This is the arid Kohala Coast on the western side of Hawaii’s Big Island, and it’s startling in its beauty. Barren, moonlike expanses meet brilliant blue sky above and turquoise waters at its fringes. It's hardly a landscape that screams "luxury resort."
Consummate environmentalist and developer Laurance S. Rockefeller poses with the scale model that would eventually lead to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
But then, I’m not a Rockefeller.
In 1965, visionary financier and conservationist Laurance S. Rockefeller overcame some of the era’s greatest infrastructure odds to open what would become one of the world’s most famous beach resorts, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. As it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer—and offers a five-night VIP package for $50,000—we look at how this hotel opened up tourism on Hawaii’s Big Island and served as a model for luxury development.
Before the arrival of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, ranching was the Big Island’s big business. The resort sits on a beach where cowboys and their families would camp and fish. On invitation from Hawaii's governor, Rockefeller came to the island on his way home from Asia to consider opening a resort. He spotted the white crescent of sand on an air-scouting trip, fell in love, and—after a dip in its placid waters—signed a lease.
In the early 1960s, Kauna’oa Bay was a popular recreation area for ranch paniolo (cowboys) and their families. Rockefeller signed a lease for 1,800 acres of rugged Parker Ranch land, which remains, to this day, among the largest cattle ranches in the U.S.
Rockefeller needed to be a man of serious vision to see past the site’s shortcomings, including the lack of roads, fresh water, electricity, plumbing, vegetation, and pretty much every other infrastructural necessity. His serious means certainly helped, too. Even today, the nearest resort is a 15-minute drive and the nearest town, farther.
Mauna Kea kicked off development of the rugged Kohala Coast on Hawaii Island. Six other major hotels within four resort nodes now inhabit the coast’s nearly 30-mile stretch.
He used a strategy of "experting" or hiring a world-class team to crack the problem. Golf starchitect Robert Trent Jones Sr. pioneered a technique for turning lava rock into soil and roped in Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player to launch the course. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill created a mid-century modern cascade of open-air concrete galleries that blended into the environment, inviting the outside in and reducing the need for air conditioning and other energy drains. And iconic interior designer Davis Allen assembled a 1,600-piece museum-worthy art collection, placing the hotel contextually amid other Asian and Oceanic destinations.
After excavating 60 acres of lava and bringing in 5,000 square feet of marble, a mile of wood, and 20,000 cubic yards of concrete (much of it by barge), the Mauna Kea opened on July 24, 1965, as the most expensive resort of its time. It outranked the family’s Rockefeller Center in the American Institute of Architects awards a year later. Price tag: $15 million, or roughly $113 million in today’s dollars. Rates started at $43 a night, breakfast and dinner included.
"For a long time now I have stubbornly held to the view that anything Laurance S. Rockefeller can do, God can do as well," wrote Holiday magazine writer Caskie Stinnett in 1966. "But my first glance from a plane window at Mauna Kea, the resort that Rockefeller created amid the lava rock and desert waste of Hawai‘i’s west coast, caused me a moment’s hesitation. If nothing else, one had certainly picked up nicely where the Other had left off."
Anchored by the white sands of Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is dwarfed by its namesake, the dormant Mauna Kea volcano that towers 13,803 feet above sea level in the background. It is not unusual during winter months for the mountain to be capped with snow.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Beachfront Wing, which was added to the hotel in 1968, received a major refresh in 2013. Baths offer views to the beach and the ocean beyond.
It’s not, as many new resorts would have it, an amenities arms race of tanning butlers and pillow menus; it’s how the destination is invited in, an obsession with place. True luxury is an alchemy of design, setting, and service that makes you forget yourself, that lulls you into its rhythms, that encourages both discovery and relaxation. Rockefeller mastered the art form, opening up environments while protecting them, creating places that feel both homey and exotic.
All the upgrades and additions to the now-252-room hotel (from an original 154) have kept that vision in mind. A deep soaking tub and wall-less rain shower opened onto an ocean-view lanai in my room; others have glass walls facing the sea. The clean-lined modern design nods towards Hawaiian motifs with a color palette matched to the hues of water, sand, and sunsets. TVs, notoriously banned in rooms until the ’90s because they prevented you from being present in the experience, are hidden behind handsome wooden wall units.
Hawaii’s newer luxury resorts offer more glam and flash than Mauna Kea, but the magic here is in such throwback charms as the modest pool served by third-generation employees who pass down their parents’ and grandparents’ tales of celeb-studded parties. A weekly lu’au feels much as it did when the hotel created it for a Newsweek magazine photoshoot in the 1960s (thus stoking the fire-twirling-pig-roast-steel-guitar-at-sunset imaginations of beachy dreamers ever since). Golden Thai statues flanking the entrance are so well-loved by departing guests that they're regularly re-leafed.
Amid all this retro-ness, it’s easy to forget just how pioneering the resort was. Original chef Walter Blum is credited with spurring Hawaii’s earliest farm-to-table movement by giving local farmers incentives to raise crops for his restaurant.
Rockefeller elevated local crafts to high art, commissioning and installing traditional, graphically colored Hawaiian quilts next to his priceless collection of Asian and Oceanic art. How the collection is handled without preciousness—not tucked behind glass or in galleries—is quite impressive. You might be walking down a quiet hallway and stumble upon a Maori canoe prow or a Hawaiian tiki. Rockefeller's beloved pink granite Buddha, from a 7th century temple in southern India, hovers in a garden at the top of a staircase, encouraging you to explore a garden you otherwise might have missed.
Today the hotel attracts a multigenerational crowd: old money New Yorkers, finance types on honeymoon, and lots of big families that have been coming for years. It's not about showy luxury as much as heritage. It joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection in February.
"We’re very fortunate that Rockefeller had the vision to give human structure to a destination that at that time didn’t exist," 40-year employee Roxanne Pung says via phone after my visit. Ex-LA Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who has vacationed here for 49 years, agrees. "There are a lot of beautiful hotels in the world, but the Mauna Kea stands alone."
From the promenade level, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Skidmore Owings Merrill-designed architecture may appear daunting, but when viewed from the beach its architectural award-winning, terraced, open-air structure makes perfect sense.