San Francisco. Vacations with the children were often short jaunts to Disneyland or San Diego and longer excursions to the national parks(ok, we did get a couple of trips in to Europe during this period). I believe that the last time I visited the Big Island was in the 1980s, by coincidence it just so happened to be the first year of the now famous Ironman Triathlon. Kona was a pretty undeveloped seaside town that was bustling with excitement and overflowing with crowds caught up in the grueling race. I stayed at the King Kamahamaha Hotel so I had a good view of the whole proceedings (or more precisely a good view of the beginning and end of the race). It was a nice diversion from what otherwise was a week filled with scenic drives and peaceful days. I had just come from the jet-set pace of Maui and Lahaina, seemingly hell bent on becoming one solid sprawl of condos, resorts, golf courses and hotel nightlife. The change to a slower pace on the big island was a welcome respite.
Although I put my notions of romantic Hawai'i on hold for some time, I guess I've always expected to return to my Hawai'i of old someday. Imagine my surprise this month when I returned after this long absence to find that Kona had become little more than a tropical Disneyland and much of the big island is on a headlong rush to reinvent itself from a quaint tropical icon to a tourist trap. Traffic congestion, can you believe it, is often bumper-to-bumper going through Kona and Kealakakua Bay. Tacky shops are the rule rather than the exception. Restaurants are poor and/or overrated and the price of everything is sky-high (how about $250 for a limited edition Aloha shirt?). I guess all of this would be tolerable except that very little of old Hawai'i peeks through anymore to surprise and delight.
I'm sure that some of the old Hawai'i is still there and just requires a bit more sleuthing than I was able to do with only a week. But still, it's a shame and occasions sadness for those travelers who remember a kinder and gentler Hawai'i. It's all the more frustrating because the growth in Kona seems so willy nilly and poorly thought out. The town seems to lack basic planning other than a restriction for building height and possibly limited development on the shore. As a result, tourists take their life in their hands when walking down the main strip (Ali'i Drive) because the town fathers haven't seen fit to put in basic infrastructure such as sidewalks and streetlights. I'll admit that this statement is a bit figurative concerning the daytime hours but it is quite literal once the sun has set.
In casting about for reasons for this explosive and haphazard growth I think that we're seeing a basic change in the economic drivers for the island. Twenty years ago they were multiple and diverse, they now seemed to have been replaced almost solely by tourism. Gone are the pineapple and sugar cane fields with their workers and support industries, leaving a void that has naturally been filled by tourism. Many (most?) of those who've lost their jobs in agriculture probably welcome the jobs in tourism--these jobs are probably more stable and better paying. Who am I to complain when I'm only visiting for a short period?
But it seems to me that the cost has been high for those of us who demand more of our travel venues than pretty weather and trinket shops. Most people won't miss being greeted at the Honolulu airport by the heady perfume of native Plumeria filling the aisles of the open-air airport because the airport is no longer open aired. It's been modernized and now features air-conditioning. Isn't it interesting that we tend to like a place only until it has been developed (supposed to better meet needs of the traveler)? I know that it's a bit of a conceit to expect that things will remain unchanged over 20 years but wouldn't you think that there would be a little more planning and thought given to development for an economy that is now so dependent on the tourist industry? Maybe it is just simply an oxymoron to think of planning and development in the same thought?
For the seasoned traveler I'd recommend avoiding Kona as much as possible (there are a couple of worthwhile sights there). I'm tempted to tell the seasoned traveler that there's not much of interest on the whole island but I'd be stretching things perhaps too much. After all, it still has its wonderful weather to escape to and flora that has to be seen to be believed. The whales still frolic off the west coast in the winter, the Mauna Kea observatories are awesome at sunset, and Hilo and Hawi remain quaint and untouristy. I guess we all tend to whine a bit when we go back someplace we've enjoyed and don't find things exactly how we remember them.
As hard as it may be to believe from all of my complaining we really did enjoy ourselves in the sun. I still plan to go back to Hawai'i but I think that the other smaller islands beckon for us next time. I'll post specific recommendations and tips for the Big Island in a later post if any of you are interested. Hoping your travels are fun!