HOLUALOA, Hawaii - From the bustling Kailua-Kona beach resort strip the Mamalahoa Highway climbs steeply through an increasingly lush and flowery landscape to an altitude of 1,400 feet. The trip takes only about 15 minutes but brings you to a very different place.
Down on the beach the principal preoccupations are swimming, surfing, and snorkeling, but in this small community in the hills above the western shore of the Big Island, the focus is on art and coffee.
The village of Holualoa, home to many artists and galleries, nestles on the slope of Mount Hualalai, a dormant volcano. The rich volcanic soil, comfortable temperatures, and regular rainfall combine to make the countryside around the village ideal for growing Kona beans, considered the world's best by many coffee lovers.
Artists find inspiration in the scenery, which includes sweeping ocean views and spectacular sunsets. "This is a very pretty village but what really makes it special are the people," says Renee Fukumoto-Ben, a jewelry maker and mixed-media artist. She and her husband, Gerald Ben, a furniture maker, operate Dovetail Gallery and Design, one of eight art showplaces in Holualoa.
In the days when agriculture ruled on the Big Island, Holualoa was the hub of a farming district that included sugar cane plantations and coffee farms. Like other Hawaiian villages dating from the turn of the 20th century it resembled the set of a western movie. The village's two-block-long main street was lined with wooden buildings housing general stores, a pool hall, laundry, a hotel, and a theater. Many of the agricultural workers were Japanese, and besides a Christian church there was also a Buddhist temple.
Much of Holualoa's charm derives from the fact that it looks much the same as it did early in the last century although few of the buildings in the village center still serve their original purpose.
One that does is the hard-to-miss Kona Hotel. Painted a shade of fluorescent pink, the Kona has been run by the same family since 1926. An 11-room, no frills hostelry (shared baths down the hall), the Kona appeals to budget travelers.
The elegant Holualoa Inn, at the end of the village, offers a very different experience. Originally the home of a wealthy Honolulu businessman, it was designed for the tropics and is light and airy. Rooms are tastefully furnished with art and antiques. Set on 30 acres of landscaped grounds, the inn has a superb 180-degree view of the Kona coast from both the lanai and the terrace swimming pool.
Holualoa's transformation from farm town to art colony began in the 1960s with the arrival of two retired teachers from San Francisco, Bob and Carol Rogers, who began giving art lessons to local children. They established the Kona Art Center, which offered daily sessions and hosted exhibitions.
The center also attracted artists to the village, some of them moving into empty "coffee shacks," cabins that had housed field hands. One such artist was Sam Rosen, a goldsmith, sculptor, and ukulele maker, who came from Los Angeles in the 1970s. He now has a studio and gallery in the former Post Office. The interior walls are festooned with ukuleles, all hand-made by Rosen or other local craftspeople.
Among the local children who took lessons at the Art Center was Hiroki Morinoue, who went on to study art in California and became a painter and woodblock print maker. Today, he and his wife, Setsuko, a ceramic artist, own Studio 7 Gallery, which occupies an old wooden building that once housed the pool hall run by his father and his mother's laundry business.
The Morinoues were among the founders of the Holualoa Foundation for Arts and Culture, which raised money to restore an old coffee mill on the highway that is now the Donkey Mill Art Center. The name recalls the days when sacks of coffee were brought down from the hillsides to the mill on the backs of donkeys, jokingly called "Kona nightingales" because of their loud and constant braying. Art classes for adults and children are given at the center, and there are frequent exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and other events at which visitors are welcome.
Just up the road from the center is a Holualoa institution, the Kimura Lauhala Shop. Lauhala, the dried leaves of the pandanus (or hala) tree, has been used since ancient times by Hawaiians to weave baskets, mats, and hats, among other things.
Elfriede Kimura-Fujita says the shop was originally a grocery store, started in 1914 by her grandfather, Yoshimatsu Kimura, a Japanese immigrant. "People didn't have any money during the Depression, and he let Hawaiian customers barter lauhala goods for food and sold them in the store," she says. Particularly popular with plantation workers were wide-brimmed Konaside hats, which have a distinctive pull string to adjust the head size, and tightly woven Kona baskets used to gather the ripe coffee beans. Eventually, the family gave up the grocery business and concentrated on lauhala.
All the work is still done by hand in the old shop, fragrant with the woodsy scent of lauhala, and seemingly well stocked. However, Kimura-Fujita says the lauhala supply is dwindling. "The old weavers are dying off, and nobody wants to do this kind of work anymore," she says.
A life size cutout of a typical Depression-era coffee plantation worker, wearing a Konaside hat and with a Kona basket slung over his shoulder, stands in front of the Hololua Gallery. Operated by Matt and Mary Lovein, the gallery features collectibles along with contemporary Raku ceramics and sculpture.
The large plantations are gone, and today Kona coffee is produced by hundreds of small farmers and processed and marketed by cooperatives.
"I first came here in 1948, " recalls Guiguite Krieg, a Swiss- born former governess and now a part-time gallery clerk. She and her husband, also Swiss, fell in love with Holualoa and decided to make it their home. "We raise goats and have two acres of coffee trees," she says.
Coffee and art come together here every year on the first Saturday of November in The Coffee and Art Stroll, an event sponsored by the Holualoa Village Association. Close to two dozen local coffee farmers set up booths in front of galleries and shops along the main street and give passersby free samples of 100 percent Kona coffee. The art on view is also the real thing.
William A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.