I don’t write a lot of hotel reviews on this blog (you can read my where to stay archives here), but I feel pretty strongly about this one so I definitely wanted to share my experiences.
On my most recent trip to the Big Island, I booked part of my stay at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. I’ve heard so much about it I was sure it must be “the” place to stay on the Big Island. Some things I’ve heard from friends/peeps on the Internet:
“You’ve definitely got to at least check out the Hilton.”
“It’s so big it even has its own transportation system.”
“It’s the best place for families on the Big Island.”
“It’s so awesome you’ll never want to leave.”
“It’s practically its own town.”
“It’s like Disneyland for grown ups.”
That all sounds great! Sign me up! So I booked five nights in the Palace Tower at the Hilton Waikoloa Village in late May 2018.
Here’s a quick rundown in case you’re not familiar: The Hilton Waikoloa Village is on the “Kona side” of the Big Island about 40 minutes north of the airport in a resort development called Waikoloa. It’s a sprawling 62-acre ocean front property with an impressive list of amenities. 3+ pools, 3 separate accommodation towers, a full service spa, two golf courses, tennis courts, more than a dozen restaurants, a dolphin encounter experience, a protected snorkel lagoon with a sandy beach, plus boat and tram transportation. It’s the kind of place that’s designed to have everything you could ever want on vacation so you never have to leave the resort.
To preface, I’m not entirely against this concept (although I think Hawaii needs to be explored and a trip there without leaving the resort and actually seeing Hawaii is a bit of a waste!) I’ve spent plenty of days at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa just bumming around the pool and beach and on this same trip spent almost 3 full days at the Fairmont Orchid just soaking up rays by the pool. Also, although I don’t have kids, I’ve traveled with them quite a bit and am honestly pretty much a kid myself. So “family friendly” resorts are not a deterrent to me, and I’m not bothered by a lot of kids running around a resort.
All of this being said, here was my overall impression of the resort/my stay: I wasn’t very impressed.
But before I get into the nitty gritty of it, here’s what I did like about the resort:
It’s in a great location. Being up in Waikoloa (as opposed to in Kona) feels slower and a little nicer. The air quality (vog) was also a lot better than in Kona and southwards.
Waikoloa has a couple of little centers with restaurants, shops, markets, and a gas station so there are some conveniences without having to drive all the way into Kona. Waikoloa Village is also pretty close by.
It’s beautifully landscaped. The grounds of the resort are lovely. There are a ton of bridges and waterways plus so much flora and fauna. The resort also has an incredibly large Asian art collection that’s displayed throughout.
It’s a Hilton. My five night stay racked up almost 30,000 Hilton Honors points.
And…that’s honestly about it.
Here’s the obvious complaint: this resort has no beach. Yes, they’ve created a man made snorkel lagoon that feeds into the ocean (so it’s possible to see turtles and fish) with a tiny sandy beach, but that’s it. The whole shoreline is rocky.
However, my biggest complaint about this resort is the complete lack of service. Seriously, besides housekeeping, who I saw a lot of, I think there were about 10 people working at the entire resort. I don’t expect chair service coming around every 10 minutes to see if I want a drink at a place like this, but being at one of the main pools and having to walk and search for 10-15 minutes to find water (to buy!!!) is pretty ridiculous.
The resort has definitely taken steps towards automation to minimize service/interaction with guests. For example, towels aren’t received at the pool. They’re checked out of a machine near your room and are apparently “micro chipped” so you’ll be charged $20 a pop for ones that aren’t returned to the chute (which was often overflowing so I’m not sure how that chip really works). They also offered free movie rentals via a Redbox-like machine in every tower.
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It seemed like a lot of the amenities/venues were closed during our stay. I’m not sure if this was because they weren’t operating at full capacity due to cancellations because of the volcano (I was there almost three weeks after Kilauea’s most recent heightened eruption began and the media’s scare tactics have really impacted tourism), but it often felt like we were held hostage at the resort without being able to get what we needed. For example, the Orchid Marketplace located at the main pool is supposed to be a quick service/food court location where you can get snacks/drinks when hanging out at the pool. It had limited hours posted on the door (open 11AM-3PM) but it wasn’t open at all during our entire stay.
I also like to be able to grab a bottle of water at night when I return to the resort after dinner to take back to the room, but you can’t imagine how difficult this was. Of course Orchid Marketplace wasn’t an option in the evening (or anytime during our stay) and there was nowhere near the lobby area or anywhere along the path (15 minute walk) to our room. After waiting in line at concierge/check in in the lobby one evening for 10-15 minutes (only one employee) to ask where I could get water (I knew they had a whole cabinet of water bottles behind the desk because they gave us two when we checked in), I was told that the only place to get water was from a vending machine in our building that was on a different floor than I was staying on. Great.
Later on, after studying a map and doing a little Google-ing, I discovered a coffee shop and gift shop in the tower next to mine (a 10 minute walk) that had drinks and snacks. A miracle! Of course it wasn’t open in the evenings and even if it had been it would’ve been way out of the way to hit on the way back to my room (you can’t imagine how huge this resort is!).
The rooms where fine although for being recently renovated they weren’t anything to write home about. There wasn’t a hair dryer and there were minimal products (shampoo, conditioner, etc.) offered. However, the rooms were quite large and we had a balcony that overlooked the golf course.
The resort just had a weird vibe the whole time we were there. Besides the last night when there was some sort of political convention, we hardly saw anyone. I don’t know if the resort is so large that it just kind of swallows up the crowds or what but it honestly felt like a bit of a ghost town. I expected pool chairs to be hard to come by when we showed up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon, but there was hardly anyone at any of the pools. Again, was there just no one staying at this resort due to the increased volcanic activity? Maybe. But then again I certainly paid a premium to stay there and there was definitely no flex pricing. I’d read about having to get wristbands to use the pool areas but I couldn’t imagine where you were supposed to get there. We used a machine to get our towels and besides the two guys at the pool bar at the main pool, I never saw a single employee the whole 5 days at any of the pools to check a wristband let alone get one from.
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I will say that the last two nights we were there it seemed like people were streaming into our tower with their suitcases from the tram, but I don’t know where they went! There were minimal people hanging out at the resort each day. I did notice that a lot of the hotel guests were Asian and the resort did seem to cater to Japanese tourists (the safety spiel in the tram was in English and Japanese) so perhaps there’s some cultural differences to how Asian tourists vs. American tourists spend their days (out touring the island and not at the resort during the day maybe?).
There did seem to be more people on the little man made beach and in the lagoon than the pools though. Perhaps because the pools were too cold for swimming? At least for me anyways.
I guess the last major consideration is dining. Yes, there are more than half a dozen restaurants on the property. I went to one. The pizza place. It was fine-not as good as something I’d get at home and pretty expensive. I’d say overall the food is overpriced and mediocre but that’s probably what you’d expect from any big resort. It’s hard to do good food at resorts when there are so many amazing local restaurants nearby.
Whew. That’s a lot of griping isn’t it? Geez. I just read back through this and it sounds like I had a terrible time. I didn’t. I had a great time! The sun was shining the whole time, the palm trees were blowing in the breeze, and the sunsets were beautiful. But here’s the thing…you have a LOT of choices in Hawaii. This is not the only resort in Hawaii. So when I’m forking over serious money for a “nice” place to stay, I like to make sure that I’m getting the best bang for my buck.
Here’s how the money broke down at the Hilton Waikoloa Village: On all of the searches I did when looking for a place to stay during my dates, the Hilton kept coming up in the $250 range. I thought that was a great deal for one of the “best resorts on the island.” Well with taxes that started pushing $300/night. Then when I called to “legally” add two extra adults to the reservation (two mom/daughter combos) so we’d have use of the pool that added an extra $100/night. We’re now at $400/night if you’re keeping track. An extra $40/night in resort fees and $35/day for valet parking ($10 more than self parking and the self parking lot was a HAUL from the entrance). That’s a grand total of $475/night!!!
And guess what? There were absolutely no employees around handing out or checking wristbands to make sure that only resort guests were using the facilities (I’m used to Aulani or the Grand Wailea where they patrol the pool areas like a hawk and kick people out without wristbands). So for an extra $100/night, I’m not sure what we got. We definitely didn’t get enough towels for everyone in the room. Had to call housekeeping every evening to send up more. Didn’t get bottles of water for everyone when we checked in (only two). So if I sound a little grumpy, that’s because I paid an extra $500 for my stay for absolutely nothing.
$475/night. For comparison, this exact same travel party paid $525/night (all fees and parking included) to stay at the Fairmont Orchid, an absolutely heavenly 5 star resort just down the road.
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I’m glad I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village though, because I now feel like I can offer people specific advice about deciding where to stay.
In a nutshell, you’ll like the Hilton Waikoloa Village if:
You like “big,” “grand” feeling resorts, but don’t care about service.
You don’t mind walking 15-20 minutes to your room or waiting 15-20 minutes for a tram that will take 10 minutes to get you to your room.
Swimming with dolphins is on your bucket list. Although after kayaking with wild Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins, seeing the bottle nose ones in the tiny lagoon was a little sad.
Your kids are all about slides, paddleboarding, snorkeling, riding those big water bikes in the lagoon, etc.
You don’t want to rent a car and want enough places to eat and things to do right at your resort.
You’re part of the Hilton Grand Vacations program (there were several sales pitches they tried to pull us into but I wasn’t interested so I don’t know a lot about it).
The last thing I’ll say is a word about “family friendly” resorts. While all of the slides and some of the activities (dolphin encounters, water bikes, etc.) are fun for kids and somewhat unique, there really isn’t a resort in Hawaii that isn’t family friendly. When I’ve traveled with kids (quite a bit), I’ve found convenience to be as valuable as anything and so if I was traveling with kids to Hawaii, I’d be more interested in staying at a smaller resort where all of the amenities were clustered closer together (easy to hop from the beach to the pool with plenty of snack/drink and entertainment options all close together) than this mammoth of a resort that lacks convenience and service. I mean, the kids at the Fairmont Orchid seemed mighty happy splashing around on their large inflatables (sold at the pool desk) in the ocean front pool, playing games of giant Jenga on the lawn, popping into the poolside convenient store for a popsicle, watching sea turtles nesting on the beach, snorkeling in the natural lagoon, and following around the ceremonial torch lighter every night.
And if you don’t have kids, there’s nothing appealing about this place.
For my recommendations for where to stay on the Big Island, check out these posts: