By Rick & Chris Millikan

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These days, our Big Island get-a-ways blend sunny ocean adventures with investigations of Hawaii's fascinating past. It's easy to enjoy both in the Kona District; South Kona's Place of Refuge hooked us first on island history.

This idyllic palm-shaded enclave enchants visitors, who stroll about its thatched huts, small white crescent beach and fresh water fishponds imagining those early Hawaiians seeking sanctuary within its 10-foot-high, 1,000-foot-long lava-stone walls. Then, kapu laws decreed death sentences to men simply stepping on the shadow of an ali'i (powerful chief) or women eating bananas. Even Queen Ka'ahumanu, Kamehameha the Great's favourite wife hid near its tiki-guarded temple. As for swimming, just outside this extraordinary cultural park, we plunge from lava ledges into Honaunau Bay, snorkelling above its vibrant coral and beautiful fish.

Kona's past surrounds our Keauhou resort. Adjacent to a shoreline golf course sprawls the battlefield where, in 1819, Kamehameha II and Queen Ka'ahumanu overturned the kapu system and pagan religion in favour of Christianity. Rough lava mounds inter warriors' bones. Further inland, a remnant of an ancient holua slide dwarfs our resort's exhilarating 200-foot waterslide. Seeing a replicated narrow, koa-wood sled at the Keauhou Heritage Center helps us picture early Hawaiians swiftly skittering down this steep pili grass-covered track, a mile later splashing headfirst into Keauhou Bay.

At this small bay the next morning, we examine native medicinal plants along a cliffside nature trail and pause to read about Kamehameha III's birthplace. He became king at nine when his brother died of measles in Europe. 

Aboard *Fair Wind II*, our merry-time and historic adventure continues, spinner dolphins surf in the sleek catamaran's wake. Anchoring in Kealakekua Bay, the captain tells us, "Among other young chiefs, Kamehameha the Great witnessed the first European landing in 1779. Captain Cook arrived during makahiki (Hawai'ian New Year) celebrations, welcomed as god Lono. As ships were provisioned, Hawaiians realized their mistake; those Brits proved mortal, subject to sickness and bad behaviour. So, when they returned months later to repair storm-damaged ships, hospitality ended and disputes arose; Cook was slain. That slender white obelisk on the shore is Cook Monument, honouring England's great explorer."

Instructing us in safety and habitat preservation, the crew distributes flotation devices and snorkelling gear, including prescription masks. Entering this pristine marine sanctuary, many of the vibrant fish resemble their fanciful and real namesakes: unicorn tangs, Moorish idols, butterfly, parrot, squirrel, hawk, goat and lizardfish. Hawaii's state fish with its tongue-twisting name, humuhumunukunukuapuaa aptly translates as "pig with lei." This surreal triggerfish fires water jets flipping purple sea urchins over for instant meals.

Barbecue lunches and second dips later, our captain gathers everyone up, setting a homeward course. The onboard naturalist presents a DVD on marine animals commenting, "This monk seal came to this bay, mischievously pulling peoples' fins. Moved to Maui, he soon returned, now he's somewhere north of Kauai!" Suddenly, the captain announces, "A humpback mother and calf... off the bow at 2 o'clock." Everyone hustles to the deck, watching these mammoth mammals at play.

Returning bayside at sunset, we board another catamaran to dive with manta rays at the only place on earth for such an encounter, fronting our resort. For two decades, its bright spotlights have attracted these magnificent creatures.  Sitting on Hula Kai's bow, the videographer tells us how researchers identified this area's 150 mantas by spot patterns on their backs and discovered they live only off Kona. Once called devilfish due to their cephalic horns, these toothless filter feeders are harmless. At night, their horns unfurl to scoop plankton into their huge mouths. Wingspans range from three to over 16 feet, weights from 800 to 2,000 pounds. Hearing about 2,500-pound, 18-foot winged Big Bertha, we wonder if this beauty will appear. Estimated at 50 years old, she's only lived half her potential life.

For this cool, daring adventure, we jam ourselves into wetsuits and snuggly svelte, join others hanging onto a long raft with a series of bright pot lamps set to attract mantas. Rising plankton squirms in a nearby beam. Small silvery fish pass by, snapping up these minuscule critters. Below us, scuba divers sit on a rocky ledge pointing flashlights upward. 

When the first manta swoops into view, we snorkellers shout for joy! Then two more arrive on six and eight-foot wings. Endowed with amazing vision and electromagnetic sense, they sweep around us scooping up their nightly meal. With flexible cartilage and powerful muscles, these marine ballerinas perform perfect pirouettes and jetes. One soars towards us, and just before contact, she barrel rolls, exposing her white underbelly.

Another day, we hop Kona's free trolley riding north to the end of the line in Kailua at King Kamehameha Hotel. Along the hotel corridors, we study island artifacts and admire historic artwork. In the lounge, a large painting depicts this site when Kamehameha the Great made Kailua capital of all Hawaii. Both he and eldest son, Kamehameha II, wear royal scarlet and gold-feathered capes.

Outside, Kamakahonu Beach, nicknamed "Kids" Beach by locals, offers sheltered dips and crystalline snorkels. At its rocky end, Ahu'ena Heiau remains dedicated to Lono, god of peace and harmony. Kamehameha the Great spent his last days at this now reconstructed temple.

In the centre of Kailua-Kona, Hulihe'e Palace stands regally amid palms and banyan trees. Among the several royals that resided here along the shore, Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani at six foot, 400 pounds furnished this palace to accommodate her majestic dimensions. In old Hawaii, robust size demonstrated prosperity and dignity.

Across the street, stands Hawaii's first church. Deserters from sailing ships who made this paradise home built Mokuaikaua in 1837 using lava rock and coral. They crafted its interior with koa-wood panelling atop an ohia-wood framework.

Our last morning begins along Outrigger Keauhou Beach Hotel's southern shore where we meet Mahealani, administrator of this sacred site's two reconstructed temples. Explaining the storm-proof designs of these ceremonial structures, he then points out, "Hapaiali'i Heiau also served as a calendar. When the sunset aligns with the north wall, it's summer solstice. The centre-point represents spring equinox; its southern wall, winter solstice."

We learn Ke'eku Heiau boasts six- and 11-foot-thick walls of stone and a 15,000-square-foot platform. This second temple represents one of Hawaii's most famous religious sites, venerated in folktales of island wars. Here, victorious Hawaiians sacrificed defeated Mauian Ali'i in the 16th century. Mahealani softly reminds us, "These visual stepping stones help us look back into the past at our ancestors... and see our way forward."

Walking to the opposite side of the hotel, we admire the gardens, fishpond and rebuilt summer cottage of Kamehameha I's grandson and last reigning king, David Kalakaua. Reinstating the hula, King Kalakaua was lovingly known as the Merrie Monarch. 

A gateway connects to Kahalu'u Beach Park, where a coral reef encloses a shallow bay ideal for snorkelling. Here, we meet further collections of finny friends and delight in the camaraderie of green sea turtles. Our sublime investigations climax with a snowflake moray eel wiggly-jiggling into the coral.

Our water wonderment and historic forays end far too soon. Yet, we'll certainly return to delve further into Kona Coast's proud heritage and to enjoy new ocean adventures.


If You Go:

Hawaii's Big Island Tourism Site www.bigisland.org/ overflows with aloha spirit, photos citing exciting possibilities and planning considerations.

Luxurious Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa www.sheratonkona.com offers nightly Manta Ray visits seen from its deck and evening Manta programs in the adjacent lounge.  

Fair Wind www.fair-wind.com provides info-taining cruises and helps guests have a terrific time at Kealakekua Bay. Their manta encounters conclude with soup, warm rolls and hot drinks. 

For four decades, along Kailua's waterfront, Huggo's specializes in fresh deep sea Hawaiian fish and Pacific cuisine. www.huggos.com

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