COURTESY THE PALMS CLIFF HOUSE INN
While vacationing, Michele and John Gamble fell in love with The Palms Cliff House and returned to run it as a B&B.
The Palms is not your average B&B
The Palms Cliff House Inn dispels any preconceived notions you might have of a bed-and-breakfast in rural Big Island.
Instead of down-home, think upscale. Beds, breakfasts, services and amenities at this extraordinary retreat rival what you'd find at Hawaii's finest resorts.
Palms Cliff House Inn
Address: 28-3514 Mamalahoa Highway, Honomu, Big Island, 13 miles (15 minutes by car) from downtown Hilo
Rates: $175 to $395 per night, including breakfast (daily except on Christmas and New Year's days), with savings depending on length of stay. For example, a top-of-the-line suite runs $395 for one night; for four nights, the nightly rate would be $350. Kamaaina receive a 20 percent discount, and all guests receive a coupon good for 10 percent off the best rate for a future visit (can be added to the kamaaina discount). No children under age 13 allowed.
Call: 963-6076 on the Big Island; toll free (866) 963-6076 from the other islands
Web site: www.palmscliffhouse.com
First, the beds. They're king size and set in 500-plus-square-foot suites decorated with Asian and European antiques, Oriental rugs and fine art. Propped on each bed are three types of pillows -- soft, medium and firm -- to ensure there'll be one to your liking.
Sheets are luxurious 350-thread count Egyptian cotton. Have allergies? If you've alerted the staff, you'll sleep, sniffle free, between linens that have been washed in nonallergenic detergent.
Breakfast goes far beyond bagels and boxed cereal. You'll start each day savoring gourmet dishes such as taro bread French toast, mango Dutch pancake, ahi eggs benedict, purple sweet potato frittata, and caramelized banana and Big Island goat cheese omelet.
Wizards in the kitchen, the inn's proprietors, Michele Gamble and her husband, John, created all the recipes. Many of them incorporate or are accompanied by products plucked fresh from the gorgeous gardens, including grapefruit, starfruit, rambutan, lychee, avocado, ulu (breadfruit), oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, coconut, macadamia nuts, two kinds of mango and five kinds of bananas.
Menus change daily. "We have guests who are here for two days and others who are here for two weeks, so we keep careful track of what we serve," says Gamble. "We try really hard not to repeat a breakfast for those who are here for extended stays."
ORIGINALLY FROM Denver, the Gambles were frequent Big Island visitors who fell in love with the 3 1/2-acre estate when they first toured it in December 1999. As soon as they walked into the elegant Victorian/Hawaiian plantation-style house perched on a 100-foot cliff overlooking Pohakumanu Bay, Gamble recalled, "Our jaws dropped; there was something about it that called."
The couple returned to Denver, but a month later, they realized it no longer felt like home. "One of us mentioned, 'I've always wanted to have an inn, and I can't stop thinking about that house we saw on the Big Island,' " said Gamble. "John and I had both grown up in rural areas, and we wanted to get back to that type of setting. Our kids were in elementary school, and we thought if we were going to make a drastic change in our lives, that was the time to do it."
They purchased the property, and nine months later, began construction on a 5,000-square-foot addition that mirrored the original structure's 19th-century look. Offering eight posh suites with spectacular ocean and garden views, the Palms Cliff House Inn opened three weeks prior to 9/11. The timing, Gamble admitted, was "unfortunate. Business was slow for nine months after that."
Today, however, the inn often is booked months in advance. You'll appreciate the niceties not often found at other hostelries, including a spacious shower, extra luggage racks and a DVD player (over 600 movies are available free of charge). The four corner suites feature a gas fireplace and a Jacuzzi set in an alcove overlooking the sea.
Use of coolers, umbrellas and beach mats is complimentary, and close attention is paid to guests' special needs, including dietary restrictions and food allergies.
"We request advance notice about these so we can ensure there's no co-mingling of foods or cooking utensils," said Gamble. "We understand there are different kinds of vegetarianism, so we'll ask guests, 'Do you eat eggs? Do you eat dairy products?' If they don't, we provide substitutes."
If hunger pangs strike in the wee hours, head to the snack bar in the lounge, which is open round the clock. Operated on the honor system, it's stocked with local goodies, including Ulu Crisp, Mac Poi Chips and Lilikoi Shortbread cookies made by Aaron and Vinelle Segino, who run an incubator kitchen in nearby Hakalau.
Diversions at the inn include in-room manicures, pedicures and facials; lomilomi massage on your lanai; and hula, lei-making and yoga classes on the lawn. You also can soak in the outside hot tub, play croquet and board games, and pick a paperback or two from the library.
"It's our trade-a-book service," explained Gamble. "If you've finished reading a book, you may want to donate it to the library and choose another one to take with you for your flight home."
TOURS OF neighboring farms growing vanilla, exotic fruits and hearts of palm have proven to be especially popular.
"They aren't usually offered to the public, but we'll call and if the farmers aren't busy, they're happy to show our guests around," said Gamble. "Visitors are very interested in learning about the different crops and how they can be used."
Many of the inn's special touches and services reflect what the Gambles enjoyed or wished had been provided during their own travels.
"We began to formulate a list," said Gamble, "and we thought since we were going to build the inn as opposed to just remodel an existing structure, we should incorporate the things that we like."
Although they display impeccable taste and a true flair for the hospitality business, the couple didn't come from hotel backgrounds.
"John had a construction maintenance business, and I managed a housing association and lobbied for them at the state government level," said Gamble. "Those were the skills we brought to this venture, along with a love of travel and meeting people."
The inn draws an international clientele -- sophisticated, seasoned travelers who have been to the Big Island several times and who aren't interested in doing the usual tourist activities.
"They're looking to connect on a deeper level with the island and the people who live here," said Gamble. "They have a sincere respect for the Hawaiian culture and the beauty of this place. They love the quiet. Even if we're full, at breakfast there's only going to be seven other tables of people."
Guests feel the magic from the very first morning of their stay.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.