Talk with visitors who make regular return trips to the Aloha State and one sentiment will become a familiar refrain: "It just feels like home."
One resort that may well inspire that description more commonly than any other in the Islands is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, a luxury standout on the Big Island of Hawaii that's celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer.
"It's our favorite hotel on the Big Island, because it's so laid-back, and it's got a really welcoming, Hawaiian atmosphere," said Sheree Dreewes, a travel agent working with Foothills Travel in Renton, Wash., who stayed at the 252-room property last fall.
"We spoke with so many people who were return guests and just loved the place," she continued. "And they all think of it as their home in Hawaii."
The first resort built on the Big Island's western Kohala Coast, the Mauna Kea was the vision of Laurance Rockefeller, who fell in love with the beachfront location during a 1960 helicopter flyover.
"There was nothing here on the site back then," said Phyllis Branco, hotel manager at the Mauna Kea. "And while Rockefeller flew over with the governor of the state of Hawaii, he said, 'This is it. This is the beach where I want to place my hotel.'"
Folks who've spent any time on the white-sand crescent out in front of the Mauna Kea, which fringes stunning Kaunaoa Bay, won't have any trouble understanding why Rockefeller was smitten.
"It's just so beautiful," Dreewes said. "It's certainly not an overcrowded beach, and it felt very safe and very comfortable."
In January, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel became the first property in Hawaii to join the Autograph Collection, Marriott International's portfolio of high-end, high-style, independent hotels. According to Branco, the new partnership will enable the Mauna Kea to maintain its "iconic" brand but boost bookings during slower shoulder seasons.
"Marriott has millions of rewards program members, and they're high-value reward members," she said. "We think those well-traveled people are perfect for us."
Hosting a range of 50th anniversary events and initiatives throughout this year, the Mauna Kea has also put together a $50,000 Golden Anniversary package, including first-class airfare from the mainland, a five-night stay in the property's ultraluxurious Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa suites, helicopter transfers to and from the Kona Airport and all-inclusive dining.
Agents can earn a 10% commission on the cost of the suite booking, which runs $3,700 a night, but the high-end package really offers clients an exclusive collection of activities, such as an extraordinarily rare opportunity to stargaze from inside the Keck Observatory at the summit of the nearly 14,000-foot, dormant volcano, Mauna Kea.
The package also features a private helicopter tour of Volcanoes National Park, a private Island Discovery tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail, unlimited golf and a private farm tour with the Mauna Kea's executive chef.
"There are components of this package you just couldn't purchase even if you wanted," Branco said. "And one of the things we're most excited about is the very special, under-the-dome tour at the Keck Observatory. That's certainly one you couldn't buy if you wanted to."
A Deluxe Oceanview Room at the Mauna Kea.
A multimillion-dollar upgrade has also been completed in the Mauna Kea's Beachfront Wing, where each of the 85 guestrooms saw major work done to their bathrooms in an effort to elevate those facilities to what travelers will find in the property's Tower Wing, built in 1965 but renovated extensively in 2008.
"The bathrooms just didn't have the same wow factor that we have up in the Tower," Branco said. "So we added a five-fixture bathroom to the 1968 Beachfront Wing to update it."
Branco noted that a major highlight of the bathroom upgrade was an effort to bring more of what's outside the room indoors.
"We added a huge glass window [in the bathroom] so that when you're in the beachfront room, if you choose, you can open up your drapes and look out to the beach while you're lying in the tub or standing in your shower," she said.
For travel agent Dreewes, who stayed on the ground floor in the Beachfront Wing during her recent visit, the building is certainly a good fit for couples and honeymooners, but its location makes it an especially great option for parents traveling with children eager to play in the sand and surf each day.
"I thought the renovated rooms were awesome," she said. "And we really liked being able to walk across the lawn and right straight out to the beach."