We rented a luxury condo in Waikoloa, on the Big Island of Hawaii, for a week. It’s in the Kolea subdivision. Kolea is the only condominium in Waikoloa with a beachfront location. Our 3-bedroom, 2-bath unit also happens to be for sale for about $1.5 million. We paying $275 per night, which seems like a bargain by comparison. However, that rate reflects some negotiating. We were able to talk the price down to about half of the usual high-season rate because the local tourism industry is slowing down.
The unit and complex are very luxurious. We are in a beautiful ground floor end unit. The green lawn extends the outdoor living space well beyond the covered lanai, which has complete full outdoor kitchen. It is comfortably furnished in a Tommy Bahama style.
The complex has beachclub with infinity pool and outdoor hot tub. Anaehoomalu Bay (A-Bay) is a short walk from there. This is definitely resort living close to shopping and dining at the Kings Shops and the Queens Marketplace, and of course, some of the nicest looking golf courses on the Kohala Coast.
This morning I went for a long swim in A-Bay (hello turtles and fish). I’ve also been hot tubbing and dipping in the pool every evening during “magic hour” (that gorgeous time around sunset). It’s been really great for my old back injury.
This morning I had a strange experience while swimming across the north end of the bay, something I’ve done so many times over the years. I had to find a new way to site my path because that giant, old kiawe tree is no longer here. A $9.5 million house has taken its place. Instead of looking up and scanning for the contour of the tall trunk against the vista of Mauna Kea to adjust my direction, I looked up and scanned for a highly pitched roof line. It worked just as well, but it I also saw those people’s striped lawn chairs, giant gleaming BBQ, and array of multi-colored packaged foods on their outdoor table. Instead of a large, sloping mountain in the background, there are white condos. Instead of a large wetland with petroglyphs and poha kahakou (ancient tool sharpening rocks) separating the beach from the hotel, there are beachfront homes with infinity pools.
Kolea definitely caters to wealthy people on vacation, but to be honest it’s a tad shocking. This development is about three years old, and it wasn’t here when I lived on the Big Island before. The beach at A-Bay now looks cluttered with piles of recliner chairs and feels a bit crowded. I used to love coming here because it was so big and open — just the one hotel set back quite a bit from the bay with lots of wetlands, open space and, of course, that giant ancient fish pond that was used to raise mullet for the royalty and ali’i of the times. Now these condos and multi-million dollar “villas” crowd the shoreline. They’ve replaced most of the trees. Why did the county allow the developer to build so close to the shoreline and pave over part of of the wetlands and encroach on the fish pond? No one seems to know. Some who work here speculate that it’s what rich people want to buy so that’s what got built.
Driving to Kolea from airport, I noticed that the land is sun-baked black lava dotted with scrubby kiawe trees. No grass or tropical flowers in sight. The Kohala Coast is a desert. But turn into Waikoloa resort, and voila it’s greener than Ireland, with every flowering tree in full bloom. The gardenias alone exude an intoxicating scent that filtered in through the car’s air conditioning system. Ahh. The sights and smell of paradise.
But then came my next question: Where does the water come from for all these flowers, lawns, fake waterfalls, pools, deep tubs and showers, including the ones that I am enjoying thoroughly?
According the the USGS, the freshwater lens is a main source of water for West Hawaii, but if it’s depleted it will be replaced by saltwater — never to return. Another source of water is inland aquifers, which are pumped from wells. I’m no geologist, but I wonder how sustainable is living in the desert as if it were an oasis? No one that I’ve asked around here seems to have any idea. Just turn on the tap, they say, and enjoy the water. Don’t worry about it; you’re on vacation.
People turning on their taps in this luxury condo development brings stable jobs and money to the locals; something I’ve been talking to the pool guy about every evening. He is getting a paid vacation this year for the first time in his life, and he has full benefits. His wife also works here at a full-time gardener and has the same benefits. So it’s not black and white. But like me, he laments the loss of the big, clean beach and wetland with sweeping views of the mountains. He grew up here and remembers it from the 70s, before the hotel was here. He says that it’s changed so much that he can barely recall how it used to be, which is a problem because we collectively don’t remember what we’re losing in the race to build luxury condos for rich people.
Another interesting aspect of this complex is the owner vs. renter dynamic. Two evenings ago I was at the pool and talking story with the pool guy. A very white-faced man and obviously on vacation stopped to ask me if I was the daughter of Nancy Clements. I said no, but joked that I get that all the time (I am, in fact, frequently mistaken for others; I seem to have a familiar face). He then asked if I was an owner or renter. I said I was on vacation and renting. I asked where he was from (Chicago), and how he was enjoying his stay. He winced and wiggled away from the conversation as quickly as possible. After that, I’ve seen him around the pool a few times and said hello. But even when we have been the only two people in the pool, he doesn’t make eye contact or speak. I think I’ve been filtered out because I’m a non-owner (i.e., renter). So if I was going to spend $1.5 million on a 3-bedroom luxury condo in Kolea, does he inspire me to want to be his neighbor? Probably not. A local saying comes to mind: no Hawaiians, no aloha.
But this report would not be complete if I did not mention how convenient and comfortable this location is. Our purpose here is a working retreat, and all of us are getting a lot of work done at a leisurely but focused pace. I’ve already finished two projects that were piling up and on short deadlines, and I’m making headway on the other two articles due next week. My traveling companions are making big strides on their research projects as well. The place provides a really nice space for easy collaboration and ideating.
We also have wonderful facilities for preparing and taking meals together. We were able to save a ton of money by shopping and cooking rather than dining out every meal as we would have to do in a hotel. So in this sense, we are definitely getting our money’s worth and accomplishing what we set out to do.
But I still have a lot of unanswered questions. There is a word in Hawaiian, pono, that means doing what’s right, not just for yourself and other people but for the land, water and creatures all around. Seeing what’s happened to A-Bay just in the last four years, I wonder what the ancients would think.