Mauna Kea Magic

Big, fancy resort hotels are normally not my thing. There is a sanitized sameness to many of them, detached from the life and culture of the places where they are located, that leaves me cold. So when I encountered the sprawling, 252-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel during my family’s first visit to Hawaii’s Big Island in November 2014, I did not wish I were staying there.

We had come to Kauna’oa Bay to enjoy its spectacular white sand beach and calm, turquoise waters, setting up camp at the far southern end of the bay with the rest of the day-trippers, who like us, had arrived early enough to snag one of the 40 parking spots set aside for non-hotel guests. At the other end, the hulking block of concrete that was the Mauna Kea sat atop a low hillside, fringed in tropical greenery and backed by the slopes of the volcanic mountain for which it was named; an unfortunate eyesore on an otherwise perfect beach, as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward four and a half years, and I’m back home after a five night stay at the Mauna Kea (made possible by my husband’s Marriot points), tanned, relaxed and, to my surprise, head over heels in love with said block of concrete. So what is it about the Mauna Kea that sets it apart from other luxury beach resorts? Let me try to explain . . .

The Architecture

Built in 1965 by Laurence S. Rockefeller, grandson of the illustrious John D. Rockefeller, the Mauna Kea is not particularly beautiful on the outside. You need to go inside the hotel, into its airy atrium with peek-a-boo views of ocean and sky, to appreciate the genius of its architecture. In this light-filled space, an azure-tiled lobby gives way to a manicured slice of jungle, koi flashing silver and orange in a winding stream, while cantilevered stairways, balconies and bridges reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright designs transport guests to their rooms on the floors above.

It’s a space at once stunning and unassuming. Massive, yet somehow intimate. Luxurious but also welcoming. A place that imparts a feeling of peace, harmony and well-being from the moment you enter it. A place you are very, very sad to have to leave when it comes time to go home.

In the indoor / outdoor atrium of the Mauna Kea.
Manta, the hotel’s freestanding dining pavilion, designed to mimic a Buddhist temple.
One of a pair of Thai sculptures that greet guests at the entrance to the hotel.

The Art

Another unique and wonderful aspect of the Mauna Kea is its incredible collection of over 1,300 works of art gathered from various corners of the Eastern world.

A brass dowry chest from India here and a wooden Garuda bird sculpture from Thailand there, these artworks, my husband and I learned on a docent-led tour of the hotel’s most notable pieces, were purposely left unlabeled, the intention being that they serve simply as a part of the hotel’s decor. As a result, the art feels approachable and even homey; it is there to beautify and inspire, not to impress or intimidate.

The oldest piece in the Mauna Kea’s collection, a 7th century Indian Buddha that sits under a bodhi tree at the top of a staircase in a lush, outer courtyard, is a perfect example of the hotel’s philosophy toward its art. Guests are trusted to visit with the Buddha up close, many leaving flower leis and other offerings in its pink granite lap. On our last day at the Mauna Kea, we added ours to a colorful jumble of leis from a wedding celebrated at the hotel the previous night, tightly bound necklaces of fragrant roses, orchids and frangipani cradled gently in the Buddha’s arms.

A collection of Japanese copper bells.
The oldest piece in the Mauna Kea’s art collection, a 7th century pink granite Buddha from India.

The Natural Setting

But there would be no Mauna Kea without the gorgeous melding of mountains, sand and sea that brought my family there in the first place, and this is undoubtedly the resort’s most important asset. It was the natural beauty of this spot that inspired Laurence Rockefeller to build a hotel on the as yet undiscovered Big Island when he first spied Kauna’oa Bay from a plane in 1960, just one year after the Hawaiian islands became a US state. Flanked by swaying palms and bookended by craggy, black lava rocks, the crescent of powdery white sand at Kauna’oa Bay (informally known as Mauna Kea Beach) is considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in the state of Hawaii.

And apart from the day-trippers I mentioned earlier, the Mauna Kea has this beach all to itself. There are no hotels or other buildings in view, just the beauty of nature all around.

Looking north toward the Mauna Kea from the far southern end of Kauna’oa Bay.

The Magic

While it’s possible to describe in words the physical aspects of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel that make it so incredibly special, there is a certain feeling to the resort that you just have to experience to understand. This is the kind of place to which families return year after year, generation after generation. A place about which, as I read in a book commemorating the Mauna Kea’s 50th anniversary, longtime guests say “there is just something magical.”

And although it wasn’t love at first sight for me and the Mauna Kea, now that I’ve experienced the magic of this wonderful place, I will be forever under its spell.

My daughters watching the sunset from a bench in the lava rocks at the northern end of the resort.