Note: This story was originally published in the March, 2001, issue of Golf Digest
Travel guru Arthur Frommer has a theory that the less money you spend on a vacation, the better time you have. We tested the premise on the Big Island of Hawaii. We separated Tom Callahan and Dave Kindred, who have traveled the golf world together, and sent one to the caviar/mai-tai side, the other to the Egg McMuffin/Hawaiian Punch side. As to which pal had the better time, you be the judge.
Rich man: Kona on caviar
By Tom Callahan
For a pittance of $3,006, you get a lot in Kona.
You get four nights at the Four Seasons
Resort. Your $395 room overlooks King's Pond, home to 3,500 different kinds of fish. Like Luca Brasi, you may swim with them but are advised to keep your hands to your sides as much as possible, keeping in mind the guidebook's caution that "large, abrupt or jerky movements often frighten fish," causing many to crash on the rocks.
While none of the fish are said to be predatory, it is recommended you particularly avoid the stinging spines of the Spotted Eagle Rays, who dislike being stepped on. Yellow Tang and surgeonfish sometimes employ scalpel-like fins against those who grab them. Don't grab them.
For an additional $155-per-round (plus $15 for all-day range privileges), you get to play golf at the Four Seasons' Hualalai course, a meticulously manicured and beautifully bunkered Jack Nicklaus design so generously situated in a frame of black lava that any ball landing in the lava deserves to be in the lava. Mauna Kea ($110-$195), Hapuna ($110-$195), Mauna Lani ($75-$200) and the Waikoloa Beach Resort ($105-$195) are among the courses nearby.
The third hole at Mauna Kea, a par 3 that requires a long shot from an island to a cloud, may be the most famous real estate on the Kohala Coast. But all of it is choice. Big-ticket, broad-shouldered resorts line the coast, cheek by jowl, like luxury yachts in Monte Carlo harbor. Mauna Lani, which sounds like a part for Dorothy Lamour, has fairways nearly too lush to be grass. This entire side of the island is dedicated to advancing the theme: What God could have done if only He had the money.
Rounds can be arranged at the other places. But to play Hualalai, you must be a registered guest at the Four Seasons.
In a spotlighted cafe right on the ocean's edge, the caviar costs $100 even. When mixed with the rain from a sudden cloudburst, it looks remarkably like black bean soup. While the caviar is not included in the cost of the room, breakfast is, along with Maureen Dowd; that is, along with a faxed Reader's Digest version of The New York Times.
Sea turtles with shells the size of manhole covers sun themselves on the beach. They are as haughtily aware of their sacred status as the cattle of Katmandu. For an extra $50,000, plus one year in jail, you may menace the turtles.
Among the other things you don't get for $3,006:
Seaweed body masques, Dead Sea mud baths and rehydrating aloe wraps. Of course, the sting of bonus charges must be measured against the embarrassment of having the only skin on the property that hasn't been properly exfoliated. First hot and then cold rocks are placed on and under the body, followed by a deeply moving massage with a basalt stone. The balance brought about by this leaves you with a feeling of wholeness.
The rooms, beyond lush in their teak and mahogany motif, come with everything but Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet; in fact, there's two of anything you can think of: two kinds of robes, "Everlast" style or Japanese; two kinds of slippers; two kinds of music; two kinds of Scotch. There are all manners of fresh fruits and chocolates.
Towels? They could be wrapped at least twice, maybe three times, around Craig Stadler. They're impossible to steal, unless you brought a steamer trunk.
I was at the Four Seasons, by the way, because Kindred won the toss and shrewdly elected Uncle Billy's in Hilo, on the other side of the island. Rich man, poor man, don't you know.
The Four Seasons is said to be a playground for rich celebrities, and there was a rumor that Heather Locklear was abroad somewhere. I wondered if she'd like a snorkel.
Except for the staff, bubbling with sincere Alohas and unfeigned Mahalas (not at all as tinny-sounding as they can be in Honolulu), most of the guests, especially the men, looked a trifle grumpy. Their expressions seemed to say: "I can more than afford this, but that doesn't mean I don't bitterly resent paying it."
One evening, I took a sunset sail ($80) that integrated the sour citizens of the Four Seasons with cheerful folk from some hellhole without air-conditioning in Kona.
"I haven't slept in three days," complained a woman from Albuquerque who was keeping somebody else's husband company. (To be fair, she wasn't really complaining.) "Every night, drenched in sweat, I'm always just on the brink of finally dozing off when the birds start cawing. I don't mind. I'll sleep when I get home."
The captain of the Manu'Iwa was bracing for a solo sail to San Diego. Actually, he was flying to San Diego and sailing back.
"I get rock fever sometimes," he said, "and you can't cure it on the sea. You have to fly away somewhere first, smell some good old exhaust fumes."
Each day, between lei making and ukulele lessons, I hit golf balls. It was hard to leave the range, because, like magic, the balls were instantly restacked behind you like miniature cannon balls on a battlefield.
The traffic on Hualalai was light. One afternoon, I caught up to and joined a doctor's wife who lived on the course (homeowners can be members) and, moving at warp speed, we played four or five balls a hole from all of the different tees the rest of the way in. It was howling fun. I came within two inches of a double eagle at the wrong cup on a double green, meaning I four-putted for a bogey.
"Isn't it amusing?" she said.
"Mildly," I admitted.
She was afoot and I was a little ashamed of my cart. There's no cart fee at Hualalai, only a playing fee. Walking is encouraged. "You can order a caddie," my playing partner told me, "but you may have to teach him how to caddie."
She asked why I was alone and I explained the arrangement.
"My buddy's at Uncle Billy's Hilo Bay Hotel on the other side of the island," I said, "and I'm here."
"So you got the better part of the deal."
"I'm not sure."
"In terms of the golf, I'm certain you did," she said, "though there are times when I wish we weren't becoming so famous."
The secrets--best-kept and otherwise--must be on the other side of the island.
Poor man: Hilo on 3 light bulbs
By Dave Kindred
For a pittance of $679, you get a lot in Hilo.
You get four nights at Uncle Billy's Hilo Bay Hotel in a $94-a-night room overlooking Hilo Bay, a port of call for ocean liners and a playground for sailors, windsurfers and urchins diving from a breakwater marked "No Diving."
You get meals, transportation, night-club entertainment and dinner at a fine Japanese restaurant (slight begging and hitchhiking is necessary).
You get three days of golf on public courses unique in attitude and geography. You can play next door to a volcano and hit balls past turkeys, over $250,000 geese and under Hawaiian hawks. If you're lucky, you may buddy up with a smiling, one-legged gentleman who calls his prosthesis "my receipt from World War II" and lobs a 3-wood inside your 7-iron.
As you might suspect, though, for $679 there's also a lot you don't get.
Such as a closet. You get no closet. Uncle Billy provides four wire hangers and a length of pipe.
Rather than a minibar, two floors down you pump quarters into a vending machine. There's no refrigerator, no central air, no massage therapy, no sailing lessons.
The hotel's one elevator will carry you and two pieces of luggage if either you or the luggage is small.
Upon arrival, do you want a welcoming gift of wine and fruit? Would you like nightly turndown service? Mints on your pillow? The morning's Wall Street Journal folded alongside a bagel, cream cheese and coffee?
Towels? You get towels, sort of. Uncle Billy issues handkerchiefs studying to be towels. There's no 24-hour room service, because there's no room service at any hour, let alone all 24. Here's Uncle Billy's idea of room service: You go into the parking lot, turn left, and from Uncle Billy's General Store you get a sandwich and carry it to your room.
Of your room's five light bulbs, three work.
A three-bulb place is about how I'd figured Uncle Billy's on check-in. An odd combination of thatched-hut decor and video arcade games gave the lobby the air of a tropical bus depot, as if Greyhound made a Hilo-to-Tahiti run
Not that I'm complaining. For $94 a night, I'll put up with a teenage yodeler in the hotel's nightclub. For $94, a three-bulb place is marvelous, not only budget-wise but social-wise in that it guarantees separation from the logos-on-their-briefs Pebble Beach/Princeville crowd.
Besides, I loved Uncle Billy's as soon as I saw this sign by the registration desk:
IN CASE OF TIDAL WAVE
Rule 1--Stay Calm
Rule 2--Pay Hotel Bill
Rule 3--Run Like Hell
Who needs a closet when your place laughs at tidal waves? Tsunamis, or monster tidal waves generated by volcanic eruptions, leveled Hilo in 1946 and 1961. So I asked Dean, the reception clerk, "Should I worry about tsunamis?"
Perhaps he didn't understand me. He answered, "I have your credit card." Or, per Rule 2, maybe Dean understood me well.
I knew one thing for sure: I was at Uncle Billy's because of Callahan. While he spent all the money, I stayed in a three-bulb place. Callahan had sized up this story idea as "Rich Man, Poor Man" and announced, "Kindred, you may visit my suite, but remove your shoes at the door."
He checked in at the Four Seasons Resort, a pleasure palace on the island's west coast. Eternally cerulean skies there run second in beauty to vacationing movie stars who radiate the glow of the rich, famous and well tended.
I checked in at Uncle Billy's in Hilo, a town of about 40,000 people on the east coast that's famous for its eternal rains. At 140 inches a year, Hilo gives Seattle lessons in mildew.
As a result of this arrangement, Callahan may have snorkeled with Meg Ryan. I stood in the rain with Ed Elkins.
"Rains here every night," Elkins said at 6:30 one morning. "But it lets up and everything's real pretty."
Sixty years old, he retired after 35 years as a barber in Charleston, S.C.
"You playing golf here?" I asked.
"Just touring. That, and dialysis."
Bright's disease had taken both his kidneys. "I go for dialysis Monday, Wednesday, Friday. There's a nice medical center here. It's no problem.
"People who complain about dialysis, they're mad at their sickness.
"What good does that do? It makes it worse. I'm not mad. Why be mad when you're alive and in Hilo, Hawaii?"
So it rains.
"Rainsuit, must have," said Ted Miyahara. The wisp of a man sat on a bench outside the starter's office at Naniloa Country Club, a nine-hole public course across the street from Uncle Billy's.
"Tarp, must have," Miyahara said. Blue tarpaulins the size of blankets flapped from cart roofs, there to cover golf bags.
Cheap golf gloves of synthetic materials work best in rain, Miyahara said. "Cheaper, better grip."
Though rain is a nuisance, it seldom causes Miyahara and his buddies to give up a round. "Can be dark everywhere," he said, "but if we look out there, over the ocean, and we see one blue spot in the sky, ah, we play."
Naniloa is a flat, simple, public course distinguished by bottlebrush trees. It costs $32 for 18 holes with a cart. Players wear blue jeans, shorts, tank tops, T-shirts and sneakers. No signs identify tees and yardages; tee markers are concrete blocks halved, sometimes doubling as trash bins. Fathers and sons tee it up at twilight.
In the gloaming, my second shot at 18 stopped so near the cup that even I made a birdie--with a witness to boot, an old, graying, one-legged man on the starter's bench.
"A 5-iron?" he said, as if he'd seen me swing a thousand times rather than once.
"I don't know."
"167 yards," he said, not asking, telling.
William (Chu-Chu) Kanuha is 82, a native of Hilo, once a banker, now retired. Evenings he brings in Naniloa's flagsticks.
"I've always lived here," he said. "Except for World War II. Europe, Germany. That's where I got this guy."
He touched his prosthesis. He also has a new hip joint.
I asked, "Do you get to play much?"
"Four or five times a week is all."
For $19.50 with cart, we played at Hilo Municipal, a real golf course with lava-rock stream beds and elevated, tilted greens granting no favors to the incompetent.
As for how we played, I'm happy to report the result:
The one-legged hustler won the money.
Then he chauffeured me to dinner at his favorite Japanese restaurant, after which he suggested where I should play next.
"Volcano," he said. "No better place on Earth."
You drive south on Route 11. You round a rising curve. Sha-zaam!
Suddenly, your eyes can't see it all. Mauna Loa fills the sky. It's an active volcano 13,677 feet high. Its slopes fall 30 and 40 miles to the ocean. Measured from the ocean floor, the volcano is twice as high as that Himalayan pimple, Mount Everest. It's the largest volcanic land mass in the world.
You look, awed, and you decide, yes, gods live up there.
For $63, you can play golf on the gods' grounds.
Even as I paid, Reynold Lee, then the pro at Volcano Golf & Country Club, asked, "What're you doing all the way out here?"
"My buddy's at the Four Seasons on the other side of the island, and I'm at Uncle Billy's."
"You got ripped."
Au contraire. Wild turkeys on the Volcano's seventh fairway. Seldom-seen Hawaiian hawks above the second. Nene geese nesting (signs advise that anyone harming the state bird can be fined $250,000). Pine and ohia trees decorate Volcano's testy layout.
I hooked up with Mike Combs and Skip Langell, mainlanders-turned-Hawaiians who play together at Volcano maybe 240 times a year.
"The climate's perfect here," Combs said. "It's quiet, and it's beautiful. Because it's out of the way--you're probably the only 'tourist' here--it's not crowded. It's one of the few places in Hawaii that you can play in four hours, not six."
"This golf course," Langell said, "is the best-kept secret in Hawaii."
Good. Otherwise, anyone who ever stood on the third tee would invite a thousand friends to Volcano next week. From that tee, you see the snowcapped summit of Mauna Loa and you hear--yes, you hear--a whisper, "Stay. Right here. Stay."
Where to play on the Big Island of Hawaii
* Basic golf
** Good, not great.
*** Very good. Tell a friend it's worth getting off the Interstate to play.
*** Outstanding. Plan your next vacation around it.
***** Golf at its absolute best. Playing this course is an experience of a lifetime.
Stars are based upon Golf Digest's exclusive Places to Play
guide and reflect ratings of 20,000 subscribers. Some courses are yet to be rated. For information on more than 6,000 courses in North America, obtain your copy of the fourth edition of the Places to Play book for $25 plus postage. Phone 800-793-2665 or check with your local bookstore.
For more information on a specific golf course, click on the underlined course names below.
HAWAII: KOHALA COAST TO HILO
Hapuna Golf Course, Kamuela, $110-$195 (808-880-3000)
Hilo Municipal Golf Course (unrated), Hilo. $20 -$25 (808-959-7711)
**** Hualalai Golf Club, Kailua Kona, $160 (808-325-8480)
Kona Country Club, Kailua Kona
**** Alii Mountain Cse.
and **** Ocean Cse. $120-$150 (808-322-2595)
**** Makalei Hawaii Country Club, Kailua Kona. $110 (808-325-6625)
**** Mauna Kea Beach Golf Course, Kamuela. $110-$195 (808-882-5400)
Mauna Lani Resort, Kohala Coast
****1/2 North Cse.
and **** South Cse. $75-$200 (808-885-6655)
Naniloa Country Club (unrated), Hilo. $30-$40 (808-935-3000)
**1/2 Seamountain Golf Course, Punaluu. $42-$45 (808-928-6222)
**1/2 Volcano Golf and Country Club, Volcano National Park. $63 (808-967-7331)
Waikoloa Beach Resort, Waikoloa.
**** Beach G. Cse.
(808-886-6060) and **** Kings G. Cse.
***1/2 Waikoloa Village Golf Club, Waikoloa. $80 (808-883-9621)
***1/2 Waimea Country Club, Kamuela. $65 (808-885-8777)
The area is serviced by Hilo International Airport, Kona International at Keahole Airport and Honolulu International Airport.
For more information
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau
Phone: 808-923-1811 or 800-464-2924