Hawaii’s storied Mauna Lani Resort reopens after $200 million remodel
Ed. note: This story was reported, written, and edited prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The remarkably dry weather and white sand beaches of Hawaii Island’s Kohala Coast have long attracted the most luxurious of resorts, and since 1983, the Mauna Lani Resort stood among them as an icon of the coast. After a group of investors purchased the resort for $225 million in 2017, it brought on California-based luxury specialist Auberge Resorts Collection to overhaul the space, closing the resort in October 2018. In January, the storied 37-year-old resort reopened under new ownership following a 14-month closure and $200 million remodel.
Pointing like an arrow out toward the beach so as to maximize the ocean views from its 333 rooms, the remodeled hotel keeps the resort’s long-running focus on Hawaiian culture, while updating the atmosphere. “It was all about opening it up and creating a gathering place,” says Chris White, executive director of marketing at Mauna Lani. The entire multi-floor lobby has been opened up, the registration desk moved out of a back corner, and instead of descending to a dark, dank bottom-floor pond, the central staircase leads to a light-filled atrium featuring a 100-year-old carved canoe and an open seating area.
“Spending the money was the easy part,” White says of the remodel, which added an adults-only infinity pool, along with the sand-bottomed kids pool, and the general use one. The hard part was bringing in activities that allowed them to build on the hotel’s longtime foundation of Hawaiian culture. Danny Akaka Jr., or “Uncle Danny,” has run the hotel’s cultural program for 36 years and continues to do so, only instead of a ground-floor office that White describes as “the cupboard under the stairs,” the Hale I’ike (House of Knowledge) program now runs in the open space opposite the lobby and a ground-floor area featuring a map of the island inlaid in tiles.
Among the starkest differences—and biggest improvements—are the grounds. Access to many parts of the resort, including the CanoeHouse restaurant, originally required weaving along footpaths between more fishponds. Now, a lawn dotted with firepits and chairs for after-dinner drinks connects the resort to the outbuilding, and only a few ponds remain to play host to the resident honu (sea turtles). While removing ponds, though, the updated Mauna Lani increased its dedication to the turtle programming, adding a second marine biologist to its staff. Visitors can help care for the turtles, which are part of a preservation program with Sea Life Park on Oahu.
But even as the much of the hotel’s remodel focuses on traditional culture, many of the newest amenities seem geared toward modern culture: In June, the resort will open a 1,700-square-foot Goop store, selling nearly all of the Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle brand’s products. And while the tennis center and lap pool are still located off-site, Mauna Lani added a small five-room spa designed for shorter treatments and longer hours. And there is a gym with CrossFit-style equipment on an outdoor patio, standard machines and weights inside (an app creates personalized workouts designed for the equipment available), and Peloton bikes that can be used within the gym or moved upon request into individual guest rooms.
The guest rooms, however, are not the most inviting part of the grounds. Without a far more major overhaul, the structure of the building focuses the rooms on panoramic views, while keeping the hallways and portions of the room fairly dark. (The lack of space also means that bathrooms come furnished with roomy showers rather than bathtubs.) Given the region’s consistent sunshine and that few people come to Hawaii to stay in their room or take long baths, these end up being fairly minor quibbles.
After all, just outside the lobby, white sand stretches into the Pacific. There, a surf shack houses the water sports programs—snorkeling, canoeing, surf lessons, stand-up paddleboarding, and beach workouts—right from the edge of the beach, and also serves casual lunches.
The other lunch spot on the property will be a food truck serving poke bowls, though that hasn’t set up quite yet. The Hā Bar sits between the pools and serves light bites throughout the day, as well as excellent cocktails based on local produce like lilikoi (passion fruit) and ube (purple sweet potato). The Market, which serves coffee in the lower lobby in the morning, operates a full-service café and also carries a truly impressive stock of local products: Beyond the usual tourist-friendly beers, chocolate, and honey, there’s also locally made goat cheese, teas, art, and sunscreen. The dedication to local traditions and style extends to the flagship restaurant of the hotel, the CanoeHouse, all of which makes the HāLani, an open-air spot on the ground floor, an odd outlier among the offerings, serving up a menu of food from around the Mediterranean.
A stroll through the lower lobby—where musicians play each afternoon—out the other side of the building brings diners to the CanoeHouse’s outbuilding. When the Mauna Lani Resort opened in 1983, Peter Merriman was one of the first cooks, before quickly moving to executive chef. Later, he’d open Merriman’s and pioneer the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. In the decades since Merriman’s departure, the resort has kept up its culinary reputation, and the latest version of the CanoeHouse comes from chef Matt Raso, who previously worked as executive chef for various locations of Nobu and weaves his Japanese cooking background through Big Island ingredients.
While the entrées retain some of the less enticing elements of hotel restaurants (flashy ingredients, unexciting flavors), the small plates demonstrate much of the same balance between local tradition and modern style that the hotel’s remodel does. Slices of Kona kampachi get smoked over hay and seared at the table; local corn comes in tempura; taro leaves and smoked pork scent the steamed clams; and an order of the crisp, fluffy, and buttery pull-apart bread does a killer job soaking up the broth left behind by garlicky prawns.
A waitress smiles in approval at the use of the bread. This menu is new to her, but the restaurant isn’t: She’s been there since the day CanoeHouse opened in 1989. The local community was understandably upset by the layoffs before the closure of the hotel. Post remodel, the resort rehired 280 of the 320 previous staff, plus another 200 new employees. One could argue it mirrors the remodel: mostly the same, but injected with a little new energy.
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