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How Laurance S. Rockefeller Chose the Site for the Mauna Kea Hotel

I will be writing about the various Real Estate Developments located in the Mauna Kea Resort area. Before I started that series, I thought I would share some history about how this area was chosen as the site of the Mauna Kea Resort. Along with a friend of mine, who also loves local history, we put together the story of:

How Laurance S. Rockefeller Chose the Site for the Mauna Kea Hotel -Top Secret Mission

Like all good spy stories, this one has high stakes, a beautiful heroine and shadowy connections to the highest corridors of power. At stake: Maintaining the beauty of the islands while creating a blueprint for the future of tourism development in the newly formed state of Hawaii. The heroine: An unlikely stretch of pristine white sand beach along the Big Island’s Kaunaʻoa Bay. The conspirators: A progressive team with connections running from the governor’s mansion, through the Oval Office to the visionary leader of America’s wealthiest family.

Prime Target

The year was 1960 and the ink was barely dry on the Hawaii Admission Act granting Hawaii full status as the 50th state in the union. The last presidentially appointed governor of the Territory of Hawaii, William Quinn had survived a stiff challenge in the new state’s first gubernatorial election. A young businessman, George Mason, working with Quinn on jumpstarting Hawaii’s tourist sector was quietly dispatched to a secluded Caribbean island to begin collecting intelligence on their prime target: Laurance S. Rockefeller.

Covert Caribbean

Caneel Bay, located in the U.S. Virgin Islands had been purchased by Rockefeller in 1952. By 1956 a luxury resort developed around maintaining and enhancing the areas natural beauty had opened and instantly become a favorite of the rich and famous. This, Quinn and Mason had decided, was exactly what Hawaii needed. Rockefeller’s reputation as a venture capitalist was matched by his reputation as a conservationist and outdoorsman. Rockefeller had donated most of the land he had purchased around Caneel Bay to form the United States’ 29th national park. Quinn and Mason believed developing Hawaii as a premium brand in what was to become known as ecotourism would provide the economic engine the state needed while maintaining the natural beauty that was its biggest asset. Always the pragmatic businessman, Mason arrived at the resort to interrogate manager Leslie H. Moore, Jr. on every aspect of operating a luxury resort on an isolated island. By the end of the visit, Mason knew they had their man and wheels were set in motion to bring Rockefeller to Hawaii.

The President Provides an Alibi

Laurance S. Rockefeller was, among other things, a personal advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and chaired the presidential committee on outdoor recreation resources. It was under the guise of conducting an inventory of these resources in Hawaii that Rockefeller along with his family was invited by Eisenhower’s former appointee, Governor Quinn, to tour the state. The real reason, to investigate investment opportunities, was kept a secret to discourage potential land speculators.

High Tech Spy Plane

Eager to show off the first of their new generation F-27 turboprops, upstart competitor Aloha Airlines made one available for the entire 12 days of Rockefeller’s stay. Accompanied by Mason, Rockefeller was able to visit or fly over every potential development site identified in a State-sponsored survey conducted the previous year. Rockefeller stayed at Volcano House, visited Coco Palms on Kauai and conducted an interrogation of his own with Richard Butterfield, manager of the hotel in Hana, Maui.

Target Sited

It was on one of those flyovers that Rockefeller looked out over the desolate lava flows of Mauna Kea and fell in love. As the last stop on his tour, Rockefeller met with Parker Ranch owner Richard Smart. He asked to visit the beach he had seen while flying over the island. From the ranch headquarters in cool misty Waimea, a small group including Rockefeller and Mason descended the bumpy 2600 feet to visit the beach at remote Kaunaʻoa Bay. By all accounts, Rockefeller was suitably impressed. Swimming in the warm waters of the bay, he was transfixed by the sweeping landscape and the distant view of snow-capped Mauna Kea. At the beginning of 1961, he sent a letter to Governor Quinn stating his intention to build a resort at the site. In May, Rockefeller returned with golf course designer Robert Trent Jones and along with Governor Quinn made a 2-day visit to the site to lay out plans for the new resort.

Mission Accomplished

The Mauna Kea Resort opened in 1965 as the most expensive hotel to have ever been built. It was instantly heralded as one of the greatest hotels in the world and set the standard for the future development of the Kohala coast. Using many of the premier architects, interior designers and golf course designers of the day, Rockefeller created an iconic destination that still sets the standard for environmentally sensitive luxury hotels.

The Resort Area Today

The area now offers some of the best Big Island Resort Living Real Estate options. Here is a list of the current developments that I will be writing about in upcoming posts:
  • Apa'apa' at the Uplands
  • The Bluffs at Mauna Kea
  • Fairways at Mauna Kea South
  • Fairways at Mauna Kea North
  • The High Bluffs
  • Kauna'oa
  • Kumulani
  • Moani Heights at the Uplands
  • Villas at Mauna Kea
  • Wai'ula'ula at Mauna Kea

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