It is not often that reality lives up to hyperbole, especially when it comes to vacation expectations. However, “heavenly” is an accurate description for Kona Village Resort, on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. In less than a week we experienced exquisite cuisine, completed scuba diving certification, discovered the wine pairing secrets for Pacific Rim Cuisine, and spent the most authentic, relaxing Hawaiian vacation I’ve enjoyed in 30 years of visiting those enchanting Islands.

Our short drive to Kona Village Resort, located 6.2 miles north of Kona International Airport on the Big Island of Hawaii, brought us to a lush tropical forest that embraces the grounds of the Resort. The graceful palm trees growing up through this Eden of bougainvillea, fresh water fishponds and lush native plants, complemented the open spaces and authentic Polynesian hales (cottages) set ever so naturally into the land. With no building higher than a single floor and tasteful, unpretentious attention to detail, this is one place in the Hawaiian Islands where you’ll never wait in line or endure the anxiety of waking before dawn to claim a beach chair.

The Village reflects a blend of Hawaiian heritage and unspoiled natural beauty from the time you arrive and are greeted with a fresh flower lei and a refreshing glass of secret rum punch. The Kona Village design features individual thatched-roof hales (cottages) that hug the shoreline and nestle along lush tropical lagoons. Where the typical high-rise Hawaiian hotels offer small lanais or decks with room for two chairs and a small table, our hale had a large, private, covered deck with lounge chairs, tables and an unobstructed view of the ocean, just yards away. From the comfort of that deck we saw, heard and inhaled the essence of the natural forest as we watched dolphins play and humpback whales breach.

We had our choice of two oceanfront restaurants to experiment with wine pairings. At Hale Moana, the dress is more informal with kid-friendly options on the menu, but there is no lack of amenities or fine cuisine, reflecting Hawaiian, Pacific Rim and Japanese influences. At both dinner restaurants you are offered your choice of a varied selection and limitless portions of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and desserts, with specialties rotating nightly.

Dinner at the award-winning, intimate Hale Samoa features Pacific Rim, Island-inspired cuisine influenced by Chinese, French and Italian traditions. Its menu is as intriguing as its Samoan setting with specialties rotating nightly. Among the favorites of this candle-lit, beachside restaurant, where sunsets that defy description set the ocean aglow, are papaya and coconut bisque, fresh opakapaka (pink snapper) and salmon filet strips, trio of Hawaiian fish garnished with lobster, fresh baby abalone, spicy island prawns, wok-charred prime striploin and slow-roasted sesame-crusted lamb loin. We added our favorites to the list, including jumbo escargot with basil garlic cream sauce, wok-seared breast of Muscovy duck salad with orange sesame dressing, fresh baby abalone and shrimp sauté, locally grown Hawaiian spiny lobster tail, and rack of lamb glazed with plum sauce, served with minted mango relish.

Wine is Fine

The wine list at Hale Samoa complements the variety of cuisines. The wine steward Arnold Yoshinaga divided the food preparations into two main categories: one where the sweetness of tropical fruits is prominent, and another where Pacific Rim spices take the lead. When we had the fruit, vanilla bean and honey flavors of the seared scallop wrapped with pancetta with Hawaiian vanilla bean beurre blanc as a first course and the grilled ono with coconut lobster reduction for our entrees, he steered us to a perfect match in the Riesling 2004 Kabinett Selbach-Oster ($38). Yoshinaga explains that the wine’s acidity and harmonious sweet tones complemented the fruit and honey essences of these fish preparations, while the wine’s acidity refreshed the palate between bites.

Arnold also describes the delightful pairings that can be created with the sweeter tropical dishes and Chardonnays bottled without oak. “Look for un-oaked, crisp Chardonnays with fresh, fruity, almost pineapple-y crispness, and pure, soft qualities on the palate,” he explains. “Fish cooked simply is also enhanced with fruit-driven, cooler climate, low- or no-oak Chardonnays. These wines, as well as many Sauvignon Blancs, can be just crisp enough, but also light, round and pliant enough for food flavors of honey, ginger, cream, and even the sweetness of some grilled meats and fish.”

For the more spicy dishes such as the “ahi duo” of chopped and seasoned ahi tartar and ahi poke, diced with onions, chili peppers, and spices, Yoshinaga selected the King Estate 2003 Oregon Pinot Noir. “The freshness of the oils in the raw Island-style fish is ‘cut’ by the acidity and tannin in this wine so the contrast of the flavors of the fish preparation are all experienced anew after the cleansing sip of wine,” Yoshinaga says.

Yoshinaga goes on: “In addition to Pinots, sumptuous dry whites, such as oaked Chardonnays, Rieslings and Gewurztraminers that have honeyed, flinty fragrances of tropical fruit, full-bodied flavors and zesty acidity are able to match spiced dishes because they add a rich, crisp, lively intensity to the food. Slightly sweet, fruity wines such as Grenache and Gamey served chilled can also enhance spicy Pacific Rim foods. When your spicy dish is slow-cooked Island pork or ribs, you can’t go wrong with a fruitier, but well structured Syrah or Zinfandel.”

Other wine offerings at the restaurant include: Chassagne Montrachet ($195), Puligny Montrachet “Les Folatieres” Maison Latour 2003 ($250), Silver Oaks “Napa Valley” ($210), and Heitz “Bella Oaks” ($154), each part of the “barefoot luxury” of Kona Village.

After dinner we extended our kudos to executive chef Mark Tsuchiyama, a master of Pacific Rim and international cuisine. His international training and culinary experience have included Mandalay Bay Hotel, Chicago’s Drake Hotel and the Beverly Hills Hotel, but Tsuchiyama confesses his first love has always been his Hawaiian birthplace. He describes his innovative “Kona Cuisine” style as one where, “each flavor is distinct, clean and complemented but not overpowered by other flavors.” With the flexible, seasonal menus, he is able to take advantage of locally grown foods and produce to craft distinctive menu offerings that can be healthy and exciting, producing unexpected flavors and textures.

The Owner and the Manager

At the Tuesday Evening General Manager’s Cocktail Reception we spoke with Swiss-born Ulrich Krauer, the resort’s general manager, who has managed an impressive list of top international hotels, restaurants and cruise ships. Mr. Krauer’s personable approach and enthusiastic appreciation for the rich Hawaiian culture have earned the respect and admiration of the dozens of longtime hotel employees and the hundreds of repeat guests at Kona Village.

Ty Warner, new owner of Kona Village, has established his reputation for acquiring one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable luxury hotels and resorts throughout the world and evolving them into luxury icons (Montecito’s Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, San Ysidro Ranch and Coral Casino, to name a few). At Kona Village, Mr. Warner is appreciated for his unpretentious nature, friendliness, openness to employee input and passionate determination to build the resort to his highest visions of excellence. Mr. Krauer says the rejuvenation “will raise the standard for all luxury resorts worldwide, while maintaining the devoted staff and seventy percent rate of returning guests who we think of as family.”

Krauer says he’s also excited that Warner is committed to investing in several service and facility additions that will position the property for continued success. “Ty sees a vision and is doing something very special,” Krauer says. “He appreciates the unique qualities of Kona Village where stress, pretension, cell phones, emphasis on high fashion and ostentatious jewelry are left behind. He appreciates that we have a location unlike any in the world, staff who are dedicated, caring and proud of the property. The Village will be even more Hawaiian than it is today. For example, when you go to most of the top hotels on the Island, once you go into your room, you could be anywhere. Here, fun and authenticity exists from the inside out. We call it barefoot luxury. You notice it in the quality of our sheets, glassware, mattresses and overall Hawaiian hospitality.”

Visit www.konavillage.com or call 800-367-5290 for reservations and information.