50 years: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast celebrates great golf and a fine resort

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- It was the white sand in a crescent-shaped cove that attracted Laurance S. Rockefeller to the Kauna'oa Beach in his quest in 1960 to build a grand resort on Hawaii's Big Island.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Kohala Coast
The scenic Kohala Coast setting causes guests to fall for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Kohala CoastMauna Kea Golf Course - 11thMauna Kea Golf Course - hole 3Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
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Rockefeller asked if his helicopter could land, so he could go for a swim. Looking up at the looming summit of Mauna Kea inspired him to build a vacation paradise in that very spot. At the time, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was the most expensive resort ever built, completed for $15 million in 1965.

Fifty years later, this same scenic setting still causes guests to fall for Mauna Kea.

The 252-room hotel looks brand new all over again thanks to a multi-million dollar renovation of its rooms and suites in its beachfront wing. The rest of the resort experienced a $150 million rebirth in 2008 following a two-year-closure after an earthquake.

The grand celebration of Mauna Kea's golden anniversary took place July 24, 2015 -- 50 years to the day of the hotel's opening. Throughout the year, resort staff are giving back to the community through charitable acts called "50 Acts of Aloha." The yearlong celebration is appropriately themed, "What was, is."

Mauna Kea Golf Course

The resort moved its traditional summer pro-am to December in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mauna Kea Golf Course, its stunning Robert Trent Jones Sr. design.

Rees Jones, who restored the course in 2008, and golf personality Mark Rolfing acted as celebrity hosts at the pro-am banquet, telling stories and answering questions about one of Hawaii's greatest golf treasures. They shared the tale of golf's Big Three -- Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player -- who played together during the course's official grand opening Dec. 8, 1964. As the story goes, Nicklaus wanted to play from the tips at the third hole, an epic par 3 requiring a 260-plus yard carry to the green perched on a rocky cliff above the ocean. Nicklaus knew the diminutive Player would have trouble clearing the cove. Even with today's high-flying equipment, it takes a once-in-a-lifetime swing to make it safely across.

The shot is indicative of the challenges of Mauna Kea, arguably the toughest Big Island golf course. Deep, imposing bunkers ring almost every green. A number of severely elevated greens make matters even more difficult. Its four par 3s, headlined by the third and 11th holes right on the ocean, rank among the best collections in golf.

Mauna Kea: The resort

Away from the beach and the golf, Mauna Kea's dining scene might be its best asset. The Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar serves a great breakfast buffet as the sun comes up. When darkness falls, it becomes a romantic retreat with an extensive wine program. After the meal, guests can wander down to the shore to see if the mantas have gathered to feed on the plankton attracted by the lights.

The new Number 3 restaurant at the golf clubhouse provides a casual meal after a round. Hau Tree serves snacks and lunch for patrons right on the beach. A twice weekly luau, traditional Sunday brunch and clambake on the beach are special events regularly on the schedule.

The Mauna Kea Spa by Mandara and the 2,500-square-foot fitness center have been recently enhanced. Even a day at the beach feels upgraded with new services, activities and equipment. Cultural classes include lei-making, hula dancing, crafts and Hawaiian music. A seaside tennis club sports 11 courts.

The fascinating Asian/Pacific art collection that decorates the hotel's public spaces features more than 1,600 pieces gathered by Rockefeller and Davis Allen in 1965. They accentuate the timeless elegance of Mauna Kea. The world might move at light-speed these days, but life tends to slows down at the resort.

Go to the beach. Hit the spa. Sip a cocktail at the pool. Play golf along the Pacific. Relax, people. Mauna Kea practically demands it.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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