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New Classic Hawaiian Hotels

 A view of Waikiki Beach from the Royal Hawaiian hotel.

Photo: Jessica Schwartzberg

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Kohala Coast, Big Island

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, my parents would regularly decamp, sans kids, to the Mauna Kea. It was the first place they’d saved pennies to stay at as newlyweds, and it hosted them for anniversaries and much-needed escapes in the following decades. They’d come back sun-burnished, rejuvenated, and bearing the hotel’s signature navy-and-white yukata for my brother and me to wear as bathrobes. By the time I was 13, I had ascribed to the place an enormous mystique: What was this magical hotel that returned my mom and dad to me looking, without fail, just a little bit like movie stars?

They weren’t the only people in the 1970’s on whom the magic rubbed off; the Mauna Kea was then the ne plus ultra of Hawaiian glamour and one of the top hotels in the world. Laurance Rockefeller, the founder of RockResorts, handpicked the site, overlooking the ivory crescent of Kaunaoa Beach on the then-pristine Kohala Coast; and he handpicked the architect—one Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill—who erected in 1965 a series of dynamic horizontal spaces, stacked one atop the other, almost entirely unencumbered by walls to fully exploit views of the opalescent Pacific. To this buzz-generating building Rockefeller bequeathed a museum-quality collection of Oceanic and Asian art, ranging from wooden Melanesian sculptures to life-size gilded Buddhas, which were scattered about in the open-air, tiled corridors.

Cut to 2005: the Mauna Kea had lost much of its cachet—aged to a comfortable, but not chic, family resort. Prince Resorts, which acquired the hotel in the eighties, wasn’t oblivious to the hotel’s faded interiors, and when an earthquake damaged the property in October 2006, management took advantage of the closure to stage a 15-month, $150 million renovation.

The results are subtle, and near pitch-perfect. The original 310 rooms and suites in the main building have been reduced to 258, layouts revised and enlarged. Understatement prevails—there are white-tile floors, white ceramic lamps and light fixtures, abstract and ethnic fabrics that reference Rockefeller’s collections, and teak headboards. The rooms also have ingenious compartmentalized teak wall units that slide closed to conceal 42-inch flat-screen TV’s (a concession to old-timers scandalized by the addition of televisions after all these years; the slick iPod alarm clocks and digital phones can’t have pleased them much, either). Ocean-facing doubles acquired extra lanais, which are allocated to their bathrooms—white-on-white havens with deep soaking tubs and open rain showers. What could read as generic décor on first viewing soon reveals itself to be of exceptional quality (materials are all top-of-the-line and formidably expensive)—and, in its aggregate aesthetic, to make subtle nods to both the building’s Midcentury heritage and the hotel’s Asian-influenced ethos.

A small but lovely spa, managed by Bali-based Mandara, has been built in the former members’ club room. The restaurant, Manta, has a new display kitchen and a refined, locally influenced menu that’s heavy on excellent raw-bar offerings (with attendant prices); but its outdoor tables are positioned, as ever, for prime viewing of the mantas that feed at night below the terrace. And the beachside Hau Tree bar still serves the Ovaltine Froth milk shake—the singular deliciousness of which merits 45 years on a menu. Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, doubles from $450.

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