Big Love

The morning after your wedding wraps up, get on a plane heading west and by cocktail hour you’ll be ensconced in one of the luxury resorts on the Big Island of Hawaii’s Kohala Coast, floating under the palms, listening to the waves, a mai tai on the way, and all thoughts of florists and caterers and crazy relatives melting away.

No doubt you’ll have a grand time at your wedding. But after a weekend of smiling and posing and speech making—all in high heels, no less—you’ll be ready to disappear from your parents and your friends and your friends’ parents and your parents’ friends. If you can pack flip-flops and sunglasses and not much else, so much the better.

Turns out, this is an easy one. The morning after your wedding wraps up, get on a plane heading west and by cocktail hour you’ll be ensconced in one of the luxury resorts on the Big Island of Hawaii’s Kohala Coast, floating under the palms, listening to the waves, a mai tai on the way, and all thoughts of florists and caterers and crazy relatives melting away.

The Big Island will be a happy surprise to anyone who thinks of Hawaii as the elbow-to-elbow hotels and condos jostling for a beachfront spot in Honolulu and Maui. By contrast, driving north from the airport in Kona, what you see are vast lava flows stretching up the mountainside and down to the crashing shore. What you can’t see from the two-lane highway is that dotting this coast—the Kohala Coast—are eight resorts where run-ragged mainlanders drive in and lose themselves for a solid week before bothering to hunt for their keys for the trip back to the airport. While this is an island of high adventure—is steaming lava pouring into the ocean exciting enough for you?—most people fall into a rhythm of swimming, sunning, lounging, eating, and starting all over again and never make it further from the pool than the golf course or the spa.

The two most sought-after resorts on the coast are the 41-year-old Mauna Kea Beach Hotel at Mauna Kea Resort and the newest addition, the splashy Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Keep in mind that both resorts breed devout loyalty, so choose carefully—you’ll probably be celebrating big anniversaries here ’til death do you part.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel at Mauna Kea Resort
The first resort built on the island, the Mauna Kea nabbed the best spot—on a crescent of baby-powder-soft sand and gentle rolling waves bookended by rocky points swimming with turtles, manta rays and candy-colored fish. It’s the kind of beach that will spoil you for all others, backed by a broad, made-for-croquet lawn shaded by swaying palms and dotted with swinging hammocks.

Once people develop a taste for that beach, they tend to check in loyally, year after year. It’s an intensely nostalgic crowd, one that insists on returning to find nothing changed. For this reason, the Mauna Kea is like an Austin Powers-era time capsule. Not in an ironic, retro-chic way, but because it’s essentially unchanged from its opening day in 1965, right down to the bright orange beach towels and bath mats (hotel management tried a toned-down color a few years ago, and the guests screamed bloody murder until the orange was returned).

Mauna Kea has the imposing architecture of a public library or university building. But it’s warmed by priceless pieces of Asian art and has a relaxed and friendly vibe about it, like a high-class summer camp where people know they can lounge around in flip-flops and let go of their usual Type-A selves for a while.

Days soon settle into a quiet, relaxed rhythm, starting with morning yoga class under the swaying palms. After you’ve found your Inner Chi, wander over to the breakfast buffet where the Hawaiian auntie pouring your juice could well have been here since opening day. You and your new husband will no doubt spend many an hour on the beach—snorkeling, reading or just walking into the waist-high water—where the sand underfoot is so soft and the waves so gentle you can walk all the way across the bay and never spill a drop of your mai tai.

If you’re golfers, everyone agrees the course here is the best and the prettiest on the island—built on black lava and skirting the coastline but with views up to the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea mountain. The 11 tennis courts, too, come with concentration-breaking ocean views, which keeps the games there as mellow as those at the ping-pong table on the beach.

The Mauna Kea is so slow to change that even now, a good decade after the spa craze began, they’re still not convinced they should build one. But while you’ll have to do without a soaking tub, you can follow a massage therapist down to a table under an ancient tree in a rocky cove for a knockout rubdown to the rhythm of the waves rolling in a few feet away. It’s the perfect way to set your mood for happy hour in the open-air lounge where tropical drinks are poured big and buzzy and a Hawaiian quartet and hula dancers set the mood.

Guests peel off from here to head to dinner either at the casual Pavilion at Manta Ray Point Restaurant or the more formal Batik, but after dessert, everyone walks to Manta Ray Point to peer into the spotlight-lit waters to spy manta rays gliding silently by.

And it’s right about then that first-time visitors sense that they’re transforming into Mauna Kea regulars themselves.

Four Seasons Resort, Hualalai
It may strike you as just a tad unfriendly when upon your arrival—well, right after you’re offered an orchid lei, cool washcloth and glass of tropical fruit juice—you’re asked to sign a statement promising to leave. But it’s not long before you see the wisdom in this policy. Because by the time you’ve taken your first dip in one of the five—count ’em: five—swimming pools, then lathered each other up in the outdoor shower in your private lava-rock-walled garden, then dived into a marshmallow-y bed that threatens to swallow you up, you swear that you’ll never, ever be parted from this place.

The resort itself is beautiful, of course—elegant but completely Hawaiian, a place without hallways or elevators, just pathways and gardens and views to the ocean. It’s a perfect spot to take a break from your life and let others take care of you for a while. And take care of you they do. Crashed out under a cabana alongside the mammoth, glassy, blue-tiled Beach Tree pool, you grow accustomed to attendants stopping by regularly to, say, offer cucumber slices for your eyes, a polish for your sunglasses, a cooling Evian spritzer … the spell is broken only when it’s time to pad over to the spa for an outdoor soak and a massage in a breezy hut where you can hear the birds calling to one another in the surrounding trees.

It helps that kids are given their own pool and club room, keeping the other parts of the resort surprisingly peaceful even when the place is fully booked—which it usually is. For extra privacy, ask for a room facing the Palm Grove, which attracts little traffic and whose quiet adults-only pool is the perfect spot for a midnight dip.

The narrow beach is not a standout, but the hotel remedied this by constructing the 2.5 million-gallon seawater King’s Pond, teeming with tropical fish and manta rays. It’s like having a personal aquarium on hand you can dip into any time you like.

Even something as mundane as a morning workout here becomes a sensory delight, when you take to one of the impeccable tennis courts ringed by a high hedge or slip into the lap pool and find the surface covered with plumeria blossoms that have drifted down from the surrounding trees.

Guests—especially return guests—tend to stick around for a while here, so it’s good that the restaurants are outstanding, from the lunchy Beach Tree Bar & Grill to the elegant oceanfront Pahu i`a to the Hualalai Grille by Alan Wong at the golf course’s clubhouse.

Of course all this aloha comes at a price. The Four Seasons charges twice that of other resorts on the Kohala Coast and more than any other resort in Hawaii. But as you enjoy a private torchlit dinner for two on a remote part of the beach, a waiter ferrying plates from the kitchen and freshening your champagne glasses but otherwise standing at a discreet distance, you start to think more and more that it’s worth every penny.

After all, it’s times like this that give married life a good name.