COURTESY MATT KRANE PHOTOS
Owners of The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls were astounded to learn it was still possible to purchase land with a waterfall.
Waterfall makes Hilo inn an idyllic island getaway
"Twenty-two acres close to Hilo, macadamia nut trees, waterfall," read the small ad in the Hawaii Tribune Herald.
The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls
Address: Directions to the house will be given when reservations are made. Write P.O. Box 646, Hilo, Hawaii 96721.
Call: (808) 935-6789 on the Big Island or toll-free (866) 935-6789 from the other islands
Rates: $119 per night for main house rooms and $175 per night for the three-story Pagoda House, which has its own kitchen, dining room and laundry facilities. Prices are based on double occupancy and include a continental breakfast of pastries, muffins, waffles, bagels, breads, fruit, juice, Hilo coffee and macadamia nuts plucked from the property's trees. Receive a 10 percent discount on stays of at least one week.
A one-hour full-body massage at Wailani Spa costs $65. Through Sept. 1, guests staying two nights or more will receive a $20 discount.
Notes: The Ohana Room (guest lounge) is furnished with a 30-inch LCD television, Dish Network, minirefrigerator and computer (wireless Internet connection available). Tea service is available around the clock.
To Lenny Sutton and his wife, Jane, who were living in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands at the time, the property sounded like heaven. They bought it sight unseen.
"We knew we were moving to the Big Island," recalled Sutton, "and we figured if it wasn't nice we could sell it. When we got here and saw the waterfall we thought we were on someone else's property. We didn't think incredible places like this would come on the market. When we realized what we had purchased, we felt it should be shared and would be perfect for a bed-and-breakfast."
That was 18 years ago.
Today, guests from all over the world hide away at The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls, which overlooks what Sutton calls "our magical 120-foot waterfall. When visitors think of Hawaii, they think of waterfalls. They want to see, hike to and swim beside a waterfall when they're here -- and we've got our very own waterfall on site!"
Sutton's well-manicured oasis bears little resemblance to the tangle of weeds and shrubs that once covered the area.
"When we first arrived, everything was so overgrown you couldn't see the waterfall," he said. "In fact, there was nothing here -- no roads, no homes and no trees other than 700 very young macadamia nut trees on the perimeter of the property that had been planted by C. Brewer & Co."
At the time, C. Brewer was selling 20- to 50-acre gentleman farms with macadamia orchards. Absentee investors bought the majority of the parcels, and up until five years ago, the Suttons didn't have any neighbors.
To bring The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls to life, Sutton did a lot of the work himself, including planting fruit and flower trees and designing the buildings. The complex includes the self-standing Wailani Spa, the main house with four guest rooms, the one-bedroom Pagoda House and the brand-new, five-bedroom Harmony House (see sidebar).
From lights to appliances to the spa's hot tub, everything runs on hydroelectric power produced by the adjacent Waiau River. Sutton said doing the necessary environmental impact studies, obtaining the required permits and building the private hydroelectric facility was a daunting but worthwhile eight-year project.
"We now produce a reliable 2,500 watts round the clock, and we will soon be doubling our output to support Harmony House," he said. "Our solar hot water system further reduces our need for additional energy. We're independent as far as power goes; in a world going 'green,' we're ahead of the curve."
COURTESY MATT KRANE PHOTOS
Guests can choose to stay in one of four bedrooms in the main house, shown above, in the one-bedroom Pagoda House, or beginning next month, in the five-bedroom Harmony House.
TWO TRAILS LEAD from the main house to the river. One goes to the base of Kulaniapia Falls, which cascades into a 300-foot-wide pool. Weather permitting, swimming is allowed there, but since conditions can change dramatically in a short span of time, guests must check with Sutton before going into the water.
"It's a safety issue," he explained. "When it rains here, it's dynamic, it's epic. The river becomes a torrent of rushing water, and Kulaniapia Falls roars. It's hypnotic, it's fun to watch, but if you go down there and look closely, you'll see the water is very turbulent. On a calm sunny day, though, swimming beside the waterfall is a wonderful experience."
The other trail meanders past a lovely tapestry of banana, hibiscus, fern, ti, monstera, coconut and bamboo to a 24-by-24-foot deck that cantilevers over the river. With no other houses in sight, it's a great place to relax.
"We're only four miles and 15 minutes from Hilo by car, but you'll think you're in the middle of a jungle," said Sutton. "It's very private and secluded here, and Kulaniapia Falls provides constant background music. No matter what room you're in, you'll have a beautiful view of the river, waterfall or gardens. Most of the rooms have views of all three."
Sutton joins guests for breakfast on the main house's open-air lanai as often as he can. He considers those leisurely morning get-togethers the best thing about operating the inn.
"I meet wonderful people from all walks of life who come to the Big Island looking for a new adventure," he said. "They tell me about where they're from; I give them tips on what to see and do during their visit here. I love waking up every morning to a house full of new friends!"
Harmony House a luxurious respite
Set to open on July 15, Harmony House is the newest addition to The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. In accordance with its Asian theme, it's decorated with exotic Chinese antiques, artwork and rosewood furniture.
The house also features 10-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, marble baths, full kitchen and dining room. Four of its rooms are furnished with a Westin Heavenly Bed; the fifth has a Select Comfort Sleep Number Bed.
Rates range from $139 to $169 per night, double occupancy.
Guests staying in Harmony House must be at least 18 (younger children are welcome in the main house and Pagoda House).
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.