KOHALA COAST — One week from today, the last guest will check out of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel &Bungalows. The storied hotel will then close its doors to begin a yearlong renovation in excess of $100 million.
Later that afternoon, the first step in the extensive redesign project will begin, as furniture, beds, kitchen equipment and plants are removed.
The hotel is scheduled to re-open as Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection in late 2019.
A rapidly expanding luxury hotel management company, Auberge Resorts Collection is often recognized for their original properties — Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch and Solage in Napa Valley, California, and Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
They plan to breathe new life into the 32-acre Mauna Lani hotel, which originally opened in 1983. The property’s most recent renovation, totaling $30 million, was in 2013.
“We’re bringing it back to what it was — one of the finest hotels in Hawaii,” Chris White said, Auberge’s senior director, hotel marketing. “But money only goes so far. It’s the staff, the people and the culture that make the difference. In this day and age, you have to have great service, product and story, and Mauna Lani will accomplish that.”
Loyal staff and guests
Over the past 35 years, guests have had countless memories at the hotel. The five exclusive bungalows were at one time among the most sought-after in the state. In the mid-‘90s, Kevin Costner made a bungalow his home for several months while filming “Waterworld” off Kawaihae Harbor. CanoeHouse was the launching pad for renowned Hawaii Regional Cuisine chef and co-founder Alan Wong. Prolific self-help author and speaker Wayne Dyer made a rare appearance at the hotel in 2014 as the keynote speaker for a private group.
Danny Akaka, Jr., the hotel’s beloved cultural historian who has worked at the resort for more than 35 years, will remain on staff throughout the renovation.
If all goes as planned, he will continue leading “Twilight at Kalahuipua’a” monthly, an evening of storytelling and entertainment that draws a crowd to the lawn fronting historic Eva Parker Woods Cottage.
As part of the renovation, the cultural center where he resides during the day will move from its somewhat hidden location behind the stairs on the ground level up to the lobby, where colorful Hawaiian artwork, hats, lei, featherworks, artifacts and historic photos will be front and center for guests to enjoy upon arrival.
Akaka will also offer advice, as needed, on different aspects of the renovation.
“I will be their conscience as decisions are made,” he said.
“His knowledge is second to none — of the place, what it means, its history. It’s so important, now more than ever, to be genuine and thoughtful. He’ll be instrumental in guiding us,” White added.
Other long-term employees look forward to seeing the hotel once it’s renovated. Cindy Oswald, who joined the wait staff at CanoeHouse when it opened in 1989, said the signature restaurant was “new, exciting, an adventure, back then.”
“I can’t wait for the hotel to get back to the way it once was,” she remarked.
Michelle Kaulumahiehie Amaral has been the hotel’s hula soloist for 33 years and remembers her first audition.
“In 1985, General Manager Charlie Park had a vision for the piko of Mauna Lani. (It) was to have a hula soloist and Hawaiian trio perform seven nights a week in the atrium. Mauna Lani provided a kipuka ho’omohala for me to embrace so many of our visitors with the spirit of aloha,” she said. “While this memorable era soon comes to a close, I look back upon these last 33 years with gratitude.”
Binky Tanita, a waitress at the hotel’s Bay Terrace breakfast restaurant since July 1983, said she was encouraged by friends to apply for her job originally.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people, sharing the culture and caring for guests. Having families return, year after year, has been like reunions,” she said. “I will return when the hotel reopens.”
The hotel’s development and ownership team is DiamondHead Land, a joint venture between San Francisco-based ProspectHill Group and Hawaii-based hotel executive Pat Fitzgerald, in partnership with a major institutional investor. They officially acquired Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and the resort’s two golf courses from the original owner, Tokyu Corporation of Japan, in August 2017.
“It was a really rare opportunity to purchase a hotel like Mauna Lani. They aren’t often for sale,” Fitzgerald said. “My wife, Marilyn, and I came here on our honeymoon in 1992.”
Auberge’s design team began creating a plan for the hotel’s extensive renovation last year. The total number of guest rooms will be reduced from 341 to 333 in order to convert some rooms into oceanfront and ocean-view suites. The five bungalows will be enhanced. Mauna Lani will be Auberge’s largest property by number of rooms.
“(Auberge Resorts Collection) is a quality operator that takes service up to the next level. Our primary market is still the West Coast of the U.S. and that’s Auberge’s market too,” Fitzgerald said.
Hart Howerton, headquartered in New York and San Francisco, is leading the redesign of Mauna Lani’s architecture and overseeing the extensive renovation, while preserving the fishponds, native plants and archaeological features on site.
Meyer Davis, a NYC-based boutique company that specializes in residential, hospitality, retail and workplace environments, will renovate the public areas and guest rooms. They have worked with Auberge previously, as well as other luxury hotel companies including Rosewood Hotels, Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton.
At the front entrance, new landscape lighting, tiles and natural materials will soften the look and feel. Natural woods will be used throughout the hotel, White said.
The pool will be expanded from one to three separate areas: one for families, another for keiki and a third for adults. Close to the beach, new water activities and food and beverage options will be added.
In the atrium area, the layout will be updated with a new talk story area, an extended lounge and hardwood flooring that will continue throughout the hotel.
More than $30 million will be spent on the guest rooms alone, according to Fitzgerald.
“Everything from the woodwork, flooring, furniture, lighting, paint and art will change in the guest rooms. They will be brand new,” White said.
CanoeHouse will keep its name but receive a redesign with a new arrival area. Bay Terrace will be renovated and expanded into a three-meal restaurant and bar.
While the current spa is in a separate building a short walk or cart ride from the lobby, an additional spa with five treatment rooms, an outdoor area and a complete fitness center will be added at the main hotel on the ground level, where Honu Bar Cafe exists currently.
The grounds will be spruced up, while maintaining historic areas.
“The hotel is beautiful now, but there are some opportunities to improve sight lines to the ocean and re-landscape and repurpose what’s there today, changing where to arrive at CanoeHouse and adding more gathering places,” White said.
The two golf courses will remain open to the public while the hotel is closed.
“Some guests have asked us to keep the hotel the same, while others who have seen the plans say they are excited,” Fitzgerald said. “What they really care about is the feeling when they arrive and the people.”
Existing and future guests
White envisions Mauna Lani’s future guests will be a mix of past visitors and new ones.
“We want hotel guests to return and we anticipate Auberge’s loyal customers will also be interested in visiting Mauna Lani,” White said. “Incentive business and reward travel will be a new market. The Japanese market will remain strong. On average, room rates at Mauna Lani will be closer to Four Seasons Hualalai.”
A new hotel logo is currently being designed to better position the hotel.
“We want it to portray respect, to honor the place and the people thoughtfully and respectfully,” he said.
In addition to Akaka, 25 or so other employees, including the sales team, security, purchasing, finance and some culinary staff, will remain on property while the hotel is closed.
“All the line staff have been invited back and there will be additional positions to fill,” White said.