Hawaiian Punch

The story of how two hotels on the Big Island—the Mauna Kea and the Four Seasons—have come to epitomize the heart and soul of the true Hawaii.

To set the scene precisely: I'm sitting on the lanai of room 1846 on the eighth floor of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the island of Hawaii. It's 6:52 p.m.; the temperature, 78 degrees Fahrenheit. On the table is a glass containing white rum, ice cubes, tonic, a wedge of lime. The glass is half empty.

Spread before me is what the hotel business calls, usually with considerable embellishment, a "prime ocean view." No need to embellish here: Some 500 feet below lies the perfect white crescent of Kaunaoa Beach, the hotel's chaises neatly stowed for the night aft the high-tide line. To the west, the setting sun meets the ocean tentatively, as if testing the waters of some primordial hot tub. The scene is so dead-on in its South Seas perfection that it careens toward cliché. As if to redeem itself, the tableau summons an even more spectacular display—the sky turns deep turquoise frescoed with swirls of burnt-orange cirrus. On a path below lined with lava boulders an islander carrying a torch pauses at a gas lamp, lights it, blows a mournful note on a conch, moves on. The ice clunks softly in my glass. On another terrace, a chair scrapes and a male voice, possibly Canadian, says: "Beauty."

Three nights later the particulars are the same, save my location: the Lava Lounge at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, 20 miles to the south. Waves crash theatrically in the fading light just yards from this torch-lit open-air terrace with its rattan chairs and slack-key guitarists playing wistful island melodies. The gentleman at the table next to mine is having a martini, straight up, olive. Then his wife, or maybe someone not his wife, approaches. They embrace, form the endearing, enduring silhouette: man, woman, ocean, sunset. Aromas of grilling mahimahi, ono, and swordfish drift from the adjoining Pahu i'a restaurant. He takes her hand, and they slip inside.

For seven days and nights, I inhabited the Mauna Kea and Four Seasons in order to experience Hawaii from the road less traveled—from the less exalted if physically stunning Big Island, cousin of Oahu, Maui, and Kauai. Could these two largish, unabashed resorts (Mauna Kea, the island's first, opened in 1965; the Four Seasons, the newest, in 1996) deliver the goods in terms of sheer coddled comfort while providing a "genuine" Hawaiian experience? Living in Los Angeles, where "going to the islands" has for generations meant Hawaii, not St. Barts, I already knew that even my most jaded friends came back with positive attitude adjustments. I also knew that of the six principal islands in the archipelago (Lanai, Molokai, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii), the Big Island is the one where tourism hasn't flattened the native zeitgeist and where the savvier celebrities go to soothe their chronic overexposure. (I seemed to be the only civilian who noticed Dustin Hoffman striding unescorted through the arrivals area at Keahole Airport one afternoon.)

True, every young Hollywood agent/development exec/alternative journalist now flocks to Kauai to sample its gorgeous rainforest ecology in an orgy of self-congratulation; and yes, diehard traditionalists say you can't beat Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head on Oahu and the spectacular Hana on Maui. But the Big Island remains the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian islands, with a sleepy, small-town feel. A mere 137,000 residents occupy its 4,000 square miles, which include lush rainforests, an active volcano, eerie lava deserts, the fecund Kona coffee-growing region, and the perpetually sunny "leeward" coast, home to the Mauna Kea and Four Seasons and former seat of power for King Kamehameha, who ruled from Kailua Bay—not far from where Captain Cook ended up on the wrong end of a spear after pushing his luck with one of Kamehameha's warriors. They still roll up the stairs to your plane at Keahole Airport, essentially a series of open-air huts, and the entire island is navigated via two-lane blacktop highways. Even the graffiti is charming—chunks of white coral arranged into sweethearts and other glyphs on the plentiful roadside lava fields.

The Mauna Kea serves as a sort of a dowager-by-default among the resorts that sprang up in its wake along the Kohala Coast. Secure in its eminence and the bluest of bloodlines, the hotel today steams serenely onward, all but immune to change. Its clientele, many of whom first checked in as children and now return with families of their own, are hypersensitive to any tinkering with the hotel's DNA. (An attempt to replace the signature bright-orange beach towels with something "less seventies," as a hotel executive tactfully put it, was met with such anguished outpouring from regulars that the plan was quickly shelved.) Considerable trepidation greeted a stem-to-stern renovation in 1995—the makeover accomplished in conjunction with the opening of the hotel's sister property, the Hapuna Beach Resort, by simply transferring the entire Mauna Kea staff to Hapuna while the former was being refurbished and then marching them back. Ultimately, Mauna Kea feels less like a resort and more like an outsized country club, though the distinction is subtle, class consciousness being in short supply on a famously easygoing tropical island. Still, it is there. "That place is so stuffy," sniped a manicurist at the Four Seasons spa while buffing my girlfriend's nails one flawless afternoon.

The Mauna Kea's pedigree explains a lot. In the early sixties, Laurence Rockefeller accepted an invitation from Hawaii's governor, William Quinn, to inspect the islands. Tourism had flourished on Oahu since the end of World War II, but it had yet to migrate to Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. It was hoped that Rockefeller, who was then in the midst of building a series of far-flung Rockresorts, would develop a property on one of Oahu's sister islands, opening the door to further development. Rockefeller was taken to a double crescent of white-sand beach on the Big Island's Kohala Coast. The only drawback: no roads, no access to freshwater, and nearly no vegetation, thanks to the ubiquitous lava flows. Nevertheless, the state ponied up the monumental sums to build the roads and lay the pipe, and after excavating some 60 acres of lava, Rockefeller completed the Mauna Kea, named for the 13,796-foot volcano that looms in the distance, the tallest peak in the islands and the only one capped with snow.

To ensure the resort would be exceptional for more than the jaw-dropping beauty of its location, Rockefeller hired the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a first-class interpreter of the International Style. Thirty-five years later, the completed structure and grounds remain a poetic confluence of the modernist skyscraper aesthetic and Japanese naturalism. The hotel is essentially two mirror-image structures, eight stories high—one facing the ocean, the other, Mauna Kea—arranged around a central open-air corridor (a beachside wing was added later). Winding paths meander past gardens, koi ponds, and three modern restaurants with designs inspired by Buddhist temples. Lushly landscaped terraces lead down to a petite swimming pool and the resort's crown jewel (one could argue its raison d'être): stunning Kaunaoa Beach and its semicircle of china-blue waters.

As the final touch, Rockefeller installed throughout the hotel and grounds a collection of museum-quality Asian and Oceanic art and artifacts. Typical are the 18th-century gilt bronze Thai Buddhist disciples that flank the entrance to the lobby; the 18th- and 19th-century Japanese tonsu chests; the New Guinea and Solomon Islands drums. Some 30 Hawaiian quilts commissioned by Rockefeller himself hang in the fifth- and sixth-floor corridors. The collection's centerpiece is a several-ton 17th-century pink-granite Indian Buddha (its counterpart resides in the Art Institute of Chicago) that reposes on a plinth at the top of a flight of wooden stairs beneath a bodhi tree, his stomach blackened from good-luck rubs, folded hands invariably holding an orchid, the traditional offering. (Once a year, the sculpture is ritually bathed by the hotel's Buddhist employees.) These treasures, displayed in the open as Rockefeller insisted rather than entombed in Plexiglas, are not labeled, but in each guestroom there is a scholarly book detailing the collection. According to Don Aanavi, art history professor at the University of Hawaii, "Rarely does one find such a large collection of significant art works in a resort hotel."

Not all of this is evident at first blush—especially after dark, when Skidmore's architecture looks more institutional than inspirational. After a protracted airline snafu, we arrived around midnight on a warm Wednesday in October. Entering our room we were struck immediately by the abundance of teak—on doors, trim, bathroom closets and shelves—as the well as by the minimal furnishings and the skimpy square footage, especially considering the $575-a-night tariff. Then the bellman opened the shuttered doors and the roar of the ocean filled the room. A generous lanai with a chaise, a couple of chairs and a table, and walled off from adjoining balconies, beckoned. After a room-service dinner, sleep in the comfortable king-size bed with zillion-thread-count cotton sheets came easily. The next morning, awakened by the waves, I pushed open the doors and marveled, after months in Los Angeles, at the clarity and sweetness of the air and the sun warming the green hills and turquoise waters. It was the sort of tableau that inspires greeting card treacle, even in a tough critter like Neil Young, who once warbled: "When you hear the melody play/It changes every day/Oh, Hawaiian sunrise."

And here began a subtle education into the ways of the hotel. At this price level, there seemed to be numerous amenities unaccountably missing. No hair dryer, no coffeemaker, no iron, fluorescent lights in the bathroom, a minimal minibar. Not that there weren't some pleasant, thoughtful touches. Continental breakfast arrived with a toaster for the English muffins; wicker hamper in the bathroom for towels; a rack on the lanai for wet bathing suits; bottled water with the turndown service; original paintings unique to each guestroom, replicated on the stationery-pack postcards. Some accommodations have curious round wicker baskets that seem to defy purpose; in fact, they are a holdover from the days when, per Rockefeller's wish that the resort embrace nature at every turn, guests were allowed to keep small animals in their rooms.

There's something perverse about a hotel of this stature and price range wedded to traditions that seem counter to prevailing standards of luxury. On the other hand, the Mauna Kea knows its audience, and that audience clearly likes continuity. Some of the staff extends to three generations, and returning guests are on a first-name basis with the bartenders at the Gazebo, the inevitable beachside thatched-roof cocktail hut, and with the tuxedoed captain in the Batik restaurant, which until recently (and reputedly alone on the Big Island) required jackets for men at dinner. (The dress code has since been relaxed and now stipulates "evening resort attire," which translates to "jackets suggested.")

The sheer beauty and quiet efficiency of the Mauna Kea, however, are powerful inducements to relaxation. Kaunaoa Beach is voted one of the world's best by travelers in survey after survey ("I wish we had that beach," a competitor sighs), and for two of my three days there I whiled away the hours in a hazy continuum of sunbathing, swimming, a break for lunch, a nap, then snorkeling in the sparkling water before wrapping myself in one of those famous orange towels and padding back to my room, there to watch another Technicolor sunset. For the activity-prone, there is the acclaimed 1964-vintage, Trent Jones-designed, 18-hole golf course as well as a 13-court tennis park. The fitness facilities, while adequate (there's a small gym with locker rooms straight out of the Princeton Club), are eclipsed by facilities at the Four Seasons spa and by those at the Hapuna, which Mauna Kea guests may use.

But most of all, I came to appreciate the hotel's discretion and small rituals, from the nightly lighting of the torches around the property to the way its trademark—a stylized orchid—finds its way onto room-service tabs and even the walls of the elevator. Put the Mauna Kea in a league with the Alta Lodge, the legendary ski resort in the Wasatch, the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, and other unchanging classics.

In 1800-1801, a series of eruptions on Hualalai, the third youngest of the Big Island's five volcanoes, buried some of the most fertile lands and fishing spots. (Legend holds that the volcano goddess Pele was teaching Kamehameha the Great a lesson in humility.) The pervasive jagged brown lava from that and previous eruptions gives the North Kona Coast its desolate but strangely beautiful appearance. The Four Seasons Hualalai was developed in the very thick of these flows on 35 oceanfront acres. In the four years since opening, it has won over travelers who might have bypassed the Big Island for the chain's sister property on Maui, as well as a coterie of celebrities, including Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, and Heather Locklear.

Originally conceived as a high-rise, the Four Seasons was reconfigured as 36 two-story bungalows gathered around four pools, one a 2.5-million-gallon pond fed from an artesian spring and tidal waters and stocked with 3,500 native fish, including three eagle rays. It was a wise decision: The intimate scale and winding torch-lit paths give the compound the air of an Indochine plantation. If the Mauna Kea is a mature resort in the classic mode, the Four Seasons reflects the latest thinking in space design, amenities, and service. The 243 rooms and suites—most have ocean views, and some, like my ground-floor suite, are literally a stone's throw from the surf—are decorated in a restrained manner meant to evoke the relaxed Polynesian style of Hawaii between the world wars. The rooms are furnished with relentlessly tasteful arrays of bamboo, wicker, rattan, and mahogany, the walls festooned with reproductions from celebrated local artists such as John Kelley, whose winsome portraits of Hawaiian life in the thirties and forties hang in Washington's National Gallery. The bathrooms are extraordinary indulgences of deep-dish soaking tubs, polychromatic slate, tasteful dollops of granite, marble, and nickel; the pièce de résistance in most ground-floor rooms is an outdoor shower in a garden with 15-foot walls of lava rock for privacy.

The staff have mostly mastered the knack of attentiveness without unctuousness and are not easily thrown. (I was awakened at sunrise one morning by a barking dog the neighbors had apparently smuggled in; the person answering the phone at the front desk crisply informed me it would be taken care of. Five minutes later, it was.) You get a sense you're in good hands from the moment you step into the reception area, an open-air pavilion with 30-foot ceilings and a glowing silk chandelier that hovers like a giant gypsy moth. I arrived at the hotel exhausted and wind-whipped from a day trip to the Kilauea volcano and presented myself at check-in wearing hiking boots, disintegrating stalking shorts, and a baseball cap I had purchased earlier in Captain Cook bearing the logo of the Bong Brothers coffee company. As I handed over my Platinum Card and wondered what impression I was making, a hotel employee materialized with a wooden tray bearing hot towels and a glass of chilled papaya juice, which he offered without apparent prejudice.

The Four Seasons' clientele is younger than that at Mauna Kea (where a frequent sight was sixtyish grandparents dining with their thirtyish children and their offspring) and more cosmopolitan. Though nearly 100 rooms smaller, the Four Seasons at once seemed busier, partly because of the bungalow layout, which is much more labor-intensive when it comes to service and results in an unending procession of electric golf carts whisking by every time you take to the meandering paths on your way to the spa or general store (where you can stock up on sundries and Hawaiian shirts).

How to best use your time at the resort vexes. On the one hand, the Four Seasons is equipped with the staff and amenities to indulge nonstop listlessness. It takes a concerted act of will just to tear oneself from king-size bed to lanai for morning coffee, there to watch the surf crash while new-millennium versions of the Girl from Ipanema go walking. As Mark Twain remarked in one of his famous dispatches from Hawaii upon landing in Kailua in 1866, "A week there ought to cure the saddest of you all."

There are, to be sure, endless activities beyond sleeping, drinking, and eating the resort's mostly excellent food, and eventually you guiltily succumb. There's an open-air sports center stocked with free weights, a generous complement of Cybex machines, treadmills, stationary bikes, fitness classes (including stretching, Spinning, aerobics, tai chi, yoga), eight tennis courts (four lighted for night play), an Olympic lap pool, and a half-size outdoor basketball court. You can also hit the surf in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe (an expert paddles in the stern), which looked like a lot of fun the morning I gazed up from my chaise long enough to see one crashing through the waves. Hiking freaks can avail themselves of the guided walks up the imposing slopes of Hualalai. An 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed course (the first in Hawaii to make the grade as a PGA facility) threads through lava fields and flirts with the shore. Finally, there's a cultural center beneath the lobby where you can absorb lessons in Pacific Rim and Hawaiian customs and history as well as instruction by islanders in the Hawaiian language, Polynesian astronomy, lau hala weaving, and coming to grips with the ukulele.

Afterwards, pat yourself on the back for your exertions and erudition and head for the spa, where you can unwind, as I did, with a genuine Hawaiian lomi-lomi massage (alternating deep and light strokes) performed in an open-side shelter, followed by the wondrous luxury of an outdoor shower, a heart-stopping dip in the icy plunge pool, a few minutes in the eucalyptus-scented steam room, then onto a chaise in the peaceful garden to drift off in blissful contentment . . . thump-thump-thump-bonk! What the? Yes, the architects actually put that damned basketball court right behind the men's spa. Passing the court on my way back to my suite I self-righteously thought about what an insult it was to guests trying to relax after a $140 massage. Then I picked up a ball and shot half an hour's worth of free throws myself.

The lack of a proper beach, let alone a world-beater like the Mauna Kea's, is a consideration. Such beachfront sand that there is has been trucked in and dumped on the lava, and though pleasant there is no sense of the beach beckoning and defining your day as at the Mauna Kea. Aside from a small tidal area, swimming is limited to the pools (one of them, blissfully quiet, is reserved for adults). Scuba and snorkeling take place in the King's Pond, the water of which, thanks to its artesian source, was cold enough to force me out after a half-hour of shadowing the eagle rays cruising its depths like a squadron of Mirage fighters. (It sounds ridiculous but feeding the rays—you get your chance daily at three, under the guidance of a staff marine expert who quite appropriately puts their welfare ahead of yours—is great, regressive fun for adults whose parents never took them to Sea World.) Another consideration: While the sun shone from dawn to dusk at the Mauna Kea, the Four Seasons caught the afternoon cumulonimbus that form on the upslopes of the mountains and drift west on the prevailing winds.

Both resorts are so self-contained you can—and many clearly do—check in and never venture off site. This is a shame, because the Big Island's folksy two-lane roads beg to be explored—preferably in a vehicle with a convertible top, one that can be raised quickly: More than once we went from blazing sunshine to downpour in a matter of minutes on the windward side of the island near Hilo, which receives an average of 128 inches of rain annually, making it the most sodden city in the United States. A day trip to the Kilauea volcano from either resort requires dedication (it is two hours plus in each direction), but it's worth it to wander the periphery of the caldera and hike the lava tubes. The drive south will take you through the villages of the Kona coffee-growing region; be sure to at least stick your head inside the 90-year-old Manago Hotel in Captain Cook, whose lobby and lunchroom appear unchanged since 1948. After navigating the Big Island's gorgeous southern coastline, nothing can prepare you for the stunning desolation of the Kau desert—a seemingly endless wasteland of stunted trees and lava leading upslope to Kilauea.

Driving north from the Mauna Kea rapidly puts you inside the upscale residential wilds of Waimea and one of the gateways to the 227,000-acre Parker Ranch, where the hotel maintains stables and offers guided rides across the uplands. From Waimea, it is only a few minutes to the Hamakua Coast, with its countless inlets, chasms, valleys, and waterfalls. Visits to the Waipio Valley overlook and Akaka Falls are compulsory, with a stop at Akaka Noodles in tiny Honomu's wood-sidewalked strip mall for burgers on fresh-baked buns and snow cones that are made from block ice shaved in a dangerous-looking contraption behind the counter.

Fine dining is not one of the Big Island's strong points, so sticking to the resorts for lunch and dinner is probably just as well. At the Four Seasons' open-air Beach Tree Bar and Grill, tasty grilled swordfish on arugula and tomatoes with pineapple salsa became my standing lunch order. We preferred to eat beneath the thatched roof at the restaurant's Tiki-style beach bar, where the bartenders obligingly mixed a cocktail I had taken a shine to at the Beach Tree's counterpart at the Mauna Kea: half white, half dark rum in pineapple juice over ice with a lime. For dinner, the Four Season's Pahu i'a (Hawaiian for aquarium) may be the most pleasant dining room on the island, with food to match—the low-slung, glass-walled structure glows as invitingly as its enormous namesake behind the hostess station. Try to score one of the handful of tables on the veranda, the better to savor the evening breezes off the surf, which the hotel obligingly illuminates with spotlights hung from the palm trees—très romantique. The steamed snapper with shiitake mushrooms was so good I had it twice.

We found the Mauna Kea's vaunted and now jackets-optional Batik restaurant less impressive, with slow service despite the paucity of customers, and elaborate but indifferently prepared Euro-Asian entrées. But the hotel's weekly clambake Saturday nights is an orgy of overabundance, and lunch at the beachside Hau Tree offered reliable fare like sushi rolls and roasted-vegetable sandwiches served by fetching, friendly staff.

My last night on the Big Island I booked a sunset sail on a catamaran. After a half-mile or so, the boat drifting in lazy figure eights with a slack onshore breeze and gentle swells, I suddenly noticed the quiet. Then I realized, for the first time in seven days, I wasn't hearing the roar of the surf. For a week I had studied the Pacific from beach chairs, seen her flung as if by God's own postcard designer into diorama along the highway, fallen asleep and been awakened by her. Now, here I was rocking gently on her swells, looking back at the silhouette of the great volcano that had shaped this coastline. Once ashore, picking our way along the rocks and sand on the half-mile home to the Four Seasons, we saw in the twilight one of the sea turtles, still wet from the waves, who come ashore from time to time. It is said they will lie like that for hours—oblivious to distractions man-made and natural—with what appears to be a look of complete contentment.

I know exactly how they feel.

Big Island Basics

Room rates are for high-season (January through April) and range from the lowest-priced double to the highest-priced suite. Restaurant prices are approximate and include a three-course dinner for two without beverage, tax, or service.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel: $350-$1,300.
Batik at the Mauna Kea: $130.
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai: $500-$6,150.
Pahu i'a at the Four Seasons: $125.
For further information, contact the hotels or your travel agent. Mauna Kea: 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kamuela, HI 96743; 800-774-6234, 808-882-7222; fax 808-882-7007; www.maunakeabeachhotel.com. Four Seasons: Box 1269, Kailua-Kona, HI 96745; 888-340-5662, 808-325-8000; fax 808-325-8100; www.fourseasons.com/hualalai/.