What he saw was a desolate hillside of lava rock, studded with scrubby kiawe bushes, and a snow-capped volcanic peak soaring in the distance. What he envisioned was a secluded resort of understated elegance, one that blended easily with an environment of perpetual sunshine and gentle trade winds.
The Rockefeller in this case was Laurance S., one of five grandsons of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. Laurance died two months ago at age 94, but a glimmering jewel of his legacy is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which set the standard
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Rockefeller certainly chose well for the site. Kaunaoa is one of the most alluring crescents of creamy sand that you'll find in the islands, and it is punctuated at both ends by black-lava points. Weather instruments on this northwest coast of the Big Island routinely log a mere 7 inches of rain per year, with 245 sunny days and the mildest of breezes.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, and although competing resorts now string south along the Kohala Coast like puka shells in a bracelet, it still maintains a marvelous sense of seclusion. Worn to a frazzle by your job? You'll feel as if you've
Rockefeller was enchanted by the climate and culture of the South Pacific and specified that his hotel showcase both.
The outside is invited in here. The lobby is entirely open-air (though there is a motorized skylight if the weather gets inclement). All guest rooms open onto an atrium, and doors are composed of wooden louvers, so that breezes can vent through freely. Many of the dining and bar options are on airy terraces.
The hotel also brims with Asian and Pacific art, much of it from the ancient world. There are more than 1,600 works in all, displayed throughout the grounds. Take a casual stroll in search of morning coffee and you might find your attention repeatedly diverted by a dragon statue from Thailand, a pink-granite Buddha from India or a vivid quilt from Hawaii.
The works are not labeled, "because Rockefeller felt you wouldn't have identifying cards next to objects in your home, so he didn't want them here," said Patti Cook, who leads an art tour of the hotel every Thursday morning. (A brochure for a self-guided tour is also available free at the front desk.)
The art is simply incorporated into the decor - to the extent that it can become an afterthought. Walking down a hallway one afternoon, I noticed that a housekeeper had leaned a mop against a wood-carved New Guinean canoe paddle displayed on a wall.
Simplicity might be among the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel's greatest strengths. This 310-room resort is at the top end of the Hawaiian scale - make no mistake about that - but without ostentation.
For example, you won't find an artificial jungle with imported plants, tumbling waterfalls, leaping dolphin sculptures and man-made, sand-bottom lagoons - components that are de rigueur at Hawaii's newer luxury hotels. Here there are just some ponds and palms in the atrium, a small terrace swimming pool, a grassy expanse in front of a newer wing ... and that beach.
This is where the guests inevitably gravitate. The water is shallow for a good distance offshore, allowing for waist-deep wading in clear, warm water that is placid most of the year (it can get a little rough in the dead of winter). The snorkeling is decent at both ends of the crescent. Food and bar service is available at the edge of the sand. And the umbrella-shaded loungers on the beach are ideal for getting lost in a novel.
Guests stretch out here on bright-orange towels.
That's right. A tangerine orange so intense it will hurt your eyes. Remember that the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened in 1965, an era when housewives yearned for Formica kitchen counter tops in such brilliant hues. The shade of orange has since become an eccentric trademark, and it fairly glows from the hotel's plumeria logo, the elevator doors and the complimentary flip-flops in the rooms.
The hotel's loyal following wouldn't have it any other way.
"If we change the slightest thing, we have people who tell us about it," said spokeswoman Aven Wright-McIntosh over breakfast one morning.
She cited the 18 months of renovations undertaken 10 years ago, during which the hotel was shut down for upgrades in plumbing, electrical, air conditioning and disabled access. "Afterward," Wright-McIntosh said, "we decided to update the orange. We changed the beach towels to a beautiful teal blue. Guests came back and said, 'What have you done?!' "
The orange returned.
Some changes have been inevitable through the years, though.
Rockefeller specified that the rooms not be equipped with televisions or radios. They were added eventually, along with CD players. Ours even came with a CD of gentle Hawaiian music. We enjoyed it so much, we inquired about buying it when we checked out but were disappointed to learn it wasn't available.
Rockefeller also abhorred air conditioning and didn't want it in the rooms, but those breezes can die out at times, and he relented to allow air conditioning in the original construction. We never turned ours on, though, and found that the louvered door, the screened lanai and the ceiling fan ensured that the room stayed pleasantly cool.
Our room, though 1960s-small, was comfortable, without a hint of opulence. The floor was of sandstone-type tile, such that you didn't think twice about walking in with a wet bathing suit. We also appreciated a small refrigerator, a room safe, a bathroom of marble and granite surfaces, Aveda soap and toiletries, plush Irish-cotton bath towels, lightweight robes - and even those bright-orange flip-flops.
Just inside the double doors of the lanai were two padded wicker chairs facing the bay below. In humpback whale season (roughly Christmas to Easter), this would be a great spot to settle in with a pair of binoculars.
There aren't a lot of signs on the grounds of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - by design. It is hoped that guests will amble here and there, making little discoveries. And indeed, there's much to experience, including:
MANTA RAYS. Along a walkway on a rocky bluff, floodlights are aimed toward the ocean below. The lights attract plankton, which is the favored food of mantas, which approach eerily out of the darkness, flapping giant pectoral fins that resemble rubbery wings. An observation deck permits optimal viewing for guests who make their way here after dinner, but patience is essential. It's impossible to know when or if the rays will make an appearance.
GOLF. At the hotel's inception, the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr. was commissioned to carve an 18-hole championship course out of a lava field. According to Cathey Tarleton, the Mauna Kea's de facto historian, Jones crushed some of the porous aa lava (meaning rough lava in Hawaiian) with a hammer and determined that it would make a rich soil base. Then he configured the course along the natural contours of the land, and the result was a beautiful and challenging layout that plays to more than 7,000 yards.
The signature hole is No. 3, which requires players to drive their tee shots over an ocean inlet that bites deeply into the edge of the course. It's 210 yards from the black tees - and over that water, it looks like 350.
TENNIS. Hawaii's newer resorts shunt their tennis courts off to a less-than-prime location, atop the parking structure, perhaps. But tennis was a big deal in the '60s, and the Mauna Kea's 13 courts are literally strung along a small bluff that overlooks the ocean. The view is so stunning, you'll have difficulty concentrating on the ball during a serve.
LUAU. This is the rare luau program that includes Hawaii's ancient hula - in which the dance is accompanied only by chants and drums, not the steel guitars and "Little Brown Gal" songs that would be introduced by immigrants. Those hapahaole songs do make an appearance later in the show, along with other elements of the standard hotel luau: Tahitian boogie numbers, a Samoan fire dance and the requisite audience participation.
The setting is divine - on a point overlooking the Pacific, lit primarily by tiki torches. And the array of food, presented in a buffet, is overwhelming. There is kalua pig, of course, but also dishes that reflect the diet sensibilities of today: a very good kalua turkey, two kinds of fresh island fish and a lot of fresh fruit, vegetables and salads. Desserts showcase such tropical ingredients as guava, lillikoi, ginger, macadamia nuts, coconut and bananas.
BATIK. Thai curries are the specialty of chefs Piet Wigmans and Robert Suenaga at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel's fine-dining restaurant, housed in a terraced, romantically lit room with windows all around. But it seems a sacrilege to come to Hawaii and not partake regularly of the bounty of local fish. The kitchen scored nicely in this category, too, offering extensive seafood selections, from starters to main courses. We chose well with a Pacific red snapper with Kona mushrooms and lobster ragout - savory accents for a cut of fish that can be bland on its own.
The menu also featured some tasty local greens, and the wine list was a pleasant surprise, offering a number of reasonably priced bottles. In a corner of the room, a duo quietly played pop standards on piano and upright bass, setting a sultry mood.
The waiter was personable and helpful, but he steered my wife wrong on an espresso souffle for dessert. It is purportedly a house specialty, but it arrived undercooked and without a hint of espresso flavor.
COPPER BAR. The strum of guitars and the lilting harmony of Hawaiian voices reached us from the Promenade level each afternoon of our stay, piquing our curiosity, but our timing was always off. We were rushing off to a prior engagement, or savoring an end-of-the-day swim in the ocean. Finally, on our last evening, we settled into the open-air Copper Bar for some music and refreshment.
No wonder this is one of the most popular traditions of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
The slack-key music begins at 5:30, and the gentle melodies are calming at day's end. Shortly, a hula dancer began to perform. But this was no dose of Hawaiian kitsch. The dancer wore a long, white dress and moved elegantly across the shale paving stones.
We sipped mai tais and nibbled shrimp potstickers. We sat hypnotized by the view across Kaunaoa Bay. The ocean waved back with a soft breeze. The sun dipped into the water behind a black lava point.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Yosemite's Ahwahnee, Oct. 10 For a look at other Classic Hotels that have been featured in the series, visit www.greatescapes.com