KAILUA-KONA — Turbinado sugar and coconut for exfoliation, cocoa butter to moisturize, green tea to soothe and pick up free radicals, and a pinch of calendula and chamomile to calm.
As Kiyomi, my spa therapist at the Hualalai Spa, scooped and sifted among the glass jars, I leaned over the polished koa-wood counter and sniffed the air: A visit to the apothecary had never smelled so good. It was the start of what might be called a bespoke spa experience, with every ingredient chosen and hand-mixed with a stone mortar and pestle just for me.
I had come to the Big Island with my brother for a long weekend from San Francisco. He was burned out with work and wanting nothing but sleep and sun; I was six months pregnant and wanting nothing more than a little self-indulgence (my husband joked that I was taking a babymoon away from him and our 2-year-old son).
Because my expanding belly meant I couldn’t surf, it had been a little tough to throw my mind into vacation mode. But a few days of spa adventuring turned out to be a pretty good recipe for relaxation. So Andy and I set out for the sun-drenched Kohala Coast, on the less-traveled northwest part of the Big Island, where there’s a surprising concentration of places offering the best of Hawaiian wellness: indigenous ingredients, traditional lomi lomi massage, and open-air treatment huts, or hale, that let you take in the salty sea air and sunshine.
Most every spa has a dedicated place for outdoor treatments, but each has a different character and way of doing things. At the Kohala Spa, a curtained hale overlooks a series of rocky tide pools along the shore at the edge of the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort. At the Mandara Spa, the treatment area is situated right on palm-fringed Kauna’oa Beach, a long, crescent-shaped stretch of white sand fronting a tranquil cove at the Mauna Kea Hotel. With a wide expanse of calm, protected water for playing and swimming, it’s one of the best beaches on the island.
At the Fairmont Orchid’s aptly named Spa Without Walls, there are six oceanfront hale and just four indoor treatment rooms. But it’s the eight outdoor waterfall hale, tucked in secluded, lush gardens away from the rest of the public spaces, that set this one apart from the rest: the private, screened cabanas allow you to be in the elements and yet protected from them (when the tradewinds blow and the sun is beating down along the coast, you’ll be grateful for the fine balance).
The vibe here is laid-back luxury; staff wear Hawaiian prints and have a relaxed, friendly way of making you feel serenely at home. One of the spa’s signatures is the Awa Earth & Fire, a treatment that blends the long, soothing strokes of lomi lomi massage with a compress of Hawaiian herbs applied to the body (in my case, flaxseed, hemp, and green tea, for soft, balanced skin). And I particularly loved the sensory environment of the waterfall hale: the warm air, the birds chirping, the water rushing, the sun glinting through the thatched roof. It’s enough to lull anyone to sleep (and sleep I did, a sure sign of relaxation).
Over the next few days, I visited a handful of the best spas in Kohala, while Andy got in ample beach time, tried his hand at stand-up paddleboarding, and ate his fill of loco moco (a hamburger patty over brown rice and topped with a fried egg and brown gravy, it’s the quintessential home-grown Hawaiian fast food). I focused on ingesting impressive amounts of pineapple, papaya, mango, and longan — Chinese for dragon eyes, it is a sweet, lychee-like fruit with a hard nut inside — thinking all the while about how some of the same local ingredients were being used on my exterior.
Perhaps the spa that’s most authentically dedicated to the outdoors is the Mauna Lani Spa, which is built on a natural lava flow along the coast. Like the rest of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, the spa has a wonderful, old Hawaii feel, with an expansive series of thatched huts that resemble a Hawaiian village, a saltwater therapy pool built inside lava tubes, and two open-air lava rock saunas where guests can slather on black volcanic clay and bake in the warmth of the sun. The showers are outdoors, and feature fragrant ginger root and coconut bath products.
Treatments are designed to reflect the island landscape from the mountains to the sea: Pohaku pa’a, or basalt stones, are heated and used to relieve tension on the spine, and an array of seaweed and sea salts are used in exfoliating body scrubs. Black volcanic clay has natural detoxifying and smoothing properties. Guests can also stroll in the landscaped healing garden — ti leaf plants growing here are used in treatments to calm and sooth the skin — and sit in the outdoor meditation pavilion.
Back at the Hualalai Resort, the in-house apothecary is the spa’s showpiece: All treatments touch on its colorful array of ingredients, most of which are island in origin, including vanilla beans, hibiscus, and macadamia nuts. The apothecary’s concept was inspired by the kupuna, or island elders, and their longstanding knowledge of native plants and healing properties. The display’s aesthetic is all clean lines, wood, and glass, with touches of coral — a modern take on the traditions, done in a trendsetting way.
I began my apothecary treatment with a walk through the outdoor waiea garden, which means water of life. A lava rock waterfall feeds a pool with a meandering path and a bottom covered in stones and gravel; guests are invited to wade into the pool and walk on the stones for a kind of reflexology experience, and the gravel provides a natural exfoliant for the feet.
Lounge chairs are tucked into leafy hideaways for quiet reflection; as I sat and sipped my iced tea, I was mesmerized by the morning light filtering through bowing fronds of ferns. Red-crested cardinals flitted through the tropical landscape, venturing close to my side.
After consulting with Kiyomi on my customized blend of ingredients, we headed for the treatment room. I emerged buffed, polished, and refreshed, and smelling like a sweet coconut cookie (not a bad thing). My body felt healthy and supple, and after swimming a mile in the fitness center’s 25-meter lap pool that morning — all treatments include use of the expansive sports club and spa — it was the best I had felt in a long time. The only thing left to figure out was how to import that Big Island recipe to cook up relaxation back home.
Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.