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A week there ought to cure the saddest of you all," wrote Mark Twain of the Big Island's Kailua in 1866. The author's wit might replace that sentiment with a barb today. His "native grass houses...under tall coconut trees" have gone to trinket hell.

But this is Hawaii, so an escape from the kitsch is nearby. Not necessarily the beautiful Kohala Coast to the north-stylishly developed, its prices are fit for King Kamehameha.

We started our affordable Hawaiian holiday in an airy condo suite perched on lava coast south of town. Snorkeling beaches were minutes away by car. We drove through villages with natural charm, history, Hawaiian culture, and relatively little tourist blight. We ended in the small upland village of Holualoa, just four miles above-but worlds away from-Kailua.

The Aston Royal Sea Cliff Resort south of Kailua looks like just another facade along coastal Alii Drive's condominium row. But behind the boxy white stucco, tastefully furnished condos offer sensibly-priced, ocean-view lodging. You can cook meals in your equipped kitchen, thus avoiding Kona's pricey restaurants.

The surf slapping rocks just feet from our lanai was hypnotic. When we could rise above its allure, we'd drive four miles down Alii. Just past the popular Magic Sands Beach and the tiny blue and white St. Peter's Church is Kahaluu Beach. There we (and other snorkelers) swam with four green sea turtles and watched the technicolor fish-parrot, lemon butterfly, tangs, trumpet, needle, Picasso, wrasse, and more.

For a break from sun and sand we drove down Hwy 11 through the Kona Coast's upcountry towns. Coffee has grown in Kona since 1827, so this landscape is jungled with red-berried coffee trees as well as orchards of papaya, banana, and macadamia nuts. The tour takes you no more than about 20 miles south of Kailua. You can do it leisurely in a day.

Driving the Kona Coast

 Start at Honalo, the first village south on Hwy 11. The Buddhist temple, (Daifukuji Soto Mission) is open and receptive to discreet visitors. It's filled with ceremonial artifacts-Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, altars, brocade cloths, big drums, lacquered tables, incense. Leave your shoes at the door.

In the next village, Kainaliu, find the Aloha Cafe in a 1932 building. It's a friendly place to eat cheaply (loved their pancakes) and forget time. Places to browse across the street include the Blue Ginger Gallery, with Indonesian artwork, and the metaphysical store with crystals and books.

In Kealakekua, get a glimpse of the coral and lava Kona Union Church (dating back to 1854). The town's native Hawaiian craft shop, Kahanahou, also a workshop/school, sells authentic Hawaiian instruments. We followed signs for the flea market and among the ragtag stuff, found framed, handpainted Hawaiian-design tiles, by Alvstad Tile Co. for only $15.

Next on Hwy 11, housed in the 1800s stone and mortar Greenwell Store, is the free Kona Historical Society Museum. You can take a self-guided tour of the grounds, including some ruins.

A little farther south, take the rural Napoopoo Road to Kealakekua Bay. The Royal Aloha Kona Coffee Mill & Museum appears shortly on your right, a fun stop for coffee lovers. You can buy 100 percent Kona beans in various roasts.

At the Bay, you'll see a modest obelisk, the Captain Cook Monument, where the explorer died in 1779 during a brawl between his men and natives.

By the Bay the Hawaiian Aka may be selling her handcrafted jewelry. The kukui-nut leis, especially nice, were only $18. Her mother's brilliant vegetable-tie-dyed Hawaiian apparel was attractive and cheap.

Next stop is the Painted Church-you can't miss the signs. St. Benedict's, overlooking the sea, lost some sobriety between 1899 and 1904. Father John Velge, a Catholic missionary from Belgium, took a paint brush in hand and before he set it down vivid scenes of heaven and hell were all over the church's interior walls. The grounds, including the lushest stations of the cross I've ever seen, are worth a stroll.

Continue on the coastal road to the Place of Refuge, Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. In the olden days, Hawaiians who broke kapu (sacred laws-such as don't touch the chief's possessions) high-tailed it to this sanctuary where their life would be spared. You'll see ancient fish ponds, frightful tiki, thatch- roofed huts, heiaus, and live demos of Hawaiian crafts such as canoe and tiki building. The ancient Great Wall dates back to the 1500s.

You can rest-swimming is kapu-on a sandy palm-shaded beach here. Or snorkel from nearby rocks, outside the park boundary.

Retracing your way north on Hwy 11, stop in the town of Captain Cook. In the shadow of 13,679-foot Mauna Loa hides one of the island's most remarkable bargains, the Manago Hotel and Restaurant. Founded in 1917 by Mr. and Mrs. Kinzo Manago, it is still run by that Japanese family. It's basic. It has 42 rooms (22 added in 1977) with private bath and lanai. Doubles run about $38. The restaurant serves three square meals, good plentiful food. An ahi dinner costs about $9.50.

Continuing north on Hwy 11, just past Honalo, take Hwy 180 into the upland village of Holualoa. You might finish up your stay with a couple nights at the stunning Holualoa Inn.

Talk about lodging that "breathes." This red cedar inn with eucalyptus floors, high raftered ceilings, abundant lanai, and pool is on 40 acres of sloping meadow with fish-eye views of Kona Coast. It was built by, and briefly the residence of, a Honolulu Advertiser publisher. Delicious full breakfasts and plenty of privacy make it special.

You can walk to town in three minutes. Sit in Holualoa Cafe's jungle-y garden sipping great cappuccino with homebaked goods, sandwiches, and such. The cafe sells island crafts. Several small galleries showcase and sell local artists' work. But what to make of the town's Kona Hotel, so funky, so steeped in time gone by. Check it out.

This article was first published in January 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Hawaiian Airlines flies daily to the Big Island with stops in Honolulu from San Francisco and Los Angeles. First class service includes access to Premier Club lounge and award-winning regional Hawaiian cuisine inspired by top Hawaii chefs. Your AAA Travel Agency can make air and lodging reservations for you.

Aston Royal Sea Cliff Resort, 75-6040 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI 96740; Reservations (800) 922-7866. With 7 nights or more, prices start as low as $155/night for 2 persons; suites for up to 6 persons, as low as $205. Amenities include fresh and salt water pools, Jacuzzi, coupons for savings at local businesses. Aston has 30 resorts on four islands, with mix and match offers also.

Holualoa Inn, Box 222, Holualoa, HI, 96725; (808) 324-1121. Rooms with queen or king run about $135 to $175 plus tax.

Manago Hotel, P.O. Box 145, Captain Cook, Kona, HI 96704, (808) 323-2642.

Car rental wars should help you get a deal. Our Hertz mid-size four-door cost only $273.17 for nine days with a AAA discount. Prices vary by season.

A couple sights in Kailua worth seeing are Hulihee Palace, a 19th century vacation home to Hawaiian monarchy, a museum today; the 1820's Mokuaikaua Church.

If you want to splurge on eating out in Kona, fine but expensive cuisine can be had at: Huggos (fish/meat), Jameson's (fish/meat), Palm Cafe (Pacific Rim), La Bourgogne (French).

For more information on lodgings, attractions, a free map of the driving tour, contact the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 75-5719 Alii Drive.

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