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Trip Report Hawaii, the Big Island June 2011: lots of hotel detail

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We spent a wonderful nine days on the Big Island following a modification of an itinerary suggested by Frommer's: two nights at the Four Seasons Hualalai, three nights at Nohea Cottage in Volcano near Volcano National Park, and four nights at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Any less would have been too short, with unlimited time and money we would have taken two weeks, adding at least one night at each place we stayed and perhaps two in a cottage near the Waipi'o Valley or splitting the final two days between the Four Seasons and the Mauna Kea. I should note we usually opt for two week vacations where we stay in two places one week each; we are not big fans of moving around . Because the Big Island is so big and seeing things would take so much driving time, I highly recommend Frommer's three stop approach. Also, we truly loved each place we stayed, each very different from each other.
Our first stop was at the Four Seasons, just 20 minutes from the Kona airport. We arrived on Saturday noon and didn't leave the property until we checked out at lunchtime on Monday. Our experience with the hotel's outstanding service began with my phone call asking for a rose to be placed in our room in honor of my husband's birthday when we arrived. The concierge was lovely, wrote a note for him in Italian, and when we arrived some weeks we found we had been upgraded to a prime oceanview room. Staff was unobtrusively gracious throughout our stay--the beach staff in particular were wonderful.
Our room was large, with beautiful slate floors, a luxurious bathroom and a spacious lanai. Both in the room and everywhere else in the Four Seasons, we were struck by how beautiful and also extremely comfortable the furniture was. Although the ocean was not swimmable (one big negative), the swimming pools were gorgeous, including a 28 meter lap pool with a blue tile bottom which is the most beautiful pool I have ever swum in. There is also a salt water pond where you can snorkel. Sunscreen and leave-in hair conditioner are by each pool, as is cold water and cool wet washcloths to refresh you.
There is also a beautiful walk along the sea, which is spectacular and fairly long.
Our very best experience here was a morning we spent on the beach reading and watching the ocean in comfortable lounge furniture that has a kind of hood to shade you if you want it. Staff brought us virgin lava flows and mahi mahi tacos (which were the best food we had on the island) in bento boxes for lunch. The word "paradise" did come to mind. The Four Seasons is very expensive, but worth it and I think the bottom category golf/ocean view rooms would also be fine.
After lunch on Monday, we headed south, stopping for an excellent at the very simple Coffee Shack in Captain Cook, which has a fantastic view over the valley out to the ocean. It had excellent salad, great homemade carrot cake and perhaps the best coffee I have had ever. In retrospect we would have gone with burgers or fish instead of pizza, but the place and the rest of the food was great. After lunch we continued south, stopping at the impressive Place of Refuge (note: VERY hot in afternoon) and the beautiful Punalu'u Black Sand Beach on our way to Volcano and Nohea cottage.
This beautiful tranquil cottage in the midst of a rainforest reminded me of William Yeat's famous poem, "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there with bee and wattles made...' The cabin was small as a house, but spacious as a cottage, incredibly peaceful and romantic. The intricate craftsman wood and open space of the cottage was filled with built in window seats in the living room and bedroom, french doors opened everywhere to the rain forest that surrounds the cottage. Three walls in the bedroom are window, a hob room opens to a covered lanai to sit or picnic. There is a wood heating stove, an entertainment area and a gourmet kitchen. I am so SAD this cottage is not in California. We went because it was near the park; if it was close, we would return yearly just to be there. Very reasonably priced for the luxury. The owner Kathryn was also very helpful, even let us do our laundry during our three night stay there.
Volcano Park itself was magnificent and eerie even though the lack of fresh flowing lava was the major disappointment of our vacation. We spent one day driving first on Kilauea Crater Drive, then on the Chain of Craters road to the sea. On both drives, there are several half mile to mile long walks; we highly recommend all of them. During our time in the park, we relied heavily on Andrew Doughty's Hawaii The Big Island Revealed (It along with Fodor's, the Rough Guide and Frommer's were helpful throughout the trip. I have never regretted my penchant for buying multiple guidebooks). On the Chain of Craters road drive, the walk on the lunar like lava was particularly spectacular. There is a viewpoint with picnic tables where you can lunch on the way.
On our second day in Volcano National Park, we again followed Doughty's advice and took a beautiful morning hike through rain forest and across a crater before ascending again to our parking place ( the Kilauea Iki trail (a little over 3 miles--moderate). After spending the afternoon at our cottage lunching on the covered lanai facing the rain forest and enjoying the hot tub, eating very good Thai takeout food for dinner,we returned to the park at night to see a spectacular array of stars, the first time either of us had seen the Southern Cross as well as the red glow of Caldera volcano against the black night sky.
We left regretfully on Thursday morning, drove to the Rainbow Falls in Hilo, crowded and not worth it,then continued on to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens, which were breathtaking. This incredibly beautiful nature preserve was filled with flowers, ponds, waterfall and birds; it is well worth the price of admission. Allow yourself two hours. We drove on, stopping at the Woodshop Gallery Cafe (my husband had an excellent ahi burger) on our way to Akaka falls, where we took an enjoyable 15 minute loop walk through rain forest to see the two falls there. The natural beauty was a nice contrast to the humanly designed beauty of the Botanical Gardens (if you have to pick one, go for the manmade grandeur of the gardens). We drove on to the Waip'o Valley overlook and finished the day getting lost taking 190 instead 19 at Waimea. Our mistake cost us an hour and a half but the road was beautiful and we were rewarded with a perfect rainbow. We arrived at the Mauna Kea beach hotel tired and had dinner on the lanai in our room watching the sunset.
We chose the Mauna Kea to spend our final four nights on the Big Island of Hawaii partly because of its beach and location, partly on the recommendation of two friends whose judgment we trust a lot . I had some concerns about it because internet photos made the hotel look too massive to me and perhaps too much like an expensive version of a Best Western (we like Best Westerns). However, my reservations melted away within 20 minutes of arriving. Up close the architecture of the hotel is spectacular, again and again bringing pleasure with curves and angles. It is filled with museum class art of Asia and the Oceania collected by Lawrence Rockefeller and the view and sounds of the ocean took my breath away each time we entered our room. The interplay of art, architecture and nature reminded me of two of my favorite museums in the world, the Miho in Japan and the Museo of the Dogana in Venice. It is very special. I see why people return to the Mauna Kea again and again; I will be sad if we never go back. It is a hotel which could win a special place in one's heart.
Our room was much nicer than I thought it would be from the Internet, though not as luxurious as the Four Seasons. It was lovely, with beautiful wood, tile floors, a very comfortable bed and excellent decor. The fact that it was possible to cover up the flat screen TV facing the bed was a very nice touch. Bathroom was just ordinary but fine; toiletries were great and the shower head was fantastic. The service was very good, the activities program excellent and the beach was both beautiful and wonderful for swimming. There was a much appreciated excellent complimentary bottle of champagne in our room when we arrived, in honor of my husband's birthday.There were only two significant downsides to the hotel, one easily remedied. The swimming pool is old, small and disappointing. The table on the lanai (where we spent many magical hours) is too high to be comfortable for room service. We had to sit on ottomans that were too low and meals were somewhat uncomfortable. We recommend replacing either the table or the chair and ottoman so they work better together.
I looked at the mountain view rooms and would highly recommend paying the extra $200 a night for an ocean view. Rooms are identical, but mountain view rooms overlook golf course, the lanais are hot and without a sea breeze, you cannot hear the ocean or see the sunset. The ocean view experience is truly special and I am a mountain person not an ocean person.
At the Mauna Kea, like with the Four Seasons, with the exception of a half day sailing snorkeling trip arranged through the hotel's activity program, we never left the property, alternating swimming with sitting on the lanai talking and reading or walking through the hotel looking at the museum quality art. This vacation came after a difficult year and we don't regret at all so often having opted for what the Italians call "il piacere di fare niente" (the pleasure of doing nothing). However, we do have a sizable to do list for our next trip: snorkeling and dolphin watching in Kealakua Bay, the Green Beach, more time in the lush tropical eastern part of the island, hiking and star gazing on Mauna Kea. I am quite sure we will return, though the beauties of the smaller Kawaii are a touch dearer to our hearts.
A special aloha and mahalo to Hawaiian Traveler of this forum who first recommended the Four Seasons and to award from my husband's company's very able travel agent Leslie Borghetti of Custom Travel in Massachusetts (her business). Leslie was able to find us a package of flight, rental car, the Four Seasons, cottage in Volcano and the Mauna Kea which was $2000 less than I had priced out individually with the two major hotels; she found us Nohea Cottage at Volcano Places. We highly recommend her. Lesl

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