The short stretch of road from Kona’s small airport to the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows bodes well: not a roadside billboard in sight – just massive open stretches of lush grassland leading down from Mauna Loa Mountain, on which you can just make out the legendary Hubble Telescope glinting in the sun. As we sped along the lava flanked road, my husband informed me that The Big Island is where Iron Man Takes place, and that in just a few months these superhuman men and women will be attempting what I can only imagine in another lifetime, however, I cannot imagine a more pristine environment to test your physicality to its limits. The Big Island is truly one of the cleanest places on the planet.
The Big Island is known as the “agricultural” island because it boasts 11 micro climates, which makes it possible to grow just about anything. Clean air, food, and water are hard to find in this day and age, however, Hawaii, and particularly the big island gets pretty much as close to nature as is humanly possible. This is why it’s my favorite island. If you’re after bars, nightclubs, water slides and cocktail action around a busy swimming pool, this might not be the right island for you. There is a law against building anything beyond 6 stores, and the building codes are so strict that unless a new development centers its mission on being entirely respectful of the environment, they won’t be allowed to proceed. The inhabitants of The Big Island are not only proud of their land, but they are invested doing whatever it takes to preserve it. This is so uplifting to me because I am used to checking out hotels and restaurants that are having a hard time to stay true to their original model of sustainability. Many resorts have a “green” initiative, but when I get to visit and dig around a bit that I start to see which ones are really walking the walk.
The Mauna Lani is the perfect resort for those of us who want to get as close to the Earth as we can, without having to stay in a Rainforest Yurt! You get the best of both worlds at the Mauna Lani: a kind of old-fashioned Hawaiian charm, mixed with all the creature comforts you could possibly need. Mauna Lani doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not – it’s not an ultra-hip spot, where each sunbathing station around the pool will have an MP3 player attachment. I loathe these kinds of resorts where everyone sits around the pool in fancy swimsuits plugged into a device of some kind, and nannies haul off screaming kids, while Dads escape to the golf course for a minute of peace. Nothing wrong with any of this, but if you want to be plucked out of the tedium and noise of daily life, and yet stay vaguely connected, this is the resort for you. I must add that I find it less stressful to have free wifi (which the Mauna Lani offers,) because I know that it will take me all of 15 minutes to check in with the office in the comfort of my room, and then I’m done for the rest of the day. I’ve been to resorts where you practically have to hike over a mountain to get to an Internet café, and this can make it impossible for those of us who cannot take more than a few days off.
The giant lobby of the Mauna Lani is completely open-air, and has small rivers and ponds dotted through tropical ferns and lilies. Yes – that’s what is so appealing about this resort: it’s so open. Once in our room, we threw open the shutters, and the warm ocean breeze almost knocked us over. We collapsed on our couch and tucked into the complimentary platter of sweet pineapple that has been set out for us. Although some of the rooms are in need of a bit of an update (which they have already started doing,) our room couldn’t have been more comfortable, and it was absolutely pristine. The first thing I do in a hotel, is check out the bathroom to see what’s going on in there – is it actually a bath I would soak in? What kind of dinky little shampoos and conditioners are in the woven basket by the sink? Well, the Mauna Lani checked all my “excellent” boxes – they even had a high-powered hair dryer, which if your hair turns into a bad perm because of the humidity (mine certainly does,) – you’ll be grateful you didn’t have to haul your salon-strength dryer with you. It’s the little things, ladies!
A cool breeze floats through the entire resort because the design is completely open. All the rooms face out towards the ocean, so you never feel that you’re in a mid-large resort. Standing on your balcony, you can’t see anyone else, which is lovely because all you are aware of, is the crashing ocean and swaying palms. Breakfast is taken in the large open-air restaurant overlooking the gardens. We ate homemade oatmeal and platters of tropical fruit as watched tiny yellow Canaries chasing each other on the lawn. A typical resort-style breakfast buffet is served every morning, and you can take your pick from with a full buffet, or a continental. However, if you don’t feel like a proper breakfast, you can pop into the newly appointed coffee shop across the hall. Worry not – this is not your regular Starbucks franchise – it is owned by a local, organic coffee company called Mountain Thunder, who grows some of the best coffee beans I’ve ever tasted. You can sit under huge fans on lazy rattan couches, sipping your latte as you watch the turtles that are being nurtured in the beautiful pond outside.
Hmm – to what to do after a morning beachside stroll, and a bit of gentle yoga on the grass overlooking the beach? Being on The Big Island, there’s a host of exciting adventures to choose from, and since I’d promised my husband that I would get out of comfort zone on this trip, we got ourselves signed up for zip-lining and scuba diving. My husband is a dive master – one of his greatest passions is to explore the undersea world for as long as possible, and he’s always begging me to accompany him – but I don’t love the idea of it. I tried it on our honeymoon almost 14 years ago, and kind of liked it, but it still freaked me out. So, this time I was determined to get over myself. Anyway, zip-ling was first on the list.
We hired a car, which couldn’t have been easier because they had it waiting for us right outside the hotel, and took off up towards the north east of the island. The south eastern side of the island is where the sun always shines, however travel to Hilo on the western side of The Big Island, and you’ll need your umbrella! It was a beautiful drive up across mountains – it actually reminded me a lot of parts of Scotland. We’d heard that the Umauma Experience was the best on the island because of the incredible waterfalls that you get to zip over, so we headed up into the rainforest to find them. I thought I would be terrified, but the guys who hook you into your harness and onto the wire were so fantastic and thorough that I totally relaxed after the first zip – and yes, it was both thrilling and beautiful. Next time we’ll do the zip and dip, which is where you do the whole zip line course of about 8 lines, and then you get to hike down with a picnic into the valley below and bath in the icy, yet pristine waterfall pools.
Next day it was diving – but I have to say that is was the best experience ever because the dive shop on the beach in the Mauna Lani bay couldn’t have been better. Steve, lovely man with a gentle, yet assuring manner, taught a small group of us (3 total), the basics of diving. We had to take a little test and then it was straight into the ocean. I much preferred this to some resorts where they start you off in the pool. Steve didn’t baby us – he taught us so thoroughly that by the time we sank under, we knew exactly what do. Although I was just a few feet below the surface of the water, I was able to enjoy exploring the coral reefs in a way that you just can’t appreciate when you are snorkeling. This has whetted my appetite for more.
After action-packed days, my husband and I sank together into one of the lazy hammocks strung between palms on the water’s edge. We read, took naps and drank in paradise. There’s something about the velvety breeze in Hawaii that helps to create space between your thoughts. Everything slows down, and days seem to stretch out into real time where you fully experience every part of the changing day. Instead of staring into our screens, we stared into at the ocean, the sky, and all the beautiful, natural colors that this island yields.
If you want to take it a little more easy and stay within the resort itself, you can snorkel, paddle board (which I found I was rather good at!), grab a bicycle, play tennis, or head over to their excellent spa where you will find a variety of organic and eco-friendly treats. There is even a brilliant gym, which offers spinning and all kinds of classes, but I can promise you that you’ll want to be outside for as much time as you possibly can.
After a day of action and adventure, we were absolutely starving. 6.30pm is the perfect time to head down to The Canoe House Restaurant, which is the best restaurant on the island. Where some resort restaurants can be a little disappointing, The Canoe House will blow you away! Chef Allen Hess is the outspoken, rock & roll chef of The Big Island, and his cuisine is something you won’t forget. Allen is right up my street because he is a truly sustainable chef. Nowadays, so many restaurants pay lip service to the concept of local/sustainable/organic food – but Chef Allen takes the whole thing to a different level: He wouldn’t dream of using food that wasn’t local, and when he says “local” he’s talking about honey and goat cheese that’s produced by friends and farmers just ¼ of a mile away. Chef Allen has a story behind every single ingredient he uses because he has a personal relationship with all of his producers. I can only say that in the hands of Chef Allen Hess, some of the freshest foods on Earth are transformed into unforgettable dishes. We enjoyed some of the most delicious fish we’ve ever eaten, and what made it sweeter was that most of it comes from a sustainable aquaculture facility just a few miles away. This facility is The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii (NELHA), which harnesses warm and cold seawater for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. Seafood entrepreneurs at NELHA offer a huge variety of seafood, including: Abalone, Lobster, shellfish, and my favorite – Hawaiian Kampachi, which is similar to the finest yellow tail sushi you’ve ever tasted. One of my favorite dishes that Chef Hess created was a Seafood Bowl, where shellfish (mussels, clams, shrimp and lobster,) were simmered into a light wine and basil broth, then poured over a mound of wild, nutty rice, with chunks of poached Kampachi. My husband’s favorite was the Macadamia Crusted Hamachi, which was both buttery, and nutty.
Chef Hess is masterful and creating complex flavors by way of combining spices and sauces from both the Philippines and Mexico. Each dish brings a surprise burst of flavor that you can’t quite pinpoint, but is so good that it brings tears to your eyes.
As if this outstanding culinary experience wasn’t enough, you dine whilst staring at a sunset, which absolutely takes your breath away – no wonder a couple at the table next to us had picked this spot to renew their wedding vows. Oh, and before I’ve done waxing lyrical about The Canoe House, I just have to mention one of the desserts. According to Chef Hess, it’s a sort of deconstructed Kit-Kat bar, but really Chef Hess – come on… this is insane!
The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows is truly the Duchess of the island. It’s been here for over 3 decades and invites guests to enjoy real Hawaii in its full glory. Many of the staff members have been at the hotel from its inception, so they are proud – and it shows. Every manager and staff member that I chatted to, had one thing in common: They love their island, and taking care of this piece of beautiful land is something that carries a top priority rating for them. They know that much of the mainland has been ruined, and they won’t let it happen to one of the few places left on Earth that you can still really call “Paradise”.
The beauty of Hawaii is that you can visit at any time of the year and enjoy the perfect climate. However, take advantage of the quieter seasons at the Mauna Lani Bay Resort because you’ll likely to find yourself an amazing deal. If you do decide to go in high season, the great thing about this resort is that it never feels crowded. Unlike some resorts where you’ll find all the guests around the pool or on a small beach, the Mauna Lani has an entire bay for guests to wonder around, with two beautiful beaches, ancient fish ponds, hiking trails, and a spectacular golf course – so if you want to let the kids run wild and have a little independence checking out tide pools and lazy turtles scattered along the beach, you totally can.
Ultimately, a great family vacation is where this is something for everyone. If you want loud music, water slides and nightclubs, this obviously isn’t the resort for you – The Big Island is peaceful – they mercifully don’t allow jet skis or motorboats in the bay. But if you want to luxuriate in a glorious natural environment, where the kids will actually want to get off their devices, while you go and do the things that make your heart sing – this may be THE vacation spot for you.