The Kona Inn, built in 1928, heralded the start of commercial tourism in Kona. The decision by the Inter-Island Steamship Navigation Co. to place a hotel in the shadow of Hulihee Palace signaled a new era for the isolated and undeveloped village at Kailua. Credit for Kona Inn’s graceful design goes to architect Charles Dickey (1871-1942), responsible for many distinctive and well-known buildings throughout Hawaii.
The Kona Inn was built for a wealthy, leisured class. It had a saltwater swimming pool, tennis courts, cocktail lounge and an unbeatable sunset view. For local residents with money to spend, the Kona Inn offered the amenities of a country club. It was the place to be on New Year’s Eve and throughout the year. Hula dancers, ukulele players and singers with a Hawaiian repertoire were now in demand. During World War II, the inn’s bar was a favorite watering hole for military officers.
Why had Kailua taken so long to become a tourist destination? A major problem was the lack of fresh water. The Kona Inn took over the Kona Development Co.’s abandoned sugar mill water system and piped water to the hotel and the manager’s quarters. There was no regular county water system in Kailua until 1953.
Transportation was also a problem. The first commercial flight to the original Kona Airport just north of town landed in 1949. Before that, travel by steamers was the only choice, and they were built primarily for cargo transport with only basic passenger accommodations.
Hawaii’s roads were also terrible, thanks to miles of lava, deep gulches and steep volcanic slopes. Despite these difficult conditions, the first guests to the Kona Inn arrived via a 121-mile ride in a touring Packard from Hilo via the volcano. The next day they took the 97-mile “shortcut” back to Hilo via Waimea and the Hamakua Coast. What a trip. Packing a spare tire and patch kit was standard procedure.
The Kona Inn stopped housing guests in 1976. Today, a shopping complex built in the 1980s sprawls across former gardens and green lawns. The best place to see its famous red roofs is from Kailua Pier.
Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.