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Shaken, undeterred

Sun., March 22, 2009

Renovated Mauna Kea Beach Hotel emerges better than ever after 2006 earthquake nearly destroyed it

When a magnitude 6.7 earthquake rumbled across the Big Island in 2006, it almost ended the reign of one of the most storied resorts in Hawaii The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was rattled by the quake, but it seemed to hold its own. Only afterward did engineers find cracks in its signature concrete trellis that forced the hotel to close. It was highly questionable whether the modernist architecture icon would open again.

Two years and $150 million later, the Mauna Kea has come back. And it hasn’t looked this good since it opened in 1965.

The Mauna Kea is among a handful of remarkable hotels that have been benchmarks of Hawaiian travel. The list includes the Moana Surfrider, the Royal Hawaiian and Kahala on Oahu, the Hotel Hana-Maui, the lamentably closed Coco Palms on Kauai, and Kona Village and Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

It was developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller, who sailed up and down the west coast of the Big Island before personally picking the site for the hotel. His choice: a bluff overlooking one of the few outstanding beaches on the lava-rock-rimmed island.

“Every great beach deserves a great hotel,” Rockefeller said.

I don’t agree – I like most of my beaches without hotels. But in this case, he was right. Rockefeller found a great beach and built a great hotel.

Rockefeller brought in the Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, best known at the time for its Lever House in New York, a classic internationalist-style box steel and glass skyscraper. The firm would later design the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the U.S.

When it opened in 1965, the Mauna Kea was an instant landmark. Using steel encased in concrete, the hotel served as a giant frame to the tropical surroundings, with a sweeping, open lobby inset with blue tile.

It was angled to catch the cooling trade winds. The atrium of the main building created a water garden setting within the hotel.

Rockefeller sprinkled the grounds with pieces of his vast Asian art collection, most notably a large sitting Buddha at the top of a long exterior staircase. A later addition echoed the original design.

In a brilliant move, the understated modernist design was given a splash of tropical color through the resort’s signature orange. Towels were orange, as were elevator doors and a few other trappings. Another big draw was the golf course.

The Mauna Kea wasn’t the first resort in the area; Kona Village, a Polynesian-inspired collection of huts, was already there. But the Rockefeller cachet brought the area new attention.

Until the mid-1960s, visitors to the Big Island pretty much stayed in rainy Hilo. Celebrities from Babe Ruth to Richard Nixon planted trees along Banyan Drive.

Then came Rockefeller and his $15 million baby (about $100 million in today’s dollars). Now there was a serene resort for the wealthy on the best beach along the arid west coast.

It ignited the resort building boom that is still going on. Hilo’s share of the tourist market has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was, especially after the expansion of the Kona side airport.

When I first visited in the early 1990s, the hotel was showing its age. The louver-topped wooden doors let in too much noise. Rockefeller’s dictum that no TVs should pollute the environment was still being followed – housekeeping would bring a small portable set if you asked. The luxury market had been captured by newer resorts, notably the Four Seasons Hualalai.

When the earthquake hit, I worried that the Mauna Kea, operated by Prince Hotels of Japan, would be torn down or subjected to a makeover that would reflect the design of its sister property, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. The Hapuna has a generic, marble-soaked upscale ambience that could be found at dozens of hotels around the world.

The Mauna Kea’s rooms were too small, the amenities too retro, to survive. Or so I thought.

When I arrived in January, I was pleased to see how little had changed. Gone were the nicks and scrapes in the wood and concrete. Everything was freshly painted, the orange elevator doors glistening.

My room in the newer Beach Club wing was familiar from earlier visits, with pretty, orange-and-white, quilted pattern pillows on the bed. But it now came with iPod docking station and – sorry, Mr. Rockefeller – a flat-screen TV.

Outside, guests were heading up the hill to the golf course originally designed by Robert Trent Jones and redesigned by his son, Rees, to bring it back to tournament play standards.

The few major changes were mostly out of public view. In a nod to modern times, the renovation reduced the number of rooms in the main building. For every three rooms there were now two. It wasn’t noticeable unless you looked at the wooden ceiling of the hallway to see that the slats no longer lined up with the doorways.

I visited one of the rooms that was outfitted with sedate white and wood-colored tones that didn’t compete with the exterior design. The major change was an upgraded bathroom, with a soaking tub, separate shower and its own private balcony.

The one misstep had to do with the most problematic spot in the hotel, the Copper Terrace bar. It’s a beautiful space on a floor between the beach and the lobby, a long, copper-topped bar surrounded by walls lined in rope. In more than 10 years of staying at or visiting the Mauna Kea, I have never seen it busy.

It’s a remnant from the early days when the resort was nearly alone on this side of the island. Guests would spend the day at the beach, playing golf or tennis, or taking an excursion. They would gather at the Copper Terrace for before-dinner drinks, go to the restaurants for their evening meal, then regroup at the bar to socialize.

Modern guests seem to do their drinking at the beachfront bar in the afternoon, shower, go directly to eat at the hotel’s excellent Manta restaurant, then back to their rooms. Both nights of my recent visits, the evening musicians played to empty seats.

In an effort to draw more visitors, the hotel committed heresy – attaching flat-screen TVs to the bar area, usually tuned to sports.

I had planned to spend one of my days here driving up to the North Kohala coast. But I found myself instead lingering at the Mauna Kea, bodysurfing in the forgiving waters. Later, I read on the lava-rock-sided balcony of my room.

The final morning I allowed myself the indulgence of room service, enjoying a fresh papaya, macadamia nut pancakes with coconut syrup and Kona coffee as small redheaded birds flittered about, hoping to nab some of my breakfast when I wasn’t looking.

The Mauna Kea took a tough hit from the earthquake. But it’s back.

I will be, too.


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