Kona Village was everything I wanted - then I met the neighbor

The herald of the change upending the traditional order of things along Kahuwai Bay came strolling up the beach one afternoon wearing tennis shorts, a polo shirt and a smirk.

A 50-year-old trying to pass for 40, he was followed by a woman half a generation younger. They took up two spots at the Shipwreck Bar at Kona Village on the Big Island of Hawaii. They talked loudly about how much better things were up the beach at their hotel, the Four Seasons. After one drink, they left. Good riddance.

I already disliked the Four Seasons, and this pair of dislikable Four Seasons guests made me dislike it even more. All this bile over a hotel I had never visited. A hotel that annually won awards as the best in Hawaii.

It was time to get to the root of this gray cloud in the land of rainbows. I was going to the Four Seasons. It was time to sleep with the enemy.

My enmity for the Four Seasons was rooted in my love for Kona Village. For most of the time after it opened in 1965, the resort had a long stretch of the west coast of the Big Island to itself. When I first visited in the 1980s, a lonely road from the main highway took me down to hales built to resemble huts of seven Pacific cultures. There was no television. No golf. My wife and I had romantic splurge getaways before the kids. But we've returned over the years with our son and daughter to celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey cooked in a traditional underground imu oven, and to watch the turtles that park themselves on the beach.

The isolation didn't last. A hotel project right next door started, then stopped, then started again. Why, I wondered, in all the vast expanse of the coast, was someone building right next door?!

In 1996, Kona Village got a neighbor. A swank luxury hotel with a pretentious name: Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu.

Gone was the lonely road, soon flanked by the bane of the islands: an 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Vacation homes were added. It was hard to get lost on the way down to Kona Village.

It was time to find out what was around the bend in the beach that brought Mr. and Mrs. Tennis Shorts into my world that one day.

I arrived on the Big Island and took the familiar drive north. But this time instead of turning right off the spur road, I went the other way, to the Four Seasons.

At first glance, the hotel looked like a high-end tropical condo community. My room looked out over the 18th fairway. The bellman acted as if I had been blessed with a view of nirvana. He didn't know that for me, golf is the root of much ecological evil in Hawaii. The room was huge, with granite floors and a soaking tub.

But the beach was a rocky mess except for an area where they have removed rocks and built a faux volcanic breakwater.

The lobby and other public spaces were beautiful, with soft lighting cast against vaguely Balinese design or walls of lava rock. The oceanfront bar served a stiff Mai Tai. I liked the Alan Wong local outlet with his signature ribs, even if it sat over the hotel's golf clubhouse. I visited all three pools - a kid-dominated pool with an infinity lip and thatched-roof-covered whirlpool; a sedate, rectangular, central pool where Mr.-and-Mrs.-CEO-types read books inside cabanas; and a small, adults-only pool that was completely empty during my stay. The big draw was the Kings Pond, an artificial lagoon filled with sea creatures that snorkelers could cavort with. A kind of immersible petting zoo.

I liked the Four Seasons better after dark, when the warm lights shone on couples having romantic dinners on their balconies. The gas-fired torches softened the lines of the hotel, casting everything into shadows in the tropical night. The pools had that deep blue, empty-in-the-night look.

I didn't like the searchlights illuminating the waves. The ones I hated seeing from Kona Village.

The turning point for me with the Four Seasons was not a place but a person. Darrell Lapulapu. One of the senior masseurs at the hotel spa, he suggested I try an eclectic mix of massage that would include traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi, Japanese shiatsu and deep-tissue work.

After spending some time in the outdoor courtyard with a blue tile whirlpool and ringed by glass-walled eucalyptus steam room and dry sauna, I was led to an outdoor pavilion where Lapulapu's thumbs immediately signaled that this would not be a rub-a-dub-dub kind of massage. He was merciless in stretching shoulder muscles that had become fossilized and unraveling knots in my wrist, hips and calves.

"I sense stagnation," Lapulapu said.

I knew just what he meant. If I were a house, I'd be a fixer-upper. A "sold as is" type.

It was, simply, the best, most exhilarating and liberating massage I've ever had in my life. I floated back around the resort for hours, not wanting to let go of the feeling by falling asleep.

I've since returned again to the Big Island. I have new respect for the Four Seasons. But when it came time to make a choice, I was back at Kona Village. The Four Seasons is a great hotel - maybe even, as its fans say, the greatest in Hawaii. But Kona Village, well, that's a whole other world.