Say you’re planning to travel with the kids, your aging parents, or whoever qualifies as both the center of your world and the bane of your existence. Face it, kids and older folks can be a handful to plan for and travel with, especially when you’re the one coordinating the many details that go into planning a family trip. One easy pre-packaged solution is the mega-resort, your fairytale vacation destination, though your fairytale will have more in common with Disney World than Oz.
Depending on my destination and current state of mind I tend to be a fan of either upscale foodie destinations or middle-of-nowhere adventurous road trips or wilderness destinations. I haven’t before checked out a broad appeal family-oriented destination like a major theme park, cruise ship, or mega-resort. One of the few benefits of a crummy economy is that all sorts of interesting options are currently available on the cheap and now’s a great time to experiment with new travel experiences.
With that in mind I found myself heading to our fiftieth state to check out my first megaresort on the largest island in the archipelago, Hawai’i, which is popularly known as “The Big Island” to avoid confusion. Tucked away on the northwest corner of the island is the popular Kohala Coast, home to a considerable number of resorts, beaches, and tourist activities. Among them sprawls the staggeringly ginormous megaresort, Hilton Waikoloa Village. The property is almost ludicrously large, and one is free to explore it by its endless outdoor hallways and footpaths, travel on the facility’s tram, or via the Disneyesque gondolas that cruise up and down the artificial canal that runs the length of the property.
Walking the grounds I admire the planning and design of this space; you can’t go more than a few yards without encountering centuries-old Asian art, well-maintained botanical gardens, curious animals and displays, and bountiful opportunities to charge things to your room. There’s such a wealth of diversity across these experiences that the lack of diversity of the guests stands out in contrast. With the exception of a handful of Japanese visitors, the vast majority of the resort guests are white American families, mostly straight parents with kids and elderly couples, although my gaydar pinged for the occasional lesbian moms juggling their kids.
This is not a destination that requires a lot, or in fact any, pre-planning. The list of facilities and activities seems endless; in addition to the obvious inclusion of numerous pools, golf courses, and restaurants, the facility offers a pro tennis court (complete with audience stands); a natural swimming lagoon complete with waterfalls, sea turtles, and manta rays; a dolphin lagoon (yes you can swim with them and yes it’s not inexpensive); and a multimillion dollar art collection. As someone who’s used to heavy advance research and planning on my destinations it comes as a relief that all I have to do here is show up and my days fill up themselves. At the same time I worry slightly that there’s something decidedly uncool about giving in to pamphlet vacationing; am I getting old?
Of course one of the best activities to do at a Hawaiian resort is doing nothing at all; a great option that also doesn’t cost anything. The consistently fantastic weather on the island’s northwest coast means there’s always the option to hang out in the sun. As with many resorts there are a number of pools at the Hilton including an adults-only option, and there are hammocks strung between palm trees around the property including some tucked out of the way in quiet corners. It’s amazing how many hours you can spend in a hammock overlooking the ocean at sunset.
For runners there’s a pretty good trail that I used every day; start at the giant Buddha statue then run South along the resort paths that follow the shore. After the dolphin lagoon head down the steps to the shore, which you can follow across a rocky beach then along sandy beaches until you hit the lava fields. You’ll find yourself alone on most of the path which is a nice change from the bustle of the resort property, and at one point I ran across a short stretch of beach populated only by two giant turtles slowly climbing ashore. Even if you’re just looking to go out for a stroll this is an excellent (and free) way to spend an afternoon.
By night there’s not as much going on, but then most people traveling with families are up early and in bed early. And Hawaii, I’m told, doesn’t offer much by way of distinct LGBT nightlife, with the exception of Honolulu located on the island of Oahu. I checked out Mask, currently the only full-time gay bar on the Big Island.
Located in a strip mall in Kailua Kona, just 30 minutes from Waikoloa Village, Mask is a cute enough space but not exactly packed. I visited on a Saturday night and there were less than a dozen men and women in the space, a mix of visitors and locals. It’s a nice spot for a drink but if you’re looking for bustling night life the island of Hawai’i isn’t really the best choice.
This was one of few excursions I made into town; if it’s the goal of a resort to persuade its guests not to leave the property, then the Hilton Waikoloa Village is quite good at this. Tactics include creating a very comfortable, accommodating, and safe environment, providing oodles of things to do on the resort grounds, and building your resort not close to anything except other, less interesting, resorts.
Another successful strategy is allowing one to secure one’s vehicle in a distant location. True story: I was enjoying the beautiful Hawaiian evening so much that I walked the 20-minutes from my room to the front of the hotel before I realized I had forgotten my car keys. A quick calculation revealed that a 40-minute round trip walk was needed to retrieve my keys before I even started on the 30-minute drive to a restaurant, so instead I had dinner in the Hilton’s sushi restaurant.
The food experience at Hilton Waikoloa is a mixed bag. The on-premises sushi restaurant, Imari, is excellent. The traditional environment, service, and food are all great; they even make a killer martini. The Kirin Chinese Restaurant on the other hand is seriously overpriced; I had a moderate-sized serving of a decent mu shu pork for $18, which is a good example of the resort price-gauging experience. I don’t mind shelling out bucks for great food but I’m not feeling the value in this situation.
The casual dining options fare way better on value and offer great food – check out the Kimo Bean Coffee Company where you can get a very good slice of thick quiche for $4.95, or the Orchid Marketplace whose pressed pork sandwich is delicious and almost worth the $10.50.
If you manage to bust loose from your resort, pop over to the nearby town of Kailua-Kona where you’ll find any number of restaurants of varying quality and cost. I’d heard a lot about Huggo’s but found it to be more touristy than I was hoping for. You certainly can’t beat the view; the dining room is perched on a terrace overlooking the ocean. The prices are on the high end though the food is quite good, and this is probably best for a romantic dinner for two.
For more casual dining check out Huggo’s On The Rocks next door which offers scaled down prices and has live music.
It’s possible to keep your activity expenses very low and have a good time, though some of the add-on expenses are surprisingly aggressive. You can’t necessarily tell from the resort’s website, which offers promises of free wireless internet service but doesn’t tell you that the service is only free in common areas and in your room you’ll be charged $15.95 per day. The site extols the virtues of their fitness center, but doesn’t tell you about that charge either. I wanted to use it to warm up before a run and was surprised to learn it would cost me a full day rate just to stretch out inside. I’ve never heard of being charged to use a hotel’s fitness center and it was especially curious because the center was small and sweltering (the air conditioning was broken that day). Fortunately there’s ample lawn space near the tennis courts where you can warm up outdoors and for free.
The more upscale luxury resorts such as the Fairmont tend to not charge you for extras such as fitness center use, self-parking, and even towel rentals. It starts adding up and depending on how much daily costs you add on it’s well-worth considering that these additions can bring the cost of staying at a mid-range resort within reasonable distance of jumping up to an upscale resort with no add-ons. I had a rate of $209 per night at the Hilton, or about $250-260 with daily add-ons, and for the same period the Fairmont is showing a rate of about $300 per night and is a much nicer experience.
Of course I wasn’t traveling with family and when you start multiplying the cost by person in your party the resort does make more price sense. And from the perspective of getting everyone to a safe destination where there’s plenty to do and little to think about, I can definitely see the appeal of this type of experience. But for the single traveler, couples, or those seeking more of an adventure, you’ll need to look beyond the gondolas of the megaresort.