For over a century, travelers have flocked to Hawaii for luxury vacations, but it took until 1965 for similarly upscale lodgings to take root on the Big Island, thanks to the vision of Laurence Rockefeller. He saw potential in the sprawling lava fields and white sand beaches of the sunny Kohala Coast, creating the iconic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and its equally renowned golf course. Today, most luxury accommodations on the island of Hawai‘i Island are still in South Kohala or North Kona, green oases bracketed by black lava. Here are our favorites, heading north to south:
TIP: Most hotels have 4 pm check-in. Ask for an early check-in.
If they can’t accommodate, they will let you store your bags so you can head to the beach!
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
- Spacious rooms with large baths and closets sport a Japanese-inspired aesthetic, with natural wood and lots of the hotel’s signature orange. Take advantage of the free beach services, from lounge chairs to stand-up paddle boards. Don’t miss sunset hula and cocktails at the Copper Bar, or dinner at Manta restaurant, named for the graceful manta rays that can be observed below it at night.
Mauna Lani, an Auberge Resort
Until this year, few people have had a chance to experience Auberge Resorts’ stunning transformation of the former Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. Two beautiful new pools — one just for adults — plus a sandy-entry one for kids beckon next to a beach renowned for sea turtle sightings; Rooms have an understated but chic decor, while the soaring lobby spaces have become inviting, open-air living rooms infused with tropical greenery.
There’s a spa and fitness room with first-rate equipment on site, but guests also have access to the Mauna Lani’s stand-alone fitness center with large lap pool and tennis courts a short drive away. Dinner at sunset or under the stars at open-air, oceanfront CanoeHouse is memorable for its artful menu as well as ambiance; poolside HaLani and Ha Bar and Grill also provide delicious dining.
- Don’t miss one of the frequent cultural experiences offered by the resort’s revered expert, Danny Akaka Jr., who also supervises the long-running monthly concert and storytelling series (virtual during the pandemic era) amid the resort’s historic, oceanfront fish ponds. A rare outpost of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop retail collection stands next to the Market, an excellent gift shop, deli and cafe. Golfers have their choice of two engagingly scenic courses.
One of two hotels on the Mauna Lani Resort, the Fairmont Orchid lies on the northern edge, next to one of Hawaii’s largest collection of petroglyphs and 500 acres of kiawe (mesquite) trees, which help produce the hotel’s signature honey. Also sweet to experience are the Spa Without Walls, a series of open-air cottages tucked into terraced gardens with waterfalls; a large oceanfront pool and, nearly hidden by tropical foliage, a roomy hot tub; and some of Kohala Coast’s best dining and drinking.
Numerous water activities, a top-tier tennis complex and onsite luau will keep you busy, but the Shops at Mauna Lani are a short hop away for more distractions. Book a room with Fairmont Gold club lounge access for special pampering, including gourmet nibbles and drinks at breakfast and happy hour and dedicated concierge service.
- The upscale, open-air Brown’s Beach House overlooks the Fairmont’s sandy swimming cove, while the casual, thatched-roof Hale Kai sits on the shoreline next to the pool; both make full use of the Big Island’s bountiful seafood, beef and produce. Expected to reopen after the pandemic ebbs are the lively Luana Lounge, perfect for sunset cocktails, and equally vibrant Binchotan, a Japanese-themed bar and grill named for its specially sourced charcoal.
Lava Lava Beach Club
These four one-bedroom cottages share owners, a name and a sandy stretch of lovely ‘Anaeho’omalu Bay with the lively Lava Lava Beach Club restaurant. They also share its casual-chic, beach bungalow vibe, with a bright palette and comfy, island-inspired artwork and furnishings, including an oversized Hawaiian-style day bed and koa wood ukulele in the living room and a large rock-walled outdoor shower as well as a roomy modern bathroom.
The beach is public, but early risers and moonlight walkers will often find privacy, except for the company of basking sea turtles. Live Hawaiian and pop music will waft over most evenings from the restaurant, so this is a good choice for guests who like a little nightlife with their romance.
- Complimentary bikes and stand-up paddle boards are at the ready for you to explore the resort or the bay, while lunch and dinner at the restaurant with your toes in the sand make restoring your energy easy and delicious. Sunsets are gorgeous here, especially accompanied by a cocktail on your private lanai.
Four Seasons Hualalai
- Ground-floor rooms boast large, outdoor showers with lava rock walls and tropical foliage. Snorkeling amid rays and tropical fish inthe saltwater-fed, carefully monitored King’s Pond is a magical experience, which you can now extend by basking in the new infinity-edge pool next to it. Learn more at an interactive educational session held in the new Kumu Kai Marine Center, also adjacent to the pond. Golfers will want to hone their game using the virtual technology in a new 3,000-square foot instruction facility that also doubles as a family lounge and group entertainment venue.
The only bed-and-breakfast to make this list of the Big Island’s most luxurious hotels, this is also the only property not on the coast — but we think the dazzling, almost dizzying views of the ocean and Kona coastline from this beautifully furnished boutique inn, along with its exceptional service and breakfast cuisine, more than justify its inclusion. The eight accommodations feature rich hardwoods and bamboo furniture, luxurious bedding, and handsome private bathrooms; some have additional perks like private indoor or outdoor sitting area, spa tub or kitchenette.
- Book the stand-alone vintage Darrell Hill Cottage or newly renovated Red Barn for ultimate privacy and even more space. At a cooler 1,400-foot elevation on the slopes of Hualalai volcano, the 30-acre grounds include 5,300 coffee trees; naturally, the estate’s Brazen Hazen coffee (named for founder Cassandra Hazen) is served with the gourmet tropical breakfast. After a day exploring, savor the vistas from the hillside hot tub or gazebo.