Mauna Lani: An Emotional Journey Inside Auberge’s Stunning Big Island Retreat

The world opened below me from the air. Enormous swaths of jagged brown lava landscape butted up against a spectacular turquoise ocean while gentle waves lapped at black sand beaches. It was a breathtaking juxtaposition of our planet, painted as an island paradise.

I have visited the Hawaiian Islands countless times in my life, but this visit to the Big Island of Hawaiʻi felt different. Perhaps it was because I had suffered a recent loss in my family, and I needed a spiritual break, or perhaps I needed a time out from world news. Hawaiians are used to dealing with things that are out of their control; the towering volcanoes are a constant reminder of how delicate life is, but none seem worried or fearful. Hawaiians live in harmony with nature, and so began my personal journey.

The island of Hawaiʻi is the largest island in the Hawaiian chain and a dramatic canvas of diverse climate zones, from lush tropical forest in Waipio Valley to the dramatic green meadows of Waimea and the dry desert landscape of Kailua-Kona, to the hardened, recently grumbling massive volcano Mauna Kea, and its neighbor Mauna Loa. In one day, you can cast your eyes from snowy volcanic peaks to the dramatic wet valleys of Hilo and Hāmākua and the unique black sands of Punaluʻu Beach.

Aloha is a word we all know, but upon arriving at Mauna Lani, Auberge’s remarkable oceanfront resort, it resonated with me as something completely different. The Hawaiian word for love, affection, and peace, commonly used as a greeting, became more of a force that holds us together. I was embraced as ʻohana (family) on my very first day, and I felt the mana, the spiritual energy that ancient Hawaiians felt, at every moment of my visit.

Mauna Lani (meaning heavenly mountain) is a magical property located only 30 minutes from Kona Airport on a spectacular section of the Kona-Kohala coast. Auberge Resorts took over the property in 2018 and spent $200 million in renovations prior to its brief pre-pandemic opening in 2020. On 32 acres, surrounded by lava fields and home to the ancient Kalāhuipuʻa fishponds, it is where Hawaiian Aliʻi (royalty) would come to fish. The land exudes this ancient spirituality. At the center (piko) of five volcanoes, you feel the energy of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, and the tranquility of Lono (the Hawaiian God of peace, one of four Gods Hawaiians believe existed before the world was created.)

The resort itself is brilliantly positioned almost flat to the ocean, alleviating the need for excessive elevators and stairs. The dramatic entry and multi-story lobby induce a calming exhale as you walk through with your welcome lei and cocktail in hand. What you find are three gorgeous pools, two restaurants, and upscale shopping options, as well as a sparkling new 5,000 square-foot indoor-outdoor gym and a large Auberge Spa. The expansive beach offers up luxury plush Hālau daybeds with stylish furniture and food service. The property also features two world-class, 18-hole golf courses.

Mauna Lani’s 333 soothing, calm rooms and suites have large balconies and terraces with striking ocean views. Because of the building’s unique arrow shape, most are equally positioned to showcase the best sunsets you will ever witness. There are five spectacular oceanfront residences on the property, and they are among my favorite at the resort.

The Residences are large 4,000-square-foot open-concept spaces with two master suites. Features include lava rock outdoor showers, private pools/spas, full kitchens, and large dining areas. These are the most private options available at Mauna Lani and come with a Guest Experience team that caters to your every need. Exclusive use of your own Moke electric vehicle is also included. At the cost of $12,000 upwards per night in high season, the Residences will appeal to high-end travelers and families.

There is also one extremely luxurious option, and that is the Lani Estate, located adjacent to the resort in a gate-guarded community. With accommodations for 15 people, the 5-bedroom, spacious villa with an infinity pool is a premium option for guests with extended families.

Dining at Mauna Lani is a highlight, with one of the best restaurants in all of Hawaiʻi, CanoeHouse, located on the property. Chef Matt Raso (formerly Nobu) runs the kitchen while Yuka, his delightful wife, manages the venue. With indoor/outdoor seating on a large lawn fronting the ocean, CanoeHouse was a real delight. I ended up ordering the same meal multiple times because it was that delicious. Kahuku Corn Ribs, Beef and Foie Gras Gyoza dumplings, addictive Shokupan Pull Apart bread, mouth-watering Smoked Pork Jowl, and Garlic Fried Rice with slow-cooked egg.

CanoeHouse hosted the recent Hawaii Food & Wine Festival Cuisines of the Sun during my visit, where famed Chef Alan Wong held court with veteran chefs Dean Fearing, Robert del Grande, Helen Hong, and Sherry Yard. It was a packed evening of celebration.

The open-air, poolside Hālani restaurant is more casual for all meals and serves delicious breakfast items, easy lunch options, and gourmet dinners. Breakfast favorites were Avocado Toast, healthy wellness shots (ask for The Sheila, a custom-created ginger shot by one of the amazing servers), and the best French Toast on the island, featuring an awesome punalu’u sweet bread.

One of my favorite spots at the resort is the Surf Shack with the Kainalu Ocean Sports team. These young, adorable world-class athletes help guests embark on immersive journeys of self-discovery. Early mornings can be spent on the water as the sun rises, on a canoe paddle with Ian and Josiah to the nearby black sand beach, or on a drive to Pololū Valley Lookout with the incredibly wise Ethan Souza. When you return, have a cocktail, and stroll around in a custom coconut palm hat made by the talented Uncle George at the Surf Shack.

Afternoons might be spent fishing or snorkeling on the resort’s beautiful new Kalama Kai. This 42-foot Yellowfin boat is available for private charters, with the awesome Captain Ikaika Vivas at the helm. Request the talented Chef Allan Nagun for a custom picnic, and you have the perfect private excursion to snorkel with sea turtles while spotting spinning dolphins and humpback whales.

For extreme luxury, make sure to book Paradise Helicopters Sacred Grounds tour with Mauna Lani and a waterfall picnic with my favorite pilot Darren Hamilton. Mauna Lani’s Uncle Danny and Auntie Anna might even come along to offer a special blessing and ukelele serenade, sharing an education from the history of King Kamehameha.

Touch down at a private, exclusive landing at the base of an 800-foot oceanfront waterfall, a Wahi Pana (sacred place), and enjoy a short hike to reach the base of the waterfall. The finishing touch: a custom picnic with mimosas created by Mauna Lani’s Chef Allan. There is nothing better.

My favorite activity completely took me out of my comfort zone: night swimming with manta rays with Mauna Lani’s excellent expert Bullet Obra. Bullet is one of those unique souls you immediately feel like you have known forever. He is trustworthy, intelligent, funny, and a pure joy to spend time with. He delivers this adventure aboard a custom outrigger that he personally built for the ultimate nighttime snorkel. As the light brightens up the dark waters, the majestic mantas appear and swim right up to you as they eat the plankton.

Under the amazing leadership of the charming and gregarious General Manager Sanjiv Hulugalle, Mauna Lani shines from top to bottom, and his remarkable employees become a second family to visitors. “From the moment I set foot on Mauna Lani, I felt as though I was a part of something greater,” Hulugalle recounts. “Whether I’m collaborating with my colleagues or telling stories with guests, I’m overcome with fulfillment and purpose. I attribute this feeling of inspiration to our people, who leave long-lasting impressions on guests through heartfelt interactions and unconditional warmth.”

“Thanks to our people, the future of Mauna Lani is bright,” he adds. “We’re eager to deepen our commitment to sustainability through concepts like Hoʻōla, an on-property garden that provides interactive culinary programs for the next generation. As culinary excellence lies at the heart of Mauna Lani’s spirit, we’re looking forward to integrating Hoʻōla into inspiring experiences such as the Mauna Lani Culinary Classic.”

One particularly powerful force on the property is the wonderful Kahu Hānai, or knowledge keeper, Uncle Danny Akaka. He runs the Hale ‘I’ike (House of Knowledge), which is the resort’s in-depth cultural center. Uncle Danny creates wonderful historical walking tours through the seven ancient fishponds at Mauna Lani and Petroglyph Hikes to the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trails, which have more than 3,000 ancient petroglyphs dating back to 1200 AD.

I spent some personal time with Uncle Danny, and he spoke about life in Hawaiʻi. “Here, we experience what I like to think of as ‘birthing pains.’ The island is a living entity; she breathes and trembles, a continuum of movement and growth, as she gives birth to new land. Sometimes, you may experience the shakes from active volcanoes and the convulsions as tectonic plates shift. Because of Hawaii’s heightened geological activity and unique placement in the Pacific, there’s an intense energy that emanates from the land as it grows.”

“Hawaiʻi possesses a distinct and eternal spirit because it is alive with growth and culture,” Danny adds. “Perhaps this spiritual component is tied to the fact that many of the moments that changed Hawaiʻi’s history happened here. Our unity is rooted in Hawaiʻi Island, and the entire state carries its name. The word ‘Hawaiʻi’ is made up of three words: Hā (the breath), Wai (the waters of life), and the letter ‘i,’ which represents the supreme creator of all things. According to the ancients, man must have these three things to exist.”

My love letter to Mauna Lani is now complete. I am fortunate to have experienced this magical retreat and its talented ʻohana (shout out to Caroline, Megan, & Sergio.) I will always remember my personal journey through the heart and souls of the people here. Our foreheads will touch, and we will share our breath of life, in and out, with prayer and a gentle hug: our gratitude offered with the exhale of Alo-Hā.

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