When Andrew Harper travel advisor Bridget Kapinus is not at her desk helping members book a trip, she’s usually on the road researching a destination. Many of us have been wondering what travel to Hawaii has been like lately, so she bit the bullet (ahem) and went there to find out. She spent seven nights with her wife at Mauna Lani, an Auberge property on the Big Island. They filled their days relaxing on the beach sipping cocktails, eating fresh seafood and taking the occasional outdoor excursion.
Overall impressions: Over the last two years, the resort has undergone what it calls a “$200 million reimagination,” and it shows! The bones and original character of the hotel remain intact, so it is still distinctly Polynesian. It is open, airy and bright with a laid-back-luxury feel, while still paying homage to the culture and history of the area.
As for the renovation, the hotel used to have just one small pool; now it has three palm-fringed places to swim: an infinity-edge adult pool, a keiki (child) pool and a 3,900-square-foot family pool. There are also three open-air restaurants to choose from. And the list of experiences the hotel offers feels endless, from cultural workshops and coconut frond weaving to petroglyph hikes and underwater rock running.
Favorite moment: Taking our Jeep down into the Waipio Valley past waterfalls and through streams, ending up on a gorgeous black-sand beach that is only accessible by 4WD vehicles.
You can’t stop thinking about: Our Sunrise Paddle canoe experience, booked through the hotel. Not only was the scenery beautiful, but the staff’s passion for their home was very apparent.
Favorite dining experience: Merriman’s in Waimea. I had a subtle yet complex macadamia nut-encrusted kampachi (yellowfin). I don’t think I have ever eaten a better seafood dish.
Favorite outdoor experience: Night snorkeling with the manta rays! This can be done just down the road at Mauna Kea Beach. These gentle giants swim right up to you, creating a truly breathtaking experience.
Where or what to drink: I am not normally a Mai Tai fan, but the Lani Tai at the resort’s Hā Bar is amazing. Not too sweet or sour — just the right balance. If you are heading off the property, I suggest Seafood Bar & Grill for a fun Tiki vibe and tropical drinks. Kona also has a small brewery, Ola Brew, known for its specialty seltzers and ciders.
Neighborhood to explore: Waimea is just 25 minutes from the resort, but it’s a completely different feel because the area is largely ranches and farmland. Some great restaurants and shops are located here, and the drive is quite scenic.
Day-trip suggestions: Volcanoes National Park is a must, especially because Kīlauea is active, and you can see the glow from the lava at night.
Surprising fact or tidbit: Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that is the highest point in Hawaii, actually gets snow, so bring a coat if you plan on making the trek up there!
Souvenir: Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and pineapple cider.
What to pack: Typical beach wear. Nothing fancy is necessary. Even the nicest resorts maintain a casual beach atmosphere, and few if any restaurants have dress codes.
Insider’s tip: Bring some warm clothes and a rain jacket. When you get into the mountains, especially at night, it can get rather cool. And you never know when a brief shower might roll through.
Anything else?: Hawaii has handled COVID-19 so much better than I ever could have expected. The Safe Travels program, using an assigned QR code, was efficient and well-handled upon arrival. And I didn’t have to quarantine at all because I had submitted a negative test 72 hours prior to arrival. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how well COVID protocols were enacted throughout the island. Everyone is considered “ohana,” or “family,” and they certainly treat you like it!