Not quite ready for prime time: A review of the Hilton Waikoloa Village in Hawaii
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It takes a lot to reopen a hotel after a pandemic, and sometimes the cracks show.
The Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island has some major things going for it including an amazing physical property with plenty of things to do. But when I was there in March it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. It’s a great spot for families, but there was still limited dining, and service fell short during my stay.
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I got what was, for Hawaii, a decent deal for my stay at Waikoloa Village. I booked it during a Hilton Honors “Dream Away” sale for a room rate of $216 (£155) per night — which sounds great until you start adding up the taxes and fees.
I paid $37 (£27) per night for self-parking, $10.18 (£7.32) for a state room tax, $22.14 (£15.93) for occupancy tax, $45 (£32) per night in resort fees — and don’t forget the taxes of $6.73 (£4.84) on top of the resort fee. So, I ended up paying $337 (£242) per night. Because I was travelling with a friend and her son, I added an upgrade to a suite for an extra $150 (£108) per night plus taxes and fees.
My “great deal” for $216 a night didn’t seem like such a great deal by the time I checked out.
I did earn a total of 22,766 Hilton Honors points for my stay, which TPG values at about £91.
Rates have jumped considerably since I was there. A night in June would cost you $550 (£396) per night plus that $45 (£32) resort fee and taxes. There are similar prices for this time next year, but if you want to use points, a standard night would be 60,000 Honors points which would be a much better value. I did find last-minute bookings for as low as $193 per night in April (£139).
The egregious resort fee
As I mentioned above, this Hawaii property, like many of the hotels and resorts on the islands, charges a resort fee. Here’s what you get for your $45.
- Hula and lei-making classes
- Daily yoga and fitness classes
- Ukulele lessons
- PlayStation 3 movies and games
- 20% discount on beach toys
- One 4-by-8 keepsake photo
- $10 off Hawaii Nautical sailings
- Local/toll-free calls
- Kids activities at the Keiki Pool
You tell me if that’s worth it. I would say absolutely not. In fact, it’s almost insulting. I’d much prefer they waive the parking fees instead. Even then, it would be a rip-off. I’m afraid, however, resort fees are here to stay. They survived the pandemic, after all.
OK, rant over.
Location and property
The Hilton Waikoloa Village is a 20-mile drive from Kona International Airport (KOA), but there’s often traffic so plan on at least 30 minutes.
Even though the property itself is enormous, it feels isolated and you can even feel a bit trapped staying there. If you want to dine or shop outside the resort it involves quite the production, including fetching a car from the parking lot and a one-mile drive to get overpriced supplies.
In other words, if you want a Diet Coke for less than $4 a can, you’ll need to make a journey of up to 25 miles to Kona.
The resort has a whopping 63 acres, 1,100 rooms, multiple towers, a tram, boats and more. There’s a reason it’s called the Disneyland of Hawaii.
The main Hilton property is made up of two huge towers — Makai Tower and Palace Tower. The Makai Tower is theoretically more desirable because it’s closer to the pools and the lagoon. It’s considered an upgraded experience, but it was last updated in 2015. I wasn’t upgraded into that tower, and when I asked to see a room, the front desk refused to even let me see it.
I stayed in the Palace Tower. The rooms in that tower were renovated back in 2017, but they didn’t redo the bathrooms — and it shows. More on the rooms below.
If you remember staying in the Ocean Tower, you aren’t imagining it. The Ocean Tower is now part of Hilton Grand Vacations, and major renovations are underway on that tower. Many of the rooms are being converted into multiple-bedroom timeshare units.
Check-in was quick. There were just a few people in line when we checked in. You do need to show negative coronavirus test results from the Safe Travels website upon check-in which slows things down.
The woman at check-in was lovely, and told me she had just been called back to work. We had a good chat about the hotel reopening and what it had been like to get things back up and running. Despite my Diamond status, she wasn’t able to offer me much in the way of an upgrade. I did finally accept her offer for a one-bedroom suite for an extra $150 plus taxes and fees per night because, as I mentioned, I was travelling with a friend and her teenage son.
You do get $20 a day to spend on hotel meals as a Diamond benefit, which … doesn’t get you very far.
While I loved how spacious my one-bedroom suite was, I didn’t love how beat-up it seemed. The rooms in the Palace Tower where I was staying were renovated in 2017, but they felt much older to me. The decor was definitely giving me a 1990s vibe. That may have been because the bathrooms weren’t done during the last renovation, but the whole thing seemed dated.
There was a soaking tub, but there was only one bathroom for all three of us to share. It got a little crowded at times.
The room was large, though, and had separate dining and living areas.
I took the bedroom with a queen-sized bed.
There were two more full-sized beds in the living area.
The bedding was comfortable and fairly high quality.
I loved the two balconies with views of the property.
One other note: There was debris left behind in the room from previous guests. Not a huge deal, but it probably means rooms aren’t being cleaned as thoroughly as they could be in the age of coronavirus.
The Hilton Waikoloa Village has some major selling points: the pools and the lagoon. They were amazing. The waterslide, in particular, was really fun for kids and adults alike.
The lagoon is a great spot for family fun too, with its own beach. You can even snorkel here, which was an awesome and safe way to see tropical fish and sea turtles.
They also have live dolphins on the property. Individual dolphin experiences start at $169.
If you want to, as the hotel puts it, “Spend time with [its] marine mammal specialists and our dolphins and get to know these magnificent creatures in the comfort of a small group, creating the ideal, intimate experience that’s sure to be the highlight of your vacation,” you’re going to have to fork over a ton of cash. It’s more than $1,600 for a family (maximum six people) to spend 45 minutes with the dolphins.
This is a monster property that is not easy to navigate. It took 20 minutes or more to walk from one end of the resort to the other. There is a monorail, but I had to wait for up to 20 minutes for a ride on it, and half of its cars are closed off for COVID-19 social distancing. That meant crowded trains and/or no space once I’d waited 10 or 15 minutes. There are now two trains running, so wait times should be improving for guests.
The hotel tells me the boats used to transport folks around the gargantuan resort will be up and running again by June, which should help with the experience for future guests. Apparently, during the hotel’s seven-month shutdown, algae took over the canals.
There is also a beach area where you can spend some time in the ocean. Be aware though, it’s not a “lay-out-on-the-sand” kind of beach. It’s more like a volcanic-rock-kind of beach.
Food and beverage
When thinking about the food-and-beverage offering at this resort, two words come to mind: limited and expensive. While I was there, the popular Nui restaurant was open for breakfast and dinner. The only other option was grab-and-go for a few hours a day at the Kona Pool at a spot called Orchid Marketplace.
I found Nui wasn’t very good, and the poolside Orchid Marketplace was worse. Next time, I would take the lead of the various families we saw, and bring all my food and drinks with me.
In the resort’s defence, it had recently reopened after being closed for months and months. I did follow up with the property, and they said they’ve reopened several more dining options since my stay, including the Lagoon Grill and the Kona Tap Room. The hotel manager Simon Amos told me they should have the Kona Pool Bar restaurant open full time and the Big Island Breakfast buffet open by June.
There is also dinner available at the hotel’s popular “Legends of Hawaii Luau.” Just be warned, capacity is severely limited due to COVID-19, so make reservations as early as possible or they will be sold out. They are able to seat less than half of the previous capacity.
It seemed there was a huge influx of returning families who had figured out the system — hit the Walmart or Safeway in Kona and bring all food and drinks to the hotel.
I had really spotty service while at the resort.
I definitely got the sense that the resort was understaffed and not quite ready to be fully booked. It was sometimes hard to even find employees.
My traveling companion thought the drinking water tasted funny, and described it as “metallic.” It was really annoying that there weren’t water stations almost anywhere on the property, and certainly not conveniently located. When a bartender at the one open restaurant was asked about filling up a water bottle, he said, “I can’t fill up your water bottle, but I can give you a cup of water.” We assumed it was because of COVID-19 rules. He also said he didn’t know where the refill stations were.
Another thing that rankled was the towels out of vending machines. You have to swipe your room key to be given a towel, which actually have microchips in them. Any towels not returned properly incur a $20 fine. This was typical of this resort. Everything feels like a challenge, and not what a vacation is supposed to be about. The property says the vending machine towels have been a huge environmental plus since they don’t have to wash so many towels, so there is that.
After my not-so-great visit, the hotel manager, Simon Amos, saw my social media post about the stay and reached out. He said the hotel was opening in stages and pointed out they’d been completely shut down for months. He said the hotel is having trouble getting fully staffed and that things are improving dramatically now.
Frankly, all of Hawaii seemed overwhelmed by the spring break crowds — and this Hilton was no exception. Amos said they went from 20% to 100% occupancy in a matter of weeks. He also said some Hawaii hotels are actually seeing more demand than pre-pandemic times.
When I asked why people should book at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, Amos said, “We’re 63 acres on a big island with less than 200,000 people, we have sunshine year-round. What better way to get away and have natural social distancing? Big island, big property … it’s a great place.”
Related: 10 reasons to visit Timbers Kauai
It’s understandable that hotels are having some reopening pains after being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I think the Hilton Waikoloa Village is an impressive property, but service and food issues aside, I’d find it hard to justify $600 per night. If you can snag a deal and bring in your own food and beverages, you might be able to get value here, but otherwise I would wait until it’s fully reopened, the rooms are renovated and the service issues get worked out.
Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.
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