The island of Hawaii has long been a favorite of mine, with its relaxed pace, numerous archaeological sites and remarkably diverse landscapes, ranging from lush tropical forests and parched lava fields to the sometimes-snowy mountain peak of Mauna Kea, topped with astronomical observatories. And although Oahu and Maui have larger airports, it is still possible to fly nonstop to the Big Island from the U.S. mainland. Kona’s airport is almost charming, with its indoor-outdoor Polynesian-style architecture.
It wouldn’t be difficult to spend an entire vacation just on the Big Island. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the southeast side of the island, Kilauea continues to erupt with varying degrees of intensity, and it is often possible to see glowing-red molten lava. On the southwest coast, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a former royal compound and one of the most sacred sites to native Hawaiians. Heading north, past the town of Kailua-Kona, the black lava fields dotted with desiccated scrub tufts could stand in for Tolkien’s Mordor. But the reliably dry climate led to the development of a string of beach resorts, three of which we have long recommended: the Four Seasons Hualalai, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Mauna Lani.
Of these, the one receiving the most attention this year has been Mauna Lani, which reopened last autumn following a $200 million overhaul by Auberge Resorts Collection. The property needed refreshing — only the news of this renovation had stopped us from rescinding our recommendation. I felt surprised to see Auberge take on such a large hotel, with 333 rooms, but considering the company’s admirable track record and effusive reviews in the travel press, I had every expectation that the resort would be the new star of the Big Island.
Doubt set in not long after I’d made a reservation. Having contacted the concierge, I received an automated email telling me that the hotel was receiving an “unprecedented amount of emails” and requesting patience. After a week, my patience ran out, and I re-sent my request for a dinner reservation at the resort’s gourmet restaurant, CanoeHouse. A table proved annoyingly complicated to secure, since neither I nor the two individuals from the “pre-arrival team” with whom I communicated knew that the restaurant has only two seatings per night.
I chalked up the delay and confusion to a lack of training and staffing shortages due to COVID-19, and hoped that matters would improve once we checked in. Constructed in 1980-81, Mauna Lani resembles an upscale atrium shopping mall, an impression improved — but not entirely corrected — by the recent renovation. Slatted wood screens, reminiscent of both louvered shutters and traditional Japanese design elements, add rhythm and division to the vast interior space. Palm trees — an entire palm garden occupies one end of the atrium — serve as a reminder that you’re in the tropics.
In addition to the broad front desk and lobby-lounge, the atrium contains a popular coffee shop with a case full of tempting pastries (there was a line outside it each morning), a fashionable Goop store, the Auberge Spa and the Hale ‘I’ike, which hosts Hawaiian cultural activities such as lei-making. During our stay, part of the Hale ‘I’ike was devoted to a large corporate group and I didn’t feel inclined to linger. The spa was also something of a disappointment, with an inadequate five treatment rooms. (Auberge’s Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah has a spa of equivalent size for just 46 guest rooms).
Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for us to enjoy a walking tour with local historian Danny Akaka, who takes guests to see the ancient fishponds abutting the resort as well as nearby petroglyphs (a large assortment of which can be found at the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve, a short distance from the property). But we were able to schedule a snorkeling excursion one morning. We had a fine time paddling a double canoe out to a nearby reef, along with several other guests. Yellow tang and raccoon butterflyfish glowed against the dark corals, and we even spotted a graceful whitespotted eagle ray gliding along the bottom. But here, too, we experienced a service stumble. When we arrived to sign in for the $100 per-person excursion, we learned that since we had no masks or snorkels, we would have to purchase them for $40 each. None were available to borrow “because of COVID.” So does that mean Mauna Lani does not ordinarily clean its masks and snorkels between guests? We were not advised of the requirement to purchase masks despite having specifically asked a concierge what we needed to bring along.
Auberge resorts usually have spectacular baths, but on this occasion ours was smallish and clad in battleship-gray limestone.
Poorly trained staff also marred our experience at the CanoeHouse restaurant, which has a lovely indoor-outdoor setting with an impressive view of the sunset. We ordered the five-course tasting menu, and the server who brought the first dish presented it to us like a burger in a sports bar: “All right! Oysters with finger-lime salsa and ogo!” At least she knew what she brought to the table. Another waiter arrived with a course and simply said, “Here you go.” I asked him to remind us what we were about to eat, and the question left him dumbstruck. “Uh… uh… let me go ask,” he replied. It turned out to be a delicious and unusual combination of marlin, sweet red grapes and buttery oyster mushrooms. Fortunately, our principal waiter had a good grasp of the menu and was able to offer helpful advice about wine pairings.
If you don’t reserve an Oceanfront accommodation at Mauna Lani, it is wise to request an Ocean View room on the CanoeHouse side of the main building. We had an Ocean View Deluxe on the other side. The view from its terrace, furnished with a love seat and a large ottoman, was undeniably beautiful, taking in the main pool and acres of ancient fishponds rimmed with palms, as well as the beach and ocean. But the main pool can be noisy in the afternoon, and the CanoeHouse-facing terraces offer more privacy.
Inside, the décor of our mostly neutral room made a couple of nods to its location, notably a framed ring of feathers and accent pillows emblazoned with tropical foliage. The king bed was just the right firmness for my taste. Auberge resorts usually have spectacular baths, but on this occasion ours was smallish and clad in battleship-gray limestone. It had only a walk-in shower — no tub — though two vanities had been squeezed into the layout.
We never did spend time at the main pool below our terrace. In the afternoons, it drew too large of a crowd to be conducive to relaxation. Indeed, by 4 p.m. on our last day, it was full of loud, cocktail-toting soakers, with little actual swimming going on. Earlier, we had spent a pleasant interlude at a smaller infinity pool, enjoying the pretty view of one of the fishponds and sipping “Jets to Rangpur” cocktails of gin, elderflower liqueur, fresh pineapple and lime. On the beach, however, there was no waitstaff serving the loungers, other than to set up guests with water and towels. We procured plastic cups of rosé at the nearby bar of the Surf Shack, walking across gray sand peppered with unpleasantly coarse lava pebbles. A barefoot beach stroll is a pleasure best enjoyed elsewhere.
I feel sure that in the months to come, Mauna Lani will solve its staffing and training issues. Various other problems cannot be blamed on COVID-related difficulties, however. Auberge spent a huge sum on the renovation of this property, but even so, our other recommendations in the area remain superior. The family-friendly Four Seasons Hualalai also recently emerged from a major renovation. And the classic Mauna Kea Beach Resort offers magnificent midcentury architecture embellished with world-class art and antiques, fronting a gorgeous (if sometimes crowded) sweep of sand.
The stylish new contemporary décor; the refreshed accommodations; the view from our terrace of the beach and ancient fishponds; the delicious food at CanoeHouse; the excellent room-service pizza; the infectiously cheerful service at breakfast; the quick valets.
Our room wasn’t cleaned until after 4 p.m. each day; the pools became loud and crowded in the afternoons; the gray beach marred by lava pebbles; the slow response to emails; the poor communication about our snorkeling excursion; the inadequately trained staff.
We saw few families here, and the hotel seemed better suited to adults.
Of course, with around 250 rooms each, neither the Four Seasons nor the Mauna Kea can be considered hideaways. Indeed, luxury hideaways are in short supply in Hawaii, which has an abundance of large beach resorts. Ever in search of charming smaller properties, I decided to take a risk on a plush bed-and-breakfast a 15-minute drive southeast of Kailua-Kona. Driving along the historic two-lane Mamalahoa Highway, past hillside coffee plantations, we were afforded views of the ocean far below. The road led us to the colorful town of Holualoa, where shops and galleries occupy many of the old wooden buildings, and to the eight-room Holualoa Inn, set amid 30 acres of mature tropical gardens.
As we exited our car, one of the innkeepers emerged bearing a tray with fresh lemonades and cool towels. He requested that we remove our shoes to protect the eucalyptus floors of the main building and proceeded to give us a short tour of its lounges. One had a piano and fireplace in addition to seating facing an oceanview terrace; the other offered a sofa and chairs overlooking the gardens. Both were decorated with South and Southeast Asian sculptures. Ample natural light ensured that the spaces didn’t feel heavy in spite of the dark-wood wall paneling and furnishings.
When making our reservation, Hibiscus Room had been the only accommodation available. Fortunately, it proved to be quite comfortable, with a cloudlike king bed, leather-cushioned cane-back armchairs and a magnificent view of the (unheated) swimming pool and distant coastline. We didn’t miss having a television. The closet provided ample storage, but the bath, with its tea-toned tiles and shower-tub combination, needed an upgrade. Baths in some of the other accommodations are more contemporary. (Every room in the inn, a former private home, has a unique layout.)
We took an hour that afternoon to explore the well-tended grounds behind the main building. The ancient Alanui Aupuni Trail, a roadlike strip of lava rocks dating as far back as the 12th century, leads down from the inn’s plant nursery. Nearby is a swath of coffee plants, from which the inn makes its own brew. Higher up is an event pavilion and the large Red Barn accommodation. Just before reaching the main road, we came to the Darrell Hill Cottage [https://www.holualoainn.com/darrell-hill-cottage], named for an artist who once lived there. We chatted with its current occupants, who said they loved its spaciousness, but overall regretted not having booked a room in the main building, as the cottage’s views are inferior.
The following morning, we arose before breakfast and brought coffee to a pavilion beside the pool. As we sipped it, we took in the breathtaking panorama along a broad stretch of coast. Many of the tables in the dining room have similar views. We loved breakfasting there each morning, starting with plates of seasonal fruit from the inn’s gardens — custard apple, star apple, pineapple — followed by traditional main courses such as delicious eggs Benedict and an unfortunately overcooked frittata with leek and pork sausage. To work off these hearty meals, we strolled down to the immense new sculpture garden, installed during the inn’s 2020 closure. I especially liked “Caller, 2018 - 2019” by Davina Semo, an interactive piece that encouraged viewers to ring its three large bells, and “The Labyrinth,” a circular maze designed for walking meditations.
Because the Holualoa Inn provides few services, it is best suited to more self-sufficient travelers. We received quick pre-arrival assistance with sightseeing and restaurant recommendations, as well as the reservation of a guided hike. However, there is no staff on-site in the evenings (they can be reached by phone in the event of an emergency), no room service and no restaurant or bar. Guests are welcome to bring their own food and wine, and a poolside lounge has a kitchenette and a refrigerator with a section for each guest room. (I recommend buying a bottle of bubbly to enjoy in the outdoor hot tub overlooking the ocean.) But the inn is a true hideaway with awe-inspiring views. For those willing to accept its limitations, this property is an ideal place to explore a quiet and unspoiled quarter of Hawaii.
The magnificent setting on a lush hillside far above the coast; the warm and atmospheric public spaces; the dramatic new sculpture garden; the helpful information about restaurants and activities nearby; our panoramic view; the ancient structures on the property.
The lack of any service in the evenings; only breakfast is served, and there is no bar; our dated bath.
There is no air-conditioning, but the higher elevation ensures that most evenings are cool; frogs chirrup at night, making earplugs wise for light sleepers; the Hibiscus Room, Gardenia Suite and Red Barn are especially recommended.