Best Beach on the Big Island: A Review of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

May 5, 2019

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To The Point

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel captures the low-key vibe of the Big Island of Hawaii with unpretentious luxury grounded in history and tradition. Its varied offerings are a fit both for family travelers as well as couples. Pros: World-class beach, wide variety of on-site dining and activity choices, friendly service. Cons: Pricey, small pool, a bit distant from other Big Island activities.

As a traveler who loves a hotel with history, I’ve had the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on Hawaii’s Big Island on my bucket list for quite a long time. Founded by Laurance Rockefeller as one of his original RockResorts, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel certainly has history. For over 50 years, the property has set the luxury-resort standard on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. Of course, ownership and management have changed many times over the decades.

I went with my family for a weeklong visit to see whether the resort had stood the test of time and whether it would be as good a fit for travelers with kids as I knew it was for couples.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Hotel Entrance

Booking

In 2015, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel joined the Marriott Rewards program as a Marriott Autograph Collection property. It’s a Marriott Category 6 hotel, so free nights will cost you 50,000 Bonvoy points apiece, and once peak/off-peak pricing is implemented, anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 per night.

Cash prices vary considerably with the usual ebbs and flows of Hawaii’s high and low seasons. Standard golf-view rooms are sometimes available from $400 to $450 per night during lower demand times. Rooms with water views are regularly $550 to $700 or more. Surprisingly, the hotel does not charge a resort fee.

Because I was visiting the hotel to attend a family wedding, I was able to take advantage of a reasonable, negotiated wedding rate instead of burning through my Marriott points. This was an especially lucky break, as I would not have been able to book the room type my family needed with a points-only reservation even if I had wanted to do so. Standard rooms at the hotel have either one king or two double beds, which would have been a tight squeeze for a family of four for a full week. The hotel often makes higher-category rooms with two queen beds available for cash and points, but the combination is rarely a good value.

We charged our entire stay to our Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Credit Card, earning 6 points per dollar spent. (Card no longer available)

Location

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Hotel Sign

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a 30-to-40-minute drive from Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keāhole (KOA) on Hawaii’s Big Island, about 10 minutes north beyond the hustle and bustle of Waikoloa Village. In fact, it is the last major resort along the famed Kohala Coast.

The location makes it a tad less convenient for visitors who want to spend time exploring the city and offerings of Kailua-Kona. Of course, many guests are looking precisely for the serenity of a less busy destination. The more northern location also makes the hotel closer to some Big Island eco-adventure activities on the north coast.

I highly recommend renting a car when visiting the Big Island. Car rentals are often cheap and always easy at Kona Airport. Traffic on the island is nearly nonexistent. A car affords you the freedom to explore activities outside the resort.

Check-in

My children and I arrived on an early-morning flight from Oakland, California (OAK), to KOA. After picking up our rental car and making a pit stop at Costco in Kailua-Kona, we drove up the Kohala Coast to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. We pulled into the property at about 12:30pm.

Staff was friendly and immediately jumped to assist, especially after seeing that I was a mom traveling solo with two kids (my husband joined us a few days later). While the bellman unloaded our bags from the car, my kids and I were whisked into the hotel’s open-air lobby, situated on a small bluff that overlooked the beach a few levels below. We were seated at a check-in desk, where a front desk agent brought us POG juice (made from passion fruit, oranges and guava) to drink while we completed the check-in process. We also received fresh leis.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Review - Open Air Lobby
Open air lobby at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Luckily, our room was ready early. I first opted to self-park our car, as the parking lot was close. I prefer the freedom to come and go without waiting on valet. There was only a small price difference between the parking options: $20 per day to self-park versus $25 per day to valet.

Room

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was made up of two sections: the original tower and the newer beachfront wing. My family booked a room in the beachfront wing, as that was the only location in the hotel that offered two queen beds. Rooms in the tower were either two doubles or a king.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Review - Koi Ponds in Tower
Koi ponds in the tower section of the hotel on the walk to the beachfront wing.

The beachfront wing required a bit of a walk from the lobby of the hotel, which did get a bit old by the end of our week’s stay with young kids. This walk also exposed a very few dated remnants of the historic hotel, like the aging and abandoned original tennis courts. But the dated bits were few and far between for a hotel of this vintage.

We arrived at our room to find that it was spacious and mostly very modern. While I normally prefer our family of four to stay in condo-like accommodations on longer trips, the room ultimately worked well.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Beachfront Two Queen Room
Two-queen beachfront room at the Mauna Kea.

The two queen beds were separated by a small nightstand with a few outlets. Both beds had benches at the foot where our kids inevitably threw their laundry all week long. Across from the beds was a large desk and shelving unit with the flat-screen TV — but no drawers. As a family staying for a full week, we definitely felt the lack of drawer space in the room.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Room Desk
Desk and TV area.

Against the side wall was a small bar area with three drawers beneath. The bar area was one of the few places where we thought the room looked a bit dated. But it was well-stocked, with a coffee maker, tea and coffee, glassware and a very small mini-fridge. Housekeeping dropped off multiple complimentary bottled waters daily.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Room bar
Mauna Kea room bar with mini-fridge.

The bathroom had two sinks and ample counter space and was always well-stocked with towels. The room’s closet was in the bathroom, with robes, an ironing board, a safe and a tiny additional drawer unit.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Bathroom Vanity
Double vanities in the bathroom.

The bathroom had both a shower and large soaking tub adjacent to one another behind a single glass door. At first, I thought the setup was a bit strange. But later that evening, when I was trying to clean up two sandy kids from an afternoon at the beach, I realized how ingenious the bathroom layout was. I was able to throw the kids in the tub while taking a shower myself. We didn’t track the beach all over our hotel room, which we would have done if we otherwise had to take turns.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Bathroom Tub and Shower
A peek at the shower/tub combo and bathroom closet.

Our other favorite feature was the room’s large lanai overlooking the beach. We drank our morning coffee and ate breakfast as a family nearly every morning there.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Review - Beach Lawn View from Lanai
Beach view from our lanai in the beachfront wing.

Food and Beverage

Before discussing the food at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, I have to start with the drinks. Hawaii is known for its mai tais, and my husband and I certainly had a few. But at the Mauna Kea, mai tais take a back seat to the resort’s signature drink, the Fredrico. This concoction starts with a fruity rum base, adds Jack Daniels to take out some of the syrupy sweetness and is then blended with ice. Not being a whiskey lover, I was a skeptic. I left a convert. Don’t leave the resort without trying one, preferably at sunset at the beach bar.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Fredrico
The famed Fredrico matches the resort’s signature orange flower logo.

Over the course of the week, we dined at every restaurant on the property, with the exception of the venue on the golf course, Number 3, which is only open for lunch. With kids, we ate most often at the beach restaurant, Hau Tree. The menu featured foods like poke bowls, burgers, salads and fish tacos. We especially appreciated the reasonably priced kids menu and appetizers when we just wanted a quick bite.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Hau Tree Lunch
Lunch at Hau Tree on the beach.

The only downside was that my 9-year-old quickly discovered she could order here and charge to our room when I wasn’t paying attention. At least she learned the important life lesson of how to calculate tips from her stealthiness.

Copper Bar was the hotel’s mid-range restaurant and had an open-air location one level below the lobby and overlooking the beach. A Hawaiian musician and a hula dancer performed most evenings. The menu included extensive sushi choices, flatbreads and the usual seafood and steaks. Prices were not shocking by Hawaiian standards. In fact, I found children’s menu quite reasonable given the volume of food served.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Copper Bar
Copper Bar restaurant.

The only dining disappointment during our stay was at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Manta. We had looked forward to a visit all week for its famed weekend brunch. The morning view — overlooking the waves crashing onto the black rocks below the hotel — was nothing short of magnificent. But the service was very much on island time. Other than my husband’s Japanese bento breakfast, the food didn’t justify the price.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Manta Restaurant
Fancy dining at Manta.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Manta Japanese Breakfast Bento
Japanese breakfast bento at Manta weekend brunch.

The hotel also had a small marketplace and convenience store not far from the central lobby. For guests not wanting to make a major grocery run to Costco or any of the larger local grocery stores in Waikoloa Village, this shop got the job done. There were snacks aplenty, cereal, beer and wine, and grab-and-go items. They also advertised breakfast sandwiches, but were completely sold out on the morning I went to purchase one.

Amenities

The major reason for any traveler — families, couples or singles — to book a stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is the beach. Kauna’oa Bay is consistently ranked one of the best beaches on the Big Island. (It’s a close call between this beach and Hapuna Beach in front of its sister property, the Westin Hapuna next door.) We found the white sand pristine, and the waves were usually perfect for wading and swimming.

Hawaii Big Island with Kids - Mauna Kea Beach from Above
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s magnificent white sand beach.

Beach chairs were complimentary — a rarity at many Hawaii beachfront hotels. There was no one to bribe for the best location. Early birds were, of course, rewarded with the prime waterfront locations. Guests simply requested beach towels and chair covers from staff at the beach hut and set up for the day.

Hawaii Big Island with Kids - Mauna Kea Beach
Beach chairs at sunset.

Because the beach is so amazing, the pool is not as much of a focus at the Mauna Kea. Families might find it a bit lacking, since it’s just a simple circle with no waterslides or splash pads. My kids enjoyed their quick dips but were always begging instead to go to the beach. As a result, couples can probably find a bit of serenity by the pool, since it’s not overrun with children.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Pool
Mauna Kea’s pool.

My kids did go to the resort’s Keiki Club one morning, designed for kids ages 5 to 12. If you’re expecting a kids club like those at Disney’s Aulani or the Hyatt Ziva Cancun, you will surely be disappointed. It was expensive — $75 per child for a half day and $125 for a full day. Since we were visiting during a low season for families, my children were the only kids enrolled, so they didn’t connect with playmates. The employees running the program were lovely, but the entire setup felt a bit like an afterthought. This seemed consistent with the fact that the resort works for families but isn’t one marketing exclusively to them.

For other active pursuits, the hotel had a championship golf course like many resorts on this side of the Big Island, as well as 11 well-maintained tennis courts at the highly ranked Seaside Tennis Club. There was a complete fitness center and a spa that we didn’t try. Early-morning yoga classes on the beach lawn were de rigueur.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Review - Tennis Courts
Tennis courts with a view.

The resort also hosted a luau twice a week. It was one of the pricier luau options on the Big Island but also tastefully presented with quality food. Reserve in advance of your trip for busier times of year, as it does regularly sell out.

Finally, don’t miss the resort’s resident manta rays. The rays come in to feed nightly along the bluffs, thanks to the hotel’s bright lights. Guests can watch from above or book a night snorkel adventure to get in the water with them.

Overall Impression

My family found that the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel stood the test of time and was thriving after a half century of operation. The resort caters well to families who perhaps don’t want to make the vacation just about the kids. It probably caters even better to couples looking for a luxurious but unpretentious getaway with a touch of old-school Hawaii service and history.

Are you planning a trip to Hawaii with your family? Here are more resources:

 

All photos by the author.

Featured photo courtesy of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

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