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Lay of the land: Get to know Hawaii's Big Island

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KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- How do you like your Big Island golf? If you're like most visitors to Hawaii's largest island, a dash of Pacific blue and black rock, combined with some Kona coffee, a few volcanoes and an exclusive resort is just the ticket. It's not the only way to devour Big Island golf, but it's a pretty good recipe.

Like most of Hawaii, a golf vacation on the Big Island won't be cheap, but it doesn't have to be out-of-sight expensive either. Still, there are some must-play golf courses, some must-do activities and some must-eat dining. In the end, a Big Island golf vacation can be as good as you want it to be, but here are a few pointers.

Big Island has two airports

Depending on where you are flying from and where you want to stay on the island, you have two commercial airport options. The majority of the golf resorts -- especially the high-end ones -- are on the Kona side of the Island, which means the Kona airport is the most convenient choice. It's also the airport that offers the most direct flights, especially to and from destinations on the mainland that aren't on the West Coast.

But flying into Kona also tends to be more expensive. It's not uncommon to find significantly cheaper fares flying into Hilo on the opposite side of the island (east). In fact, they can often be 50 percent cheaper. Why? Because the Hilo side is the rainy side, and while the resorts on the western side are only 40 miles away as the crow flies, you have to take routes around the island's mountains -- and those roads are slow going, so you can plan on at least three hours of driving.

Still, if you're willing to do a little sightseeing and take in the culture of Hilo, the Big Island's biggest city, it can actually be rewarding. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also located on the Hilo side of the island, and the park is a must-see for any first-time visitor. Plus, there is golf on that side, such as Volcano Golf Course, a fun little gem that offers a pretty good lunch in the clubhouse. (You can't go wrong with the catch of the day.)

The hotels in Hilo aren't quite up to standards with the resorts on the Kona side, but they are decent and reasonable. One good option, just minutes from the airport, is the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. The hotel offers nice water views and comfortable rooms. And for breakfast the next morning before you head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, check out Ken's House of Pancakes, which serves everything from traditional Hawaiian fare to large-portioned American diner breakfasts. The homemade coconut syrup is unforgettable.

Big Island golf options

Once you get to the Kona side of the island, you'll want to play all the memorable golf courses. Mauna Kea Golf Course, which is part of the Mauna Kea Resort, is a must-play with its signature par 3s on the ocean and impeccable conditions. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. (and recently restored by Rees Jones), this championship course stretches nearly 7,400 yards and will test every part of your game.

Mauna Kea's sister course, however, shouldn't be overlooked. Hapuna Golf Course, an Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay design, is every bit as scenic as Mauna Kea and can be played for much less (often less than $100). The course sits high above the ocean, which is viewable from just about every hole, plus every hole is memorable.

Another high-end golf option is the Jack Nicklaus Course at Hualalai Golf Club in Kaupulehu-Kona, which is where the Champions Tour opens its season each year. You'll also want to check out Mauna Lani Resort, especially the South Course, which also has incredible holes on the Pacific Ocean. When you get to Kona Country Club, don't be confused by the names of the two courses: the Mountain Course has more ocean views and is more interesting. And Big Island Country Club, a recently renovated Perry Dye course located 2,000 feet above sea level, offers the island's only bentgrass greens and cooler temperatures, as well as lots of native wildlife and spectacular views.

Great golf resorts and more

On the Big Island, though, golf is only half the fun. The resorts, especially if you are taking a significant other, complete the wow factor. Some resorts, like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, for example, have their own private beaches, spas and outstanding dining.

The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort now offers golf packages to Kona Country Club and Big Island Country Club, but you'll also want to take advantage of the other activities right next to the hotel. For instance, you can book a snorkeling cruise through Fairwind, which will take you to Captain Cook's monument and Kealakekua Bay. If you're lucky, you might even get to swim alongside some dolphins.

There are also the Marriott and Hiltons at the Waikoloa Beach Resort, the Four Seasons at Hualalai and a few other smaller hotel options on the Kona side of the island, or you could rent a condo. One particularly attractive option is the Mauna Lani Point Villas, some priced as much as $2 million and overlooking the most scenic parts of the South Course at Mauna Lani Resort. They are a great option for foursomes or families. These luxury accommodations can sleep four or more people and offer full kitchens and dining rooms.

And as far as other activities are concerned, take your pick. From zip lining to helicopter tour to hiking, the Big Island has it all. And you'd be well advised to hit the world-famous Kona coffee farms as well. You'll want to get a pound or two to take back, but don't try to be cheap: Make sure it's 100 percent (not blended) and get it from the farms, where they will be gladly let you sample different types.