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Big Island Hawaii: The Resorts of the Kohala Coast
The Kohala Coast of Hawaii's Big Island might not look like what you imagine when you think of Hawaii. While the grounds of the many resorts that line the coastline are lush and green, once you leave the confines of the property, you'll see a land that's almost barren, dotted with tiny shrubs and long expanses of hardened black lava from the last eruptions of the now dormant Hualālai volcano. It's not the jungle filled with waterfalls that you might have envisioned (for that, head to the Hilo side), but the otherworldly landscape is still beautiful.
Divided into four main resort properties, the Kohala Coast is home to eight luxury resorts. I had the chance to briefly visit them all and to stay in two, and I saw that each one has its own style, advantages, and disadvantages.
Best for families with active children.
The Waikoloa Beach resort complex seems like a great choice for those who want to be able to stay busy without renting a car or leaving the resort complex. I can see spring breakers, older couples, and definitely families with young children loving the amenities, but if you want something that feels a little more intimate, I'd recommend you go elsewhere.
The Hilton Waikoloa Village is the largest of the eight properties in terms of number of rooms. There are over 1200 rooms on the 62 acre resort. It looks like it's been picked up from Disney World and transplanted here to Hawaii. In fact, like Disney World, there is a tram system that transports guest around the hotel. There are four pool areas (one is adults only) with swim-up pool bars, waterslides, waterfalls, and lazy rivers. There's a beach and ocean-fed lagoon for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boogie-boarding, a fitness center, tennis courts, and golf course. The hotel offers a whole host of activities like hula classes, luau dinner, lei-making demos, pool parties, and live music.
The hotel also boasts the area's only dolphin encounter, the Dolphin Quest. I had the chance to experience the encounter and while I thought it was well done, there really wasn't the opportunity to "swim" with the dolphins as advertised. Instead, we donned life vests and stood in the water while we learned about dolphin commands and were able to pet the dolphin as it passed by. Then we floated in the water while the dolphin swam beneath us a few times and snorkeled as the dolphin swam around the small lagoon. I'd recommend the activity for kids, and suggest having a family member camp out on the shore and take photos - the ones sold in the gift shop are quite expensive.
There's a nightclub for adults, several restaurants, spa, and onsite shops. Basically, it's dream come true for a family managing hyperactive kids, and a nightmare for honeymooners looking for privacy.
Average rates range from $260 - $400, though they do offer specials that start as low as $199 per night, making this an attractive choice for families who want a full-service resort but are traveling on a budget.
The Waikoloa Beach Marriott offers some of the lowest rates in the area. Basic rooms rates range from $199 to $320 per night, and the resort also offers some great package deals that can help you save on car rental, golf and spa treatments. The resort looks like a typical Marriott with a bit of Hawaiian flavor added into the decor. There is a restaurant, lounge, coffee shop, and commissary onsite and the resort hosts a luau dinner. Several other restaurants and shops are within a mile's walk.
There is an onsite golf course, fitness center, spa, swimming beach, nature reserve, and two pools.
Mauna Kea Resort - Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
Best for couples,honeymooners and families with older children who want a swimming beach.
The Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea hotels are owned by the same company and are located on the same property (though they front different beaches) but the similarities seem to end there.
The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened in 1965. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel ever built and was the favorite Hawaiian retreat of many celebrities. Eventually it grew outdated, so when it was damaged in an an earthquake a few years ago, the owners took the opportunity to close it down and do a complete overhaul, spending $150 million sprucing up the decor and reducing the number of guest rooms (making each one larger). The 258 guest rooms are now stylish with colorful accents and modern furniture. They have flat screen tvs, iPod docks, and L'Occitane bath products. The hotel features a pool, sandy beach, fitness center, two golf courses, 11 tennis courts, several restaurants, luau, spa, salon, shopping, and Hawaiian culture classes.
Guest rooms all have private lanais, and room rates range from $450 to $850.
My biggest complaints about the hotel were the outdated decor, the lack of any safety latch on the room's doors (a concern because non-guests could access the property via the public beach), and the less than enthusiastic service I received from staff. The friendly and caring service I was told about by resort representatives (who themselves were the epitome of friendly) was no where to be seen. Upon arrival, I pulled up to inquire where self-parking was. The bellman told me, but didn't mention that it was quite a walk from the garage to the front desk - a walk with no signage directing you where to go once out of the garage. After stumbling around with my heavy bags for a few minutes, I made it to the front door where the bellmen watched me struggle to the front desk with no offer of help. The front desk person didn't crack a smile until she checked my name on the computer and when I later called with a problem with my Internet connection, the response was similarly apathetic. Especially for the price ($415 to $615 for single room, $1350 for a one-room suite) I expected better service and higher quality rooms
There are four on-site restaurants, spa, salon, and kid's club at the hotel, but the big draw is the beach. Connected to Hapuna Beach State Park, it offers sandy white beaches, mild waves, and reefs for snorkeling. There are beach chairs available for use, but you have to sign for resort towels. As an added bonus, guests at the Hapuna can use the amenities at Mauna Kea.
Hualālai Resort - Kona Village and Four Seasons Hualālai
Best for honeymooners and those seeking privacy, luxury and romance.
There's more I'll say about Four Seasons later, but suffice to say, it's nice. Really, really nice. But it's Four Seasons, and the resort was recently rated the number one beach resort in the US by Travel and Leisure, so you probably already knew that. With four pools, a kids club, three restaurants, golf course, culture center and unparalleled service, it's worth every penny of the pricey room rate (which starts at $500 per night).
Kona Village is the perfect place for honeymooners or anyone who wants to feel like they are on their own private island. The resort definitely delivers "barefoot luxury". Assorted hale (huts) are scattered around 82 acres of lava, black sand beach, palm trees, and ancient fishing lagoons. Dirt paths connect the hale to the pebbly beach and to the three resort restaurants. There are also three lounges, including the Shipwreck Bar, built from the resort's founder's boat when it broke apart on lava rocks. Guests can arrange for private candlelit dinners on the beach, and the resort's luau is considered one of the best on the island.
I was able to attend the Wednesday Night Hula Mana Luau, featuring authentic kalua pig (smoked in an underground imu), mai tais and entertainment. During the luau Hawaiian dancers perform hula, sing and chant, and tell the stories of Hawaiian history and culture. While the food didn't floor me, I loved that the Luau was more than just fire dancers (though, there was a fire dancer) and hulu girls. The stories behind the dances and chants were presented well and included lots of insight into Hawaiian history and traditional Hawaiian culture.
There is a pool onsite, but with all the water-sports offered, you might not ever use it. The resort offers SCUBA certification and diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddle-boarding, outrigger canoe paddling, deep-sea fishing and surfing.
Rooms feature traditional Hawaiian patterned quilts, mini-fridges stocked with soft drinks, and twice-daily housekeeping service. They don't have tvs or phones, which means staff member communicate with guests through notes left on the door. A coconut serves as a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Just leave it on the stairs and you'll be left alone.
Rates that include three meals a day range from $700 to $1200 per night, but frequent promotions help bring the cost down.
Mauna Lani Resort - Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid
Best for families and couples looking for a luxurious, intimate setting that still offers lots of activities.
The Mauna Lani Resort complex hours both the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and the Fairmont Orchid, two distinct hotels that are connected to each other (and to the surrounding shops and restaurants) but a system of free shuttles. Both offer luxurious rooms, beautiful beaches, and lots of family friendly activities.
The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel puts a strong emphasis on preserving Hawaiian culture and educating visitors about the ways and traditions of the Hawaiian people. Cultural tours of the historic royal fishponds (which date as far back as 250 BC) as well as the ancient petrogylph fields are led by the incredibly informative resident historian Danny Akaka. The resort is also quite proud, as justifiably so, of its green efforts. Condé Nast Traveler named it one of the world's top luxury eco-friendly resorts for its solar energy innovations, which have resulted in the resort generating more solar electric power than any luxury resort in the world. Golf Magazine also recognized the resort for its environmental stewardship during the construction and use of its eco-friendly golf course.
Awards and accolades aside, the Mauna Lani has a lot going for it as a luxury hotel for families and active couples. There's an onsite fitness club, free snorkeling equipment, and bikes available for riding around the sprawling property. The kids club includes a 9-hole kids golf course and an intro to snorkeling class. Each of the 343 guest rooms, which start at rates of $270 per night, has a private lanai, mini-fridge and flat screen tv. 90% of the rooms have ocean views. Two-bedroom bungalows also feature gas grills and private plunge pool. There is a spa, four restaurants, 24-hour room service, and guest laundry. Like other resorts in the area, the hotel also offers wedding packages, which start at $550.
The Fairmont Orchid is ideal for honeymooners and couples who want a luxury experience but still want a range of activities to choose from. It's also great for adults who may be traveling with kids but still want a bit of romance in their vacation. The 540 guest rooms have AC, internet, private lanais, and are decorated in muted tones and with plush linens. 10 tennis courts, 24-hour fitness center and a 36-hole golf course keep guests busy, and a kids program with arts and crafts and educational tours will entertain the kids. The grounds, while quite large, still manage to feel intimate thanks to lush landscaping and romantic torches that light the way at night.
The trip was paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association, but the views expressed are entirely my own.
The Fairmont Orchid, like the Mauna Lani, works hard to be eco-friendly. The Fairmont is the only resort in the area that recycles 100% of its waste. It uses low wattage bulbs, landscaping is done with indigenous plants that are drought-resistant and require less watering, and herbs and produce grown onsite are used in the hotel's seven restaurants. I sampled the sushi at Norio's Sushi Bar and Restaurant, which uses "locally sourced, organic, and sustainable items whenever possible," another way the Fairmont works to be eco-friendly in its practices.
One of the biggest draws of the Fairmont is its "Spa Without Walls." This alfresco area offers guests the chance to have a relaxing massage to the sound of a trickling waterfall while a warm breeze blows on their skin. The massage I enjoyed was one of the best I've ever had. My masseuse was knowledgeable and made me feel comfortable, and the sensations of being outdoor made the experience even more pleasant.
Rooms at the Fairmont Orchid generally start above $500 per night, but some great promotions and discounts have dropped the prices as low as $199 per night recently, allowing guests to afford the hotels romance and luxury even on a small budget, and keeping occupancy rates as high as 79% even during low-season.