For many visitors to Hawaii, the hotel experience is often set up as a base camp for days spent discovering lush, exotic locales. But at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on Hawaii's Big Island, you'll never want — or need — to leave the grounds. That's because everything that makes Hawaii so appealing, from striking natural beauty to warm Aloha spirit, can be found right on the property ... snorkel just off a secluded white sand beach, view manta rays in their natural environment, play a round of golf in an oceanfront setting or explore one of the world's largest private collections of island art. Then head over to the Kauna'oa Bar & Grill for sunset Mai Tais.
Named for nearby "White Mountain," this discreetly stunning hotel opened in July 1965 and has been renovated over time. While it's relatively young compared to many of America's grand hotels, it is undeniably historic. It was the vision of philanthropist and conservationist Laurance S. Rockefeller, who saw the potential of a rugged patch of black lava in an inaccessible area during a time when the Big Island was not a thriving tourist destination. Not only was he determined to respect the natural terrain, he hired a historian to ensure that the project did not destroy any sacred or archaeologically significant sites. His revolutionary approach blended the resort into the landscape rather than reshaping it to suit its needs. Not only does his legacy of respect for the spirit and culture of the islands live on at the Mauna Kea, its effects can be felt at resorts throughout Hawaii.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has been fully restored to emphasize its original blend of mid-century modern Western and subtle Eastern elements — the design drew on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese shibumi style structures. The property is infused with a mesmerizing spirituality, which can be credited in part to the natural setting and in part to the magnificent décor. The hotel houses more than 1,600 pieces of museum-quality art and artifacts from India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Melanesia and Polynesia. Because the majority are not encased, they lend the feeling of being in a very tastefully appointed estate. As you wander the grounds (or take a tour), you may encounter a seventh-century granite Buddha, or notice a bronze ceremonial drum being used as an occasional table. Hallways serve as galleries, as you'll discover on the fifth, sixth and seventh floor corridors, with their displays of hand-beaten tapa cloth textiles and Hawaiian quilt collection specially commissioned by Rockefeller.
When it comes to recreation, you'll find that the Mauna Kea is as skilled at indulging the body as it is at nurturing the spirit. The beachfront lawn hosts morning yoga, while Kauna'oa Bay invites guests to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, sail, paddleboard and kayak; you can even head out for a day of whale watching (seasonal) or deep sea fishing. There is a 2,500 square-foot fitness center with 43 Life Fitness exercise machines for unwinding, as well as spa treatments at the Mauna Kea Spa by Mandara and the Seaside Tennis Club for tennis lessons. Among the club's many features are eleven shoreline tennis courts and private and group lessons offered by pros Hector Mendoza and Craig Pautler, the hotel's director of tennis. Another notable draw is the eighteen-hole Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed golf course, which was originally inaugurated with match play between Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus; its dramatic Third Hole — where Pacific inlet waters crash against the rocky shoreline — alone is worth a game.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the hotel is its 254 guest rooms and suites, which have been gracefully restored with preservation in mind. Rather than being given a new look, the accommodations were allowed to retain their original simple elegance. Natural wood interiors frame private lanais, and an open-air design brings the outdoors in; all elements conspire to create a wonderful tranquility. The rooms are comfy in a laid-back residential way and well stocked with thoughtful amenities and some feature oceanview baths. Condo and villa rentals are also available, popular with families and vacationers seeking a little more privacy.
No mention of the Mauna Kea would be complete without noting its dining venues —Number 3, Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar, Kauna'oa Bar & Grill, Copper Terrace and Hau Tree — where the cuisine is influenced by the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement and sustainability; ingredients are locally sourced and the season greatly influences the menus. Not to be missed are the Tuesday and Friday night luaus, oceanfront events featuring a pig cooked in an imu (underground oven) and Hawaiian music and dance, as well as a Saturday night clambake.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is part of the Mauna Kea Resort, which also includes the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel — guests enjoy reciprocal privileges (including access to the Hapuna's full-service spa) at both. It is a place that reveres the island's deeply spiritual side while indulging holiday-goers' more corporeal desires. From the moment you are greeted with a fragrant lei and warm "aloha," you will understand why this hotel has been welcoming guests and families for generations.
See more photos of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in our gallery
The story of Mr. Mauna Kea