Nov 6, 2023
The Kona Village Story
On July 1, 2023, one of Hawaii’s most beloved resorts, Kona Village, reopened after twelve long years of sitting empty. Its location, on the shores of Kahuwai Bay, had been home to a centuries-old fishing village of Kaʻūpūlehu. On June 30, lineal descendants of the area, Kuʻulei Keakealani and Ana Bertelmann, gathered alongside other descendants, management executives, local dignitaries and representatives of landowner Kamehameha Schools-Bishop Estates. They participated in traditional blessing ceremonies which included the passing of coral and stone from Kahuwai Bay to the hands of the new stewards, to symbolize the transfer of kuleana, responsibility.
The last ancestral resident had moved away from Kaʻūpūlehu in 1939. The Kona Village story begins about 20 years later.
In the 1950s, a Texas oil man named Johnno Jackson and his wife Helen sailed into Kona waters with high hopes and a crazy idea. They’d create a private island hideaway in the middle of nowhere, a primitive retreat for those with the dollars and the gumption to get there. Johnno leased—on a handshake and his word as a gentleman—62 acres of lava rock with ocean view and not much else. There was no fresh water, no power or phone lines and no road to get them there.
He established a beachhead with equipment shipped by barge and military landing craft, built a 2000’ runway and started flying in men and supplies. Then, with an oilman’s know-how he drilled a 530’ water well two miles inland, and like Indiana Jones-meets-Conrad Hilton, began excavation of his Bali Hai, side-by-side with construction crews.
The vision was a cluster of individual thatched-roof hale (houses) in authentic Polynesian styles from various islands, carefully plotted around existing shoreline, brackish fishponds and historic petroglyph fields. The original plan for “Jackson’s Village” called for 50 separate structures: 13 Tahitian units, 17 Samoan, 6 Hawaiian, 7 Fijian and a 4-plex to represent Tonga. Each had a distinctive shape and roofing style; each had its own personality.
Rooms were thoughtfully designed to admit the natural environment: fresh breezes, the sound of ocean, aroma of flowers. Helen Jackson herself saw to much of the interior design, along with Ron Kats, associate of then-newcomer Mary Philpotts. There would be no televisions to let in the outside world, no radio, no clock, and no telephone. Instead of a Do Not Disturb sign, a guest would place a painted coconut on the front stoop. The Village opened in December 1965.
Everything at Kona Village tells a story. The Shipwreck Bar came from the wreckage of Johnno’s yacht, the New Moon. It sank in a storm surge, was cut in half and hauled up onshore by then GM Angus Coombs and future GM Fred Duerr among others. (Duerr remained at the helm for 38 years).
There was a pig named Plumeria who used to go surfing, a macaw who could swear in five languages, and an adopted baby donkey, Lani. One time an airplane crashed right through the Talk Story Bar and, miraculously, not a soul was badly hurt, including the pilot. There are many others, probably as many as the employees, guests and families who’ve come to call the Village home.
Architectural historian Don Hibbard, PhD, author of Designing Paradise, the Allure of Hawaiian Resorts, described the property in the 1990s. “The hotel’s evocative thatched roofed architecture harkens back to the nineteenth century’s romantic infatuation with the ‘primitive.’ By bringing select images of an earlier Hawaii back to life, the Kona Village allows dreams of a by-gone era to stand still long enough for twenty first century men and women to walk through them. Placed in such a magical environment, a South Seas idyll, the visitor’s own time, as well as place, seem to be erased, while all the comforts remain.”
The not-so-idyllic South Seas devastated Kona Village in 2011, when a powerful tsunami, generated by an earthquake in Japan, struck and devasted the property. Fortunately, no one was injured, but many of the buildings were severely damaged. After a few days, the decision was made to close, for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, the global real estate collective Kennedy Wilson leased the property from landowners Kamehameha Schools-Bishop Estate. It would be developed with and operated by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, specialists in restoring the story, and the heart, of very special properties.
A cultural committee composed of lineal descendants of the original village would guide the renovation; former employees were consulted as well. Online, a Facebook group called Save Kona Village was set up immediately after the tsunami, providing input from a committee of uber-loyal returning guests, staunchly determined to protect and preserve the essential elements and sense of place.
The renewed Kona Village opened in July of 2023, to glowing accolades (if not actual huzzahs). Guests and employees, both long-time and brand new, greeted each other like family, carrying one of the most important traditions, and philosophical guidelines of the resort: we are ‘ohana.
There are 150 individual huts, including five “legacy hale” re-built over the foundations of their predecessors. The original coconut thatching on each hale replaced with a fire-retarding grass-like material made from recycled plastic. There are new mountain-view rooms with more contemporary architecture, 37 one and two-bedroom Suites, and two elite three or four-bedroom Presidential Suites.
The breakfast buffet is gone, but the Shipwreck Bar and Talk Story Bar are at their stations. The Moana restaurant (formerly Hale Moana) remains, updated for today’s tastes. A new restaurant, Kahuwai Cookhouse & Market, offers more casual fare. All restaurants are open to the public, and receiving rave reviews. There’s a new state-of-the-art fitness center and luxury Asaya Spa, four swimming pools and extensive keiki program.
With more than a nod to sustainability, the Village has hired a full time manager for same. The property is LEED-certified, and entirely powered by solar energy from 9,000 solar panels on 2 acres. 100% solar. Reverse osmosis and wastewater treatment plants are also on site.
And, at a time when Hawaii’s hospitality industry searches for ways to find and bring “authenticity” into its hotels, Kona Village seems never to have lost theirs. They have a strong commitment to caring for the history of the place, which includes maintaining 22 anchialine ponds and 21 archeological sites on 81 acres, as well as an on-site cultural center.
Carol “Aunty Lei” Leina‘ala Keakealani Lightner started working at Kona Village in 1972. Her father was born here, in fishing village of Kaʻūpūlehu, as was his mother.
In her words, “Ho‘okipa has been defined as hospitality, but hospitality and service, these are just words. When we talk about aloha, it’s a feeling. And feelings are expressed by gestures, facial expressions, a hug; they feel the energy, they feel the connection between you. When you come home to where my father and my grandma were born, this is home for me. So I want you to take off your shoes and feel at home. How are you going to feel at home? You have to understand what this place is like.”
Learn more about what Kona Village is like, with stories from Aunty Lei and other members of the ‘ohana on their website.
All photos with permission, courtesy Rosewood Hotels