Just a short ride north of the popular Kohala Coast resort area where the foliage along the highway turns green you'll come to the small village of Hawi in the North Kohala region of Hawaii's Big Island.
Once a busy commercial center, North during the operation of the Kohala Sugar plantation, this area now has a much slower, more relaxed pace. Today the area, where Kamehameha I was born, is made up of small residential communities, a number of ranches and numerous small shops and restaurants.
North Kohala, Hawaii's Big Island
North Kohala is an area of the Big Island that is still not widely developed, where the roads find minimal traffic and where you'll find plenty of space to yourself to explore the beauty of old Hawaii.
It is in this quiet, more reflective region that you'll find a small, sustainable boutique hotel and spa destination called the Hawaii Island Retreat at Ahu Pohaku Ho'omaluhia (Sacred Peace-giving Stones). Set amidst the windswept cliffs and streamside meadows of Honopueo and Hana'ula, ancient land divisions in historic North Kohala, the Hawaii Island Retreat, is the creation of two unlikely innkeepers, Jeanne Sunderland and her husband, Robert Watkins.
Residents of the Kohala area for over 30 years, Jeanne is the former spa director at the current Fairmont Orchid and founder of their "Spa Without Walls." Robert has been a primary care physician in North Kohala for over 30 years and still serves as Director of Emergency Services at Kohala Hospital. Both share a love of the land; traditional Hawaiian arts of healing and well being; and fresh, homegrown organic fruits and vegetables.
It's not everyday that you meet a couple nearing normal retirement age who decide to embark upon a major undertaking and change of life. It's even more surprising when you learn that the entire project took almost ten years from conception until the first guests were welcomed onto the property.
Origins of The Retreat
It was actually almost 30 years ago that Jeanne first encountered the land where the Retreat now sits. As she tells the story, "I was out cruising in my Hawaiian teacher’s fishing boat," she recalls. "When we passed the bay here, Uncle Tommy slowed down, and headed for shore. When I asked why we were landing here, he smiled and said his Aumakua (personal god) told him to take me here. So we landed, walked the grassy plain near a old stone canoe house, and left."
Twenty years later while working at the Orchid, then known as the Orchid at Mauna Lani, Jeanne saw the need for venue to host retreats and provide a reflective setting that simply could not be done within the hustle and bustle of a major resort or within the confines of a small bed and breakfast. The concept of creating a small boutique hotel and spa in North Kohala was born, but the actual job or finding the land and building the property was to take much of the next ten years.
The land was ultimately found and Jeanne recognized it as the land she had seen so many years before and knew it was right. With the help of their contractor son Daemion who built all of the structures and a lot of patience and persistence (and unanticipated setbacks due to the 2006 earthquake), the property opened in the spring of 2009.
Sustainable Boutique Hotel and Spa Destination
The Hawaii Island Retreat is in many ways the antithesis of much of what you'll find at most luxury resorts, which, depending on what you'll looking for in your vacation accommodation, is either a good thing or not. It's not the place for folks who are looking for lots of onsite activities, lots of people, multiple dining options or late night bars and lounges.
However, much like those luxury resorts, Hawaii Island Retreat has superb and spacious guestrooms with wonderful modern bathrooms, a beautiful infinity pool, top notch spa services, a personal chef, and clearly the best staff I've ever encountered in Hawaii. And yes, there's even a television room with video games if you can't do without.
It is somewhat isolated, a couple of miles makai (towards the ocean) from Hawi down a gravel road. It is also very quiet and very restful. In fact, for me, the sense of peaceful solitude took some getting used to. I'm used to a much more active lifestyle when I visit Hawaii. Once, however, I forced myself to relax, the Hawaii Island Retreat came into focus as a really special place with wonderful hosts.
Let's take a closer look at what you'll find at the Hawaii Island Retreat.