Pondering Problems of Paradise

Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

On my first visit to the Mauna Kea resort on the Big Island of Hawaii I did not have a room.

I had flown in from Honolulu for the day to see the oceanfront wonder, the bold dream of Laurance Rockefeller and his architects. I was stunned by the magnificent design, the marriage of sea and shore. I was giddy from a lavish buffet and the sweetness of a mai tai.

After lunch I went for a stroll along the dappled paths. With what I hope was a smattering of grace, I sat beside an old kiawe tree and leaned against its trunk. The ground was as soft as the ocean breeze.

I did not intend to nap that afternoon on the Kohala Coast. Yet I awakened just in time to hitch a ride to the airport.

I was younger then.

So was the Mauna Kea.

Now I treasure a room of my own and the time to slow to the Big Island pace. From a lanai at the Mauna Kea not long ago, I admired the long crescent beach. Chocolate-brown birds with white on their wings chattered in the coconut palms. Part of the beauty of Mauna Kea is that so little has changed.

An extraordinary collection of Asian Pacific art has only improved; open corridors are hung with masterful Hawaiian quilts. I am drawn to the bells and gongs in a breezeway between the main structure and the beach-front wing. I am speechless in the presence of a 7th-Century sculpture of Buddha that rests atop a wide wooden staircase flanked with lava.

At Rockefeller's insistence, there are no ropes around these museum pieces. No descriptive placards are attached. But art tours are led twice a week by the curator, Don Aanavi. Unlike the paintings and sculptures in many hotels, all are originals. There are no reproductions in the 1,600-piece Mauna Kea collection.

A wall of New Guinea ceremonial masks near the atrium dates from the interest of the late Michael Rockefeller, Nelson's son and Laurance's nephew, who was killed while among the Asmat on a field trip.

Wooden carvings throughout the hotel include fish, bowls, chests and door knockers. Bronze drums from Thailand serve as end tables. Brass chariots and temple toys fill a wall near an elevator.

I am smitten by a rib-cage-high table of dark persimmon wood that is 20 feet long and five feet across. It was used by Chinese scholars, Aanavi said. They needed the space to work from vast scrolls.

I am intrigued by a splash of modern Japanese calligraphy, swirls of black and orange created by a Kyoto artist. The stylized proverb means "Dragon knows dragon."

"Loosely that translates as 'It takes one to know one'," Aanavi added with a twinkle.

But there is more to life at the Mauna Kea than its art collection or koi ponds or lush gardens. After a couple of days I felt so calm that I followed my husband onto the golf course. I watched him shoot an over-the-surf hole--No. 3.

By the fifth hole the sun was sinking toward the sea and long shadows stretched up the fairways. We were the last on the course. I had an urge to try.

He told me how to grip the No. 7 iron. He said to bend my knees and concentrate. I held my breath and thought of the Masters' shots I'd seen on TV. As I was about to swing, a voice piped in: "Hit the ball. Hit the ball."

I stared in fury at my spouse, but he, too, seemed baffled by the intrusion. We heard the cry again and traced it to nearby trees and a relative of the mimicking myna.

Still, the advice seemed sound and so I hit the ball--long and straight and onto the green. My husband was stunned into silence. As was the bird. I retired from the competition.

There are bigger resorts than the Mauna Kea, and certainly gaudier. But I can think of no place where there is a deeper sense of family and tradition, and a pervasive sense of good fortune at simply being there.

That contentment extends to the staff. As I paused by the entrance that last morning I admired the long view inland: the sun rising over the snowcapped volcano named Mauna Kea, the shadows of palm fronds splayed on emerald grass.

"What a beautiful office you have," I said to a fellow named Horace, whose sidewalk valet desk was banked in flowering vines.

He stared overhead. "Ah, but you don't know the hazards of this job," he said. "There are little chameleons that like to jump down on me."

My car arrived and we traded smiles at the scope of the problems in paradise.

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