Mauna Lani Bay has been one of the top-rated hotels on the Big Island since it opened in 1983. // © 2011 The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows
Decades ago, when I visited The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows for the first time, I could barely walk. Throughout my youth, my family and I continued to find ourselves at the 343-room resort on Hawaii’s Kohala Coast for extended weekends, and my memories of splashing in the pool and building sand castles at the beach are plentiful.
This past summer, after many years, I returned for the first time as an adult. And, while the resort has upgraded the guest experience in several ways, Mauna Lani Bay manages to retain the understated tropical elegance that has made it a top resort since its infancy.
“We feel incredibly proud of, and grateful for, the loyal support of our repeat guests,” said general manager Brian Butterworth. “We’ve maintained the same owners since opening in 1983, and many of our associates have been here since day one. They’ve seen children grow up, go on to get married and then start their own families — coming back to Mauna Lani Bay is like coming back to your Hawaii home.”
Mauna Lani Bay occupies 30 oceanfront acres that feature three miles of secluded shoreline and two 18-hole golf courses carved from ancient lava fields. Contrasting with lava outcroppings along the shore, the property grounds are immaculate with bright-green grass and towering palm trees, some equipped with hammocks.
Refreshed last year, guestrooms and suites boast private lanais and either ocean, mountain or garden views. My guestroom featured modern luxuries, such as a 32-inch LCD television, as well as tropical-inspired furnishings and artwork. I was delighted to have free Wi-Fi access in the room and a desk overlooking the ocean so that I could get a little bit of work done while admiring the view.
My first order of business, however, was dinner, and my experience at The CanoeHouse did not disappoint. The oceanfront, farm-to-table restaurant impressed me from the start with its romantic setting, which was only amplified with live island music and outdoor seating illuminated by candles and Hawaiian-style torches. Some of the more inventive menu items included white-grape gazpacho with macadamia nuts and a crisped kalua pork roll with sweet chili sauce. Although a bit pricey, this restaurant is one of the finer establishments on the island, and every hotel guest should make a plan to dine here at least one night during his or her stay.
Overall, Mauna Lani Bay provides a great value for families and couples. Amenities such as valet parking, use of the fitness center and use of the beachside cabanas are free of charge. Complimentary, educational activities run the gamut from snorkel lessons and fish-feeding tours to ukulele classes and throw-net fishing demonstrations.
Danny Kaniela Akaka, who has been the resident Hawaiian historian at Mauna Lani Bay for 28 years, offers complimentary historic tours of the resort twice weekly.
New this year, guests can pedal around the resort on Trek beach cruiser bicycles. I loved this free service, which made getting to the Shops at Mauna Lani a breeze. The shopping center features a 4-D movie theater, a Hawaiian Island Creations beachwear store, a Sunglass Hut and a Tommy Bahama Store as well as a few alternate dining options, including a grocery store and a Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
The most enjoyable part of my stay was when I cycled to the trailhead of the Malama Petroglyph Trail and hiked through the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District. This petroglyph field is one of the largest and best preserved in Hawaii, with approximately 1,200 ancient stone carvings. The hotel also offers a two-hour guided hike though Puako, which I will definitely take part in on my next visit.
Younger guests seemed to love the saltwater fishponds that weave throughout the resort, housing more than 85 fish species, including black-tip reef sharks, a Hawaiian sting ray, parrot fish and carnivorous ulua fish, which the ancient Hawaiians believed to be sacred. One of the ponds serves as the temporary home to the Hawaiian green sea turtles (honu) that are part of Sea Life Park Hawaii’s breeding program. At Mauna Lani Bay, juvenile turtles are cared for until they are mature enough to be released into the wild. Each year, the release day on July 4th has turned into a large-scale celebration, dubbed Turtle Independence Day, with Hawaiian entertainment and a barbecue.
As part of a research program, each turtle is released into the wild with a microchip that enables the National Marine Fisheries Service to track movement and study the turtles’ preferred habitats. Researchers were amazed to find that a turtle released in 2002 returned to the shores of Mauna Lani Bay after a 3,000-mile journey around the Hawaiian Islands.
I had to smile when I heard about the returning turtle — there’s just something special about Mauna Lani Bay and, like a creature of habit, I’m sure I’ll be back on its white-sand beaches sometime soon.