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Life doesn't get much sweeter than lying in a hammock, basking in the warm breezes under bright blue skies by the azure waters of Makaiwa Bay in front of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows. Situated on 29 acres at Kalahuipua'a on the Kohala coast of the big island of Hawaii, the resort is a AAA Five Diamond member of the Japan-based Pan Pacific chain. Those who are lucky enough to find this charming location are more than likely eager to return.

Loyalty is the hallmark of the Mauna Lani. Thirty percent of the guests are returnees, lured back by the beauty of the setting and the relaxed, friendly service of the staff. The average tenure of the hotel's staff, recruited from the island locals, is eight years; not too shabby for a property that is only a dozen years old. On arrival, guests are greeted with fresh, fragrant leis and accompanied to the atrium lobby to be registered. Streams and pools running throughout the hotel, stocked with native awa, mullet fish and green sea turtles, create a uniquely relaxing atmosphere.

Respect for guests' privacy is another trait found in quantity at the Mauna Lani. Besides the main hotel, the resort boasts five private bungalows said to be the most expensive and most sumptuous in the state. Each 4,000-square-foot residence has two oversized bedrooms, each of which comes with its own steam bath, whirlpool bath and orchid garden; a vaulted ceiling living room and entertainment center equipped with television, VCR, tape deck and CD library; a private swimming pool and round-the-clock butler service. Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito, Roseanne, Billy Crystal, Arnold Palmer and Don Johnson have all de-stressed there. Dustin Hoffman stayed a month; Kevin Costner stayed six.

For meals, hotel guests can order room service on their own private lanai, or porch, or they can eat at one of the resort's three dining areas. The Ocean Grill by the pool offers burgers, sandwiches and salads, the Bay Terrace restaurant serves American regional cuisine and has an outstanding buffet breakfast, and the Canoe House, the hotel's signature restaurant, features a Pacific Rim menu, with spectacular sunsets for dessert. The Canoe House offers an abundance of local flavor, with pupus like poky-poky--a tangy marinated ahi tuna sashimi--a salad with Puna goat cheese, vine-ripened Lokelani tomatoes, Maui onions and Ka'u oranges with lemongrass dressing; a lemongrass-crusted ono with Wasabi smashed potatoes and two mustard sauces as a main course; and a devastating gratin of bananas and macadamia nuts in Kahlua for dessert. An extensive selection of Pacific Coast and Australian wines is available.

The new Honu Bar serves pupus, desserts, cocktails and fine wines by the glass; it is also the center for cigar smoking at the resort. Equipped with a five-drawer humidor that accommodates 800 cigars, the Honu features cigars from the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The bar holds periodic cigar events highlighting various aspects of cigar lore. Cigar lovers should also take note of the fifth annual "Cuisines of the Sun" event being held July 20 to 24. A smoker event will complement the final gala dinner, which will end with a chocolate cigar dessert created by Doug Rodriguez of New York's Patria restaurant.

Hawaii Island is the youngest of the Hawaiian chain. Nicknamed the Big Island, it is twice as large as the combined area of the other islands in the state, and it's still growing. New land is created daily, courtesy of Kilauea, one of the few active volcanos in the United States. Climatically, the island has a split personality. The eastern side is tropical, with lush macadamia plantations and hidden valleys misted by the spume of steep, dramatic waterfalls. The western side, the Kohala coast, is technically a desert. With less than seven inches of rainfall a year, most days there are clear, warm and sunny, with nights pleasantly cool and dry.

The Big Island attracts fewer tourists than Oahu and Maui, where a wilder nightlife beckons. The Big Island provides the requisite golf, tennis, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing, surfing, snorkeling and sunning offered by other island destinations, but it offers much more. The Parker ranch, at some 225,000 acres the largest private working ranch in the United States, is located here. The island also has a small but active film industry; Waterworld was filmed here, as were scenes from Jurassic Park. At night, stargazers of a different sort can drive to the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea. A dozen observatories can be found at its peak, staffed by astronomers from around the world. Even for the layman, Mauna Kea provides one of the best locations on the planet for contemplating the universe.

--Joshua Shapiro

Joshua Shapiro is a freelance writer based in New York.

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows
68-1400 Mauna Lani Drive, Kohala Coast
Phone: (800) 327-8585; fax (808) 885-1484
Daily rates: rooms $260-$530, suites $795, bungalows $3,025-$3,850


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