Big Love for Big Island Golf (Part 2 of 4): Mauna Kea Resort
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Big Love for Big Island Golf (Part 2 of 4): Mauna Kea Resort

The 11th hole at Mauna Kea...just wow.

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There’s a free guide at the Kona airport called “101 Things To Do” (on the Big Island). That’s excessive. Unless you’re spending a year here, there’s absolutely no reason to look past a Top 20 list. And, truthfully, for many (especially GOLFERS), Mauna Kea Resort checks off 10 of The Island’s Top 20!



10. Snorkeling: Swimming in Mauna Kea’s private cove is literally like swimming in an immaculately cleaned aquarium.

9. Luau: The Luau at Mauna Kea is ranked No. 1 on the Island—occasionally even No. 1 in the entire state. Tasty island cuisine (including kalua pig from an imu) flavorful drinks, rich cultural history and desserts mix fluently and elegantly under the stars during a fun-and-flame filled performance you’ll never forget.

8. Blue Hawai’ian Helicopter Tours: This is definitely a splurge, and doesn’t exclusively cover Mauna Kea Resort, but if you want to see the whole Island of Hawai’i, a two-hour tour will take you all over and show you flowing lava, steaming cones, miles and miles of blue-on-white coastline and the most stunning of thousand-foot waterfalls.


7. Volcanoes National Park: One of the hottest spots on the island literally and figuratively speaking, it’s a bit of a drive from the resorts, but if you want a worthwhile (inexpensive) day excursion while staying at Mauna Kea, this one is hard to beat.

6. The Mauna Kea Observatory: The largest astronomical observatory on the globe is at the summit of Mauna Kea—14,000 feet up there. With 13 functional telescopes and a $1.2 billion telescope on the way, these aren’t supermarket toys. You can see stars and galaxies 13 billion light years away. Essentially, to infinity and… well… a little farther. An interesting fact about Mauna Kea is it’s actual height from base to summit. Mt. Everest is 29,035 feet tall. Mauna Kea surpasses 32,000. (Albeit 18,000 of that is below sea level.)

5. Catamaran Sunset Cruise: You’re in Humpback Whale territory here and there are dozens of boats eager to take you out to see them, with most of those excursions taking place just off Mauna Kea’s shore.

4. Swimming With Turtles: You’ll hit the jackpot in a lagoon near Kiholo Bay, just down the road from Mauna Kea Resort. You can see K-Bay from the road, as you’re heading north from the Kona airport—the palm trees on a little island—and you’ll see cars parked on the shoulder. Park among them and walk a mile or so to find a black rock beach, crystal clear swimming pools and dozens of sunbathing Honus.

3. Beaches: There are over 100 beaches on the Island of Hawai’i, diverse in both texture and color. Most of the seascapes are some hybrid of coral, sand and lava rocks. All of them offer different shades of beauty. Mauna Kea’s crystalline cove may offer the greatest resort beach, but the adjacent Hapuna Beach has actually been voted the “Best in America” multiple times.

2. Lodging: If you want great value and even greater rounds, Mauna Kea, offers two great courses and formidable resort service…The Island’s most popular “Stay & Play” combo.

1. About that Golf: In my opinion, there are three “must play” rounds on the Big Island. Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani (South) and Hualalai (Nicklaus). Here’s the story of my Mauna Kea experience...

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It is appropriate that the pinnacle of golf on Hawai’i Island (for most) is also the name of the pinnacle of Hawai’i Island—the mountain Mauna Kea. It is equally appropriate that on a course with holes guarded by crashing surf, on an island known for surfing, you can now even surf on the golf course—while playing—on Golf Boards. Mauna Kea Resort is celebrating 50 years of “timeless luxury” in modern (if not futuristic) style, and the King of the (golf) Mountain is showing no signs of aging. If anything, it’s only getting better.

In case you are unaware, Mauna Kea—the mountain—is a volcano. Mauna Kea—the golf course—is shaped like a series of smaller volcanoes. The mountain is dormant. The course, on the other hand, is extremely active. You could say it’s constantly blowing up. I asked Director of Golf, Josh Silliman, if Robert Trent Jones Sr. intentionally shaped a half-dozen of these greens like lava cones.

“Wow,” Josh said, laughing. “I honestly have never heard them described like that before. But that’s a great observation.”

I doubt that’s actually an original thought, though, given that hundreds of writers have visited Mauna Kea over the past five decades, but it’s worth mentioning, as that’s the only repetition you’ll really notice on this course. Beyond the ocean views on every single hole, of course. You’ll play to the base of numerous volcano-shaped greens throughout your round, and chip your ball up onto their crowned and cratered surfaces. Whether or not a “volcano range” was in fact RTJ Sr.’s intent back in 1963, we may never know, but his son Rees’s restorations in 2008 only further enhanced their likeness.

You’re actually introduced to the signature hole of Mauna Kea just a few steps off the airplane—26 miles away—at the Kona International Airport. As you await your luggage you can’t help but marvel at the backdrop mural, an aerial shot of the boomerang-shaped 3rd hole—black lava-rock border on fluorescent green grass, and anywhere from 220 to 70 yards of rolling ocean dividing the five tee boxes from the green. It appears—in picture—to be a daunting shot. And then you get there and the real thing cranks up the drama. You feel the offshore wind, and a sinking feeling suddenly mixes with the illusion of a shrinking green. But the setting is so surreal, your score almost becomes irrelevant. You might even re-tee a tap in birdie. As I did. Supposedly—behind only Sawgrass’s 17th—this is the most photographed hole in golf. I told Josh I took a couple dozen pictures of the hole and he smartly remarked. “Dang it, you just lowered our average.”

As much of an impression as No. 3 makes on the golfer, there’s actually a hole on the back nine that some deem even more impressive and/or intimidating. And that would be the par-3 11th, where once again the Pacific is in play. This time you’re not trying to carry the ocean though—you’re firing right at it from way above it… and trying to keep your small ball just short of wet on a smaller green that can’t afford to shrink an inch. The drama comes at you from all angles at Mauna Kea, something worth appreciating as much as those unending ocean views. Not even Pebble Beach gives you ocean views on every hole.

The drama even comes at you from the tables of “Number 3”—the 19th Hole tribute to RTJ Sr.’s toughest hole — No.3, obviously — and to the inaugural Live TV event where golf’s “Big 3” (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) took their first shots at it. Get the Mahi Mahi Tacos!!!

And for dinner… Mauna Kea’s Luau is considered by most to be the “premier” Hawai’ian feast on the island. The sounds of surf and steel guitars, set on oceanfront turf, with the smell and flavors of imu-roasted kalua pig, fresh fish, and pineapple so juicy… it was almost too much and too great. Yet another pinnacle experience at a resort that picks up points everywhere.

Further stacking their portfolio of luxuries, (doesn’t seem fair) in our “Best of Hawai’i Island” Top 10 we mention that Mauna Kea Hotel is built above the island’s best beach—a tropical, turquoise and mostly enclosed cove. The fact of the matter is, five or six of the island’s best beaches are all within just a few miles of Mauna Kea, an amenity the non-golfer will value as much as the golfer will their round.

With the golf, food and activities so spectacular, the lodging almost wouldn’t matter, but the airy, bright, open floor plans with sprawling ocean views leave nothing to be desired. This resort is the all-in-one for the golfer, the swimmer, the foodie and the pickiest of travelers. A whole lot of wow!

About the author

Eric N. Hart

Eric N. Hart

Eric Hart (aka MobileGolfer) is an award-winning travel and leisure writer for Golf News Net and the owner of Stays + Plays Travel Agency in the Midwest. Eric has stayed at 250-plus resorts and hotels around the world and played 500-plus golf courses. He has worked with 16 tourism agencies and written more than 1,100 articles for 14 regional, national and international golf, family and travel publications since he began in 2007. With a passion for promoting both golf and family travel, Eric routinely hits the road with his son and/or the full family (wife and four kids).

Reach Eric by email at info[at]staysandplays.com