On and off the course: Getting the most out of a Big Island golf trip

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- How do you like your Big Island golf? If you're like most visitors to Hawaii's largest island, a dash of Pacific blue and black rock, combined with some Kona coffee, a few volcanoes and an exclusive resort is just the ticket. It's not the only way to devour Big Island golf, but it's a pretty good recipe.

Mauna Kea Golf Course - hole 4
Mauna Kea G.C. boasts ocean views and perfect conditions.
Mauna Kea Golf Course - hole 4Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkKona Country Club - Mountain Course - hole 11Mauna Lani Point VillasMauna Kea Beach Hotel - sunset
If you go

Like most of Hawaii, a golf vacation on the Big Island won't be cheap, but it doesn't have to be out-of-sight expensive either. Still, there are some must-play golf courses, some must-do activities and some must-eat dining. In the end, a Big Island golf vacation can be as good as you want it to be, but here are a few pointers.

Big Island has two airports

Depending on where you are flying from and where you want to stay on the island, you have two commercial airport options. The majority of the golf resorts -- especially the high-end ones -- are on the Kona side of the Island, which means the Kona airport is the most convenient choice. It's also the airport that offers the most direct flights, especially to and from destinations on the mainland that aren't on the West Coast.

But flying into Kona also tends to be more expensive. It's not uncommon to find significantly cheaper fares flying into Hilo on the opposite side of the island (east). In fact, they can often be 50 percent cheaper. Why? Because the Hilo side is the rainy side, and while the resorts on the western side are only 40 miles away as the crow flies, you have to take routes around the island's mountains -- and those roads are slow going, so you can plan on at least three hours of driving.

Still, if you're willing to do a little sightseeing and take in the culture of Hilo, the Big Island's biggest city, it can actually be rewarding. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also located on the Hilo side of the island, and the park is a must-see for any first-time visitor. Plus, there is golf on that side, such as Volcano Golf Course, a fun little gem that offers a pretty good lunch in the clubhouse. (You can't go wrong with the catch of the day.)

The hotels in Hilo aren't quite up to standards with the resorts on the Kona side, but they are decent and reasonable. One good option, just minutes from the airport, is the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. The hotel offers nice water views and comfortable rooms. And for breakfast the next morning before you head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, check out Ken's House of Pancakes, which serves everything from traditional Hawaiian fare to large-portioned American diner breakfasts. The homemade coconut syrup is unforgettable.

Big Island golf options

Once you get to the Kona side of the island, you'll want to play all the memorable golf courses. Mauna Kea Golf Course, which is part of the Mauna Kea Resort, is a must-play with its signature par 3s on the ocean and impeccable conditions. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. (and recently restored by Rees Jones), this championship course stretches nearly 7,400 yards and will test every part of your game.

Mauna Kea's sister course, however, shouldn't be overlooked. Hapuna Golf Course, an Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay design, is every bit as scenic as Mauna Kea and can be played for much less (often less than $100). The course sits high above the ocean, which is viewable from just about every hole, plus every hole is memorable.

Another high-end golf option is the Jack Nicklaus Course at Hualalai Golf Club in Kaupulehu-Kona, which is where the Champions Tour opens its season each year. You'll also want to check out Mauna Lani Resort, especially the South Course, which also has incredible holes on the Pacific Ocean. When you get to Kona Country Club, don't be confused by the names of the two courses: the Mountain Course has more ocean views and is more interesting. And Big Island Country Club, a recently renovated Perry Dye course located 2,000 feet above sea level, offers the island's only bentgrass greens and cooler temperatures, as well as lots of native wildlife and spectacular views.

Great golf resorts and more

On the Big Island, though, golf is only half the fun. The resorts, especially if you are taking a significant other, complete the wow factor. Some resorts, like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, for example, have their own private beaches, spas and outstanding dining.

The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort now offers golf packages to Kona Country Club and Big Island Country Club, but you'll also want to take advantage of the other activities right next to the hotel. For instance, you can book a snorkeling cruise through Fairwind, which will take you to Captain Cook's monument and Kealakekua Bay. If you're lucky, you might even get to swim alongside some dolphins.

There are also the Marriott and Hiltons at the Waikoloa Beach Resort, the Four Seasons at Hualalai and a few other smaller hotel options on the Kona side of the island, or you could rent a condo. One particularly attractive option is the Mauna Lani Point Villas, some priced as much as $2 million and overlooking the most scenic parts of the South Course at Mauna Lani Resort. They are a great option for foursomes or families. These luxury accommodations can sleep four or more people and offer full kitchens and dining rooms.

And as far as other activities are concerned, take your pick. From zip lining to helicopter tour to hiking, the Big Island has it all. And you'd be well advised to hit the world-famous Kona coffee farms as well. You'll want to get a pound or two to take back, but don't try to be cheap: Make sure it's 100 percent (not blended) and get it from the farms, where they will be gladly let you sample different types.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • makalei golf course

    daryl gordon wrote on: Dec 31, 2013

    I played 80 rounds the last two winters on the big island. One course not mentioned is Makalei, located high above Kona at the airport turnoff. This is mountain golf with some crazy elevation changes. Very cheap also, less than $50. I joined GolfHawaiiCard for the best deals on multi round passes. Improving economy makes cheap golf hard to find in Hawaii.


  • Kona Country Club is closed

    Andy Schwabe wrote on: Dec 31, 2013

    Both the Mountain course and the Ocean course at the Kona Country Club are closed, supposedly for renovations, with no firm date fro reopening.


  • Best value

    andrew wood wrote on: Apr 3, 2012

    I love all the courses on the Big Island but Waikoloa beach golf is by far the best value for the traveling golfer. 36 great holes among the lava and on the ocean at 50-60% less than the other big names course near by and designed by big name designers!


  • Missed a great local course

    Darlene tranquilli wrote on: Feb 14, 2012

    I have been golfing on the Big Island for six years now. I agree with the article but feel the writer missed a heavenly inexpensive course that should be on everyone must play list while on the Big Island. The waikoloa village golf course is the best. The staff are attentive friendly and homespun. There are local coupons in any of the Hawaiian visitor guidebooks that make the round even less expensive. The course is well maintained. If you want a round under $150.00 that will still offer you a challenge along with pacific views, the village course is for you. Bring your camera ! A little advice, on occasion they will call the course waikablowa when those trade winds are blowing. It can heighten the challenge for sure. Enjoy!