COVERFeatures

Billionaires Beach

by Jeanne Cooper

Tech tycoons are spending big in Hawaii — on real estate and charitable causes. Explore ways to make it your temporary playground while also making a positive impact.

San Francisco and Hawaii’s fortunes have been intertwined since the late 1800s, when Captain William Matson first started shipping goods across the Pacific and Claus Spreckels sowed sugarcane on Maui. You can see touches of their families’ legacies on a tour of Filoli, the Woodside estate once owned by Lurline Matson Roth, the captain’s daughter, or in a glimpse of hedge-clad Spreckels mansion on the City’s Lafayette Park, built by the sugar baron’s son Adolph in 1912 and acquired by author Danielle Steel in 1981.

Today’s tech titans are creating even larger footprints in the Aloha State, although their private residences tend to be more shielded from view. Oracle founder Larry Ellison made the biggest splash in the Pacific 10 years ago by buying nearly all of the 90,000-acre island of Lanai. But the pandemic accelerated real estate buying sprees: Witness Salesforce mogul Marc Benioff’s apparent acquisition of a dozen residential properties on the Big Island between October 2020 and January 2022. Eleven were in the Big Island’s upcountry town of Waimea, including several in the discreetly affluent hillside neighborhood nicknamed “Nob Hill,” and one on the Mauna Kea Resort, where he and wife Lynne Benioff already owned Roth’s former 10-acre Waiulaula estate, another 8-plus acres of nearby beachfront property, and their first major Hawaiian holding, a 5-acre compound they bought for $12.5 million in 2000.

The Benioffs’ history of philanthropy in Hawaii also expanded during the pandemic, most notably by donating 1 million face masks in October 2020, and more recently by giving $1.5 million to grant public schoolteachers’ requests for classroom resources — an initiative they’d already funded with more than $1 million. Through direct donations and their Benioff Ocean Initiative, the couple has also supported research and conservation in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, in Hawaii’s remote northwestern archipelago.

The Benioffs may now be the most prominent face of Bay Area tech on the Big Island — long a second home to Gordon Moore, Charles Schwab and a slew of savvy venture capitalists — but they’re only part of a huge leap in demand for full- or part-time island oases that started during the pandemic and continues unabated. Prices for homes near Waimea’s elite private schools and lock-and-go vacation homes along the Kona–Kohala Coast have skyrocketed. Citing the growing number of resort homeowners as well as the need to prioritize hotel guests, the Mauna Kea Resort announced in late 2021 it would limit access to its community membership program as well as more than double the plan’s rates — a decision the general manager called “as gut-wrenching as it is necessary.”

Like the Mauna Kea Resort, the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai and other island resorts have also frequently restricted restaurant access to hotel guests and homeowners, making reservations a hot commodity. One of the hardest tables to get is at CanoeHouse, Nobu-trained chef Matt Raso’s open-air dining room at Mauna Lani, an Auberge Resorts Collection property that opened in early 2020.


En route to the Farm at Kukui‘ula, be on the lookout for birds and wildlife; once at the 10-acre property, guests can pick fresh  owers as well as pluck herbs and organic produce. Alfresco farm-to-fork dinners are also held here. | Photo courtesy of Brent Herrington.

KAUAI

Tech titans: Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan

Living well: The Facebook founder and pediatrician acquired their 700-acre North Shore beachfront ranch in 2014 and bought another 710 acres last year, totaling a reported $170 million. The properties include lands devoted to cattle ranching, farming and conservation.

Doing good: This year, the couple announced gifts of $50 million for ocean conservation and $10 million for Kauai medical student training, both through University of Hawai‘i programs. In 2021, they donated $4.85 million through their community foundation to Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity, gave $4 million to the Trust for Public Land to buy the 600-year-old Alakoko Fishpond and funded a $4.2 million local jobs program.

Your turn: For luxurious vacation rentals with a community farm, consider Timbers Kauai (timberskauai.com) and the Lodge at Kukui‘ula (lodgeatkukuiula.com). Help restore the 17-acre Kahili Beach Preserve, protected by Chan Zuckerberg funding, by volunteering the first Sunday of the month (hilt.org/volunteer).

En route to the Farm at Kukui‘ula, be on the lookout for birds and wildlife; once at the 10-acre property, guests can pick fresh flowers as well as pluck herbs and organic produce. Alfresco farm-to-fork dinners are also held here.


Sensei Lanai’s onsen garden features soaking tubs set amid greenery, for the ultimate in seclusion and relaxation. | Photo courtesy of Sensei Lanai.

LANAI

Tech titan: Larry Ellison

Living well: The Oracle founder bought 98 percent of Lanai, including many homes, two Four Seasons hotels and other businesses, for a reported bargain rate of $300 million in 2012. He announced his full-time move to the island via a company email in late 2020.

Doing good: In addition to renovating community facilities and housing, Ellison has pursued his vision of a sustainable island through initiatives like Sensei Farms, a clean-energy, hydroponic producer of delicious tomatoes and salad greens. They’re found at Nobu Lanai, other resort restaurants and grocery stores statewide.

Your turn: Soak in a Japanese cedar tub in a suite at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai by beautiful Hulupo‘e Beach (fourseasons.com/lanai) or experience an adults-only wellness retreat at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort (fourseasons.com/sensei). Volunteer at the island’s No. 1 visitor attraction, the open-air Lanai Cat Sanctuary (lanaicatsanctuary.org).

Sensei Lanai’s onsen garden features soaking tubs set amid greenery, for the ultimate in seclusion and relaxation.


Earlier this year, Montage Kapalua Bay — whose 24 acres are nestled along Namalu Bay — was named the best resort in the country by U.S. News & World Report. | Photo courtesy of Montage Kapalua Bay.

MAUI

Tech titan: Jeff Bezos

Living well: In 2021, the Amazon founder paid a record $78 million for a 14-acre estate on South Maui’s secluded La Perouse Bay. He reportedly frequented Montage Kapalua Bay before finding this remote retreat south of the tony Wailea resort hotels.

Doing good: While amounts were not disclosed, Bezos made significant donations in 2021 to local nonprofits such as Maui Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity Maui, Maui Memorial Medical Center and Hawai‘i Land Trust, according to the charities involved.

Your turn: The posh residential villas at Montage Kapalua Bay (montagehotels.com/kapaluabay) offer spectacular views of Molokai and Lanai. Closer to Bezos’ enclave, the two-story villas at Fairmont Kea Lani (fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui) include private plunge pools overlooking Polo Beach. Bring a group to help build a home with Habitat for Humanity (habitat-maui.org).

Earlier this year, Montage Kapalua Bay — whose 24 acres are nestled along Namalu Bay — was named the best resort in the country by U.S. News & World Report.


On the Kohala Coast, Mauna Lani boasts secluded beaches, coral reefs and plenty of outdoor activities. | Photo courtesy of Nicole Franzen.

Hawaii (The Big Island)

“CanoeHouse is this amazing conduit of incredible people from the tech world, from the development world — it’s a meeting point and a want-to-be-seen-and-be-there place,” notes Sanjiv Hulugalle, Mauna Lani’s vice president and general manager. “It’s incredibly popular and has a waiting list of several months.”

The effect of the number of wealthy visitors who now have a residence on-island is “multifaceted, but overall it’s been positive,” Hulugalle says. “Everyone who’s come to the island and started to live here, they come for one purpose and that is to really enjoy the beautiful vibe that Hawaii has to offer culturally and spiritually. People are attracted to that sense of place. There’s more a sense of purpose to being here.”

At the resort’s CanoeHouse, the menu by chef Matt Raso includes smoked pork jowl with cabbage and mustard miso. | Photo courtesy of Nicole Franzen.

Hulugalle sees that purpose in the way the Benioffs and other Bay Area philanthropists are becoming active in island initiatives. “That’s not only in helping education and schoolteachers, and schooling and so on, but also in sustainability, in giving their time and effort in using their resources to be able to assist in the community. They have been very much supporting the economy from the time when things stalled … and they have been very supportive in people impacted by inflation,” he says. “There’s a lot of goodness happening out of this and it’s nice to see that connectivity.”

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