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King of Hawaii’s Kohala Coast: The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

The beach at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Photo by John Grossmann

By John Grossmann

At some point during your stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, even you, who foolishly keep lifting the lid of a laptop or finger massaging an iPad, will sidle up and awkwardly  ease your way into a clichéd but still wondrous resort amenity:  a beige hammock strung between palm trees.

Before you doze off, here’s what you’re likely to hear.  The gleeful shouts of toddlers in the white wash of warm Pacific waters.  Fathers calling out, “Nice ride,” to young sons or daughters clinging to boggie boards.  A family matriarch reminding her multi-generational brood of the time and usual place for this year’s family portrait.  This you’ll hear for sure, regular and reassuring as your own respiration– the beach kissing gentle crash of the surf upon one of Hawaii’s sweetest coves.

This vibrant year round soundtrack has two composers, if you will.  Music by Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, and lyrics courtesy of 20th century RockResort visionary Laurance Rockefeller.  In the early 1960s Rockefeller fell in love with this sheltered white sand beach on a tour of the then virgin Kohala coast (before there was even an airport at Kona) and built what many consider his masterpiece getaway resort.

Indeed, Mauna Kea has you at hello and then just keeps wooing you. Arriving females are bestowed with orchid leis; males receive necklaces of shiny kukui nuts.  You next step inside the hotel lobby, or do you?  The view from the open-sided lobby, with the hotel perched on a rise above the cove, extends straight through to the Pacific.  The lobby walls and columns, you’ll soon learn, were meticulously hued to match the sand on the beach, and the tiles on the floor were similarly hand painted in the very blue of the water.  The result is stunning, a visual infinity “pool” that literally from square one sets the stage for the decades ahead-of-its-time, eco-conscious design of the hotel’s original architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, designers of Manhattan’s Lever House.  With its sleek lines and cantilevered stairways, the modernist look of the Mauna Kea transports you back to its opening day in 1964, when Rockefeller sought a casual elegance that respected the spirit of a very special place.

Many of the below lobby-level walls on the ocean side of the hotel are of indigenous lava rocks, mortared on an angle, as in sacred local burial grounds.  The 158 rooms in the main tower  (the hotel has another 100 rooms in a newer, family-oriented beach tower) surround a plant-filled, open atrium where much of the day birdsongs are more common than human conversation.

“Mr. Rockefeller was a visionary in this regard. He always built places that fit into the environment. You feel like you live outdoors,” says Kathrin “Chacha” Kohler, who heads the onsite realty office.  Ms. Kohler is the wife of Adi Kohler, the beloved general manager of the Mauna Kea from 1973 to 2000. She and her husband came to the Big Island after stints at three other original RockResorts properties, the Hyatt Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico; Caneel Bay on St. John; and Wyoming’s Grand Teton Lodge.  When asked, she needs no time to think:  Mauna Kea is her favorite.


Guest room at the Mauna Kea.


A recent $150 million renovation to the hotel following the 2006 earthquake has enlarged and updated guest rooms, wiring in such 21st century amenities as Internet access and flat screen televisions.  (Early Rockefeller rules banned TVs from rooms.)  But otherwise, the look and feel of the resort remain little changed.   The Mauna Kea is still home to a museum-worthy, if not museum-humbling, collection of more than 1,600 pieces of art that Rockefeller had sourced in Southeast Asia, China, Japan, India, Melanesia, and Polynesia.


Lobby of the Mauna Kea


Believing art was best viewed not behind glass or guard ropes, Rockeller instructed that the pieces, which range from the towering Buddha in the lobby, to an intricately carved Maori canoe-bailing tool, be scattered around the hotel and its grounds.  It’s almost impossible to turn a corner without coming across something stunning and unexpected, perhaps18th century gongs from Thailand or Cambodian sandstone portrait heads.  Especially eye-catching are the traditional Hawaiian quilts adorning guest room hallways. Rockefeller commissioned them, and in so doing, says Kohler, helped revive a then-dying art.

Guests still flock to the traditional Tuesday night luau and the Saturday night clambake.  Fiery sunsets still hush dinner conversations at patio tables. Wild turkeys still roam the grounds. Early risers still look down from their balconies and see a swimmer or two, or maybe three, crossing the cove at its widest in majestically long laps.  At night, around 10 o’clock or so, those seeking a nightcap in the breezy outdoor living room, still hope for an easy chair around one of the gas-fired lava rock pits.

The legendary Third Hole at Mauna Kea. Photo by John Grossmann.


Well, one thing has changed at Mauna Kea, actually making the going tougher, not easier.  Its famous Robert Trent Jones, Sr. golf course, which underwent a $50 million renovation and redesign by his son, Rees Jones, is now as far from a softie resort course as the back tee on its legendary par 3 third hole is from the green.  A slew of additional sand traps, plus tricky, elevated greens make the revamped links a true test of club selection and shot making, earning it the rank of #27 on Golf Digest’s top 100 courses. “Choose your tees wisely,” is the advice in the pro shop.

About that third hole.  One of the most photographed golf holes in the world, its back tee stands 272 yards from the center of the green, virtually all of that necessarily in the air across a scenic but imposing stretch of blue Pacific.  Other tees cut the carry down to more manageable distances, as proved necessary for the course’s maiden round, played on December 8, 1964 for a Shell Wonderful World of Golf broadcast featuring the dream threesome of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player.  The story goes that on the practice round the day before, the tenacious but diminutive Player found himself unable to clear the water (a tougher test back then with less high tech clubs and balls) and so for the competition the trio moved down a tee to a more manageable, 205-yard shot.  Even non-golfers will want to take in the view from this supremely challenging (especially with a headwind) ocean side rectangle of green, occasionally reserved for wedding dinners and, one understands, the final resting spot for the ashes of more than one golfer.

If the mark of a great resort is the difficulty in selecting a single favorite or special spot, then the Mauna Kea surely measures up.  You might cite the third tee.  Or choose the world-class beach. Or the incomparable lobby. Perhaps an evening seat by a fiery lava pit.  But if you’re one of those who needs to unwind more than you care to admit, you just might confess to a hammock in the shade, but only, of course, after you wake up from the delightful indulgence of an al fresco nap.


Visit the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel


John Grossmann has written about food and travel for Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).


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