Hawaii: sunshine, palm trees, and beautiful blue water as far as the eye can see. And that’s all before you even leave your resort.
It’s the size that gets me first upon my arrival at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on Hawaii’s Big Island. How could it not? I’ve stayed in places half the size of the reception.
My room is “close to the entrance”, but it’s still far enough away that I’ll make my Fitbit happy every day I’m here.
The journey to the room takes me past a lagoon, a waterfall, and a mini train for guests (I say mini, but it’s still close to a full size train).
This kind of decadence, once only available to the highest of rollers, has become commonplace in big resorts the world over, and we have Hawaii to thank. Americans like to do things bigger than anyone else, so when the Pacific island archipelago became the USA’s 50th state in 1959, it wasn’t long before its tourism industry got juiced.
There are shopping precincts, wildlife shows, cultural entertainment extravaganzas, a slew of restaurants, pools, spas, beaches, golf courses, sports and fitness centres, luaus, snorkelling — and that’s all just in the hotel. Everything you could possibly want from your Hawaiian holiday is contained within the resort. And there’s the dilemma — you could spend your entire trip here and never see the rest of the country you’ve travelled so far to visit.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
When I finally reach my room, it’s comfortable and plush, but smaller than the epic exteriors would suggest. That’s the trade off — if you’re going to provide an experience like this, there has to be enough for everybody.
The Waikoloa Village covers a lot of ground on the Big Island, and Hilton have made sure there are a lot of rooms.
And a lot of activities. Some people travel to immerse themselves in a destination, to be able to say “I’ve been there”. But others travel to get away from it all, and to those people it may not matter where they are, as long as it’s not at home.
What the big resort chains have done in the Aloha State is to split the difference by creating mini-destinations. If you’re here for some time out, you’ve got it — you could settle in for years in this place. But if you’re here for Hawaii, you’ll get that as well.
The journey here from just about anywhere is a long one, and it’s fair to think you won’t want to spend your well-earned holiday in the hotel. There are some destinations (and hotels) where that’s absolutely justified, but Hawaii is a special case.
Glamorised in the 60s and popularised in the 70s, the Hawaiian experience has become shorthand for tropical island getaways. No matter which of the world’s tropical islands you end up in for your holiday, the lilt of a ukulele and a lei around your neck don’t feel out of place.
But when you’re in the real thing, you know it. Hawaii has a feel unlike any other island destination, and it’s due in part to the mix of Polynesian and American cultures.
Capturing that blend is a tricky thing to get right, but the big resorts have managed to do it. It’s nearly impossible to stay in one and feel like you could have been anywhere else. And even if you’re on the treadmill in the fitness centre, hey, you’re still in Hawaii.
And that applies no matter which island you’re on. At a whopping 40 acres, the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea is somehow only the second largest hotel on Maui. At check-in, that reassuring fact ricochets around my head as the kids run off in all directions. Nice knowing you, kids.
Of course, they’ve hit the pool. Or more accurately, pools. The Grand Wailea’s aquatic network is a labyrinth of slides, ponds, waterfalls, grottoes and lagoons. Hopefully they haven’t found the swim-up pool bar.
When it comes time to actually go and see Maui, I can’t get the kids out of the water. The promise of experiencing another country pales in comparison to going down the slide for the 200th time. At first I feel disappointed, but am I wrong? We’re enjoying beautiful weather and having a ball in some of the most amazing pools we’re likely to see. Are we really missing out?
Years ago, I travelled to Honolulu and stayed in an Airbnb. “You didn’t stay in one of the resorts?,” a friend scoffed upon my return. “You might as well have stayed at home.”
At first, I thought it was because I didn’t care where I stayed; I’d be out and about most of the time anyway. Confronted with this new logic, however, I began to feel as though I’d missed something.
Like it or not, the big resorts have become a part of the Hawaiian experience.
Waikiki, in south Honolulu, is one of the most famous beaches in the world. It loses little of its lustre during a rainstorm, but the kids aren’t as buzzed to get down there as they would have on a sunny day.
Instead, we’re enjoying the heated rooftop pool at the Hilton Waikiki Beach. The kids are having a great time getting wet and wild, and I’m reading on the undercover sundeck.
No ukuleles to be heard, no leis around our necks. And sure, it’s still raining. But we’re still in Hawaii.
*The writer travelled as a guest of Hilton and Hawaiian Airlines.