On Sacred Ground
Courtesy Starwood Hotels & Resorts
By Simplicio Paragas
Sure it was great to see teams USA and Poland tennis players strolling the grounds of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which was the host hotel for the prestigious Fed Cup in February. And as memorable as it was to see Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens win their respective matches, my own highlight reels include dinners at Rays on the Bay and a cultural tour that had the guide and a fellow attendee teary-eyed after a haunting ‘oli.
Greeting us with an infectious smile and gentle embrace, Nani Kupihe casually talked story as she led us down to an ancient fishing village on the edge of the water. The Hawai‘i Island native has conducted these tours since 2012, teaching guests about the history of the area and its significance in Hawaiian narrative.
“I grew up in Kona and my parents used to bring us here when we were kids,” said Kupihe, gesturing with her hands where she and her siblings used to play. “Keauhou means new era and it was here where Kamehameha III was born.”
Standing in the middle of what was once a fishing village 400 years ago, Kupihe brought to life the area’s rich history, describing a sustainable lifestyle that we ironically strive for today. She also points to the slopes of Keauhou, explaining that heʻe hōlua (sledding) competitions once took place there. The sport, though, ceased through efforts of early Christian missionaries who viewed it as dangerous and frivolous. The last documented heʻe hōlua racing event was held in 1825.
“The tradition of mo‘olelo [storytelling] is important,” Kupihe noted. “It keeps our history alive and I think it’s our kuleana to share these stories so they are never forgotten.”
Kupihe gained her knowledge from Lily Dudoit, Sheraton’s alaka‘i ho‘oluana, director of cultural and leisure activities. Thanks to Dudoit’s efforts and years of research, this cultural tour came to be. Dudoit also enlisted the help of Auntie Lily Kong, a respected kupuna and a Hawaiian cultural resource who has lived in Keauhou her entire 90 years.
“They’re both living treasures,” Kupihe praised. “Their knowledge of Keauhou is deep and I’m still learning from them.”
As we descended closer to the shoreline, Kupihe pointed out such relics as a bell stone, sounded by villagers to signal important news, and a stone altar, where they prayed and gave thanks for the day’s bounty of fish. She continued with descriptions of a cookhouse, cattle pen, a canoe shed, the Lekeleke burial grounds and the Kaukulaelae heiau, built to ensure a successful day at sea.
Pretending to cast a fish net into the ocean, Kupihe said villagers would catch such reef fish as akule and it would fill the ʻōpū, rubbing her stomach as a visual cue to the translation of the Hawaiian term. And as we neared the conclusion of our tour, Kupihe shared one final story about the “Menehune Tree.”
“The large lumps on the tree look like the muscular build of the Menehune,” Kupihe recounts. “In the ’70s, Auntie Lily Kong’s niece got married here and in one of the photographs, a small figure was captured peeking around the tree.”
It was a chicken-skin moment but pale compared to what would ensue: Kupihe’s hauntingly beautiful ‘oli of giving thanks and aloha. “You have to respect this place,” asserts Kupihe, her eyes welling with tears. “The energy here is powerful and peaceful at the same time.”
A different vibe is felt at Rays on the Bay. On a Friday night, the atmosphere hums with the sound of laughter and satisfied oohs. Locals and visitors alike crowd the room, some are seated in front of expansive ocean views while others are content to stand next to highboy tables. And everyone is visibly having a good time.
“Most chefs are already doing the farm-to-table concept so that’s a given here,” says Rays on the Bay general manager Keith Mallini, a well-known, longtime figure in the local restaurant industry. “Right now what we want to do is have more approachable food that’s simple but detailed.”
Respect for the ʻāina extends to the kitchen where veteran executive chef George Gomes turns locally sourced ingredients into edible wonders. The “Roll your Way” is appetite-rewarding, even if you do have to prepare your own handrolls, which are composed of fresh sashimi ahi, cold smoked salmon, catch of the day, blue lump crab and shrimp tempura.
Those preferring a ready-to-eat appetizer might want to try the guava-glazed barbecue ribs, fall-off-the-bone meat contains the right amount of sweetness countered by a bit of tartness with a splash of local Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Another option — and an addictive one — is the chipotle barbecue chicken flatbread, made of chunks of smoky chicken, Hamakua mushrooms, and bits of sweet onions and scallions, all finished with a tarragon mustard and melted Parmesan.
The back-to-basics philosophy is further reflected in the selection of entrees that run the gamut from seafood and steaks to burgers and pasta. The 12-ounce New York steak is an example in simplicity but executed to perfection. Grilled pulehu-style to a medium-rare temperature, the tender beef is rubbed with a house seasoning and accompanied by garlic mustard puree. Add a side of lemongrass-infused rice and this makes for a perfectly pleasing meal. Another house specialty is the grilled mahimahi that’s perfumed with a warm vinaigrette of Kamuela tomatoes and shallots.
High marks also for the wine list, which Mallini has personally curated. A great way to experience his picks is to attend wine-tasting sessions that begin nightly at 5:30 for only $5 per person. Each guest receives two 2-ounce pours. It’s definitely worth going.
And about the Fed Cup … Team USA won.
Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay
77-, 78-128 Ehukai St., Kailua-Kona
808.930.4900 | 888.488.3535