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Big Island: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Volcano House tell two stories

The Big Island hotels are legendary. Whether you are a guest or not, you should check out their wondrous surroundings.

April 26, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII — The best arguments for visiting Hawaii's Big Island have always been elemental -- fiery volcanoes, trade winds raking black-lava badlands, jungle waterfalls draining down to beaches of many colors, rainbows as common as foreclosures in California's high desert.

But this year there's also a new chapter in the tale of two remarkable hotels.

One, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, sprawls with 258 rooms on a perfect crescent beach at the northwestern end of the island. The other, Volcano House, sits with 42 rooms on the lip of the steaming Kilauea Caldera, 4,000 feet above the island's southeastern coast.

One was dreamed up in the 1960s by a Rockefeller with Asia on the brain. The other calls itself Hawaii's oldest hotel and counts Mark Twain among its customers.

One costs a fortune and just turned over a shiny new leaf. The other costs less, but still too much.

And both stand next to such natural wonders that even if you sleep elsewhere, it's worthwhile to stop by.

Mauna Kea

In early April, my family spent nights at both places and traced a four-day, 220-mile loop around the island. There were three in our rental car -- my wife, Mary Frances; our 4-year-old daughter, Grace; and me. About 27 miles from the Kona airport, along the resort corridor of the Kohala Coast, we found the spot where the late Laurance Rockefeller bravely plopped the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

It opened in 1965, startlingly sited at a white-sand beach just below miles of desolate black-lava slopes. The main building is sand-colored and blah at a distant first glance, like an eight-story shoe box forgotten between the beach and the resort's formidable championship golf course. But wait until you get up close and see the open-air lobby and atria, the scattered pieces of Asian art, the beach views.

Rockefeller wanted to merge East and West here, along with indoors and outdoors, and chose an orange plumeria logo that pops nicely against the turquoise water. About 1,600 Asian sculptures and textiles are peppered around the property. If you were rich in the '60s, this was the place to be.

Affluent families from all over made it an annual destination and clung to it and its customs (the nightly conch call to dinner, the Saturday clambake) even as its '60s flourishes aged and faded. In 2006, when the American Institute of Architects surveyed Americans on their favorite 150 buildings in the country, the Mauna Kea ranked 55th.

About the time those votes were being cast, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake jolted the hotel into closure. The owners decided to keep the Mauna Kea's exterior, but the repair job grew into a $150-million modernization and lasted more than two years as workers enlarged dozens of rooms, reducing the count from 310 to 258.

Then came the recession. And then in March came the hotel's formal reopening, with brochure rates of $450 to $1,000 nightly. Ouch.

We arrived just a few weeks after that. Sparkling setting. Gracious staff. About 70% full. The old Pavilion restaurant, where most guests have breakfast and casual dinners, is now the Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar. The fancy restaurant, formerly Batik, is now Monette's. You'll find a spa and fitness center, 11 tennis courts, a new golf clubhouse and restaurant. The conch is again blown nightly, tiki torches are lighted and clambakes have resumed.

The beach itself (officially, it's Kaunaoa Beach) is a glorious quarter-mile, reef-protected and palm-fringed, ideal for wading and bodysurfing. After dark, the hotel plays spotlights on manta rays lingering in the shallows.

Traveling unannounced, I had booked the cheapest room (a 400-square-foot mountain-view unit for $409). But the clerk immediately upgraded us to a deluxe seventh-floor ocean-view room (brochure price: $850). Assuming I'd somehow been detected as a travel writer despite my efforts to travel incognito, I tried to turn down the upgrade. The clerk said that it was not possible.

What? A few phone calls later (to the general manager's office and elsewhere) revealed that the upgrade had nothing to do with my job. Eager to keep the place full, management had been overselling the most affordable units, then upgrading guests as needed into costlier units.

So we took the fancy room: 615 square feet, big balcony, beach view, nifty flat-screen media console wall, walk-in closet, massive bathroom with its own balcony. When I walked through a mountain-view unit the next day, I found the same cool orange-and-white color scheme, the same nifty media console and another generous balcony, but a smaller bathroom and no walk-in closet.

For those who don't want to spend $400 a night for a room, remember that the beach at the Mauna Kea is public. The hotel is required to maintain 40 parking spaces for non-guests, so if you arrive by 9 a.m., you can probably share the uncrowded sand with guests of the Mauna Kea and its sister hotel, the Hapuna Beach Prince.

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