The Buddha in the Box

Waiting for the reopening of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

By: Hulili London

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Guestrooms Buddha statue at
the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
At the top of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s grand staircase, roped off and surrounded by scaffolding, safely ensconced in his wooden crate, I imagine the 7th-century pink granite Buddha sculpture meditating to pass the time. “Don’t worry, it’s okay, it’s still here,” he thinks.

That mantra may make the wait more tolerable for faithful Mauna Kea-philes who have journeyed to the Big Island’s Kohala Coast since 1965. Temporarily closed for a $150 million repair and renovation project, the Mauna Kea will re-emerge as a luxury property second to none as soon as December of this year. That’s the plan, according to Prince Resorts Hawaii, which manages the property and the adjacent Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. Plans call for the Mauna Kea’s room inventory to be reduced from 310 to 258, allowing for certain guestrooms and baths in the main building to be enlarged. Enhancements are in the works for the golf course, public areas, restaurants, retail spaces and spa facilities, but no changes are planned to the structure’s classic design.

Originally built by Laurance S. Rockefeller, the Mauna Kea was the most expensive hotel ever constructed for its time at $15 million.

“I want it to be what it was,” said Susan Tanzman of Martin Travel and Tours, in Los Angeles. “I was there on my honeymoon in 1971, and I didn’t think there was anything to compare to it.”

Both Tanzman and Lois Mitchell, of ProTravel International, admit Mauna Kea was showing its 40-plus years before it closed in December 2006 following an October earthquake, and both agents wished for updated soft goods, high-quality materials, televisions and the best in amenities, service and food and beverage. Neither wants to see changes to the hotel’s ambiance, particularly the open-to-the-ocean blue-tiled lobby.

“Mauna Kea has an incredible opportunity to do the right thing with this renovation,” said Mitchell. “As far as setting, you don’t mess with perfection, but it takes people with vision to see what it is and make it better.”

The Mauna Kea’s next incarnation is guided by at least three visionaries. The architectural firm is Honolulu-based John Hara and Associates, recently honored with the Governor’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in Culture, Arts and Humanities. For the interiors, Prince has tapped Barry Design Associates of Los Angeles, who have enhanced hundreds of uber-luxury properties including the Four Seasons Resorts in Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and Carlsbad, and Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort. Rees Jones, son of original golf architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., is directing the golf course rejuvenation, bringing it up to modern standards without changing its character.

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The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel will remain
closed until at least December.
“The Mauna Kea was an iconic hotel,” said Joe Toy, president of the Honolulu travel industry consulting firm Hospitality Advisors. “It has such recognition globally and a strong following in the U.S. as a golf resort. Re-establishing that property will create a lot of buzz on the Kohala Coast and on the Big Island in general.”

“It can move the needle on the Island,” said

Tanzman. “People don’t ask to go to the Big Island, they ask for the Mauna Kea. I want it to reopen so I can sell the heck out of it.”

According to Toy, the luxury market has been very strong for the last few years.

“Stronger luxury properties are emerging in other destinations including Mexico, Asia and the Caribbean. Some of the [Hawaii] properties have kept up, for example, Kapalua Resort and Grand Wailea on Maui, and the Halekulani and Kahala on Oahu,” he said.

According to a December 2007 report, the luxury travel boom is fuelled by so-called High and Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals whose financial assets are worth over $1 million and $30 million respectively. Their numbers are increasing these individuals by 11.3 percent in 2006 and travel is high on their list of things to do with disposable income.

“The Mauna Kea is what’s missing in all the islands,” said Mitchell. “People ask all the time what’s the best hotel in Hawaii for high-end top-of-the-line clients. [Without the Mauna Kea], what am I going to tell them?”

With limited options on Kauai and development encroaching on venerable hotels like the Halekulani and Kahala, Mitchell looks to Four Seasons Resorts on Maui and the Big Island.

“But when their top suites or deluxe doubles are sold out, where do we go? I say, please God, let them bring back the Mauna Kea, because if they do we will sell it until the cows come home,” says Mitchell.

Back in his box, the Buddha statue might just be contemplating that prayer as he repeats his mantra: “Don’t worry, it’s okay, it’s still here.”


Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

With an anticipated reopening in December 2008, the hotel hopes to start taking reservations this summer.