THE BLOG

The California Sway Over the Mauna Kea

05/15/2012 05:21 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2012

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Palm trees may sway in Hawaii but it was the sway of San Franciscans that prompted the existence of the gem on the big island, the Mauna Kea Hotel. Certainly, some credit has to be given to Laurance Rockefeller, but San Franciscans should know we have a deeper connection to that hotel than is widely known. On a recent stay there with my children, my curiousity got going as to why so many San Franciscans have gone to the Mauna Kea since it opened in 1965. What was the grab to this quieter Hawaiian island and to this specific hotel that has such legend around it for the inhabitants around the Golden Gate? As always, there's a story, and this is how it goes...

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First of all, a few fun facts about the big island... Did you know that Hawaii's first cowboys came from California? That's right, Partner! In 1847, the King of Hawaii granted John Parker 3 acres of land on the big island, which grew to be the world's largest privately owned cattle ranch. Spanish "vaqueros" were brought up from "Mexican California" to train the Parker ranch "paniolos" (Hawaiian word for 'cowboys') how to lasso, corral and 'move 'em on out'!

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Fast forward to Hawaii becoming a state in 1959. It was during this time of Hawaii's early statehood that Robert Haynie, founder of the still thriving San Francisco firm, Haas and Haynie Corp., and his wife, on their way to Japan, dropped in to pay a visit to their friend, Richard Smart, the sole heir and decision maker, at the Parker Ranch. During that fateful visit, Mr. Smart led Haynie down to the "Employee's Beach," saying he wanted to develop it, and make something special. Right then and there, Robert Haynie signed an agreement to develop the land.

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Soon followed a sketch and photos of their plan to create a unique outdoor club using the Parker ranch land and the stunning white sand beach. It would be called the Mauna Kea Hunting Club where members could enjoy the surf; go mountain climbing; hunt Hawaiian Wild Boar, Mauna Kea Bighorn Sheep and Hawaiian Wild Goats; and shoot partridge, quail, dove and pheasant. They even planned to import birds from around the world! There would be horseback riding and deep sea fishing, too. Members could build their own cottages in the beautiful setting of the ranch that ran from the snow-capped Mauna Kea mountain down to the Pacific Ocean. (Fact: Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world because it begins at sea level and stretches to 12,000 feet.) Bob Haynie and Richard Smart had big plans!

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Meanwhile, back at the ranch, around the same time, the Governor of Hawaii, William Quinn, and George Mason, the head of Hawaii's Department of Economic Development, had invited the east coast developer and conservationist, Laurance Rockefeller, to come to Hawaii to investigate investment opportunities. Mr. Rockefeller was already known for his visionary resorts that melded conservation, recreation and a refined aesthetic in Wyoming, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. Wouldn't you know it that after flying all around the Hawaiian islands, the beach that caught Laurance Rockefeller's eye, that he called "the most beautiful beach in the world" and wanted as his site to build a special hotel, was the very same Parker Ranch "Servants' Beach"!

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When Laurance Rockefeller discovered that Bob Haynie had beaten him to the mai tai, he also discovered that there was negotiating room. It didn't take both men long to realize that the best thing to do was to join forces. Great minds not only think alike, they know an opportunity when they see one!

The plan for the Hunting Club was replaced with a modern hotel and golf resort that would import art (instead of wild animals and birds) from Polynesia and the Far East. The resort would combine a sense of harmony with nature and high standards of comfort, cultivating a spiritual tranquility in the tropical and exotic setting of Hawaii.

Haas and Haynie became the general contractors and partner with Laurance Rockefeller for the building of the Mauna Kea Hotel. Robert Trent Jones became the designer of the world class golf course. The charismatic and handsome San Franciscan, John Carl Warnecke, known as "Jack" to his friends, was the originally slated architect by Haynie. However, Laurance Rockefeller made the decision to go with the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, based upon the drawings of Chuck Bassett, who was a young newcomer to the firm at the time. The architecture was exceptionally modern for its day. The simple lines and high to the sky open air hallways invited the breeze in from the shore like a meditation.

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SOM designed the space to include Mr. Rockefeller's spectacular Asian and Oceanic Art collection. The art was put in places of visual impact arousing a sensual beauty and exotic ambience to the hotel's interior and surroundings. Laurance Rockefeller commissioned quilts made by local Hawaiian women that were framed and hung on the walls. The sophisticated and aesthetic sensibilities of Laurance Rockefeller cannot be overestimated.

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Laurance Rockefeller encouraged his San Francisco friend, owner of shipping company, Lurline Matson Roth, to build a house next to the Mauna Kea property. (The Roth family also lived in Filoli, the property in Woodside, CA, now open to the public). Word passed quickly to the Roth friends in San Francisco. (Before the Mauna Kea, San Francisco friends of the Roths used to board the Lurline, the famous Matson shipliner, for holidays and ship up to Waikiki.) Now all those families would want to try the Mauna Kea, and tell their friends.

Needless to say, the friends of the Haynie's and the Haas', followed by the friends of friends of friends began to hear about the great new hotel developed by Haas and Haynie and Laurance Rockefeller. Soon the "small world" of San Francisco regulars heading up to the Mauna Kea began to take hold. The Mauna Kea quickly got a reputation for being a great family hotel. The same families would come and stay and return for the same week year after year. As fate would have it, the hotel did become like a club afterall.

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It is easy to see why the Big Island resonated with San Franciscans. You have the "wild west" landscape complete with cowboys. There are the strikingly beautiful vistas of mountains rising sky high and jetting into deep, blue waters. There are obvious geographical aspects that California and Hawaii share that connect our spirits. We live alongside the power of the Pacific Ocean. Our sunsets face Asia. Hawaii is exotic and sunny and has palm trees. California is the most exotic state on the Mainland. Hawaii resonates with our nature. It's relaxed and aren't all Californians "laid back". Or should I say, "lei-ed" back?

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In 2012 the Big Island of course looks different. There is a highway that races directly from the Kona airport up island to the Mauna Kea making it is easy to get there. No longer is the only option to fly into Hilo on the other side of the island, as it once was, taking about a two hour drive to get to the Mauna Kea! No longer is the Mauna Kea the only hotel on the entire island like it was back in the day of Laurance and Bob and Lureline. Can you imagine back to that time what that was like? Now there are many other deluxe hotels, condos and clubs. The Mauna Kea has changed hands and the properties have been expanded adding the Hapuna Beach Prince hotel and more.

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However, in spite of all of the changes that come with the inevitability of increased development, the driveway still eases down into a breathtaking vista leading to the same hotel built in the '60s. The brilliant execution and building of the Mauna Kea Hotel has stood the test of time with a design that still seems modern. It still reigns as one of the most comfortable and elegant hotels around. The art remains. The beach is still "the most beautiful in the world."

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While it might not exactly be "the Old San Francisco club" it once was, you would be hard-pressed to go to the Mauna Kea today and not run into a familiar San Francisco face or two. Now when you go, you will know a little bit more of the history and the story of our San Francisco sway on the big island.

Talking about all of its wonderful qualities, I think I've swayed myself right back to the Mauna Kea Hotel!

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