Although I have enjoyed many happy times on the Big Island’s north Kona and Kohala coasts, I have also been intrigued by the North Kohala region, with its dramatic and rugged scenery, and have remained alert to potential properties of note.
Tucked away on a 50-acre estate, the Hawaii Island Retreat caught my attention in part because of its small size — 10 rooms and suites, plus seven yurt bungalows. The main building has a lovely marble breezeway leading to a pleasant courtyard, but the reception area is cramped. Our room was spacious, however, and French doors led out to a lanai overlooking adjacent forest and the sea beyond. The large, functional bath included a walk-in shower and whirlpool tub.
Open to the courtyard, the first-floor dining room provided ample breakfasts featuring fruit from the retreat’s own gardens and eggs from its flock of chickens. Alas, dinner was more haphazard, and indeed, one day we made a reservation at breakfast only to be told later that the service had been canceled. The resort has received adulatory write-ups in guidebooks and the general press, but for discerning travelers, it does not meet the required standards.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The setting, which embodies serenity.
DISLIKE: The dining room policy was unclear; few staff were on hand.
GOOD TO KNOW: The adjacent valley is a historic sight and has a stone circle where Kamehameha the Great held council.
Hawaii Island Retreat 86 Ocean View Room, $485; Penthouse Suite, $490. 250 Lokahi Road, Kapaau. Tel. (808) 889-6336.
My expectations were not as high for Puakea Ranch, on the northwest coast of North Kohala a 45-minute drive north of the Kona airport, but in this case, they were exceeded. This part of the Big Island is known for its cattle, and the 250,000-acre Parker Ranch, which dates from 1847, is one of largest cattle spreads in the United States. Puakea, a smaller operation, began in 1870. In the 1930s, an immigrant Japanese family, the Kawamotos, arrived to manage the ranch, serving as paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — through several generations until 2002, when the land was sold. The Kawamotos moved on, and new owners have renovated the four former ranch houses that now make up the property.
A large lava-rock pool with inlaid mosaics became our favorite spot for a morning dip, as well as a vantage point from which to watch the sun slide into the Pacific at day’s end.
Puakea offers a completely different experience from that at nearby resorts. There is no formal check-in, no restaurant, no spa and no staff, except for a resident manager. We stayed in Yoshi’s House, reached via an allée of Java plum trees. Set on two acres, Yoshi’s is a charming 1940s plantation cottage with a big wraparound lanai. Painted blue-gray with white trim, the house has an open plan with a large modern kitchen flowing into a living-dining area with a daybed and bookcase. The cozy master bedroom leads out to a private lanai with views of Maui, and shares a small bath with a claw-foot tub with the second, twin-bedded bedroom. White beadboard walls and wood floors are complemented by club chairs, a couch, a dining table for six and a large daybed. The kitchen offers a full complement of modern appliances, utensils and cookware, plus a comfortable breakfast bar. Well-placed lights added to the atmosphere in the evening, and an array of ceiling fans kept us cool during the day.
A detached building at the front of the house contains an extraordinary bath with wood paneling, stone floors, a ceiling-mounted shower, a stone washbasin and a magnificent old hammered copper tub fed by a rustic wood sluice. It impressed me as a perfect fusion of Japanese and Western sensibilities. Just steps away, a large lava-rock pool with inlaid mosaics became our favorite spot for a morning dip, as well as a vantage point from which to watch the sun slide into the Pacific at day’s end. We felt instantly at home. An old friend, a local veterinarian who often tended to the ranch’s livestock, came for dinner one night with his family and remarked, “They couldn’t have done this more perfectly; this is a real piece of old Hawaii.”
With advance notice, Puakea Ranch will stock the kitchen, and a chef can be engaged. However, we preferred to drive into Waimea, about 30 minutes away, for provisions. Maid service can be arranged, and a concierge is available by phone or email. Lovely beaches are within easy driving distance, as are several resorts with restaurants and numerous other facilities.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Atmosphere of calm and seclusion; wonderful attention to detail.
DISLIKE: The resident manager and concierge had to be reminded about things they had promised to do.
GOOD TO KNOW: Cell service is weak, but local and long-distance domestic calls are free, and the Wi-Fi is fast and strong.
Puakea Ranch 89 James Cottage, $289-$389, three- to five-night minimum stay, depending on season; Yoshi’s House, $599-$899, five- to seven-night minimum stay. 56-2864 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi. Tel. (808) 315-0805.
The deservedly renowned 252-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is located 19 miles to the south and enjoys a dramatic situation overlooking Kauna’oa Bay. It is one of the most consistently pleasing properties I know. I have long admired the building itself, a triumph of midcentury American architecture commissioned by Laurance Rockefeller, which, at its debut in 1965, was the most expensive hotel project in the world. Rockefeller also installed a superb collection of Asian and Pacific art. Earthquake damage in 2006 necessitated extensive renovations, and these prompted our last visit in 2010. This time, I was looking forward to seeing another set of changes: the refurbishment of the rooms in the Beachfront Wing and a new restaurant, all completed at the end of 2013.
The Beachfront Wing accommodates guests right by the sand, although this means that they are farther from activities in the main building. The design of the new rooms might be described as “beach house modern.” The white walls are complemented by pale wood flooring. Accent pillows on the beds and the brightly striped fabric on the reading chairs provide needed splashes of color. New furniture graces the lanais — where the original green terrazzo floors have been retained. The baths are also completely white; a large window next to the tub — with a screen that you can lower at the touch of a button — looks out onto the bedroom and the ocean beyond. Personally, I find the new design striking but a little stark, and my preference remains for the rooms in the main building.
The resort’s new Kauna’oa Bar & Grill offers casual cuisine, plus an excellent sushi bar, in the space formerly occupied by Monettes steak and seafood restaurant. I am not wholly convinced that this substitution is an improvement, but tastes change, and doubtless the resort feels obliged to keep up with the times. The menu is also served on an adjacent terrace, a place to watch the sunset and to listen to live music. (I was sorry to see, however, that this new layout has supplanted the lovely Copper Terrace.) At the main restaurant, Manta, we enjoyed a superb meal, made all the more enjoyable by exceptionally attentive and obliging staff. For dinner one night, I settled on the starter of sashimi of kampachi (Almaco jack) with black sesame-miso sauce and ume plum vinegar, followed by mahi mahi with a crust of finely chopped macadamia nuts complemented by lilikoi curry and a zesty pineapple relish. A selection of 48 wines is served by the glass, kept pristine by an Enomatic wine-serving system.
Despite my slight reservations about the new room design, as well as nostalgia for the Copper Terrace bar, Mauna Kea remains an outstanding property to which it is always a delight to return.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Beautifully maintained grounds; the extraordinary collection of art; the one-of-a-kind building; the idyllic setting.
DISLIKE: With the Copper Terrace closed, the hotel lacks a really congenial gathering spot.
GOOD TO KNOW: An excellent tour of the hotel and its art collection is offered every Saturday morning.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel 96 Beachfront Room, $605; Ocean View Room, $625; Deluxe Ocean View Room, $775. 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast. Tel. (808) 882-7222.