This Gorgeous “Big Island” Retreat Doubles as a Portal to Authentic Hawaiian Culture

Credit: Nicole Franzen

Earlier this year, Hawai‘i was thrust into the international spotlight with the monumental eruption of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano and one of five that form the island. Though the epic spectacle lasted a little over a month, there’s is one other reason we can’t stop talking about the archipelago’s “Big Island”: And that reason is the Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection

Credit: Nicole Franzen

Dating back to 1983, the aptly-named resort — Mauna Lani translates to “mountain reaching heaven” — has long been a cherished bolthole in the Kona-Kohala corridor. But like any active volcanic island in constant geological evolution, it was only a matter of time before the Waimea landmark would be reimagined for a new era. In 2018 it became a newly-minted addition to the Auberge portfolio, receiving a $200 million overhaul before opening in the early months of 2020. With pandemic-related ups and downs now in the past, the beloved Mauna Lani is back and better than ever. 

Credit: Nicole Franzen

The most striking aspect of Mauna Lani’s facelift is its interior design. Spearheaded by NYC design firm Meyer Davis with a “contemporary-yet-organic sensibility,” the resort’s breezy alfresco common areas and 333 rooms were updated with a palette of creams and tropical blues; swaths of geometric cedar volumes and low-slung bamboo furnishings are softened by flowy woven natural fabrics. In the heart of the property, the lower lobby, a large outrigger crafted of rare Koa wood remains the centerpiece and focal point of the hotel’s mana, or life force. 

Credit: Nicole Franzen

New wellness facilities were also built to enhance the guest experience, like a state-of-the-art spa (don’t miss out on a Lomi-Lomi massage, which nods to ancient Hawaiian techniques) and an indoor-outdoor fitness center. A retail boutique created in partnership with Goop features a high-end curation of his-and-her swimsuits, sunglasses, sandals, and more tropical accessories. 

Credit: Nicole Franzen

In short, Mauna Lani has all the trappings of a tropical vacation. Aside from direct access to a  snorkel-perfect private beach, guests have their choice of three pools, including one that’s adults-only. A dedicated watersports team organizes everything from sunrise paddles on an outrigger paired with Hawaiian chanting to surf adventures when the conditions are right. Golfers are equally as spoiled with two renowned golf courses landscaped over molten lava fields. 

Credit: Nicole Franzen

Dining is a major highlight with five eateries within walking distance, each boasting a distinct vibe and culinary perspective. There’s HaLani, which serves epic breakfast spreads (the ube pancakes are a guest favorite), as well as lunch and dinner fabulous Asian-European fusion fare. CanoeHouse is arguably one of the best restaurants on the island, presenting stellar sea-to-plate, farm-to-table dishes with an Asian Pacific bent. Super-fresh poolside salads, pizza, and tacos (and cocktails) come from Hā Bar. For an on-the-go snack, The Market is stocked with provisions ranging from booze and sashimi to breakfast sandwiches and macadamias. 

Credit: Nicole Franzen

Mauna Lani impresses not only with its design and privileged location, but also its unwavering devotion to cultural preservation (learn more about native wisdom from HAP’s interview with author Annie Daly). The local-led program, which also branches out to environmental conservation, has its own hub in the lower lobby, called Hale ‘I’ike (House of Knowledge). Fittingly, it’s where you’re most likely to find the affable Kahu Hānai Danny Akaka, Jr. Employed by Mauna Lani for nearly four decades, Akaka is far more than an exalted cultural practitioner and ambassador; he’s so beloved and well-respected that both guests and staff have come to address him as Uncle Danny. With every possible interaction—walking tours along the nearby fabled fishponds, spur-of-the-moment ‘ukulele serenades, or monthly “Twilight at Kalahuipua’a” talk story gatherings—Uncle Danny imparts age-old wisdom along with his inimitable ho’okipa, the spirit of aloha. In fact, he sees it as his kuleana (responsibility). At Mauna Lani, you just might find yours.

Top Takeaways: 

Location: Waimea, Big Island, Hawai’i

The Vibe: Big and breezy, yet intimate. Family-oriented, but with ample opportunities for romantic moments. 

Food + Drink: Five solid culinary venues that range from to-go (The Market) to casual (HaLani) and island-style fine dining (CanoeHouse). Poolside bites and cocktails are always always an arm’s length away.

Any Personal Neighborhood Recs?: Grab one of the hotel’s bicycles and cruise over to Napua at Mauna Lani Beach Club for a stellar lunch on the oceanfront (order the crispy calamari and poke with rice and wash it down with the citrusy Fresh Lime Squeeze with vodka). 49 Black Sand Beach is also a short bike ride from the hotel.

Our favorite thing about the hotel: Design-wise, the open-air lobby is an absolute stunner. But it’s really the hotel’s emphasis on authentic cultural encounters, whether it’s with (Uncle) Danny Akaka’s monthly Twilight gatherings or at a sunrise canoe

Rooms: Spacious and subtly decorated in neutral tones and wooden accents. All 333 rooms and suites have balconies—request one that overlooks the ocean blue. 

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