Big Island: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Volcano House tell two stories

LA Times | Travel

Video: Six must-see spots on the Big Island The best arguments for visiting Hawaii's Big Island have always been elemental -- fiery volcanoes, trade winds raking black-lava badlands, jungle waterfalls draining down to beaches of many colors, rainbows as common as foreclosures in Califo...

By Christopher Reynolds // 04.24.09

Video: Six must-see spots on the Big Island

The best arguments for visiting Hawaii's Big Island have always been elemental -- fiery volcanoes, trade winds raking black-lava badlands, jungle waterfalls draining down to beaches of many colors, rainbows as common as foreclosures in California's high desert.

But this year there's also a new chapter in the tale of two remarkable hotels.

One, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, sprawls with 258 rooms on a perfect crescent beach at the northwestern end of the island. The other, Volcano House, sits with 42 rooms on the lip of the steaming Kilauea Caldera, 4,000 feet above the island's southeastern coast.

One was dreamed up in the 1960s by a Rockefeller with Asia on the brain. The other calls itself Hawaii's oldest hotel and counts Mark Twain among its customers.

One costs a fortune and just turned over a shiny new leaf. The other costs less, but still too much.

And both stand next to such natural wonders that even if you sleep elsewhere, it's worthwhile to stop by.

Mauna Kea

In early April, my family spent nights at both places and traced a four-day, 220-mile loop around the island. There were three in our rental car -- my wife, Mary Frances; our 4-year-old daughter, Grace; and me. About 27 miles from the Kona airport, along the resort corridor of the Kohala Coast, we found the spot where the late Laurance Rockefeller bravely plopped the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

It opened in 1965, startlingly sited at a white-sand beach just below miles of desolate black-lava slopes. The main building is sand-colored and blah at a distant first glance, like an eight-story shoe box forgotten between the beach and the resort's formidable championship golf course. But wait until you get up close and see the open-air lobby and atria, the scattered pieces of Asian art, the beach views.

Rockefeller wanted to merge East and West here, along with indoors and outdoors, and chose an orange plumeria logo that pops nicely against the turquoise water. About 1,600 Asian sculptures and textiles are peppered around the property. If you were rich in the '60s, this was the place to be.

Affluent families from all over made it an annual destination and clung to it and its customs (the nightly conch call to dinner, the Saturday clambake) even as its '60s flourishes aged and faded. In 2006, when the American Institute of Architects surveyed Americans on their favorite 150 buildings in the country, the Mauna Kea ranked 55th.

About the time those votes were being cast, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake jolted the hotel into closure. The owners decided to keep the Mauna Kea's exterior, but the repair job grew into a $150-million modernization and lasted more than two years as workers enlarged dozens of rooms, reducing the count from 310 to 258.

Then came the recession. And then in March came the hotel's formal reopening, with brochure rates of $450 to $1,000 nightly. Ouch.

We arrived just a few weeks after that. Sparkling setting. Gracious staff. About 70% full. The old Pavilion restaurant, where most guests have breakfast and casual dinners, is now the Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar. The fancy restaurant, formerly Batik, is now Monette's. You'll find a spa and fitness center, 11 tennis courts, a new golf clubhouse and restaurant. The conch is again blown nightly, tiki torches are lighted and clambakes have resumed.

The beach itself (officially, it's Kaunaoa Beach) is a glorious quarter-mile, reef-protected and palm-fringed, ideal for wading and bodysurfing. After dark, the hotel plays spotlights on manta rays lingering in the shallows.

Traveling unannounced, I had booked the cheapest room (a 400-square-foot mountain-view unit for $409). But the clerk immediately upgraded us to a deluxe seventh-floor ocean-view room (brochure price: $850). Assuming I'd somehow been detected as a travel writer despite my efforts to travel incognito, I tried to turn down the upgrade. The clerk said that it was not possible.

What? A few phone calls later (to the general manager's office and elsewhere) revealed that the upgrade had nothing to do with my job. Eager to keep the place full, management had been overselling the most affordable units, then upgrading guests as needed into costlier units.

So we took the fancy room: 615 square feet, big balcony, beach view, nifty flat-screen media console wall, walk-in closet, massive bathroom with its own balcony. When I walked through a mountain-view unit the next day, I found the same cool orange-and-white color scheme, the same nifty media console and another generous balcony, but a smaller bathroom and no walk-in closet.

For those who don't want to spend $400 a night for a room, remember that the beach at the Mauna Kea is public. The hotel is required to maintain 40 parking spaces for non-guests, so if you arrive by 9 a.m., you can probably share the uncrowded sand with guests of the Mauna Kea and its sister hotel, the Hapuna Beach Prince.

If the Mauna Kea parking spots are full, Hapuna Beach State Park, about a mile south, has ample parking and is often listed among the best U.S. beaches. But brace yourself for crowds and crumbling concrete picnic tables.

The Mauna Kea is not paradise. Though the food was good, those gracious servers at Manta had to apologize a few times during a long wait for my seared ahi dinner and then again as we waited for lunch at the Hau Tree cafe the next day. We showed up at 2 p.m., waited 20 minutes to be seated and 30 more minutes for our simple orders to arrive. When you're traveling with a 4-year-old and paying $25 per waking hour for your stay, this does not go down easily.

But it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. If the Mauna Kea people can get so many other things right, they can solve their kitchen-service issues. And the beach cannot be improved.

Volcano House

If only the second half of this hotel tale were as simple. For that, we head to the southeastern end of the island and climb to 4,000 feet above sea level, where you'll be glad you brought your sweater. This is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea smolders and the Volcano House struggles.

First, you'll want to see the volcano, erupting since 1983. The easy way is to look at Kilauea's fuming Halemaumau Crater from the rim-top Jaggar Museum or to drive down Chain of Craters Road for a view of rising plumes as lava spills into the sea.

The hard way, if you want the closest view of that lava striking the sea, is about an hour's drive from the park entrance to a viewing area at the end of Hawaii Highway 130 near Kalapana. You'll need to arrive between 5 and 8 p.m. and leave by 10 p.m. (This area, outside of the park, is controlled by Hawaii County.)

We compromised. A couple of miles down Crater Rim Drive from the park entrance and Volcano House, you can stroll a few hundred feet through the Thurston Lava Tube, then pick up the Kilauea Iki trail, a 4-mile loop that drops 400 feet to the caldera floor.

This gave us an exhilarating chance to creep across hard black lava like ants in a soup bowl, drawing near -- but not too near -- the steaming vents. Since March 2008, heightened sulfur dioxide levels near the rim have closed down a 4-mile stretch of Crater Rim Drive. But since a brief closure in April 2008, the hotel and most visitors have been unaffected.

The Volcano House, perched on the crater rim, is mostly a 1941 building, two stories, wooden siding painted red, with black-rock columns and retaining walls. But the enterprise dates to the mid-19th century, when early entrepreneurs put up a grass shack. By June 1866, when Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) came along on horseback, there were four rooms and the going rate was $4 a night.

Clemens stayed several days and filed a story for the Sacramento Daily Union, noting that "the surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did."

The Volcano House grew. By 1935, a "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" cartoon was reporting that the lobby's stone fireplace had been blazing unabated for 61 years. Then in 1940, a kitchen fire ignited the building.

If the official story is to be believed, firefighters doused the building fire, but somebody saved burning embers from the fireplace, carried them elsewhere for safekeeping while the staff rebuilt, then returned them in 1941.

I want to believe it. The night of our arrival, we carried a bedtime book to the pair of fireside koa wood rockers, read Grace a story in the glow of the supposedly everlasting embers, and I tried mightily to visualize that fire crew, knocking down flames on one side, protecting them on the other.

That might have been our hotel high point. The Volcano House's rooms, art, furnishings, restaurant and bar are inescapably humdrum. Service was alternately cheery and abrupt, with one desk clerk verging on outright hostility when I merely asked about a trail.

In the end, view notwithstanding, we regretted paying $205 for a rim-view room.

The hotel management company reached the end of its 20-year concession contract in December. Though Hilo-based Ken Direction Corp. will continue to run the hotel through 2009, the company this summer will have to bid against rivals for the chance to run the hotel. By the end of 2009, park officials expect to hand the winner a new set of marching orders.

"The Volcano House is ready for a good face-lift," said Cindy Orlando, superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. "We've been a little dismayed with some of the on-site management. . . . We want to restore the grandeur." (Ken Direction execs did not return a call seeking comment.)

Until that grandeur reappears, I suggest a therapeutic walk to the neighboring Volcano Art Center. From 1877 to 1921, this wooden building was the Volcano House, but the structure and its exposed ohia wood beams were shouldered aside in the expansion. In fact, its brick fireplace is where the supposedly everlasting embers spent their hiatus.

After years of idleness, the old building was rescued and restored in the 1970s. Now it thrives as a gallery, bright with paintings, photos, jewelry and carvings. We made it our last stop in the park, then headed back outside to chase more rainbows.