The fate of Kona Village: One of the Big Island’s oldest resorts was wrecked by the tsunami in March. Locals worry about a repeat of Kauai’s Coco Palms, damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and never reopened. Kona Village’s owners say the resort will return, but not before 2013.
A natural disaster severely damages one of the oldest and most beloved hotels in Hawaii. Owners promise quick repairs, but insurance issues have to be dealt with. When every other hotel is eventually up and running, the future for the venerable place is still left dangling.
It happened to the Coco Palms on Kauai after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Now fans of Kona Village on the Big Island are worried their special hideaway will suffer the same fate in the wake of last March’s tsunami. At stake is the future of one of the last iconic Polynesian-themed resorts in a state where concrete, stucco and steel hotels built around golf courses have come to dominate.
Today, Coco Palms still sits as a dark and rotting hulk on the coastal road north of Kauai’s airport. The place made famous by the Elvis Presley movie “Blue Hawaii” has been tangled in insurance and environmental issues that have derailed several plans to rehabilitate the property into a hotel or timeshare property. Now the same issues are conspiring against Kona Village. The hotels damaged by the tsunami have been cleaned and renovated. All have reopened. All except Kona Village.
Unlike the sprawling megaresort complexes up and down the coast, Kona Village featured dozens of hales – cottages – designed in the style of several Pacific island cultures. Many were toppled, smashed and flooded. Stools from the beachside bar were found more than 100 yards inland in the now debris-filled lagoon. Insurance issues loomed. The employees were furloughed. Locals fretted about a repeat of what happened on Kauai in 1992. No way, says Kona Village’s management.
“I’m 99 percent certain that, yes, it is going to open,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, chief executive of Hualalai Resort and Kona Village Resort in a recent interview. “Kona Village is not going to be another Coco Palms after Iniki.”
Fitzgerald said the company that owns both Kona Village and the Four Seasons next door is surveying the damage. After everything is tabulated and the insurance claim is approved, rebuilding will start. Work will take 12 to 18 months. The earliest reopening would be in the second half of 2013. It will not be folded, as some online commentators have speculated, into its more upscale neighbor next door.
“It’s not going to be an adjunct to the Four Seasons,” Fitzgerald said. I hope not. No Kona Village would be sad. A Kona Village that’s part of the Four Seasons would make me angry. Kona Village had its spot on the coast to itself when it opened in 1965. When I first visited in the mid-1980s, you still had to take a lonely road through the lava fields to get to the resort. The hales had no phone, no clock, no air conditioning and no television. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was a painted coconut placed out on your porch.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the pretentiously named Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’upulehu opened just to the south. Instead of hales, it had stacks of huge luxurious rooms and views of a Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course. Vacation homes followed. The laid-back vibe died along with isolation. Beanie Baby mogul Ty Warner later bought Kona Village, then sold a controlling interest to a group led by computer guy Michael Dell, who had already bought the Four Seasons. What Kona Village fans had feared came true: the two merged under one umbrella company, though on-site management was officially separate.
Over the years, design firms have drawn up plans (de Reus Architects) to move Kona Village upmarket into the “barefoot luxury” category exemplified by the Amanresorts with their nightly rates well above $600 per night. A stay at Kona Village could cost that much, but in a throwback to an earlier era, the price included three meals a day. When disaster struck, my first dark thought, irrational perhaps, was that this would be good cover for Dell and his group to close down the funky Kona Village and reuse the property in a more profitable way. I wasn’t the only one.
“There’s a lot of speculation locally that they don’t want to rebuild Kona Village, but knock down what’s left and build ‘part two’ of the Four Seasons,” said Joe Trent, who runs the website Kona Friends. The old resort even got a new Facebook page. Fitzgerald, chief executive of both resorts, offered assurances – with caveats. Even without the tsunami, Kona Village was not going to remain the same. The facilities had become worn and tired. It’s anti-electronics mentality worked in an era of broadcast television and land-line phones, but was unrealistic when guests toted cellphones and tablet computers. Up the coast, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel had given up the fight and installed flat-screen televisions, reversing the no-TV policy put in place in the 1960s by the original owner, Laurance Rockefeller.
“Much as you might want a place to totally check out, people are not doing that,” Fitzgerald said. “They have cellphones. You can’t deny that connection anymore. I know with my tablet, I can watch the NBA finals anywhere I want.” Fitzgerald says Kona Village needs new plumbing and electrical work, better and bigger pools, and more program areas for children. Air conditioning could be added, at least for units far from the beach breezes. The food, always plentiful if middling, could use an upgrade. To save Kona Village, Kona Village has to move into a new future.
“A lot of people say, ‘Don’t change anything,’” Fitzgerald said. “Whenever I drill down into what it was that made people come back to Kona Village, it was the experience, it wasn’t the room product. It was that ability to walk around and have that old Hawaii feeling.”
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