As Hotels Editor at AFAR, I’m often focused on new hotel openings and new hotel trends. But a recent visit to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the island of Hawaii reminded me why I love old hotels. My stay coincided with the Mauna Kea’s 50th anniversary and offered a glimpse back to the days of vintage aloha, when the Big Island was still considered off-the-grid and truly wild. The Mauna Kea—the first hotel built on the Kohala Coastline—was a pioneer in its early days, but has continued to evolve and stay relevant with age. Here are five things I learned from my stay.
You won’t see guests drinking the ubiquitous Mai Tai at the Mauna Kea Beach Bar. Here, the drink of choice is the Fredrico. Tired of sweet umbrella drinks, a guest decided to spend an afternoon at the bar concocting the ultimate cocktail. By sundown, he’d found the perfect recipe: guava, passion fruit, and orange juices mixed with añejo rum, and a shot of Jack Daniel’s. Now, 27 years later, it’s still the resort’s bestseller. The inventor, Fred, still returns to the Mauna Kea and has become just as legendary as his cocktail. You’ll spot him right away—he’s always at the bar convincing guests to try a Fredrico.
The Mauna Kea’s original chef, Walter Blum, was one of Hawaii’s earliest farm-to-table supporters, encouraging local farmers to raise crops for his restaurant. Today, the hotel’s restaurants carry on the tradition of working with island farmers, fisherman, and ranchers. I asked the chef what one dish in 50 years has remained and, surprisingly, regulars boycott the restaurant if they don’t see the baked papaya on the menu—a halved papaya filled with a mixture of cottage cheese, cream cheese, curry powder, and chutney.
Just as Tiffany coined “Tiffany blue” the Mauna Kea has coined “Mauna Kea orange,” a distinct shade that covers the property’s towels, beach loungers, and umbrellas. The unique orange color was inspired by kauna‘oa, a thin orange vine that grows in the dunes of Mauna Kea beach.
Long before the term eco-hotel existed, Laurance S. Rockefeller was opening conservation-minded resorts in naturally beautiful places around the globe. While flying over the Kohala Coast, Rockefeller spotted a perfect stretch of white sand beach and despite the coast’s lack of roads, thick vegetation, and lava-like surroundings, he bet that people would make the effort to escape to this small slice of paradise. He was right.
When the resort opened in 1965, it was the most expensive resort in the world ever to be built, with a price tag of $15 million (about $113 million today). Rates started at a whopping (for back then) $43 a night, including breakfast and dinner. The architecture of the Mauna Kea was way ahead of its time. The mid-century modern, terraced concrete exterior (now endlessly copied) created a natural breeze, reducing the need for air conditioning and other energy drains. When the hotel got a refresh in 2007-2008, it stayed true to Rockefeller’s vision. He hated TVs and while they finally went into rooms in the 1990s, the refresh has hidden them behind wall units.
I love museums, but when I’m in Hawaii I want to be outdoors. Luckily the Mauna Kea doubles as a museum. Laurence S. Rockefeller was adamant that his collection of art from the Pacific Rim, Polynesia, and Asia be displayed as if it were in someone’s home, rather than behind glass cases. More than 1,600 museum-worthy pieces can be found throughout the grounds, halls, and common areas.
My favorite is the enormous pink granite Buddha from a 7th century temple in southern India that sits under a Bodhi tree in the gardens. The collection also offers insight into local Hawaiian craftsmanship. Walk the halls and you’ll see hand-stitched kapa, Hawaiian quilts that Mr. Rockefeller had specially commissioned for the hotel. Art nerds will love the free Saturday morning tours given by incredibly knowledgeable local art historian Patti Cook.
For more Big Island inspiration, see AFAR’s guide to the Island of Hawaii.
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