POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 1, 2010
In 2003, when Jeanne Sunderland and her husband, Dr. Robert Watkins, started clearing the 50-acre parcel they had purchased in rustic North Kohala, they found it was covered with invasive lantana that was so thick and tall, they had to remove it by hand.
Slowly but surely they completed the painstaking work, and as their vision for a spa retreat unfolded, they spent many hours walking the land, meditating upon it, connecting with it. "The land has been the master architect of our sanctuary," Sunderland said. "We are just its hands and feet. We do what it tells us should be done."
The couple opened Hawaii Island Retreat at Ahu Pohaku Hoomaluhia in April 2009. "Ahu" means altar and gathering place. "Pohaku" refers to the magnificent stones on the site. "Hoomaluhia" translates as "to bring forth serenity." It's a name that captures the essence of the luxurious nine-room hotel and full-service spa that Sunderland describes as a "microcosm of sustainability, peace and rejuvenation."
She worked as a spa director, therapist and trainer at posh resorts on the Kohala Coast for 13 years before creating HIR. Laau lapaau (healing with plants), lomilomi massage, kinesiology and homeopathy are interests she shares with Watkins, who happily exercises his green thumb at the retreat when he's not working as director of emergency services at nearby Kohala Hospital.
Said Sunderland, "This is where people come to renew themselves and to experience that life-altering moment of discovery -- 'Aha! Now I know who I am and what my next step will be.' They can do that here because they have the services, the support and the cloistering from distraction. The land inspires amazing growth and awareness."
HAWAII ISLAND RETREAT AT AHU POHAKU HOOMALUHIAAddress: 54-250 Maluhia Road, Kapaau, Big Island
Rates: Range from $275 to $450 per night, double occupancy, including breakfast. The Summer Special, good through this month, offers rooms for $195 per night, excluding breakfast. Up to two children (age 12 and under) stay free, and you'll receive an upgrade to the best room available upon check-in (excluding the Golden Penthouse). Accommodations in five yurts, set amid ironwood trees, are $150 per night, double occupancy, with a two-night minimum, including breakfast ($125 per night for three or more nights). Kamaaina receive a 20 percent discount on regular rates.
During her five-day stay, Scelsi strolled barefoot along the shore, napped in a hammock overlooking the ocean and helped feed the resident baby goats. She enjoyed daily massages; participated in yoga, reiki and meditation sessions; and learned about the history of breathtaking North Kohala -- a land of towering cliffs, deep ravines, vast meadows and pristine valleys that's known as the birthplace of King Kamehameha.
"I felt blessed, loved and welcomed at Hawaii Island Retreat," Scelsi said. "I felt I was in a comfortable place where I was treated like family. Being there was liberating and energizing. It helped heal past hurts and restore my body to optimum health. It's a magical place."
Certainly part of HIR's magic lies in its elegant design. Honoring nature, it incorporates flowers, trees, intriguing stones, water features and a spacious courtyard open to the sun and breezes. Green practices include solar electricity; garden pools that double as catchments for rainwater; composting and mulching systems; and organic gardens and orchards that yield most of the fruits, vegetables and herbs for healthful, gourmet meals.
The retreat's goats produce milk for yogurt and cheese made by Sunderland. Chickens provide organic eggs for baked goods, omelets and sauces. Every guest receives a reusable take-home glass water bottle. Rooms are stocked with organic shampoo, conditioner and lotion, and robes are made of cloth woven from organic bamboo.
From the gardens come mint and olena (turmeric) for foot treatments; aloe and ti leaves for sun therapies; kukui for massages and scrubs; and fragrant flowers (whatever is blooming) for baths. Pretty, tranquil spots are reserved for alfresco massages, manicures, pedicures and movement sessions.
"Nature is a part of and a consideration for everything we do," Sunderland said. "We show that it's possible to live well while being in harmony with the environment. It's not an either/or thing."
Guests are encouraged to use natural resources judiciously and to ponder ways they can adopt sustainable routines at home. "Maybe they can't put solar panels on their roof, but they can use CFLs," Sunderland said. "Maybe they can't grow all their food, but they can plant a small garden."
In her view the earth is our cohabitant and should be treated with respect and gratitude. "It's alive, and it's just as important as we are," she said. "Mindfulness and wise ecological choices should form the basis for each of our paths in life. We are honored to care for this special land and to offer it as a place of healing and awakening for all."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.