Culture / Travel

Design and Delight in Hawaii — Inside the Storied Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Resort

Once the Most Expensive Hotel Ever Built, Mauna Kea's Modernist Architecture Remains a Glamorous Draw

BY // 08.19.22

As my plane from Honolulu to Hawaii Island flew over impossibly beautiful water — a lone sailboat far below, waves meeting multicolored sand — I was filled with anticipation, ready to savor new tastes and dive into ocean waves for a review of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. At home in Austin, I’d been chasing summer happiness with trips to museums, water parks, and air-conditioned restaurants, but I was ready for the thrill of exploring a place I had never before seen.

The storied Mauna Kea property combines natural beauty and luxury with a rare collection of oceanic art, award-winning architectural design, innovative spa services, and chef-designed menus featuring local ingredients. It seemed the perfect place to take a break from the ordinary and return to August Texas renewed and inspired.

Outside Kona International Airport, I climbed into an Uber. My driver had just moved with his wife and toddler from Massachusetts (where he’d run a cell phone store) to Hawaii, and said he had never been happier. We whizzed past valleys of chocolate-colored volcanic rock, headed to the golden Kohala Coast.

 

Mauna Key Beach Hotel
Mauna Key Beach Hotel’s lobby features a sunken garden. (Courtesy)

At First Glance

I had packed beachwear and a fabulous hat, ready for magic. But I was surprised by how quickly I relaxed: a deep calm came over me as soon as I entered the resort. The open-air lobby is situated above a sunken garden. Cantilevered hallways stretch high above, leading to three-tiered guest floors. I have always adored mid-century modernism but the juxtaposition of clean lines and a wild, lush setting was breathtaking.

It was as if the architects had built a perfect frame through which to view the beach and cliffs…and designed a treehouse guests could climb inside and have the stillness and peace of mind to savor with all senses the piercing natural beauty, a vast landscape of lava rock, sea, and ranchland with clear views of the Mauna Kea volcano’s summit.

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  • River Oaks District September 2022
  • River Oaks District September 2022

I heard waves crashing and smelled plumeria blossoms. I walked across indigo floor tiles to see the beach, which has been called the most beautiful in the world (and not only by me).

 

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and adjoining Westin Hapuna Beach Hotel boast two championship 18-hole golf courses.

An Overview of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Each of the Mauna Kea Hotel’s 252 guestrooms have one or more private lanai (balconies), luxurious Frette bed linens, and L’Occitane bath amenities.

Set on 1,839 acres, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and adjoining Westin Hapuna Beach Hotel boast two championship 18-hole golf courses, an 11-court Seaside Tennis Club, and an array of beach activities. The Mauna Kea Golf Course was the first course built on the island. I was able to stay at both lovely properties, and guests share all facilities.

 

Manta restaurant in the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

The History

In 1959, soon after Hawaii became the fiftieth American state, conservationist and venture capitalist Laurance S. Rockefeller toured the Hawaiian islands. Upon arrival at Kauna‘oa Bay, he dove into the waves, and decided he had found the place to build Hawai‘i Island’s first resort. 1960s photo shoots have the same feel as the current resort: I would not have been surprised to see Don Draper from Mad Men settling into a chair next to me and sipping a martini at the pool.

 

Mauna Kea
The oldest and most striking piece is a five-foot, three-inch pink granite Buddha, from a 7th-century temple in southern India, which is situated underneath a Bodhi Tree. (Courtesy of Marriott)

The Art

The Mauna Kea gives weekly guided tours of the on-site art collection. Rockefeller and Davis Allen collected nearly 1,000 pieces of Asian and Oceanic art in 1965. The art is situated throughout the living spaces of the resort, not hidden behind glass. The oldest and most striking piece is a five-foot, three-inch pink granite Buddha, from a 7th-century temple in southern India, which is situated underneath a Bodhi Tree. Other standouts include two bronze dogs from a Thai temple and a rare collection of Hawaiian kapa (pounded tree bark) cloth, printed in the 1960s by renowned kapa artisan Malia Solomon specifically for Mauna Kea.

 

Mauna Key Beach hotel
Mauna Kea was built in 1965 and designed by legendary architect Edward Charles Bassett. (Courtesy)

The Architecture

Mauna Kea was built in 1965 and designed by legendary architect Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Like the volcano it is named after, the building itself curves, reflecting the land’s shape. In addition, the structure incorporates lava rock. Following an earthquake, the resort has completed a $150 million restoration.

 

Recommended Reading

Mr. Mauna Kea is a gem of a memoir written by Adi W. Kohler, the much-beloved General Manager of the resort for over thirty years, before his death at age 83. The resort has created a library dedicated to “Mr. Mauna Kea,” which is where I found this book. It’s a charming peek into the earliest days of the resort, and provides an insiders’ view into its style and charm.

 

Mauna Key Beach Hotel
Between the Mauna Kea and Westin Hapuna resorts, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a rugged 2.4-mile path with beautiful views.

The Activities

Kauna’oa Bay is a haven for manta rays along the coast. Guests can participate in a Manta Ray Moonlight Swim. The educational experience is led by local experts who describe the manta’s habitats and impact on ocean life. This transformative experience is the only of its kind on the island that offers shore entry, which means participants approach the mantas directly from the shore by walking into the ocean.

Between the Mauna Kea and Westin Hapuna resorts, the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a rugged 2.4-mile path with beautiful views…and you can hop in a golf cart for a ride back!

 

Meridia Hawaii
Meridia Mediterranean Restaurant overlooks Hapuna Beach. (Courtesy)

The Cuisine

Meridia Mediterranean Restaurant overlooks Hapuna Beach. My grilled octopus (with a Big Island fiddle head fern salad) was stunning, followed by a braised Big Island short rib and hot churros (to remind me of home), served with caramel, chocolate, and coconut dipping sauces (to remind me I was not at home).

Island-sourced and island-inspired cuisine, along with an award-winning wine list, is showcased at Manta Kitchen. I started with lobster tempura and chose macadamia nut encrusted mahi mahi for my entrée and “Manta’s Souffle” for dessert, a chocolate dream that I was told is a resort favorite. Live jazz and a view of snorkelers searching for manta rays made for a memorable night.

The signature Mauna Kea Fredrico cocktail and any tropical cocktail (or mocktail) wish can be served at the beachside casual dining restaurant Hau Tree.

One night I had delicious late-night sushi accompanied by live music at Copper Bar.

 

Westin Mandara Spa
The Westin Mandara Spa offers a combination of Balinese and Hawaiʻi-inspired therapies. (Courtesy of Westin)

Spa Day

I was lucky to enjoy a traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage at the Westin Mandara Spa, which features long, gentle strokes to lull guests into peacefulness.

 

The Shopping

Between the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, there are thirteen wonderful (and walkable) shops. My favorites are the Mauna Kea Beach Shop, where you can buy everything from towels to bucket hats to drinking glasses to with the iconic orange plumeria flower logo, and the pop-up House of Mana Up, which is filled with unique treasures from local artisans.

 

The Lottery Ticket

Maybe it was the trade winds, the deep-purple lei that was placed around my neck. Maybe it was the way the evening light fell on the aquamarine bay, or the open-air walk — lit by firelight — to my sumptuous room, but I fell under the spell of the Mauna Kea Beach Resort completely, and now understand the parents and children who return again and again, for generations, to the Mauna Kea.

I hope to win the Powerball jackpot and become one of these people.

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