Hawaii is a magical place for so many. As the most accessible of Pacific island chains and with so much to offer, it’s no wonder it is an easy choice for a tropical getaway, family vacation, or corporate retreat. While many travelers enjoy the accessibility and vast options of Oahu, or the luxury of Maui, the Big Island of Hawaii is a bit of a path less traveled for visitors to the southernmost U.S. state. During the winter of 2021, I was fortunate to escape COVID winter in the continental US for Hawaii. The trip was an opportunity to play tour guide on an island I had experienced as part of corporate event support staffs, with long hours on my feet and just moments to experience the joy of the Big Island (no self-pity here – there certainly are perks to having a job that allows you to travel to Hawaii). Returning to Hawaii with baseline familiarity to help navigate made it much easier – and more confident in selecting places to relax and dine. Staying along the Kohala Coast on the west (dry) side of the island was a no-brainer, with its sunny weather and reef-protected beaches, not to mention some fantastic self-contained resorts and solid dining.
When planning the trip, I knew for certain one stop would be a must: the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel with its signature restaurant, Manta, and cocktail bar, Copper Bar, for a romantic final sunset before we departed the Big Island. My first visit to the Mauna Kea hotel several years ago left me underwhelmed. I had the impression that it was a legendary haunt of many of the corporate CEO or Hollywood types that own homes in some of the nearby gated communities, but it appeared very retro and underwhelming to my ignorant eyes. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate its understated architecture with a touch of 1960s Brutalist influence (a lot of structural concrete – which is to be forgiven, since it is the earthquake-prone Ring of Fire, after all). What the structure itself lacks, the outdoor spaces – particularly Manta restaurant’s outdoor seating areas – showcase the stunning Kauna’oa Bay. At sunset, the west-facing view gives a sense of the expansiveness of the Pacific Ocean and this tropical, yet almost lunar, oasis so far removed from home.
A brief interlude here. Regular readers will note that my stories and anecdotes are personal, but devoid of identifying details. While those details would make the stories far richer, I am respectful of the privacy of those in my personal and professional lives who have joined me on my culinary adventures, as well as my own privacy when sharing these stories – particularly those that are not just mine to tell.
Enough about that – back to Hawaii and on to the meal!
I was fortunate to snag a a reservation on the terraced patio that timed our arrival just before sunset, allowing us to watch the sinking sun paint the sky in fiery but soft orange and pink tones before the starry expanse rose in its place. I can think of no more spectacular setting for a meal than this one, and it eliminated any impatience one might feel during the wait between courses.
As the sun set, we started with a Provençal rosé and seared Hudson Valley foie gras, neither of which are exactly Hawaiian cuisine. The foie gras itself had the consistent quality you expect from America’s most famous supplier and was seared perfectly, complemented by grilled – but still soft – brioche, greens, and a fruit compote. But you haven’t lived until you’ve shared this combination with your closest person and with the backdrop of our closest star throwing shade on Kauna’oa Bay as a group of snorkelers waited patiently for Manta Rays (yep, the restaurant’s namesake) to congregate and share space with the humans.
For entrees, he chose the macadamia crusted Mahi Mahi, and for me, the Manta staff accommodated my shellfish allergy by substituting Diver scallop for shrimp in a Zata’ar scented Ahi tuna and shrimp special. The Mahi Mahi was perfectly breaded and sautéed, accompanied by sautéed Bok Choy and a velvety, rich potato purée. My special was served with grilled Hawaiian asparagus and corn, complimented by wasabi crema and a Kalamata olive purée. The scallop was wonderfully tender, and the thick, seared rare Ahi medallions were filet mignon of the sea.
For dessert, we split an Kona ice cream based mud pie, featuring an Oreo crust, fresh whipped cream, and a healthy dousing of hot fudge. The cool sweetness was the perfect end to the meal.
As it was fully dark by the time we finished our meal, we noticed a small crowd had gathered along the rock wall separating the resort from the short cliff leading down to the bay. As we approached, we realized why the crowd had gathered; the resort had activated lights in the water that allowed us to see the beautiful and massive Manta rays swimming with the snorkelers. The rays put on quite a show for us all – a nice bonus “theatre” experience.
From there, we walked back up to the hotel to have a drink at its legendary Copper Bar. Celebrities and CEOs, tourists and locals alike flock to Copper Bar’s stately mid-century modern meets Petrified Forest ambiance. Without a reservation (you can also eat a light meal here), we happily accepted a longe table away from the balcony (not much of a view at night here) for their smoky Bourbon-based signature cocktail, the Mauna Kea Barrel Bonfire. This Hawaiian take on an Old-Fashioned comes with a touch of interactivity. Presented to us covered by a coaster, we released the coaster to free the smoke underneath.
Fully satisfied by Manta, Copper Bar, a Manta ray sighting, and the dramatic simplicity of a perfect Pacific sunset, we returned to our hotel by golf cart caravan. While I’ve had many meals in Hawaii, this experience at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort was one for the books. Would I recommend? 100%.
Want more Hawaii? Check out these previous posts from the Culinary Diplomat: