I’d like to personally thank NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and his staff for deciding to make this year’s All Star break the longest it’s been by far since I started working for the Phoenix Suns. Thanks to no games on the schedule in 9 days, I was afforded the opportunity to take my wife and two daughters (ages 6 and 8) to paradise, a.k.a. the Big Island of Hawaii, for a six day vacation and my 40th birthday celebration.
After doing a bunch of research, we decided that the Hilton Waikoloa Village was our destination of choice, and after what we experienced we couldn’t be happier with that decision. There are tons of reasons why the property has been named one of the top family friendly resorts in the World along with being one of the top golf resorts as well. I’ll do my best to detail them for you along with sharing some of the stories from an unforgettable trip.
Don’t just take my word for the quality of this destination, you can check out one of the most popular game shows ever, Wheel of Fortune which was filmed on location there shortly before our arrival, and the shows are airing this week as part of their “Big Island Adventure Week” on television (check your local listings to get a glimpse).
Day 1 – The Journey
One of the benefits of living on the West side of the United States is the time it takes to get to the Hawaiian islands is significantly cut compared to those schlepping across the mainland before heading over the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to US Airways/American we are spoiled in Phoenix with direct flights to a number of locations including Kona, HI where my family set off for on a mid morning six and a half hour flight.
Once we landed we got to experience one of the most unique airports any of us had visited with almost the entire property in the fresh island air which politely greeted us as we walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac.
Less than a half hour drive down the “Lava Highway” gave us enough time to enjoy what looked (as many had previously described to me) as the closest thing to a moonscape our planet has to offer. But once we pulled into the Waikoloa Beach Resort area we were engulfed by the tropical surroundings Hawaii has become internationally known for.
It’s quite possible to be overwhelmed by the enormous Hilton Waikoloa Village property which spans 62 of the 1350 acre Waikoloa Beach Resort property on the Kohala coast of the Big Island. But after a warm welcome at check in, we made our way to our room in the Lagoon Tower (the most recently remodeled of the three towers which combined make up 1241 rooms) using 2 different modes of transportation (the girls jumped on a boat, while I took the tram) which are both convenient ways of getting around, despite not necessarily being faster than walking.
The view from our comfortable balcony of the lagoon, the dolphin pools and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean was almost enough to make the trip worthwhile alone. While we were just getting started on our adventure, we chose the Lagoon Grill for our first meal which featured tasty burgers and beverages for the whole family including the rarely offered yet much appreciated gluten-free bun option to fit my dietary needs.
After dinner it was time to get the girls settled down for dinner with the 3 hour time change, while I took a walk to explore the grounds including checking out the Ocean & Palace towers before tramming back to home base and calling it an early night.
Day 2 – The Beach Course
We discovered our built in alarm clock courtesy of mother nature at the Lagoon Tower as at around 5:30am we arose to a loud chorus of singing from the flock of birds located in the atrium. The good news is the birds’ snooze button worked after about 20-30 minutes and sleep was easily resumed by all.
After getting everyone up and dressed for the day, we made our way to enjoy the Big Island Breakfast at Water’s Edge overlooking the lagoon and took advantage of a very enjoyable buffet featuring classic favorites from home, Hawaii, and Japan. My daughters both took to having Miso soup for breakfast and nearly demanded we incorporate more into our regular diet at home.
After saying goodbye to the family, I headed up the road about a mile and a half to the clubhouse of the Waikoloa Beach Resort Golf courses to play the first of my two rounds on the island in nearly perfect weather conditions. I did enough research to know the Beach course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., was the shorter of the two courses, and the only one that bordered the ocean.
After a brief warmup, I was told by the starter that I’d be joining a twosome on the first tee. Fortunately one of the two, Lance, a Big Island resident, was a frequent visitor and would serve as a great source of “local knowledge” throughout the day. Both he and his friend Gerard who was visiting with his family from Northern California were a lot of fun to play with and helped make the experience both memorable and entertaining.
As you can see, the 1st hole is no piece of cake despite measuring 388 yards from the Championship tees (chosen by Lance and Gerard since I tend to let whoever I’m playing with make that selection these days). After putting a couple breakfast balls in the drink I realized I needed to switch the regular shafted Nike Covert rentals for some stiff shafts and if that didn’t work, stiff drinks would have been the next remedy. I met the guys on the green and made an impromptu up and down for who knows what score and we moved on to #2.
Again a forced carry over water to the green of the par 3. This time I stayed dry thankfully. I also got a couple great nuggets of info from Lance: First, the Big Island has 11 of the 13 climates known on the planet earth. It’s quite crazy when you think about it, and explains my previously perceived hallucination of seeing snow on the mountains as we made our final decent to the Kona airport the day before. Second, the lava rocks that make the area look like the moon is called a’a lava because when people would try to walk across the hot rocks they would always make the noises “ah, ah, ah,” Lance said while wincing and truly selling the story.
I got my first taste of a fairway bunker off the tee on #3 and somehow managed to make a good shot out of it setting up a two putt for my first par of the day. I validated that with a par 5 on the following dogleg right beauty which was bordered by some nice waterfalls along the left side between the fairway and Waikoloa Beach Blvd. Moments after I hit my approach to the green, drivers on that road could have witnessed Gerard lose the handle on his rental wedge after making his swing and then watch as the club bounced several times on the rocks before ending up inches short of finding a watery grave.
Then came my “a’a” moment as my tee shot on #5 hit a wall of lava rocks and careened back into the middle of the fairway. Lance shared one of his private collection when I misplayed my sand shot on the par 3 6th calling it a “Saddam Hussein, you went bunker to bunker.”
All that was a precursor for the highlight of the round, the uniquely designed and visually life altering par 5 7th hole at the Beach course which runs along the back side of the Ocean Tower at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Without this hole, there is no sign of the beach on the course, but the views you get as you approach and get onto the green are more than worthy of the name.
After hitting two good shots to get close to the green, I was distracted by my vantage point of the visiting humpback whales who were swimming about a middle iron away off the coast. I took a few minutes to gaze, then gathered myself and managed to happily walk away with a par.
I must have still been distracted on the next hole as I hit a couple bad shots and made my first double bogey of the day on #8 before rallying for a par on the long and challenging par 4 ninth. The tee on the 10th was a good sign of what was to come as it stares straight at Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world if you measure from base to peak (I didn’t believe that fact either until I just triple checked).
Despite coming in the dry season, snow was still visible on the peaks of Mauna Kea as well as Mauna Loa on Hawaii, something I definitely didn’t expect to see. I was glad to have the wind with me on the 10th as it measures nearly 600 yards from the tips.
I was also glad to see the beautiful par 3 12th a little bit later. And while enjoying the view of mongoose scampering across the tee box, I was thoroughly entertained by Gerard’s question to Lance, “so if more than one Mongoose is running on the course, do you call them Mongeese? Mongooses? Mongi?” I triple checked that too and according to Miriam Webster they are both Mongooses and Mongeese, you’re all welcome.
Overall there is a nice resort style feel to the golf on back 9 at the Beach course including four straight par 4’s measuring between 419 & 366 yards. I was thrilled with making a par on the last of that stretch (#16) before nervously hitting over the water on #17 and getting up and down for par.
My round came to an end with a bogey on the scenic par 4 18th and a final tally of a 13 over par 83, a score I’d gladly pencil in before any round these days. Along with the bonuses of great company and phenomenal weather, I found the course to be forgiving and very enjoyable to play, but there is definitely a lot of trouble to find with the mixture of lava & water hazards throughout the 18. I can imagine that the experience drastically changes on one of the trademark windy days on the island, yet I do not regret its absence at all on that day.
After the last putt sank, I exchanged goodbye’s with my guys Lance & Gerard and made it quickly back in time to join my family and meet the Hilton Waikoloa Village’s Director of Marketing Communications Leanne Pletcher for lunch at the Lagoon Grill.
Next on the agenda, it was time to check out the Kona pool my kids couldn’t stop talking about after they had spent some time there when I was golfing.
It didn’t take long to grasp why my girls loved the pool area as much as they did. The headliner was a beautifully constructed long winding water slide that we witnessed bring uncontrollable laughter and screams of both joy and fear out of people young, old and in between. The pool was huge and meandered through caves and waterfalls with three hot tubs and plenty of lounge chairs to choose from. I’ve been lucky to swim in a good amount of resort pools and there’s no doubt the Hilton Waikoloa Village’s Kona pool is one of the best I’ve seen.
That night, dinner on the Lanai just a few yards from the rock outcropped coast at the upscale KPC (Kamuela Provision Company) was a phenomenal final meal for me in my 30’s. Our server sold me on her description of their signature dish, a ginger marinated local fish called Monchong, and it lived up to the hype and was on level with the amazing views of the ocean. While gazing and dining we noticed a very bright light over the water that didn’t seem to be moving. My ladies and I decided it couldn’t possibly be the only star in the sky before learning (again thanks to our wonderful server) that it was the planet Venus. As if looking at the whales and waves of the Pacific wasn’t enough!
Day 3 – The Birthday
After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed another strong breakfast at Water’s Edge with both kids going straight to the Miso soup. The fuel was necessary prior to our first water sports experience in the Hilton Waikoloa Village’s Lagoon, a large body of water which is filled directly from the Pacific and can include around 50 species of fish and sea creatures at any given time.
First we tried kayaks, then stand up paddle boards, and even the classically designed and uniquely ineffective paddle boat.
After hanging with the Green Sea Turtles and jumping fish in the Lagoon, we took a tour of the property with Leanne and realized just how much the Hilton Waikoloa Village has to offer to guests of all types. Besides being ideal for family or couples retreats, the hotel has the most conference room space on any of the Hawaiian Islands with approximately 225,000 square feet indoor and outdoor and a stunning grand ballroom that’s hosted popular bands like Journey and Three Dog Night along with a number of large scale events.
We strolled by where the Wheel of Fortune set up the grandstands to hold 2000 fans a day over their four day taping (airing through Friday Februrary 20th so check those local listings for channel and time to get a glimpse and maybe a chance to win a trip to the Hilton Waikoloa Village as part of their sweepstakes).
Imagining the transformation of the area was tough to do until seeing it on the time-lapse they showed during the telecast. It wasn’t, however, difficult to see why a production like the Wheel would want to come out to Hawaii multiple times over the last couple decades and film on location at the Hilton Waikoloa Village.
While we didn’t get a chance to meet Pat & Vanna, we did get to see some of the most talented stars of the stage on the Big Island at the Legends of Hawaii Luau later that evening. Good food and good drinks are usually enough to captivate me, but add live music and theater and it’s a fun night for guests of all ages.
As you can see there was some fire juggling and eating although my pictures don’t do it nearly the justice it deserved.
Day 4 – Valentines Day
Another tasty breakfast got the day off to a good start again as we headed back to the Lagoon for some snorkeling and boogie boarding in the lagoon. In addition to the turtles we caught close-up glimpses of some very colorful sea life including a couple I later found out were called Bluefin Trevale and Ornate Wrasse.
Then it came time to go from the voyeurs to the participants after watching the Dolphins put on a show for crowds the previous couple days, we got our chance to have our own Dolphin Quest encounter. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of swimming, feeding & playing with dolphins, but after seeing other folks doing it, I’m really glad that my family and I decided to take the plunge!
From there it was time to get some Sushi for dinner. Lucky for us, the Hilton Waikoloa Village boasts Imari Japanese Steakhouse which in addition to a tremendous sushi bar is surrounded by a beautiful traditional Japanese garden and Koi pond and it’s the Big Island’s only Teppanyaki style restaurant.
Day 5 – The Kings’ course
After our first (and only) rain storm came overnight, the skies cleared just in time for me to head to the clubhouse for my round at the Waikoloa Beach Resort’s Kings’ Course.
What I knew about the course going in was that it was the longer of the two, designed by a team I’ve appreciated for awhile, Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. What I expected was a fair amount of risk/reward opportunities and a good test of golf. I got that and more along with a bunch of local knowledge courtesy of my playing partners Bruce and Sharon who were regulars who spend around 12 weeks a year on the island while calling Oregon their primary residence.
The first nugget from Bruce was that the course had just recently hosted a collegiate tournament called the Amer Ari Invitational which was won by Tim Mickelson’s Arizona State squad led by Max Rotluff and John Rahm.
My game on the practice range did not resemble the aforementioned youngsters’ in the least as for the first time in awhile I came down with a case of the dreaded shanks with my wedges. I tried to work around it and block it from my mind as I made my way to the first tee. While I didn’t take them with me, I did bumble my way to a double bogey on the par 4 first before making a couple solid shots on #2 and nailing a 20 footer for sweet birdie redemption!
The 4 shot birdie was just one of 3 on the hole, the other two were actually wildlife as you see the pair of native Nene birds in the fairway above. My 2nd shot landed right next to them giving me a chance to get to know Hawaii’s state bird, which used to be endangered but apparently has made quite the comeback.
Bruce and Sharon were just getting started sharing their wealth of information about the course, the animals and the climate on the Big Island, which they called their favorite because of the diversity of things to do and see, and of course the weather.
After a couple of typical bogeys for me on #3 and 4, we arrived at the first of two classic Weiskopf/Morrish driveable par fours on the course at #5. I knew I wouldn’t be getting to the green off the tee, but managed instead to find the huge bunker short and left which had quite a unique look with two huge lava rocks jutting out of the sand.
Fortunately I was able to get the ball up and over the rock and onto the green for a 2 putt par which was necessary before a long par 4 sixth and a testy par 3 seventh coming up.
The front nine came to a close with a couple medium length par 4’s and after driving my tee shot on #9 to the right, I somehow made a great recovery hitting my shot from under a crazy looking pod bearing tree before knocking down another long putt for my second birdie of the day.
After making the turn, our threesome turned into a foursome as a man named Morris from Shanghai, China joined us on the tee box at #10. After a highly surprising and confidence building 40 on the front, I quickly came back to earth making a bogey on the par 4 10th, followed by taking 2 penalty strokes and a 6 on the par 3 11th and another bogey on the long par 4 12th.
Then it came time for the second of the two short par 4’s on the course at #13, where I pulled out the trick shot hitting my drive in and out of the fairway bunker before making another par. A perfect example of the diversity on the Big Island is looking around the 13th hole where out of nowhere you find a bunch of pine trees surrounding the green.
Once again the golf course showed some teeth on the long par 5 #14 as it wasn’t just the length and the wind playing a factor, but the giant lava rocks in the middle of the fairway provided both a visual and literal obstacle. Fortunately my game was coming back around as I started a string of three straight pars before making a double bogey on the downhill and downwind par 4 17th.
Opportunity came knocking on the beautiful and short par 5 finishing hole as I hit my second shot to the fairway about 50 yards short of the green.
Then out of nowhere the shanks came back and I hit my sand wedge directly right into the greenside bunker en route to a round ending double bogey and an 85. The red mango scented towel I was handed by the guys at the clubhouse quickly took the pain of my poor finish away though. I then gave my remaining golf balls to Morris since he still had a week left on the Island with more golf to come. He was especially excited about the neon yellow Nike I found as he shared that his wife would be very happy to use it during their round the next day.
Another thing I liked about the Kings course was the pace of play. We finished in under four hours and I was back to my family in time for lunch at the Boat Landing Cantina or as they describe “Where Hola meets Aloha” for some Mexican/Hawaiian fusion cuisine.
After lunch it was time for a walk to Buddha point (near the ocean tower) to do some whale watching. Loads of humpbacks were in mating season off the shore about 100 to 200 yards out. They were surprisingly easy to spot even for our untrained eyes.
With the kids “out of water” clock ticking, we checked out the Kohala pool near the Ocean Tower including some smaller water slides for the kids and then returned to the lagoon for more kayaking, stand up paddle boarding & sand castle making.
After eating exclusively on the resort property, we decided to head down to the Kings Shops for dinner at a gastropub called The Three Fat Pigs. The meal was decent and it was nice to check out some of the outdoor mall area and the closest dining and shopping areas available for resort guests.
Day 6 – Exploring the Big Island
With our flight not scheduled to leave Kona until 11:45pm (the drag about the nonstop option is most on the way home are of the redeye variety), we were geared up for a day full of exploring. We took some time to say our goodbye to Waikoloa but not until we said a quick hello to our friends Jarrett (a fellow Suns broadcast team member) & Karen from Phoenix who just happened to be honeymooning down the hall in the Lagoon Tower after starting off on Maui.
With hours still left to explore before our flight, we headed to Kona to accomplish our final goals of getting authentic Hawaiian dresses for the girls and a real Hawaiian made Ukulele for me, a birthday present suggested by my mother-in-law. After beginning our search with some pupus (Hawaiian word for appetizers) at a place called the Fishhopper, we found the dresses first at one of the very cool shops at the Kona Inn Shopping Village which runs right along the ocean downtown.
Moments later, we not only found my Uke, but got an impromptu private uke lesson from Hawaiian Luau celebrity “Aunty Tutu” right in the middle of the “Just Ukes” store. We made our way up the street to spend a fantastic evening with our friends who live right on the water less than 2 miles from downtown Kona, taking in the gorgeous sunset while collecting shells on the beach outside their house.
Our last meal of the trip was appropriately al fresco overlooking the crashing waves while enjoying some tasty eats from Humpy’s, our friends’ favorite spot. It was a great way to finish an absolutely fabulous family adventure.
Throughout the trip we kept hearing the girls talk about coming back again, and if we have our wish, that will happen sooner rather than later. But regardless, we’ll always have these six days in paradise to remember.