In few places are the contrasts as bold as on the Big Island of Hawaii. Here, crystal waters crash against a shore of black lava and white coral. Lush rain forests dotted by 400-foot waterfalls lie only miles from the barren molten landscape created by the daily eruptions of Kilauea. Such raw beauty is the dramatic backdrop for the 539-room Orchid at Mauna Lani, formerly the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani and a member of ITT Sheraton's Luxury Collection since last March.
At the Kohala Coast property, the new management has traded nautical paintings for Hawaiian art, removed trees to open up the views of the ocean from the port cochere, and replaced the signature crystal chandelier in the lobby for something a little more . . . Hawaiian. The new feeling is one of relaxed elegance. An important point for those considering the property: 95 percent of the former employees stayed on through the transition, so the service-the spirit-one expects at a top-notch Hawaiian resort is still very much there.
Many changes are under way at the resort, among them an upgraded spa (known as the Spa Without Walls because of the activities offered outdoors, including open-air massages in a charming spot right on the water, where guests see no one and hear nothing but the rhythm of the waves); a new outdoor function space in a quiet corner of the resort that will be ideal for theme parties; and renovated restaurants. A special touch is the new Beach Boys program, where staff members share their knowledge of celestial navigation, the island's petroglyphs, even how to paddle a canoe, with guests or in formal programs with groups.
The meeting facilities are set apart from the rest of the resort and offer a real bonus for groups getting down to serious business: a 164-seat amphitheater. There is also a 14,000-square-foot ballroom, two junior ballrooms (3,600 and 3,150 square feet), and eight other small meeting rooms, including a boardroom. Meetings and incentives account for a full 60 percent of the resort's business.
On-site recreation includes ten tennis courts, the well-known Francis H. I'i Brown 36-hole golf course, and a lovely crescent of white sand beach. Or companies can opt for day excursions, including helicopter tours, departing from a pad just five minutes from the resort, of the volcanic eruption, as well as the island's hidden valleys and waterfalls. An hour away, Waipi'o Valley, accessible only by four-wheel drive, is another popular tour. At the Parker Ranch, a rambling cattle farm high in the mountains a half-hour's drive from the resort, visitors are introduced to the history of the paniolo, or Hawaiian cowboy-not the kind of character they expect to see on a visit here. But then again, everything on the Big Island is pleasant surprise.