Inside the Home of a Hawaii Resort Owner

Her eco-boutique hotel and spa is a popular vacation destination for celebrities. Now, Hawaii Island Retreat owner Jeanne Sunderland takes us inside her personal island getaway.

Photo by: Lia Wailani Watkins Homeowner Jeanne Sunderland feels the bathroom is the most important room in the house, as her family loves taking baths. “We created this bathroom to offer a spa-like atmosphere, with upscale amenities that include granite countertops, stylish lavatories and a bidet,” she says. “It’s all designed to complement the star feature: our two-person hydrotherapy bathtub.”

Nestled among towering pines and cooling ocean breezes, Hawaii Island Retreat at Ahu Pohaku Ho’omaluhia is a 50-acre, luxury oceanfront destination on the North Kohala coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. A popular vacation getaway for celebrities, the eco-boutique hotel and spa is co-owned and operated by Jeanne Sunderland and Robert Watkins, whose own Hawaii residence is almost as impressive as their resort. We chatted with Jeanne to learn more about her home’s quintessential Hawaiian style and her resort’s luxe accommodations.

What is your favorite room in the home?

My favorite room is the dining room. We have family meals there, we play board games there and the entry glass was made by a very dear friend. The stained-glass skylight was made by another friend with pieces we collected on our vacation to New England, while visiting the town of Sunderland. I think of it as the most beautiful room in the house.

And I love the saltwater purified pool, which has no chlorine added.  It is like floating in a very calm ocean.

What drew you to your home?

We built this home. We were drawn to the land by the magnificent Pohaku (boulders) that are central to the landscaping.

That’s a beautiful tub. You must love taking baths! 

Both my husband, Robert, and I love taking baths! This tub was chosen because it is big enough for two.

Photo by: Lia Wailani Watkins A large kitchen with a granite-topped island has become the most social room in the Sunderlands’ home. “Two ovens and three countertops allow the entire family and friends to cook and spend time together,” homeowner Jeanne Sunderland says.

What are some of your favorite colors? 

This house was designed with a color palette of peach and silver-gray. They are the colors of that location; we look out on magnificent sunsets every evening. The colors of the sunset are my favorite, and we designed to house to reflect that with soothing oranges, yellows and pinks. The silver-gray is an homage to the old large lava rocks located throughout the home and landscape.   

How do you incorporate local Hawaii culture into your home?

This is very much an indoor/outdoor house, and we bring nature into the house in many ways. We have flowers – both fresh and as pictures – all over the house, and my husband has an extensive shell collection that is displayed on glass shelves.

Do you garden in your backyard?

My husband has a large bromeliad garden in the backyard. This area is more desert than at the lodge, so we have our orchards and organic gardens at the lodge. The big Island of Hawaii has many climate zones. A common saying in Hawaii is, "If you don't like the weather, drive for 10 minutes and it will change!" The north Kohala Coast. where we and all the hotels are located. is called the Gold Coast, because of the endless sunny, tropical vacation days, with sunshine averaging 357 out of 365 days of the year, and rainfall around 7" annually.  Because of this, we own 15 acres of gardens and orchards in town – only a 10 minute drive to the east, but this short distance offers a completely different climate, where it rains almost every day.

What are some must-have items in the home?

We have excellent beds, linens and artwork that remind us of the many places we have visited, and my antique dish collection. Since 1969, my husband and I have been traveling throughout the world and collecting antique dishes as we travel. We have delicate dishes from Paris, hand-painted coffee pots from Portugal, Venetian glass dishes from Italy and antique platters from different colonial towns in Mexico. We have also inherited sets of "turn-of-the-century" American antiques from the Midwest.    

Photo by: Lia Wailani Watkins The dining room was designed to display beauty in every direction. Curved windows face northwest toward the Pacific Ocean, while a handcrafted skylight reflects rainbows of color onto the white maple wood dining table.

Where do you like to shop for home decor items?

Antique stores all over the world. We display rugs in the bedrooms that we collected in 1970 from Iran and Afghanistan. Living on an island for the past 30 years has led to us taking yearly trips out of the country. From Afghanistan and Iran to Southeast Asia and Europe, every painting, rug, decor item we own is from one of these trips. It is truly a house decorated by the world. We have also traveled throughout Central and South America. Traveling is clearly a passion of our entire family.

How would you describe your interior design style at your home and at the hotel?

It’s turn-of-the-century (1900-1920) antique furniture and artwork; the lodge emulates turn-of-the-century Hawaiian palaces.

As the owner of a spa retreat, what are your recommendations for creating a spa-like feel at home? 

Think simple. Eliminate clutter, create a beautiful focal point and include fragrant flowers or herbs to bring in the smell of nature. You can make any room a place of serenity. Make it personal: Incorporate art that reminds you of people and places that you love. Create open rooms and areas that naturally flow into each other. Bamboo sheets and memory foam beds wrap around you at night to create that feeling of being totally supported and comforted.  

Your dining room overlooks the beautiful outdoors and pool area. What was your vision behind designing that? 

Nature is a healer. Our vision was to draw nature into the house to create more of a seamless indoor/outdoor experience.

How would you describe your hotel/spa retreat? 

We create intentional peacefulness that provides a sanctuary from the distractions and demands of modern living. Immersed in beauty, I consider this a place where individuals and groups may find peace, joy, renewal of spirit and a sense of connectedness. In harmony with nature, we produce our own electricity and heat with solar panels, grow our own organic fruits and vegetables and produce our own eggs and cheese. The private retreat has 10 elegant spacious rooms with expansive views, and seven charming yurts near the spa facility, which offer a unique experience while being comfortable and cozy. 

How do you create a sense of home for people on vacation?

We really want people to feel comfortable. People find tranquility at the ocean in the gardens among the stones. Our media room and library with big screen TV and DVD library is available for all. While it’s an ideal location for Hawaiian weddings, our sanctuary features hardwood floors, farm-to-table delicious meals drawing from our gardens and livestock, a full service spa with treatment rooms overlooking our sacred valley and stones and a saltwater pool.

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