The Big Island, part 2

Mauna Lani Bay is a luxury shoreline resort situated among scads of palm trees on 3200 acres hard by the Kohala Coast. The main hotel building is shaped like an arrow, aimed at the ocean, with a massive partly-exposed courtyard containing, for good measure, a few more palm trees. It's a full-featured resort, with tennis, and horseback riding onsite -- and offsite, easily-arranged access to all the sights of the Big Island, like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. All good reasons to travel to the Big Island, but what makes the Mauna Lani Bay so special are the two contrasting golf courses, South and North, each superb in its own way. The South course, host to the Senior Skins tournament until this past January, was built over dense lava flows on the cliffs overlooking Makaiwa Bay. By turns stark and rocky and peacefully verdant, it's an almost otherwordly surrounding for a round of golf that's a worthy test, but not at all brutal. The first few holes leading inland are straightforward if less than awe-inspiring: the 551-yard 4th, with its wide fairway beside a long pond, is one of those "you may-need-to-lay-up-but-still-oughtta-make-birdie" par-5s. South's par-threes make for a kind of variations on a theme, each working in the water and lava in its own distinctive fashion: 7 is a picturesque coastline hole where you might recall Jack Nicklaus sticking a five-iron to two feet at the most recent Senior Skins. The 382-yard 14th isn't real difficult, but, as head pro Mark Jackson points out, it's "drop-dead gorgeous," with a fairway gently ramped towards the oceanside green. Number 15, set on a palm-draped finger of lava over the water, is as placid and elegant a three-par as you'll find. (Ever wondered how they make a golf course out of a field of solid lava? I asked Jackson, who explained that they first bring in big machinery to crush the lava rocks to bits, and then lay about two feet of topsoil on top -- at a cost per-hole of around a million dollars, in case you're thinking about going into the Hawaiian course-building business.) Both North and South courses were fashioned from the original Francis H. L'i Brown layout -- the first three and last six of North's holes originally formed one of the nines; the remainder of the expansive North tract was built adjacent to the Mauna Lani Orchid hotel complex in the mid-eighties. The new holes wander through the foothills of Mauna Kea furnishing a lush, jagged landscape and some remarkable long holes. Number 4 challenges the golfer to drive across a wide chasm, a forced carry of about 190 yards, to a narrow fairway, yielding a long-iron approach to a shallow, elevated green nestled among bunkers. The sixth requires a precise tee shot placed between a big Kiawe tree to the right and a fairway bunker left: if you don't hit it perfectly off the tee, a large pond in front of the green will likely force you to lay up. The 388-yard dogleg-right 12th plays down a tree-shaded fairway, with big rocks lining the left-hand side (avoid these, unless like one guy in our foursome, you can manage to ricochet your drive off the boulders and gain another 50 yards). The 388-yard 18th is a fun finisher -- not a tough drive, but your approach, to a narrow, horizontal green will play into the wind -- and blind, if your drive hasn't cleared the hill. The Mauna Lani Bay courses share a big, well-stocked clubhouse, as well as the jolliest staff you've ever come across (it's clear they can judge players' moods -- and scores -- and handle them appropriately). And apart from being a first-rate teacher, head pro Jackson is bright, engaging, and patient, in case you're up for a tuneup or an overhaul or even a quick chipping lesson. Which one? So if you're planning a getaway, which resort's for you? Prices are virtually identical -- for example, Mauna Kea and Hapuna rooms begin at $345, Mauna Lani Bay's at $350, and guest rates at all the golf courses (no reciprocity, sorry) are all a little over $100 each. Fortunately, each facility is distinctive enough it's a matter of taste. Hapuna one of our favorite golf courses in the world -- even in the wind -- and Mauna Kea has overcome a few minor maintenance problems that plagued it from a few years ago. Both Mauna Lani Bay courses are challenging and captivating while vastly different in character. Mauna Kea/Hapuna golf-course service is excellent, but Mauna Lani Bay has the edge, thanks to the cheery staff and better practice and teaching capabilities. The Mauna Lani Bay hotel will appeal to the international traveler accustomed to a particular style of hotel life: design and decor are less characteristically Hawaiian, while service is somewhat more formal -- which will suit some perfectly, while striking others as almost oppressively meticulous. For the truly luxurious vacationer, both resorts offer deluxe beachfront suites, but Mauna Lani Bay's 4,000-foot bungalows feature two master bedrooms, three baths, two steam showers, private swimming pool, whirlpool spa, and round-the-clock butler service, all for $4,200 per night. And while the rock and coral make for good snorkeling at the Mauna Lani beach, the smooth beachfront at Mauna Kea and especially at bewitching Hapuna Beach -- a beautiful stretch of shore -- make casual bathing far more appealing here. The answer, of course, is -- try both for two nights. You're unlikely to regret either.