Developed by Laurance Rockefeller, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was built at a time when there were no nearby highways, water sources, or jet airports. It was an ambitious undertaking, the first major effort at tourism on the Kohala coast. Growing out of a desire to expand the visitor trade beyond Waikiki, the State of Hawaii funded the necessary infrastructure to support the project, pulling water from Waimea, and constructing the airport at Keahole and the Queen Kaahumanu Highway that connects Kawaihae with Kailua-Kona and the airport. In return, Rockefeller built a beauty of a hotel.
In 1967, Esquire magazine named the hotel one of the top three hotels in the world and declared it to be “the greatest resort hotel on earth.” Especially impressive was the intermingling of indoor and outdoor spaces, from the lobby atrium with its magnificent ocean vistas totally unmediated by glass, to the lush garden courtyards with their palms and meandering pools. The hotel's understated elegance established the basic design vocabulary for oceanfront luxury in Hawaii and around the world. It continues to influence tropical resort design to this day.
Overlooking the crescent of Kaunaoa Bay, the four-story hotel steps down toward the ocean, providing tiers of large, privately screened lanai with splendid views of the island of Hawaii's best bathing beach. The meticulously detailed modern building features a lobby floor tiled in shades of blue, coffered concrete ceilings, teak ceiling panels, koa hand railings, and Mexican slate floors. The hotel's Asian-Pacific art collection of more than one thousand objects was developed as an integral part of the architectural program. Motivated by Rockefeller's view that the goals and beliefs of a culture might be best understood through its arts, the collection was conceived as part of the continuing dialogue between East and West in Hawaii.
The lushly landscaped grounds and courtyards follow the designs of Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams of San Francisco. In 1968, a lower-level wing was added to the hotel. Designed by Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison and Tong, its details are similar to those of the main building. The main building was damaged in the October 2006 earthquake, but was rehabilitated under the skillful direction of Honolulu architect John Hara. The Robert Trent Jones, par-72 championship golf course, completed in 1964, was later joined by a second course designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay.