A seventh-century pink granite Buddha occupies a dramatic setting beneath a bodhi tree at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. // © 2017 Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
Feature image (above): During a Mauna Kea art tour, Patti Cook points out a bronze Thai Buddhist disciple sculpture, whose hands offer a sign of greeting at the resort’s front entrance. // © 2017 Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
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When Laurance Rockefeller created Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in 1965, he assembled a collection of art and artifacts to enliven it. He gathered international treasures, which he placed strategically around the hotel and its grounds, adding allure to the one-of-a-kind Hawaii Island resort.
But he didn’t hang informational signs by the pieces.
“Mr. Rockefeller pictured the resort as his home, so he wanted guests to experience the art the same way they would in someone’s personal dwelling,” said Patti Cook, a guide for the resort’s free, weekly art tour. “Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was the first hotel to create this type of collection, and there has been none other like it since.”
Today, guests and non-guests alike can join tours of the art collection, held each Saturday morning. Standing in the open-air lobby, Cook begins the excursion by chatting about the history of the hotel, which broke the mold for 1960s Hawaii vacation accommodations.
“Mr. Rockefeller believed that the beach was the heart of the hotel,” Cook said, gesturing to unobstructed views of the sand and sea. “He made sure that guests can see it from the moment they arrive.”
Coloring her commentary with fascinating facts, Cook led us to a variety of notable works of art around the resort and shared stories about them.
As Rockefeller put together the collection, Cook told us, he had two goals: They had to be authentic originals, and they could not be stolen objects. While the works on view are mostly Asian, we also encountered pieces from the Pacific and far-flung countries, such as New Guinea.
We saw an array of exotic items, from brass dowry pieces designed for Indian weddings to bronze disciple figures from a Thai temple. We lingered by the prow of a ceremonial New Zealand canoe, a 75-year-old Japanese “tansu” chest and metal Burmese rain drums from the 17th and 18th centuries. Cook kept the tour interactive, sometimes asking us to guess the use or meaning of a particular object.
The tour wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a seventh-century, pink granite Buddha, one of the resort’s signature pieces. It sits in the lotus position under a bodhi tree, and during my tour, someone had placed an offering of fresh flowers in its hands.
“It’s considered good luck to rub his belly,” Cook said, encouraging us to follow suit.
Hawaii is represented in the collection in such works as “tapa” (pounded bark) hangings that feature intricate designs. Equally impressive are huge Hawaiian quilts, which are framed to offer protection from the elements.
“These quilts tell many tales,” Cook said. “Each one is hand-stitched with up to 1 million stitches.”
Podcasts and iPod Touches
For clients who can’t physically visit Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the resort is developing a series of podcasts about the art collection. As of press time, the first podcast, an introduction and historical overview, was slated to be uploaded to the hotel’s website by July 1, with more installments on the way.
People can download the podcast for free and listen to it at home, according to Vicky Kometani, a spokesperson for the resort.
“We feel strongly that if more people knew about and understood the collection, it would be a special reason in and of itself to plan a future stay at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel,” Kometani said.
The property is also loading the podcasts onto iPod touches, which guests will be able to check out from the concierge for self-guided tours.
“The collection is often overlooked, but it is unlike anything in the world,” Kometani said.