Keauhou Bay Opens Its Doors

An exclusive look at new Kona hotel

By: Marty Wentzel

KEAUHOU, Big Island “Ladies and gentlemen, we are open for business.” With those words, Charldon Thomas, Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa general manager, welcomed guests into the lobby of his freshly blessed hotel.

It was Oct. 1, and I was one of the 80 or so people who decided to spend opening night at the former Kona Surf, eight months after Sheraton began its reconstruction of the Big Island landmark. They called this the hotel’s soft opening, since the rest of its facilities won’t open until January, but I couldn’t wait. I wanted to see what makes this place worth all the fuss.

Like many Hawaii aficionados, I remember the Kona Surf in its heyday. When it opened in 1971 it was considered four-star, and locals still wax nostalgic about special occasions they spent here. Sheraton officials are hoping the new hotel will continue that tradition, and from what I can tell, they’re on the right track. Sheraton Keauhou Bay has all the expected niceties, from the genuine smiles of its employees to the stunning ocean views, but it also features unusual touches likely to surprise and delight the most seasoned Hawaii travelers.

Location plays a huge role in Sheraton Keauhou Bay’s appeal. Perched on a wild, rocky shoreline, it’s surrounded by lava, legends and ancient Hawaiian landmarks. At the same time, the area is loaded with contemporary pastimes like golf, snorkeling, fishing, sailing, hiking, biking and shopping.

“We hope we can encourage travelers who have bypassed the Big Island before to take another look,” Revell Newton, Sheraton Keauhou Bay sales and marketing director, told me. “And, we’d like people who have been to the island before to consider our hotel as an exciting new place from which to explore it.”

After checking in, I got acquainted with my accommodations. Sheraton has chosen natural colors and textures for its guestroom furnishings, resulting in a relaxed plantation-style decor. I liked the oval shower curtain rod, which provides more room in the bath. As for the Suite Sleeper, Sheraton’s signature bed, it really is as comfy as they say.

“We’re focusing on families, fitness and fun. Even though we’re an upscale hotel, we’re not staid and formal,” Newton said.

Taking his philosophy to heart, I dedicated a major portion of my visit to exploring the property’s vast, multilevel swimming pool. I eased into the waters of the indoor atrium, floated under a bridge, wound through a grotto and paddled out to the larger pool by the sea. In the name of research, I climbed the stairs to the top of the waterslide, screamed 200 feet down, splashed into the water and did it all over again.

At the far end of the outer pool, I saw kids digging their toes in the sand of the man-made beach cove, while others stomped and squealed around interactive fountains. Sunny staffers chatted with guests, inviting them to dive into water volleyball, noodle races and introductory scuba classes.

Then it was off to the fitness center, where ocean views provide a picturesque distraction from the workout at hand. In this spiffy facility, each piece of high-tech equipment has its own TV screen and headphones. Better yet, guests can use the room at no charge around the clock.

For lunch, I munched on a kalua pork quesadilla at the open-air poolside Manta Ray Bar and Grill. I saw one guest swim up, climb out of the water, take a few steps to the bar and sit down to an afternoon mai tai. Clearly he was embracing the Sheraton Keauhou Bay spirit.

Of the hotel’s food and beverage options, I’m partial to Restaurant Kai because of its split personality. At breakfast, the dining room goes the casual route, reflected in place settings, staff uniforms and menu. At night, things turn more formal. At candlelit tables, clients try regional entrees like charbroiled mahimahi with marinated island fiddlehead ferns and mango relish. One thing, however, stays the same at all hours: Kai serves delicious vistas of Keauhou Bay and the Kona coastline.

While I didn’t get to experience the hotel’s luau, which begins in December, I’m encouraged by Newton’s description of it. Instead of the usual buffet found at most hotel luaus, this has been designed as a sit-down family-style feast, he said, with the food themed to match the entertainment. So as not to compete, the twice-weekly luau runs on nights when others in the area aren’t scheduled.

Clearly, leisure travelers have much to appreciate in this new old hotel. Groups, meanwhile, won’t be disappointed either. Unlike many hotels, Sheraton Keauhou Bay’s meeting rooms are blessed with windows, allowing the great outdoors to inspire great ideas indoors. The soon-to-open convention center, touted as the largest in Kona, is a low-rise unobtrusive building, but its interiors boast 21-foot ceilings. For 2005, the hotel has already booked 20,000 group room nights, the most of any new Sheraton hotel in Hawaii and the Pacific. Sheraton sales officials are projecting a 70-30 ratio of leisure to group business.

I’m eager to return to Sheraton Keauhou Bay next year to see the finished product. I want to experience its Hoola Spa, as close to the ocean as any resort spa I’ve seen in Hawaii. While it won’t open until early next year, clients can request spa services in their room until then. I want to sip cocktails in the open-air Crystal Blue Lounge, as an orange sun sets before me. I want my daughter to try the Keiki (Children’s) Club Keauhou, whose colorful headquarters and daily schedule look like such fun I almost wish I were nine again. I want to learn about the area’s many manta rays from James Wing, an expert who presents nightly, free half-hour sunset manta programs at the water’s edge, while adventurous clients snorkel and scuba dive with the haunting creatures right off shore.

If my impressions of the soft opening are a reliable indicator, then Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa holds great potential as a distinctive new alternative for Big Island-bound clients not to mention a profitable product for the travel agents who sell it.


Sheraton Keauhou Bay
Resort & Spa
78-128 Ehukai St.
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740

Rates: Nightly rack rates run $320-$500, with suites from $800.

Packages: Big Experience, a choice of one activity per person per night, is from $390 a room, with a two-night minimum.

Honeymoon/Anniversary includes welcome champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries, daily breakfast, couple’s massage or two rounds of golf, and private dinner for two. Cost is from $390 per room, with a four-night minimum.

Familymoon includes 50 percent discounts on second and third rooms, guaranteed connecting or adjacent rooms, daily breakfast, two hours supervised childcare each day, one night of babysitting, in-room movie, and choice of two adult activities per stay. Runs from $500 for the first room, with a four-night minimum.

Commission: All rates are commissionable at 10 percent.

Background: Located just east of Kailua-Kona, Kona Surf opened with a flourish in 1971 and closed in disrepair in 2000. Koa Hotel LLC, which purchased the hotel in 2001, is investing $70 million to renovate it.

Renamed Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, the 22-acre oceanfront property had its soft opening Oct. 1, with 228 of its 521 guestrooms currently available for booking.

At this time, the following facilities and services are up and running: an elaborate swimming pool with 200-foot-long waterslide, main restaurant, poolside bar and grill, room service, fitness and business centers, wedding chapel, children’s club, meeting rooms and tennis and basketball courts.

The hotel’s luau, set on a 1.5-acre oceanfront lawn, will debut in December.

In January, the remaining guestrooms will open, as will the 10,000-square-foot convention center, full-service spa and open-air adult bar. Nightly manta programs will begin early next year as well.