Each time we go up the Mauna Lani driveway after arriving at KOA, we shut off the radio and open the windows to smell the salt air and hear the surf. Ahhh! “Home” again at last! The smells of Mauna Lani are elusive but each time I smell the dry grass and salt scent of the beach paths, I remember all the other years of being there. It’s a great place. Best place on earth.
This was our 28th stay at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel since 1990. We always go in January to celebrate our anniversary (the hotel always graciously acknowledges the celebration with an amenity, this year a nice bottle of sparkling wine), but have also stayed there in other months, mostly in summer. This time, we were the last arriving guests of the night. We were greeted warmly at the front door and given orchid leis, then escorted inside for registration. (Registration is done at sit-down desks, while you are being refreshed with cool towels and juice.) The baggage arrived in our room in minutes, the same flawless service as if we’d been the first guests of the day. We changed into bathing suits and went to wade in the small beach lagoon for a few minutes, sit in the Jacuzzi, and see the brilliant stars and Milky Way overhead. Paradise.
Mauna Lani is graciously weathering perhaps the worst Island of Hawaii travel recession in memory, in addition to the general economic recession and slow recovery. The hotel could have made draconian cuts that would ultimately have been counterproductive, such as a long shutdown, drastic reductions in room rates, upkeep, and staffing. Wisely, it did not. A first-time guest would notice little effect. To be sure, long-term guests will notice a few changes: a daily fee for valet parking (self-park remains free), more obvious adjustment of staffing levels to daily occupancy (we noticed this as occupancy increased dramatically the second week of our stay), orchids but not mints at turndown, more careful provision of ice and toiletries (same fine quality products), slightly shorter beach staff/pool/towel service hours and coffee hours (but the same great coffee!). The hotel is practicing stewardship rather than skimping or lowering quality.
Maintenance is good. The hotel is taking advantage of lower occupancy and favorable contractor terms to do maintenance projects (see below for a note on room refreshing). The hotel replaced ALL the hammocks during our stay, so guests who noted fewer or none may be reassured—they are there (showed up the 27th of January). Breakfast buffets reflect occupancy—the Japanese breakfast items were increased the second week when more Japanese guests arrived—but the omelet and waffles (yay, Les and Arnold!) are being made to order; every day there are malasadas and cinnamon rolls and various pastries, various hot egg and meat dishes, bagels and lox, the best papaya in the world, etc., plus the wonderful “breakfast ladies.”
Housekeeping remains excellent; bell staff are, as always, courteous and friendly and helpful with directions. The Mauna Lani ohana are all hanging in there, waiting for better times and riding out the storm. As part of the returning guest ohana, we wish them all the best and are glad to play a small part in economic recovery.
There are also some new and improved changes and expanded activity offerings. The Makana shop is now on the lobby level and much larger. In its place, under the waterfall on the ground level, is a new history center with lovely exhibits, where Danny Akaka talks story and runs free cultural programs and tours. Mauna Lani has many guest cultural, educational, and fun activities (e.g., s’mores on the beach on Sunday evening, history walks through the grounds, lei making and hula lessons, etc.), as well as fun things to do with children (e.g., sand castle contests, beachcombing, scavenger hunts). We were fortunate to be there on a “full moon Saturday” for the free Twilight at Kalahuipuaa “talk story” event.
Mauna Lani has a guest laundry room. In keeping with the resort’s “no resort fees” philosophy, the laundry room has 3 large and new washers and dryers (free!) and even free soap and dryer sheets. This is a great convenience.
The beach activities have been augmented by Hulakai Surf (no relation to the Fair Winds operation with a boat with a similar name), a local company offering stand-up paddleboard lessons, surf lessons, and snorkel and whale watching sails on a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe. We really liked that trip ($100/pp); we snorkeled at Parker Reef and saw (and heard) many whales. The Mauna Lani beach activity staff offer guided snorkel tours ($50/pp) outside the reef—we also enjoyed this. I recommend it for experienced snorkelers looking for an entrée to learn the reef channel to get outside and where the best reef spots and marine life are. (Also how to line up to get back in!)
Other positive changes we noticed are that there are more cabana chairs on both of the beaches and Mauna Lani has just replaced the main beach hammocks with brand-new ones.
The Ocean Grill offers an expanded menu for 4-8 pm beachside dining; we did this twice for casual fare in shorts. Canoe House has a new chef; we ate there once and the food was very good but not memorable; service and setting were excellent. Private dining was a very cost-effective option; especially because we had a ground-level oceanfront room, we did this 3 or 4 times for sunset on the lanai. Brown’s Beach House was reliable with a prix fixe sunset dinner and Nino Kaai was great as always (contemporary Hawaiian music). Huli Sue’s was a bit of a disappointment (see my 2010 review).
We enjoyed going on Mauna Lani Sea Adventures’ “Winona” to Garden Eels up in Puako (thanks, Capt. Don!); Fair Winds’ Hula Kai to Coral Gardens and Kealakekua Bay (conditions mandated this non-traditional stop); ATV Outfitters’ waterfall adventure ride; Ocean Sports’ sunset sail from Kawaihae; plus loads of hikes ranging from Upolu to Pololu to Honaunau to VNP (I updated the Petroglyphs Inside Page to add Pu’u Loa in VNP).
One major reason we keep coming back to Mauna Lani is the staff. The long-time staff members truly do remember us from year to year and give us the sense we are genuinely being welcomed back. Mauna Lani has a lot of repeat visitors and I think they treat guests quite a bit differently than hotel staff does at places that do have “good service” but don’t expect to ever see you again. The bell staff is great; most of them grew up on the island and offer good advice about everything ranging from where the waters will be calm on a given day to the best place to replace a watch battery. The “breakfast ladies” at the Bay Terrace each morning are true treasures. The beach staff is outstanding.
The top reason we keep coming back, besides the warm and friendly staff, is the "spirit of place" that Mauna Lani has—few other Hawaii resorts have the same sense of serenity and peace. The resort is situated in a very special location, where you can see 5 volcanoes—Kohala, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai, and Haleakela on Maui, across the channel. If you visit Mauna Lani, be sure to walk the path that winds among the fishponds in early morning or evening, listen to the birds, and absorb the peaceful—and to me, spiritual—ambiance of ponds that were built circa 500 AD.
We love just being at Mauna Lani. Walking along the shoreline and into the fish pond area in morning is magical. Birds are singing everywhere and, if the wind is calm, the ponds reflect a perfect “mirror world.” Just very, very special and a sense of place found nowhere else. I can be happy for hours in the afternoon, lying in my favorite hammock and watching the rainbows up in Kohala and the surfers north of the hotel. Mauna Lani has a distinct “spirit of place” and for us, it is the place on earth where we are happiest.
Mauna Lani is a quiet resort…not the place to come if you want to dress up or dance the night away on premises (for live dance music, try going up 20 minutes to the Blue Dragon in Kawaihae!). It is not a place where your kids can find lots of rowdy playmates. The children who come here are by and large sophisticated travelers that enjoy the ocean and don’t seem to pine for water slides. There is a children’s camp that features nature and Hawaiian cultural activities.
Mauna Lani has two beaches, both with salt-and-pepper sand and some rocks. If you are careful and look where you are going, you can walk into swimming depth water without water shoes. If you are prone to bounding in without looking, wear water shoes. The far beach, near the Beach Club and Boat House, is a 10-min walk or short (free) shuttle ride away. The sandy beach has vinyl lounge chairs and some cabana chairs, but little shade overall, so bring a hat and cover-up if you plan a long stay there. Snorkeling is superb here if the water is calm. The reef is extensive. Ask the beach staff where to go.
The inner lagoon right in front of the Mauna Lani has less spectacular, more subtle but rewarding, snorkeling. I head towards the buoy line (big fish there) and make my way counterclockwise around the rocks and inlets toward the seawall. Sometimes it’s shallow and backtracking is required to prevent touching anything, but that can be a bonus--this time I saw an enormous ulua, several huge parrotfish, and the usual big and small turtles. No matter how many times I go in here, I always find something to surprise me. The best time is on the waning high tide, because the water is clearer. There are numerous parrotfish and trigger fish in the lagoon and there usually are some big turtles swimming and eating seaweed on the rocks, as well as basking on the shore. Waters there are mostly always calm and suitable for children.
The lava-and-sand shoreline area in front of the hotel is extensive, with brand-new (as of 1-27-2010) hammocks and the classic blue cabana chairs, and there is a large, sandy water entry surrounding near the big black rock. If you look carefully at the bits of pumice in the sand and on the black rock, you will see bright green olivine crystals. Mauna Lani’s beach is typical of Big Island beaches in that it is somewhat narrow (for a wide beach go see Hapuna to the north or Mauna Kea beach with a beach pass.) The senior beach and pool manager, Ola, is extremely knowledgeable about local conditions and the surrounding waters—we follow his good advice and by being flexible in our plans (having water days and dry days to follow conditions), we always get several excellent days of shore snorkeling in the area.
A note on architecture and style: Mauna Lani has a Japanese-influenced, minimalist style, not all brass and marble—that’s the Orchid—or posh and glamorous—that’s the Four Seasons. The grounds and pond areas are well kept and extremely beautiful. The open-air lobby is spectacular in a “natural” way, with sweeping vistas. Some reviewers dislike what they consider the “dated” and “1980s” look of the hotel. It was indeed built in the early 1980s and the architect was the famous Killingsworth, who also did the former Kapalua Bay Hotel and what was the Kahala Hilton, as well as the Halekulani. The thing to bear in mind is that the hotel is designed so that you look OUT at the ocean and mountains, not inwards AT the hotel. And when you are on the beach, the hotel keeps a low profile and does not dominate the landscape.
A note on the hotel’s interior refreshing: During the closing in fall 2009, the roof was replaced, pool and Jacuzzi was retiled, some lobby furniture was replaced, and the Bay Terrace décor was changed somewhat (carpet, walls, lighting). In later January 2010 (during our stay) the rooms on the 6th floor were being refreshed. We saw one of the “refreshed” rooms. It looks very similar to the extant version, with some new art, new cushions and soft goods. The colors are still white walls, dark wood floors, soft green carpets and cushions. The intent, and effect, is to keep it Mauna Lani. It is NOT “21st century décor” or dark walls or anything resembling a W hotel, for example. Look at the guest photos. Mauna Lani is what it is: quietly elegant. Basking turtles on the shoreline, spirituality and serenity, no bling. If you want W-style décor (or bling, for that matter), I am not sure where on the Island of Hawaii you can find same. It’s Hawaii, not Paris or NYC or Scottsdale or Las Vegas.
We have already booked for January 2011.
I have added 2010 photos and kept the ones from prior years since they are still representative of the way things look.
- Reservation Options:
- TripAdvisor is proud to partner with Expedia, Booking.com, Preferred Hotels, Hotels.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire, TravelClick, Cancelon, Cheap Tickets, getaroom.com, Evoline ltd, HotelsClick and HotelQuickly so you can book your Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows reservations with confidence. We help millions of travelers each month to find the perfect hotel for both vacation and business trips, always with the best discounts and special offers.
- Also Known As:
- Mauna Lani Bay Hotel And Bungalows
- Mauna Lani Bay Resort
- Mauna Lani Resort