Fifty years after it became the 50th of the United States, Hawaii remains a place of special allure. Despite the crowds and traffic congestion in some areas, the islands still offer a delicious climate, cooling breezes, spectacular volcanic mountains, azure waters and inviting beaches of white, black and even green sand.
Among the most isolated spots on earth — Honolulu lies 2,551 miles southwest of Los Angeles and 2,739 miles north of Tahiti — the Hawaiian Islands long eluded detection by explorers and were thought by many Westerners to be little more than a tantalizing legend. That changed in January 1778, when Captain James Cook reached Kauai and changed the islands’ destiny forever. From then on, Hawaii aroused the intense curiosity of the outside world, and by the 1860s, it was already a tourist destination.
In the past couple of years, several Hawaiian properties of note have undergone major renovations. (However, on our recent extended trip, we were also delighted to find old favorites that have remained entirely true to themselves.) Alas, the recession has had an effect, with visitor numbers down almost 20 percent. As a consequence, hotels are offering many attractive deals. So while the rates we list here are good benchmarks, you can almost certainly do better when making your reservations.
A Classic Reborn
Hearing that a severe earthquake had struck the northwest Kohala Coast of the Big Island in October 2006, we feared the worst. Initial reports were reassuring, but in December, engineers checking the roof at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel discovered serious structural damage. The property was immediately evacuated and closed. It reopened in March 2009 following a $150 million renovation. After a recent incognito visit, we are happy to report that this longtime Harper favorite is better than ever and still richly deserves its informal title, “Queen of the Islands.”
The two-year overhaul has resulted in fewer but larger rooms (258, down from 310), restyled interiors and significant upgrades to the golf course, carried out by Rees Jones, son of the original designer, Robert Trent Jones Sr. Bunkers have been moved, fairways re-contoured, greens reseeded and the irrigation system improved. Despite these changes, the essential character and appearance of the resort remain unchanged.
Mauna Kea was created by Laurance S. Rockefeller, who spotted the superb beach at Kauna’oa Bay during an aerial scouting trip in 1960. Rockefeller commissioned architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw up the plans for the main building. This is set on a headland overlooking the north end of the bay and positioned to capture the prevailing breeze. The golf course had to be constructed on what was then a vast field of hardened black lava. Rockefeller’s dream became a reality when the resort opened in 1965.
The main building is an architectural tour de force. (In 2007, the American Institute of Architects named Mauna Kea No. 55 on its list of the 150 most distinguished buildings in the United States.) A completely open design, with rooms set around three atria, ensures the constant flow of cooling air. Everywhere in the public areas, the use of materials is exceptional, especially in the lounge beside the aptly named Copper Terrace. Here, the concrete supporting pillars might seem utilitarian, but they are offset by beautiful floors of polished flagstone, accent walls of lava stone and high coffered ceilings that create a remarkable feeling of airiness and light. The most dramatic design feature is a magnificent staircase, at the top of which sits a serene seventh-century granite Buddha. Overall, the effect is Zen-like calm and spareness, an atmosphere accentuated by the extraordinary collection of Asian and Pacific art that Rockefeller and his team assembled. This includes tikis from the Polynesian islands, Maori carvings from New Zealand, and Hawaiian quilts that grace the fifth and sixth floors around the south atrium. Rockefeller saw Hawaii as a meeting place of East and West and hoped that the artifacts “would succeed in conveying to our visitors an awareness of, and an appreciation for, the traditions of the East.”
The same understated elegance that characterizes the public areas was to be found in our Ocean View room. The interior featured cool, white stone floors, white walls and white bed covers. A striking counterpoint was provided by the black-and-white fabric of the chaise longue and the beige-and-red bolsters on the bed. Honey-hued wood had been used to frame the windows and to construct an ingenious unit incorporating shelves, drawers, an ample writing desk, a high-definition TV hidden behind sliding doors, and a small refrigerator. Despite the renovations, some baths at Mauna Kea are still on the small side, and ours came with a combined shower/tub and only a single vanity. Modern amenities included an iPod docking station and wireless Internet (for which there is an irritating daily charge).
The property provides numerous dining venues, all still under the control of Executive Chef George Gomes Jr., whose career at Mauna Kea dates to the 1980s. The most formal of these is Monettes, created by the Monette brothers, owners of the well-known Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Colo. The cuisine is “American/French with island influences,” and we particularly enjoyed a starter of lobster ravioli in a lobster cream sauce with spinach, and a wonderfully seasoned opakapaka (pink snapper) with a just-spicy-enough curry sauce. In contrast, Manta has an exhibition kitchen that showcases Kohala regional cuisine. There, we relished a superb butterfish in a misoyaki broth with shrimp, shimeji mushrooms and baby bok choy, all flavored with a ginger butter. The adjacent Pavilion Wine Bar serves 48 wines by the glass. Continuing hotel traditions include a luau (Hawaiian feast) on Tuesday nights and a Saturday night clambake beside the beach.
At the superb Kauna’oa Beach (one of the best in Hawaii), guests find equipment and instruction for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, fishing and sailing. Other facilities include an 11-court Seaside Tennis Club, a new 2,500-square-foot Fitness Center with 43 exercise machines, and a new Mauna Kea Spa, which offers a combination of Balinese-and Hawaiian-inspired therapies, including hot stone treatments and seaweed massages. The latter can be enjoyed in outdoor cabanas overlooking the beach. The superb concierge staff can help you with the many attractions in the area. These include the nearby Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site and the town of Hilo, two hours’ drive away. Helicopter excursions to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park can be arranged.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel 98 Ocean View, $750; Deluxe Ocean View, from $900. 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast, HI 96743. Tel. (866) 977-4589.
Honolulu’s Quiet Side
For those who want to be close to Honolulu, but also seek the pleasures of a beachside refuge away from the ruckus of Waikiki, The Kahala Hotel & Resort has long been the preferred choice. Like Mauna Kea, it was built by a true visionary, Conrad Hilton, and again like its Big Island cousin, gained attention for its striking architecture, thanks to a building designed by Edward Killingsworth in his signature post-and-beam style. And Kahala opened just a year before Mauna Kea, in 1964.
Located in the upscale Kahala neighborhood 15 minutes east of Waikiki, the 338-room resort is set on a six-acre estate with a beautiful 800-foot beach. After 11 years as a Mandarin Oriental, it was taken over in 2006 by Japan’s Okura group, which recently completed a two-year renovation program. Visitors familiar with the property will find that the distinctive lobby, with its soaring ceilings dominated by massive colored lava-glass chandeliers, is as bright and dramatic as ever. And we noted with pleasure that the staff is as warm and welcoming as before.
After the striking public areas, however, we found the guest rooms a little lackluster. They have been redesigned in a style the hotel calls “Kahala Chic,” with a palette of subtle pastels exemplified by gray-green carpets and buttercream walls. We thought it safe and uninspired, entirely lacking in tropical color and vitality. The effect might have been less anodyne had some of the fine old wood floors been left showing, but alas, they have vanished. The baths are spacious and feature two rooms, each with a vanity, and one with a walk-in shower, the other with a soaking tub.
The flagship restaurant, Hoku’s, has long been on our list of Honolulu favorites. It remains a handsome room with a striking recessed wood ceiling and dramatic lighting. Executive Chef Wayne Hirabayashi has created a menu that combines invention with classic technique. We especially liked his crab cake with a creamy avocado mousse accompanied by a jicama salsa that added just the right amount of crunch and spice. For our main course, we opted for imperial prawns. These were perfectly cooked and seasoned, but the wok-fried vegetables proved sadly listless. As throughout the rest of the hotel, the service was gracious and efficient.
If you want to do more than lounge on the beach or by the pool, you can rent kayaks and snorkeling gear — or take surfing lessons! Golf, tennis, hiking and cycling are also available. The spa has added five new treatment rooms that overlook tropical gardens, and all signature massages begin with “Ho’omaka,” a delightful Hawaiian tradition consisting of a foot soak using ’Alaea salt with flower essences. Oceanside treatments are now available.
The Kahala offers a children’s club for 5- to 12-year-olds ($65 for a full, seven-hour day), and its daily activities include reef walking, snorkeling and fishing. The resort also has a 26,000-square-foot natural lagoon, which is home to five bottlenose dolphins. There, daily programs are supervised by the “Dolphin Quest” trainers. For adults, an excellent concierge staff will help plan excursions — and if Zane is on duty, he’s your man.
We were pleased to find The Kahala well cared for, but to be candid, we found the room renovations disappointing.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort 89 Partial Ocean View Lanai, $570; Ocean View Lanai, $755-$905; Beach Front Lanai, $1,055. 5000 Kahala Avenue, Honolulu, HI 96816. Tel. (808) 739-8888.
Set on a promontory overlooking the turquoise waters of Hanalei Bay in Kauai, The St. Regis Princeville Resort, reopened in October 2009 after a six-month, $100 million refurbishment (and rebranding under the St. Regis banner). In its original incarnation the 252-room property looked like a gilded European palace dropped into the tropics. The imposing lobby still has a central fountain and a spectacular chandelier made of more than 4,000 pieces of Murano glass, but indigenous elements are now provided by a coffered ceiling of woven raffia, palm-wood floors and glass walls that offer Imax-scale vistas of the Pacific, Mount Makana and the striking peaks to the west.
Our Ocean View room lacked a lanai but was attractively and thoughtfully laid out with a couch, coffee table, large desk and media center with flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station (that defeated the best efforts of two members of the engineering staff who tried to get it to work!). WiFi Internet access was available at the larcenous daily cost of $14.97. The bath was faced with green-black marble and came with twin vanities. However, the awkward design of the combined tub and shower might have been taken from a liability lawyer’s handbook, as it was incredibly difficult to clamber into.
The property offers two restaurants, the big draw being the lavishly decorated Kauai Grill, created by three-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The menu features a selection of Vongerichten’s signature dishes from his restaurants around the world. However, do not miss the Makana Terrace, where we thoroughly enjoyed dishes such as a luscious opah fish on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes. The service in both restaurants is superb.
Despite the oceanfront setting, it is necessary to take two elevators down to the beach. (The resort is set on a ridge, and there are nine floors below the lobby.) On the way, you will encounter the lovely, free-form infinity-edge pool overlooking Hanalei Bay, the only drawback to which is a maximum depth of four feet. The beach itself is sugary golden sand, but, be warned, there is a lot of coral offshore, which means you have to be careful getting into the water.
The Princeville has long enjoyed a stellar reputation among golfers, thanks to two courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. The par 72 Makai Course winds around lakes and woodlands and affords spectacular views of Hanalei Bay. Laid out in 1971 and redesigned in 2009, it invariably figures in any list of the Top 100 courses in the United States. The newer Prince Course is also highly ranked by aficionados. The club’s practice facility has also been significantly improved to include two new practice tees, a practice fairway bunker, seven target greens with bunkers, a teaching tee and short game practice complex.
The resort’s other notable facility is the restyled 10,000-square-foot Halele’a Spa. This has 12 treatment rooms where the essences of Hawaiian fruits and flowers are used in signature massages and skin treatments. Pilates, yoga and personal training are available in the adjoining fitness center. Overall, we found the transformed Princeville, in its new St. Regis incarnation, to be a handsome and appealing property in a glorious natural setting.
The St. Regis Princeville Resort 91 Ocean View, from $510; Premium Ocean View, from $575. 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville, Kauai, HI 96722. Tel (808) 826-9644.
Another well-known property on which large sums have recently been lavished ($180 million in this instance) is The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui. During the renovation, the number of rooms was reduced from 548 to 463, and 107 new residential suites were added. (Owners of the one- and two-bedroom apartments may only use them for 30 days a year, and the remainder of the time they are rented out by Ritz-Carlton).
The most noticeable change from our last visit was the complete makeover of the room interiors. Previously, they were decorated in a traditional Old World style familiar from Ritz-Carlton properties elsewhere, but now the accommodations have fabrics and colors that are more in keeping with their setting: area rugs with motifs that echo Hawaiian patterns, light yellow walls, deep papaya orange fabric on chaises longues, floral curtains and Hawaiian-themed art, in many cases the work of local artists. Rooms come with flat-panel TVs, iPod docking alarm clocks, and WiFi connectivity (labeled as complimentary, but actually part of the daily $20 resort fee). Marble-clad baths provide double vanities, soaking tubs and walk-in showers. Most of the rooms overlook the three-tiered pool rather than the beach, which is a several-minute walk from the main building. Although the hotel’s promontory setting affords some fine ocean views, it is always best to opt for the higher floors.
Amenities include an excellent fine-dining restaurant, The Banyan Tree, which has also been redesigned and now features an outdoor bar and a covered lounge with wonderful views of the Pacific and the adjacent island of Molokai. The seasonal Continental menu emphasizes fish, with dishes such as grilled ahi tuna with foie gras and rhubarb cherry sauce, and crispy Hawaiian snapper with stewed okra and roasted tomatoes. A 17,500-square-foot spa features 15 treatment rooms, most of which open onto private gardens, plus relaxation areas with basalt floors and rain showers, and specializes in Hawaiian treatments such as lomilomi massage. Two superb golf courses, the newly renovated par 73 Plantation Course designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and the par 72 Bay Course by Arnold Palmer, are set on a 23,000-acre historic pineapple plantation and offer glorious views of the ocean and surrounding mountains.
Despite all the millions expended, we found The Ritz-Carlton to be essentially unchanged, and it remains an admirable all-around resort.
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua 90 Deluxe Ocean View Room, $625; Club Ocean View, $725; One-Bedroom Ocean Front Suite, $995. One Ritz-Carlton Drive, Kapalua, Maui, HI 96761. Tel. (808) 669-6200.
Two Distinctive Retreats
If air-conditioning and in-room tv are on your list of non-negotiable requirements, then read no further. If not, and you are open to persuasion, we would like to introduce you to two singular properties, both of which offer a rich sense of place.
Set on Maui’s rugged east coast, Hana was reachable only by ship until the second quarter of the 20th century. In 1944, a San Francisco industrialist named Paul Fagan bought a local plantation, and two years later opened the six-room Kauiki Inn. This has since grown into the 66-room Hotel Hana-Maui. Even today, it is still relatively isolated, the road to Hana being a twisting, turning journey that can take more than two hours from the airport at Kahului, 57 miles away.
The staff at Hana-Maui is mostly made up of people whose families have worked there for generations, a proud association that is immediately apparent. Our room was in one of the “Sea Ranch Cottages,” which are patterned on plantation-style houses. The accommodations proved spacious, with a pastel color scheme of yellow walls and pale-green wood accents. A large bedroom flowed into a sizeable living area appointed with a couch and a small dining table. An adjacent wet bar came with a coffeemaker and small refrigerator. The bath, simply done in glazed tile, was also spacious, with a single granite vanity, soaking tub and walk-in shower. A fan suspended from the high, beamed ceiling, combined with the breeze blowing through screened windows, provided adequate ventilation and a pleasant temperature. All of the cottages have expansive lanais, some with hot tubs. “Bay Cottages” are similar in size, but lack high ceilings. Those in search of WiFi Internet and television will find them in the Club Room near the main building.
The latter is a split-level, high-ceilinged pavilion that contains the resort’s principal restaurant, Ka’uiki. There, the menu features contemporary island and regional cuisine with an emphasis on splendid local fish and produce. We began with a starter of crisp coconut shrimp and shredded green papaya, and proceeded to a wonderfully flavorful main course of Maui Cattle Company New York-style strip steak, served with homey mashed potatoes. Integral to the pleasure of Ka’uiki is the lovely view from the dining room toward Hana Bay.
Activities at the resort include tennis, cycling and hiking. The Honua Spa offers a full range of treatments undertaken in an atmosphere of Zen-like tranquility, while Pilates, yoga and meditation instruction are offered at the gymnasium. The beach is 15 minutes away by complimentary shuttle at Hamoa Bay, a gorgeous arc of sand with gentle surf. Private (slightly worn) changing rooms are available there for hotel guests.
On reflection, what most appealed to us about Hana-Maui was the sincerity of our welcome and the mood of profound relaxation that the place induces. (Note: An offer to purchase the resort was accepted on January 11, 2010, and at the time of this writing, a 90-day due-diligence period was under way. Currently, we see no reason to believe that the essential character of the hotel will be affected.)
Hotel Hana-Maui 93 Sea Ranch Cottage Ocean View, $595; Deluxe Ocean View With Hot Tub, $775; Superior Ocean Front With Hot Tub, $915. 5031 Hana Highway, Hana, Maui, HI 96713. Tel. (808) 248-8211.
In 1959, the year before Laurance Rockefeller made his aerial sighting of what would become Mauna Kea, Johnno Jackson was sailing off the Kohala Coast of the Big Island and spotted a beguiling plot of land on Kahuwai Bay. This triggered a dream to build a resort in imitation of a Polynesian village. The vision was realized, and the property opened in 1966. Today, Kona Village Resort sits on 82 magical acres with 125 Polynesian hale (“ha-lay”) set amid landscaped grounds. (The resort is under the same ownership as the Four Seasons Hualalai, which is just down the beach.)
The hales are situated in three general locations: by the beach; on an old lava flow; and around some carefully restored ancient Hawaiian fishponds. Beneath a rustic thatched roof, we found a large bedroom with sitting area; a spacious marble bath with double vanities, soaking tub and separate shower; ample closet space; and a small wet bar with refrigerator and coffeemaker. Out front, we had a small lanai facing the beach and, bliss, a hammock strung between two palms. There are no telephones in the rooms, but messages are hand-delivered.
Although there are tennis courts and a fully equipped fitness center, the focal point of activity (or inactivity) is the golden sand beach, where a team of instructors can help with kayaking, outrigger canoeing, stand-up paddling and snorkeling. The beach has become a favorite refuge for endangered green turtles, several of which lumber out of the water each day to sun themselves.
There are two restaurants: Hale Samoa serves fine French Polynesian cuisine, while Hale Moana presents a menu of Hawaiian/Asian dishes with an emphasis on seafood. The culinary experience we will remember most fondly, however, is the Hawaiian luau. These take place Wednesday and Friday nights and begin with an explanation of how the centerpiece dish, the pig, is wrapped in leaves and cooked in an earthen pit called an imu. Next to an outdoor theater near the ancient Hawaiian fishponds we feasted on pork, to the accompaniment of a full program of Hawaiian music and dance.
Although our overall impression of Kona Village was extremely positive — and the resort clearly has an exceptionally loyal following of repeat guests, especially families — our critic’s eye noted the occasional blemish. Specifically, the Hale Moana dining room is looking jaded and could use an upgrade; and the attitude of a couple of younger staff members was less than solicitous, a failing that seemed glaring because their colleagues were so friendly and helpful. Candidly, Kona Village is not for everyone, but we found it completely captivating.
Kona Village One-Room Garden Bungalow, $630; Deluxe One-Room Bungalow (Partial Ocean View), $930; One-Room Oceanfront Royal Bungalow, $1,180. Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740. Tel. (808) 325-5555.
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