Hawaii’s Big Island isn’t the first choice among most newcomers, which makes the laid-back culture and expansive properties ideal for someone like me who doesn’t like crowded and predictable vacations. The island has the same eternal sunshine and exotic feel of the rest of the islands, but lacks the annoying tourist chaos on Maui and Oahu.
After landing at the Kona airport, we rented a car for our entire stay (hotels and beaches are several miles from each other), and headed north of Kona along the Kohala Coast. All around us was dark brown volcanic rock and almost no commercial buildings. It was like we were on Mars, except for pockets of bright oases and fancy hotels.
When we arrived at The Fairmont Orchid Hawaii, the lush landscaping took my breath away. The hotel has its own beach and cove, lots of ocean bars and open air restaurants, and cabanas along the edge of the water inside which therapists give massages … ooh la la.
That night I had made a reservation for my boyfriend’s birthday at the Gathering of the Kings, a festive dinner (extensive and delicious seafood buffet), and show that showcases contemporary dance blended with ancient rhythms to retell the story of the settlement of the Polynesian islands. The middle part of the show—mostly songs that all sounded alike—seemed to drag on forever, but the women shaking their grass-skirt bottoms and a fire-slinging finale made up for it. And an open bar never hurts!
After a deep sleep and fresh fruit breakfast, we drove to the Hilton Waikoloa Village, a wanna-be Disneyland hotel—a monorail and river traveled around the property and tons of kids were on the loose. We were there to swim with dolphins through a program called Dolphin Quest. First, our guide gave us snorkel gear and Sea Doo mini-scooters so that we could view fish, huge sea turtles, and waterfalls in the hotel’s lagoon. Then we anxiously swam into the protected area where eleven bottle-nosed dolphins lived. I couldn’t help but reflect on the movie Free Willy, and thought, why can’t we just leave the poor beautiful animals alone!?!
Our guide, a young guy with a Tampa-type tan, told us not to touch their sensitive eyes or ears. I reached out to touch the first dolphin that swam up and noticed his back felt like a soft rubber tire. He was calm and floated near the surface of the water as we checked out his long rows of short but sharp teeth and then held his nose for a photo opp. For the next thirty minutes our guide instructed us to make certain slapping and hand movements which signaled for the dolphin to do flips, flap its tail, swim in spirals, laugh (yes, really laugh), and jump high up out of the water. We were all smiles and googly-eyed and it was worth the extra cost to purchase photos and a DVD video of the experience.
A trip to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without golf, at least that’s what my boyfriend with a seven handicap thought. So we played the Mauna Lani South course set between mansions, volcanic rock, and the coastline. With seventy-five degree weather, delicately groomed greens, and newfound respect from my boyfriend after my ninety-one round, I thought the day couldn’t have gotten any better. But it did—we returned to the Fairmont for deep tissue massages, a dip in the hot tub, dinner under the stars, and lots of spooning.
On our last day we opted to explore the other side of the island, the wet side, and drive to Waipi’o Valley, known for its tropical vegetation, hiking trails and cascading waterfalls. From the lookout point we saw cliffs, a black-sand beach and aggressive waves. We descended down a steep road as surfers in SUVs passed us and waved. We chilled on the beach for a while, feeling completely tranquil, and imagined what it would be like to live in such a mellow environment. Then we hiked back up to our car, blared music on our drive back to the hotel, and watched the sunset from our balcony.