Luxury, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. At the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Big Island, it whispers rather than screams. Low-rise buildings blend into 32 oceanfront acres lush with tropical flora, ponds and pools. Here, trendiness is not next to godliness.
Still, times change, and so has this resort. A $40-million embellishment, completed in 2009, was a response to a new reality: Guests want to be pampered, but they also want to eat when and where they wish and to dress up or not as they please.
Accordingly, the resort has reinvented the Beach Tree restaurant and lounge, formerly little more than a small seaside spot serving burgers and hot dogs. The new Beach Tree, a casual but smart indoor-outdoor space with a lounge and restaurant seating for 120, serves lunch and dinner, with inventive California-Italian cuisine prepared by chef Nick Mastrascusa.
"People don't need the formality anymore," even when paying $625 a night and up for a room, said resort general manager Robert Whitfield. Arriving after a long flight, they may want nothing more than "some wine and sushi and to fall into bed."
Guests may order full entrées or small plates. Opting for small plates, I savored risotto, gnocchi with oxtail ragout (the chef's grandmother's recipe), lobster ravioli and a small portion of two others, scampi with baby spinach and scallops with corn puree. They were presented on little square white dishes set on a plate, and everything was really good. Also good: There are 60 wines by the glass.
An oasis among the lava beds on the island's Kona-Kohala Coast, the resort has a near-captive clientele; it's a 25-minute drive south to Kona and about 45 minutes north to Waimea. Without leaving the grounds, guests can fill the gas tank, grab their morning lattes at a coffeehouse and buy essentials, as well as limited groceries and prepared salads and sandwiches, at the general store. There are myriad activities for adults and children, some — including a rock climbing wall — for a fee.
In late November I checked in at the elevated open-air lobby for a two-night stay in an ocean-view room. It was large (635 square feet) with a nice lanai overlooking the man-made King's Pond. How can you not love a place with a stocked snorkeling pond? Maybe it's not exactly sporting, but the tropical fish — there are thousands — seem to thrive and guests barely have to flip a swim fin for up-close encounters.
My second-floor room was comfortable but bland, with neutral tropical prints, slate floors and a canopied bed. The bath was large, with a deep tub, separate shower and twin sinks. (Most garden-level rooms also have outdoor lava rock showers.) There was a safe, iron and board, mini-fridge and even a toaster (the general store sells bread). Black and gold bamboo-print, Japanese-style robes hung in the closet. I'd return after dinner to find the king bed turned down and slippers by it. I'd turn on the ceiling fan, open the lanai doors and doze off to the sound of the surf.
The 192 standard rooms, as well as 24 smaller suites, will get a soft makeover next year, with new paint, headboards and Hawaiian-inspired fabrics.
To better accommodate families, the resort has created 20 new suites that, with connecting doors, can be configured as one- or two-bedroom units. Living/dining areas were added by expanding existing units into formerly open space.
There are also seven newly redone specialty suites and villas. I walked over a footbridge to the Makaloa Villa, which can be configured with two or three bedrooms (2,600 to 3,885 square feet). Overlooking a large pond, it's a luxury beach house with ocean and golf course views, private pool and lanai with fire pit. The master bath has indoor and outdoor showers and a deep tub (three bedrooms, $12,500 a night).
These accommodations are like island homes, with neutral color palettes punched up with teal or burnt orange. Sectional sofas have replaced sofa beds, and there is new custom furniture of native woods. Said manager Whitfield, "Most of our customers have renovated their homes in the last five or 10 years" and won't spend top dollar for something that's not as nice as at home.
The resort's pampering quotient has been doubled by expanding the spa with five curtained, thatch-roofed outdoor treatment rooms set in a tropical garden. Treatments may incorporate sea salt, volcanic mud or crushed macadamia nuts. Options include a green tea and ginger wrap ($225) and a sake and rice vinegar water cure ($150). Adjacent is a newly equipped fitness center and a 25-meter Olympic-style outdoor pool, one of six.
The Four Seasons is a timeless old-style Hawaiian resort — tiki torches, orchid leis and all — which is fine with me. "We absolutely celebrate that fact," Whitfield said. Although it would be silly to paint a picture of this exclusive enclave as authentically Hawaiian, neither is it just about suntans and mai tais.
Its full name is Four Seasons Hualalai at Historic Kaupulehu. Hualalai is one of the island's five volcanoes; the rest was explained by Earl Regidor, the island-born manager of the on-site Kaupulehu Cultural Center. Regidor said this property once was the ancient land division of Kaupulehu, a fishing village where a chief ruled over an extended family.
On a given day at the center, kupuna, or elders, may be giving complimentary lessons in lauhala weaving, feather art or quilting. Do visitors need to learn more about Hawaii? Well, a guest once asked Regidor, "Do you folks still live in grass shacks?"
By growing some herbs and vegetables, as well as contracting with local farmers, the resort can supply its restaurants with 75% locally grown food. (The tomatoes really taste like tomatoes.) And I'd fly five hours just for the goat cheese ice cream. There's also an on-site aquaculture farm maintained by the resort's natural resources department. One night at the more formal Pahuia seafood restaurant I ate moi, a mild island fish from that farm, by the light of a tiki torch.
And even the Four Seasons has caught "Hawaii Five-0" fever. A new bar menu lists the McGarrett (coconut brown ale and pineapple vodka) and the rum and guava-based Chin Ho Sweet and Sour. The resort's five-night Hualalai 5-0 package, valid through Dec. 17, starts at $625 a night and includes a $50-per-room per-day credit toward dining and activities, plus DVDs of the original series.
To book it, guests must call (888) 340-5662 and say, "Book me, Danno."
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, 72-100 Kaupulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona; (888) 340-5662, http://www.fourseasons.com/hualalai. Rates from $625.