When the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel first opened its doors in 1965, it was among the most expensive hotels ever built. Work to raise the unprecedented $15 million it took to complete the project was begun by Laurance S. Rockefeller, grandson to John D., not long after his first trip to the Big Island in 1960.
During that visit, Rockefeller and then-Hawaii Gov. William Quinn were flying over the Kohala coast, scouting several beachfront sites as potential resort locations, when Rockefeller, a devoted outdoorsman and noted conservationist, decided he wanted to get out and swim a bit.
"The story is that Rockefeller was swimming right off Kaunaoa Bay and thought to himself that such a beautiful beach really deserved a beautiful resort," said Liana Mulleitner, director of corporate communications for Prince Resorts Hawaii, which manages the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. "And he really wanted to create a resort that was part of the landscape and didn't intrude on its natural surroundings."
Thanks in part to those very same surroundings, the hotel suffered significant structural damage during a series of Big Island earthquakes in the fall of 2006. The eighth floor of the hotel's main tower was deemed unsafe shortly thereafter, and the property was closed Dec. 1, 2006.
That development, however, wasn't all bad.
"The closure really gave us the opportunity to give the hotel a comprehensive, fresh upgrade," Mulleitner said.
Mauna Kea reinvented
Over the next two years, $150 million was spent repairing and renovating the hotel and its nearby golf course. Much of the work was focused on the main tower and an effort to maximize its available space by essentially increasing the size of the units by a third.
The room count decreased from 310 to 258, resulting in a great deal more living space for guests and stunning new bathrooms that now feature hefty soaking tubs, open showers and private lanais.
"There's something gleefully luxurious about floating in a tub the size of a small swimming pool," said Prince Resorts President Don Takahashi. "It's elegant and pampering, and I think Mr. Rockefeller would appreciate that."
A spa facility and fitness center were also added, and much of the hotel's primary restaurant space at Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar was opened to the property's spectacular seascapes.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has also made a few adjustments to its smaller, oceanfront wing.
"The Plumeria Beach Club is really geared now more for families because it opens right onto the beach and the pool area," Mulleitner said. "We have a concierge on that side so guests don't feel they've got to walk all the way to the main tower ... and we also have the game room nearby.
"There are many things set up specifically for families on that side so the kids can feel like it's their vacation, too," she added.
The hotel's more than 1,600 works of art, gathered by Rockefeller from across the Pacific Rim, Polynesia and Asia, enjoyed a little restoration of their own during the Mauna Kea's two-year hiatus. Traditional Hawaiian quilts, flashy Thai icons, Maori canoe prows, bronze Indian chests and stone busts of Buddha were painstakingly cleaned and cared for during construction by Michael Jones of Art Services Hawaii.
"It is an important collection because it was put together by an important person," Jones said. "And Laurance Rockefeller knew art very well."
And while Mulleitner said the Mauna Kea's multitude of longtime return guests demanded that the art not be altered in any way during the restoration, it seems those same guests sincerely hoped the hotel's tremendously gracious staff would all return, as well.
"We have several generations of employees from the same families that have now worked here," Mulleitner said. About 83% of all the employees who worked at the Mauna Kea before the renovation have returned, she added.
Nightly room rates are $450 for a mountain view, $700 for the Plumeria Beach Club and from $710 to $1,000 a night for an ocean view in the main tower.