Four Seasons Hualalai Delivers Hawaiian Sophistication
The Big Island luxury getaway lives up to its superlative reputation
The good news: It’s easier than ever to vacation on the Hawaiian Islands. Budget airlines have added service, nudging prices down and expanding flight options and accessibility from airports countrywide. New resorts are cropping up all over the islands, and many tried-and-true destinations that have been welcoming guests back for years have gotten their own makeovers to retain their loyal base and attract new visitors, too.
Now the bad: As any longtime Hawaiian traveler can attest, the islands are more crowded than ever.
The solution? Go small. Or more accurately, this is the time to get a little more exclusive.
Where mega-resorts can lack intimacy with more than 1,000 rooms, packed restaurants, and the barbaric 7am pool lounge-reservers, those that cater to a reduced number of travelers can mean fewer crowds, better service, and a more refined experience overall.
This isn’t news to anyone who’s visited Four Season Resort Hualalai on the island of Hawaii. The resort has long welcomed celebrities and savvy travelers who enjoy — and can afford — a more urbane Big Island experience. Now, following a recent $100 million renovation that included the redesign and expansion of three ultra-luxe villas, Four Seasons proves its ability to raise its game even though, as the #1 resort in Hawaii according to U.S. News & World Report and the only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond resort on the island, Hualalai is already the bar-setter.
“Small” is a relative term, of course, when it comes to Hualalai. Yes, at 249, its room count is a mere fraction of some of the giants on this island and others, but it sits on a vast 865 acres, a dreamy oceanfront oasis amid rolling black lava fields. It’s as spectacular in person as can be imagined when it’s spied from the air on approach to the Kona International Airport — the view from above of lush grounds, white sand, and impossibly blue water is a tease of what’s in store.
The Four Seasons ethos makes virtually any property under its umbrella an easy favorite among travelers, and Hualalai is no exception. What makes Hualalai so spectacular is the pervasive calm and peacefulness that envelops you from the moment you step on property. No crowds, no echo-y lobby, no stuffy check-in process standing at a desk. Instead, a quick and efficient check-in takes place in an open-air sitting area at the resort’s entry, a much appreciated fast track to the vacation that follows.
Classic Hawaiian architecture blends seamlessly into the abundantly landscaped resort, the site of an ancient fishing village whose waters still weave through the property, respectfully tended and preserved by a dedicated Four Seasons crew. All guestrooms have unobstructed ocean views that take full advantage of the truly stunning coastline that stretches before the resort, and nearly all sit in sequences of semicircles (“crescents”) that surround its several beachfront pools, each one unique from the others and separated from the ocean beyond by only a walking path and a pristine stretch of sand dotted with cabanas. A family-friendly destination, several of the pools appeal to kids, including the 1.8 million-gallon King’s Pond, stocked with thousands of fish including the resort’s beloved spotted eagle ray, Kainalu. Since my kids, now in their teens, have graduated from keiki status, we were able to leave them to explore on their own and sample the pools and protected beaches while we sipped icy drinks at the Beach Tree Pool, a designated quiet pool surrounded by a wood deck with attentive service. Even the sleepiest of pool-goers perked as attendants circled the area at regular intervals with refreshing treats to beat the heat — a signature Four Seasons touch I’ve loved at its other properties, as well. Frozen face cloths and smoothie samples as the mercury soars? Yes please!
Our two generous guestrooms adjoined and provided ample space for our family of four, but travelers seeking added space and privacy can book one of the resort’s 53 suites or, for true indulgence, choose from three villas, the largest of which, the Hawaii Loa Presidential Villa, is a magnificent two-story, 5,253-square-foot, toes-in-the-sand home for up to eight guests. Each villa has its own spa, and the 4,605-square-foot Makaloa Villa, which can host up to ten, also has its own plunge pool.
Dining at Hualalai is an occasion, and though things can be tricky sometimes with kids’ finicky palates (devastatingly, we have one who won’t eat fish, even in Hawaii), remember this is a Four Seasons, a place of “yes,” which means the items that don’t necessarily jibe with the chef-driven culinary offerings on the main menu are still available; all you have to do is ask. But for more discriminating tastes, Beach Tree and ‘Ulu Ocean Grill are equally spectacular. There are fewer options if it’s the more ubiquitous American fare you seek — burgers, fries, and the like — but the elevated cuisine at Hualalai is a perfect accompaniment to the overall experience. Even the buffet breakfast, while admittedly steep (but really, what isn’t in Hawaii?) is superior to others you’ll find at neighboring properties. The malasadas (Portuguese donuts) are not to be missed, and are worth the price of the table whether you’re staying at the resort or just came to load your plate with these sugary, friend little balls of heaven.
Despite an almost unhealthy fear of what lives in the ocean, even I couldn’t resist the opportunity to join my family on a stand-up paddleboard experience, which launches from the nearby Alaka’i Nalu Ocean Activities stand a short cart ride from the main resort. The waters in front of the launch point are moderately protected and therefore relatively calm, but vast enough to keep SUPers from getting bored paddling in a too-small area. There’s an anchored raft to paddle to for a little break, which also offered a nice respite when some in our tribe felt a little seasick from the occasional swells coming in. And, I’m happy to report I saw nothing larger than the size of my hand swimming beneath the surface when I was brave enough to plunge my head underwater for a peek.
A pair of tennis nuts, my husband and I were eager to hit the courts at Hualalai, and had a fantastic lesson with a resort pro on one of the property’s eight courts, located within the Hualalai Sports Club that features a lap pool, sport court, exercise equipment, and fitness classes. The lap pool area also presents what feels somewhat like a “secret” additional quiet spot to relax poolside (especially for those seeking an environment that’s a majority adult), while most everyone else is hitting the main pools.
I always tell my kids that the best sign of a good vacation is one that you don’t want to end, and that was certainly the case at Hualalai. Superior service, breathtaking grounds, and a serenity that permeates every square inch of the property make a visit here one you’ll be looking to replicate time and again. In raising the bar on itself, Four Seasons has — perhaps intentionally — raised ours as well.