If there is one thing I am certain of, it’s that I will retire by the ocean. Growing up poor in Orange County, California had its advantages; I went to decent schools in Irvine and enjoyed the near-perfect weather. The downside was the income disparity. While most kids I knew lived in nice seven figure homes, I lived in a HUD housing project. While the other kids wore name brand apparel, I lived in fear of someone spotting my Goodwill clothes and being confused as to why I had their old shirt. My classmates would return from summer break with tales of travel to Maui and their winter break ski trips. I had a summer of sleeping in, reading, riding my bike, and television reruns.
As an adult, I can appreciate my good fortune of benefiting from a school district supported by the property taxes of people far better off than my single, food stamp collecting mother. But I can also admit to feeling envy of the life I brushed up against daily, and yet seemed completely foreign.
As I got older, my circle of friends grew and began to include people from Newport and Laguna Beach, and I realized the lifestyle I once envied was but one level of the many degrees of wealth. Suddenly I had friends with homes worth not seven figures, but eight. Whereas my friends’ parents in Irvine drove Mercedes and BMWs, those were just second cars to the Ferraris and Bentleys in Laguna. I started to see stereos that cost more than a car, art that wasn’t mass-produced, and furniture that had distinct names.
There was much to admire for a poor teenager who grew up in other people’s clothes. But the one thing that stood out most, the single greatest luxury these people had, was the ocean. The worlds biggest swimming pool was literally in their backyard. And for all intents and purposes, they owned it. One could hear its calming waves, smell the fresh salt air, and feel the salubrious breeze 24 hours a day. They lived where everyone else could only visit, and I wanted it.
The under-appreciated film Spanglish has a memorable moment when the 12-year-old daughter of a rich couple’s housekeeper sees the ocean for the first time from the couple’s home.
“The first time one sees natural beauty which is privately owned… oceans as people’s backyards… confounds the senses. Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know God had a toy store for the rich.”
That scene perfectly captures the feeling I experienced. And even though I’m no longer the poor kid living in a housing project, and I’m perfectly capable of buying a home just about anywhere in the world, I got that feeling again at Kohanaiki.
Kohanaiki is a 450-acre housing development on the West side of the Big Island of Hawaii. What makes Kohanaiki unique, besides the amazing oceanfront location, is that it is a community centered around one of the nicest golf courses and country clubs you’re likely to find. This is not a club where just anyone can stroll in. This is a private club exclusively for residents, which right now consists of about 150 homes.
I have been considering buying a retirement property in Baja. After living there several years I had come to really like it. The perfect weather, the laid back people, the fresh Mexican food, etc… Not to mention the deal one could get on oceanfront property. But, crime has taken a sharp upturn in the past couple of years, which has given me some pause. Often when I talk with friends about those plans, I hear “You should check out Hawaii,” and they often specifically mention Maui.
Oddly enough, I’d never been to Hawaii. I’ve always been interested, but when it comes time to planning my travel to a beach getaway, I either opt for the close proximity of Baja/San Diego, or the truly out of the country, Costa Rica (specifically Tamarindo). But my curiosity of the islands had won out. I made travel plans, which included stops on Oahu, The Big Island, and Maui, and of course I’d be checking out Kohanaiki.
My initial impression of Hawaii was via Oahu, and it was not great. The humidity hit me like a hammer. Having spent most of my recent time in Las Vegas, I had grown accustomed to the dry desert heat. Honolulu is a crowded, noisy, rather ugly town, but let’s skip that and jump to the Big Island.
It is likely you’ve heard about the large volcano eruption on The Big Island. It should be noted this is happening on the other side of the island, well away from Kohanaiki, but the ash from the eruption does fill the sky enough to carry over. I heard some complaints about the air quality of the big island but I didn’t think that issue would really affect me. I was wrong, but more about that later.
My realtor picked me up at my hotel and drove me over to the Kohanaiki resort. I had been prepped that we would be meeting with a Kohanaiki representative and the fact I would have to be invited to the club was starting to weigh on my mind.
I have never been a member of a country club, as I always took the Groucho Marx standpoint of not wanting to be part of any group willing to accept me as a member. Additionally, I don’t golf. I asked my realtor if there are issues getting invited, and he assured me I wouldn’t likely have a problem. Upon further questions I did discover there have been rejections in the past, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. As we got closer to the resort, I started to become a little anxious that maybe I was about to be interviewed more than the other way around. Suddenly I felt like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack, ready to meet Judge Smails and his dork nephew, Spaulding.
As we pulled onto the property and passed through a guarded gate, things looked about as expected. Well-manicured grass with an outline of dark volcanic rock. Having watched some YouTube videos on the community, I started to recognize points of interest. We pulled up to the main clubhouse and the valet parked my realtor’s car. A few members pulled up in golf carts, the primary mode of travel inside the gates. These men looked a bit like Judge Smails; older, wearing the kind of tacky clothes reserved for golf courses.
We met with our tour guide and took a quick tour of the main clubhouse area. The first stop was the pool, which was fantastic, and empty. Even though it was some distance to the beach, the view was phenomenal. Its darker color scheme made it less pronounced than many resort pools, and really complemeted the landscaping.
The gym opens right up to the pool with stationary bikes outside the building. I’m not an expert in gyms, but for the most part, it looked well equipped and spacious. Short of some boxing equipment, I didn’t really see anything missing.
We made our way from the gym to the locker rooms and spas. Men and women have their own areas. The locker room was incredibly well appointed. Rows of beautiful wooden lockers, amazing stone shower stalls, and plenty of space to get dressed. It also appears to have some sort of laundry service, which is nice. I was assured each member has their own permanent locker here, so no hunting around for a free one. Although the fact that I had yet to see anyone here made me think that wouldn’t likely be a problem. I did also note at least two employees manning the locker rooms.
The locker area is adjacent to the spa, where there are dedicated rooms for massage, as well as a beautiful zen-like open atrium, with a hot tub, and a cold dunk pool. The humidity was to the level where I had to resist the urge to try them out.
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice the attention to detail and the upscale design. No faux anything so far, just incredibly well maintained, premium materials.
We headed downstairs to check out more amenities, skipping what looked to be the main dining area above, with a few wait staff on hand but no one at the tables. The first thing I noticed as I descended into the basement level was the interior design-very modern, and yet, uniquely Hawaiian. Beautiful old Hawaiian antiques decorated the entire expanse of the basement.
Our first stop on the lower level tour was a private dining area, which looks to also host wine tastings. The walls were lined with small wine lockers. I’m told that just like the gym lockers above, every member has their own environmentally-controlled wine storage locker that can maintain about a dozen bottles. I would assume this is also so that you can request these bottles during your meals.
Our next step was the hidden cigar room, complete with a beautiful poker table. It is actually hidden behind a panel in the wall, which gives it a cool feel, even if it is a little over the top. Once again, every member has their own environmentally controlled humidor, which looks to hold a couple dozen cigars. These humidors, much like the wine lockers, line the walls and give the room an impressive sense of purpose.
The next stop was the theatre. Our guide mentioned how the theatre is completely soundproof and showed a listing of upcoming films being offered, but they all looked like titles playing on cable or Netflix- no first-run features here. But upon entering the theatre I was impressed.
I should mention home theaters are often a pet peeve of mine. While in Baja, I managed to stick a 130” screen in my 1,700 square foot beach condo, with a 5.1 surround sound system in the ceiling. It was to this day the best movie/TV viewing experience of my life. Game of Thrones and Walking Dead became truly cinematic. So it bothers me to see dedicated home theaters with 80” screens, something that’s not much bigger than I have in my bedroom.
And most condo theaters, like the one I have in Veer Towers in Las Vegas, are little more than a big screen, a handful of uncomfortable seating, and a cheap projector and sound system. I’d be surprised if they spent more than $2k on the electronics.
But, the theatre in Kohanaiki is like the rest of the community, nothing half-assed here. I couldn’t get confirmation of the screen size, but I guessed it to be around 150”. A film was playing, so I could see the video quality was top notch, likely 4k. The sound was incredible and the seating was high-quality and comfortable, and likely very expensive. I also started to notice the little touches. The walls were baffled and isolated to trap bass, the materials were sound absorbing, and the entire design was again both modern and Hawaiian, with the added benefit of not interfering with the enjoyment of the entertainment. It was beautiful in its subtlety and disappeared when one was watching a film. By far the nicest “home theater” I’ve ever seen. I should also mention the great little snack area outside the theatre, which has the spirit of a concession area, without the cheesy factor some add when attempting to replicate one.
At this point in the tour, I was pretty blown away. I don’t think I had ever been somewhere with so much attention to detail and craftsmanship at every corner. I began to try and calculate the costs in my head for just the clubhouse and quickly lost track when I realized the cost of materials on the island would add at least 20% to everything, not to mention the additional cost of labor.
While trying to calculate I was taken to the final tour stop of the clubhouse basement level, the pub. That’s right, Kohanaiki has its own little pub. And when I say little I mean about the size of normal size pub. There is a bar of course, and tables, stools, and a jukebox. But there are also arcade game machines, shuffleboard, and two pool tables. Not to mention several little seating nooks with flatscreens and Xbox/PS4 consoles.
The big highlight of the pub was the 4 lane bowling alley. Not some cheesy home version, but a full-size bowling alley, complete with ball returns, pinsetters, and a professional quality scoring system with flatscreens, all controlled through a touchpad next to the comfortable seating area.
And of course this is a pub, so you have access to drinks, including Kohanaiki’s very own beer. Did I mention they have their own brewery? That’s right. I didn’t try any, but if they brew beer with the same level of quality and attention to detail they displayed through the rest of their endeavors, it’s probably some damn good beer.
At this point in the tour, I was in disbelief. Photos and videos don’t do this place justice. I talk briefly with my realtor and tour guide and they point out that people often come with the same idea I have; to build a large dream home with a ton of amenities. But after seeing everything already here, they scale down to a simple place and I can understand that idea. I rested for a moment next to the bowling lanes and pool tables, surveyed the tables, jukebox, arcade games, and bartender and waiter and I could picture this as a place where I would bring visiting friends, or maybe even grandchildren someday. But then something hits me; this place is empty. I mean, aside from the staff and our little group, I had yet to see a single person down there, or at the gym, or the pool, or the restaurant. It was a ghost town.
We wrapped up our tour of the clubhouse and hopped in an official Kohanaiki golf cart. My tour guide whizzed down fresh roads and I surveyed the homes as we went by. Some homes were still under construction, and there were more than a few empty lots. One thing struck me as we pulled up to a home for sale; there was no construction sound, nor did I see a lot of construction vehicles. This leads any logical person to think there is no construction happening today, but I was so enchanted by this place I momentarily wonder if they had figured out how to do noiseless construction.
We entered the first home of our tour, and it is of course beautiful. The home is small, about 2,000 square feet, but very open. The open feel is aided by the huge glass sliding doors that open the wall almost completely to a nice lush yard with the ocean in the distance. It does not have an unobstructed view, but the visual interruptions between the yard and sea are elegant enough to not distract too much from the impressive landscape.
Again, all the finishings in the home are top-notch. I’ve become less than impressed with the “chefs kitchens” of condo living, which usually just means stainless steel appliances and a granite countertop. But this kitchen is something a chef would truly love, with a 6-burner stove with a griddle, a refrigerator that looks like it belongs in a restaurant, and ample size counter space and island.
The design of the house is impeccable, again bringing together both modern and Hawaiian. I run through the checklist in my mind of what I’d expect, things like hardwood floors, backsplash, crown molding, recessed lighting, etc… Nothing is missing in this place, including an outdoor shower and some of the most beautiful wood and stone material I’ve ever seen.
Next, we viewed a few available lots, including the one I was there to see. The lot I was interested in is 1.21 acres and features an unobstructed view of the ocean. I was assured nothing could be built between me and the Pacific. I could hear the waves and feel the mist, and it was hard to imagine not feeling amazing waking up every day in this paradise. The price for this particular slice of heaven- $2.8 million.
This may be a good time to talk about the financial requirements of living in Kohanaiki. It starts of course with the land. As I mentioned, the plot I’m considering costs about $2.8 million for 1.21 acres which is actually a bargain. As one gets closer to the ocean, the price increases. During my tour I was taken to lots with much less square footage, that exceed the $4 million mark.
After the expense of the land, one has building costs to consider. The average cost to build in the United States is between $130 to $150 per square foot, depending on time, location, and materials used. According to BizJournal, the cost of building in Honolulu is approximately $530 per square foot. Keep in mind, this is the city/island with the main airport; so one can assume building expenses in Kohanaiki on the Big Island would be higher. My realtor told me I’d be looking closer to $800 to $1,000 per square foot. This means a modest 2,000 square foot home would run about $2 million, in addition to the land. Since I’m looking at something closer to 3,500 square feet, I’d be sitting around $3.5 million, in addition to the $2.8 million for the land, giving me a total of $6.3 million to have my dream home.
The expenses do not stop there. As I mentioned, Kohanaiki is a community inside a club/resort and it has significant fees. The initial fee to join the club is $170,000. This brings my total price of home and move-in to $6.47 million. And, of course, there are yearly fees. The club fees are approximately $30,000 per year, which does not include the homeowners association fees of another (approximately) $30,000 per year. These fees are likely to go up as the homeowners take over more of the amenities, and would likely end up around $90,000 to $100,000 per year for both club and HOA dues.
All of this, of course, doesn’t include property tax, which is approximately 1% of property value on the Big Island. So, this may add another $60,000 or more to my yearly expense, accumulating to what could very well be $160,000 per year, simply to exist in my home at Kohanaiki. Now let’s get back to the tour.
We stop by another smaller, pool area, where I finally see some residents. I witness 6 people by this pool, and all look to be part of the same group. They are younger than I would have expected, and all appear to be very healthy. There is also a small area with two employees serving drinks.
We move on to the beachfront and the accompanying bar/restaurants. We walk across a long, beautiful rustic bridge to the beach and bar. There are about half a dozen bed size lounge areas where the staff will bring you drinks while you relax on the beach. It resembles an ad for a resort, but with no people; again, not a single non-employee is here.
At this point, I ask my guide to confirm the number of units sold. He tells me they’ve sold about 150, with expectations of selling another 300. I inquire further and ask what percentage of those 150 homeowners live here full-time. He takes a moment and answers not in percentage, but in a flat number, “6 to 7”. I clarify that only 6, or 7 homeowners reside here full-time and he confirms. This explains why the resort feels like a ghost town.
While at the beach bar we talk briefly about the people and the events. I mention I remember hearing about the live music here, including members of big groups like Journey, Santana, Kansas, and Kool & the Gang. He confirms them and more.
We then make our way to another part of the beach, this one featuring the main beach dining area with a nice bar in the middle. The tables spill out onto the tranquil beach, and the decor is everything one could hope for in an oceanfront dining experience. Again, they push the Hawaiian only as far as elegance allows. When envisioning ideal weather, I cannot imagine a more incredible dining experience than this restaurant, and I want to live here and experience it.
Again, I see plenty of staff, but not one diner or resident. It’s like they are just waiting for people to come. Much like the main dining facility, this is a place you tell the servers what you want, from Beef Wellington to PB&J, and they make it happen. Our tour guide offers lunch at this amazing place, but my realtor mysteriously declines on our behalf. Maybe he suspects the food will be a deal breaker?
The beach restaurant concludes our tour, and we are whisked back to the clubhouse. Our guide hands me some paperwork in an impressive cloth cover folder. We shake hands and I assure him I was not disappointed.
I headed back to my hotel and my mind was working overtime. It was hard to imagine I could afford to live in a place of that quality and exclusivity. There is a war in my head between the amazing luxury lifestyle and the sticker price that accompanies it. I decide to clear my head at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui.
After my flight and check in, I walk over to my balcony to take in the ocean breeze, and it hits me. Not just the ocean breeze, but the answer I’ve been searching. As that ocean breeze blows through me, and I instantly feel at peace. This is what I want, and this is the only non-negotiable part of my quest for a home; I want to see, hear, and feel the ocean. And I can do that in Baja.
There is no doubt Hawaii is beautiful, Maui a bit more so than the other islands I visited. However, it is also isolating. In theory, they have everything one needs but not everything one could want. In Baja, I’m 10 minutes from San Diego, one of the nicest cities in the world. The weather in Baja is pretty much perfect year round, while Hawaii has the humidity that provides that majestic landscape of lush green. Hawaii touts their trade winds, but as someone who spent three years on the oceanfront of the Pacific, I can assure you we get just as nice of a breeze, and without the consistent rain. Then there’s the vog, which affected me worse than I had anticipated.
Other issues I noticed in Hawaii were the traffic (a situation I see quickly turning out of control), and one issue I didn’t think I’d find on the Big Island-pretension. I always thought of Hawaii as the laid-back place of surfers and flip-flop wearing retirees and tourists. But there was a surprisingly consistent level of pretentiousness most everywhere I went. I’m aware that my trip included one of the priciest hotels in the country and a community where people spend $6 million for vacation homes, but even in lesser-priced environments, there was a default level of snobbery. Almost all bathrooms were locked, customer service was lacking, and there was an overall jaded atmosphere of judgment based on net worth. And I can’t imagine that getting any better as Kohanaiki finds the rest of their tenants. Maybe I’d feel different if I wasn’t going to be on the lower end of the spectrum, but I felt it.
I have my concerns about Baja, and Mexico in general. The rising crime rate cannot be ignored, and there is political tension with the current administration. But along with perfect weather and incredibly decent people, there is a massive price and proximity difference. Along with being closer to the typical American conveniences to which I’ve become accustomed, there’s also a quality of life I can better afford.
If I were to compare Apples-to-Apples-the amount of home one could purchase in Baja for even half of the $6.2 million for Kohanaiki, the result would be outrageous. And the $160,000 annual cost of Kohanaiki would get me a Downton Abbey-sized staff in Baja. Yes, I wouldn’t have a beautiful restaurant that served me while sitting and viewing the beach, I would have a personal chef that served me exclusively right on the beach. I wouldn’t have access to that beautiful theatre in the Kohanaiki clubhouse, but for $50,000 I could have my own luxurious theatre with a bigger screen. I wouldn’t have access to their clubhouse or bowling alley, but I would be 20 minutes from dozens of great clubs, movie theaters, bowling alleys, etc… in San Diego. And who wants to bowl alone?
I’m not taking anything away from Kohanaiki. I doubt I’ll ever see another place as beautifully designed and built. If I were a billionaire and had a dozen homes to hang my dozens of hats, perhaps I would have purchased immediately, and would likely be happy doing so. But I’m not a billionaire, or a golfer, or a guy who knows enough about wine to have a wine locker, or cigars to have a humidor, or frankly even belongs in a country club. Maybe I have to accept I’m more a Rodney Dangerfield than a Ted Knight. And that’s OK because I’m no longer that poor kid looking in from the outside. I’m just someone who worked hard to get to the point where I’m now ready to relax on the beach.