Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg
Travel

Checking in at the Most Expensive Hawaiian Resort of the 1960s: Photos

Laurance S. Rockefeller’s Mauna Kea Beach Hotel turns 50, keeping true luxury alive

Waves of heat rise from the blacktop. On either side, fields of rock, ebony and ashen are interrupted only by wan scrub or long-charred tree stumps, oxidized by the salt air to an eerie copper. The oft-snowcapped peak of Mauna Kea looks incongruous in the distance, the now-icy volcano from which all this scorched earth came.

This is the arid Kohala Coast on the western side of Hawaii’s Big Island, and it’s startling in its beauty. Barren, moonlike expanses meet brilliant blue sky above and turquoise waters at its fringes. It’s hardly a landscape that screams “luxury resort.”

Consummate environmentalist and developer Laurance S. Rockefeller poses with the scale model that would eventually lead to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. The architectural firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill of San Francisco was tasked with creating a design that blended with the environment and took full advantage of prevailing trade winds since Rockefeller did not care for air conditioning or enclosed corridors.

Consummate environmentalist and developer Laurance S. Rockefeller poses with the scale model that would eventually lead to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

But then, I’m not a Rockefeller.

In 1965, visionary financier and conservationist Laurance S. Rockefeller overcame some of the era’s greatest infrastructure odds to open what would become one of the world’s most famous beach resorts, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. As it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer—and offers a five-night VIP package for $50,000—we look at how this hotel opened up tourism on Hawaii’s Big Island and served as a model for luxury development.

Rising From the Ashes

Before the arrival of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, ranching was the Big Island’s big business. The resort sits on a beach where cowboys and their families would camp and fish. On invitation from Hawaii's governor, Rockefeller came to the island on his way home from Asia to consider opening a resort. He spotted the white crescent of sand on an air-scouting trip, fell in love, and—after a dip in its placid waters—signed a lease.

In the early 1960’s Mauna Kea Resort developer Laurance S. Rockefeller signed a lease for 1,800 acres of rugged Parker Ranch land. The area at what is now Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Kauna’oa Bay, was a popular recreation area for ranch paniolo (cowboys) and their families. Parker Ranch remains, to this day, among the largest cattle ranches in the United States.

In the early 1960s, Kauna’oa Bay was a popular recreation area for ranch paniolo (cowboys) and their families. Rockefeller signed a lease for 1,800 acres of rugged Parker Ranch land, which remains, to this day, among the largest cattle ranches in the U.S.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

Rockefeller needed to be a man of serious vision to see past the site’s shortcomings, including the lack of roads, fresh water, electricity, plumbing, vegetation, and pretty much every other infrastructural necessity. His serious means certainly helped, too. Even today, the nearest resort is a 15-minute drive and the nearest town, farther.

In 1965, the now legendary Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, celebrating 50 years of timeless magic, became the first resort on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii Island. The coast now boasts six other major hotels within four resort nodes along the coast’s nearly 30-mile stretch.

Mauna Kea kicked off development of the rugged Kohala Coast on Hawaii Island. Six other major hotels within four resort nodes now inhabit the coast’s nearly 30-mile stretch.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

He used a strategy of “experting,” or hiring a world-class team to crack the problem. Golf starchitect Robert Trent Jones Sr. pioneered a technique for turning lava rock into soil and roped in Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player to launch the course. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill created a mid-century modern cascade of open-air concrete galleries that blended into the environment, inviting the outside in and reducing the need for air conditioning and other energy drains. And iconic interior designer Davis Allen assembled a 1,600-piece museum-worthy art collection, placing the hotel contextually amid other Asian and Oceanic destinations.

Brilliant minds of visionaries converge in this image from the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Archive Collection. Second from the left is developer Laurance S. Rockefeller. In the suit jacket, center, is Robert Trent Jones Sr. who designed the Mauna Kea Golf Course.

Developer Rockefeller (second from left) "experting" with Robert Trent Jones Sr. (center), who designed the Mauna Kea Golf Course.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

After excavating 60 acres of lava and bringing in 5,000 square feet of marble, a mile of wood, and 20,000 cubic yards of concrete (much of it by barge), the Mauna Kea opened on July 24, 1965, as the most expensive resort of its time. It outranked the family’s Rockefeller Center in the American Institute of Architects awards a year later. Price tag: $15 million, or roughly $113 million in today’s dollars. Rates started at $43 a night, breakfast and dinner included.

“For a long time now I have stubbornly held to the view that anything Laurance S. Rockefeller can do, God can do as well,” wrote Holiday magazine writer Caskie Stinnett in 1966. “But my first glance from a plane window at Mauna Kea, the resort that Rockefeller created amid the lava rock and desert waste of Hawai‘i’s west coast, caused me a moment’s hesitation. If nothing else, one had certainly picked up nicely where the Other had left off.”

Guests of Mauna Kea Golf Course are seen putting on the Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course that opened in December 1965. Mauna Kea mountain, towering at 13,803 feet above sea level in the background, is blanketed by a layer of snow.

Guests of Mauna Kea Golf Course are seen putting on the Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course that opened in December 1965.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg
Anchored by the beautiful white sands and crescent beach of Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is dwarfed by its namesake, the dormant Mauna Kea volcano that towers 17,803 feet above sea level in the background. It is not unusual during winter months for the mountain to be capped. with snow

Anchored by the white sands of Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is dwarfed by its namesake, the dormant Mauna Kea volcano that towers 13,803 feet above sea level in the background. It is not unusual during winter months for the mountain to be capped with snow.

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Beachfront Wing, which was added to the hotel in 1968, received a major refresh in 2013. Baths offer views to the beach and the ocean beyond.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Beachfront Wing, which was added to the hotel in 1968, received a major refresh in 2013. Baths offer views to the beach and the ocean beyond.

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg

Hawaii First

My stay in September at the Mauna Kea was a reminder of what true travel luxury is.

It’s not, as many new resorts would have it, an amenities arms race of tanning butlers and pillow menus; it’s how the destination is invited in, an obsession with place. True luxury is an alchemy of design, setting, and service that makes you forget yourself, that lulls you into its rhythms, that encourages both discovery and relaxation. Rockefeller mastered the art form, opening up environments while protecting them, creating places that feel both homey and exotic.

All the upgrades and additions to the now-252-room hotel (from an original 154) have kept that vision in mind. A deep soaking tub and wall-less rain shower opened onto an ocean-view lanai in my room; others have glass walls facing the sea. The clean-lined modern design nods towards Hawaiian motifs with a color palette matched to the hues of water, sand, and sunsets. TVs, notoriously banned in rooms until the ’90s because they prevented you from being present in the experience, are hidden behind handsome wooden wall units.

The mid-century modern architecture of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, designed by San Francisco-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill for Laurance S. Rockefeller, remains timeless. Here, open guestroom corridors above, floating stairways and meandering koi ponds create a setting that is at once luxurious, elegant and comfortable.

Mid-century modern timelessness by SOM: open corridors, floating stairway, meandering koi ponds.

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg
With a distinct 1970’s vibe, a marketing photo showcases a guestroom at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

With a distinct 1970s vibe, a marketing photo showcases a guest room at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

Throwback Charms

True, Hawaii’s newer luxury resorts offer more glam and flash than Mauna Kea, but the magic here is in such throwback charms as the modest pool served by third-generation employees who pass down their parents’ and grandparents’ tales of celeb-studded parties. A weekly lu’au feels much as it did when the hotel created it for a Newsweek magazine photoshoot in the 1960s (thus stoking the fire-twirling-pig-roast-steel-guitar-at-sunset imaginations of beachy dreamers ever since). Golden Thai statues flanking the entrance are so well-loved by departing guests that they're regularly re-leafed.

1965: A Buddhist priest joins Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s first general manager Robert Butterfield and his wife in a ceremonial blessing of the hotel’s 7th-century pink Buddha statue.

1965: A Buddhist priest performs a ceremonial blessing of the hotel’s 7th century pink Buddha statue.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg

Amid all this retro-ness, it’s easy to forget just how pioneering the resort was. Original chef Walter Blum is credited with spurring Hawaii’s earliest farm-to-table movement by giving local farmers incentives to raise crops for his restaurant.

Rockefeller elevated local crafts to high art, commissioning and installing traditional, graphically colored Hawaiian quilts next to his priceless collection of Asian and Oceanic art. How the collection is handled without preciousness—not tucked behind glass or in galleries—is quite impressive. You might be walking down a quiet hallway and stumble upon a Maori canoe prow or a Hawaiian tiki. Rockefeller's beloved pink granite Buddha, from a 7th century temple in southern India, hovers in a garden at the top of a staircase, encouraging you to explore a garden you otherwise might have missed. 

With just 252 guest rooms and more than 32 oceanfront acres, there is a special place for everyone at Hawaii Island’s Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

252 guest rooms are set on more than 32 oceanfront acres.

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg

Today the hotel attracts a multigenerational crowd: old money New Yorkers, finance types on honeymoon, and lots of big families that have been coming for years. It's not about showy luxury as much as heritage. It joined Marriott’s Autograph Collection in February.

“We’re very fortunate that Rockefeller had the vision to give human structure to a destination that at that time didn’t exist,” 40-year employee Roxanne Pung says via phone after my visit. Ex-LA Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who has vacationed here for 49 years, agrees. “There are a lot of beautiful hotels in the world, but the Mauna Kea stands alone.”

From the promenade level, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Skidmore Owings Merrill-designed architecture may appear daunting but when viewed from the beach it becomes clear why the terraced, open air structure won national architectural awards upon opening in 1965, and remains timeless today.

From the promenade level, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Skidmore Owings Merrill-designed architecture may appear daunting, but when viewed from the beach its architectural award-winning, terraced, open-air structure makes perfect sense.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg
Mauna Kea Golf Course’s over-the-ocean hole number three is among the most photographed and celebrated golf holes in the world. The course, which debuted in December 1964, was the first golf course to be built on Hawaii Island. Its design and the technique of using crushed lava as a soil base, set the standard for other courses across the state.

The famous over-the-ocean Hole No.3 at Mauna Kea Golf Course. 

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg
Mauna Kea Golf Course made its debut in December 1964 while Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, seen in the background, was still under construction. The course was famously christened by the “big three” of golf at the time; Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. Their match was later televised on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

Mauna Kea Golf Course made its debut in December 1964 while Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, seen in the background, was still under construction. Golfs “Big Three"—Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus—christened it with a match later televised on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

Source: Mauna Kea Resort Archive Collections via Bloomberg
Stylish and spacious rooms are accented in the signature orange of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Oversized furnished lanai (balcony) are ideal for morning coffee, afternoon reading, sunset (and whale) watching or long leisurely candle-lit dinners.

Signature shocks of orange and spacious, furnished lanais (balconies) are hallmarks of Mauna Kea guest rooms. 

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg
Set a level above the beach at Kauna’oa Bay, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s pool offers comfortable chaise lounges, whirlpool, and shaded canopies for relaxing hours in paradise.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s pool is set a level above the beach at Kauna’oa Bay.

Source: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel via Bloomberg

 

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