My lucky traveling companion and I arrived at the Four Seasons Hualalai on Hawaii’s Big Island disoriented and jet-lagged under the cover of darkness. Tiki torches beckoned and lit the way. I was expecting the usual weak-kneed slump at a tall counter while an agent pecked away at the keyboard for ten minutes, but that’s not how check-in goes at this resort. Instead, a handsome man greeted us carrying a tray of fresh mango juice and shortbread cookies. He led us to a comfy couch, where we craned our newly lei’d necks upward to take in the cathedral bamboo ceilings of the open-air lobby. As we went through the details of our stay, he asked us what we would like to get out of our vacation. How could he help us make it even better than it already promised to be? We were stumped. “Not to worry,” he said. “We’ll think of something.”
Travelers flying across the Pacific from the mainland are likely to arrive at the Hulalai in the same bedraggled state as we did, but a quick scan of the TripAdvisor reviews for the resort suggests that they leave in a sort of shared rapture.
“The resort will set the bar for all other places from now on!!”
“Amazing, perfection, heaven on earth!”
“Yes, it’s a bit expensive, but where else have would a lady offer to clean your eyeglasses?”
From what I gathered during our stay, the hotel is an ideal place for members of the LGBT community to unwind and feel completely accepted. Brad Packer, the director of public relations for the Four Seasons, put it this way: “At Four Seasons, the Golden Rule—to treat others as we’d wish to be treated ourselves—has always been our guiding principle. All of our guests should feel especially welcome.”
The property originally opened in 1996, but in 2011 it was closed for six weeks as a result of the tsunami that followed the earthquake in Japan. The five-star hotel underwent a $40-million renovation and came back better than ever. Recently, Travel + Leisure named the Four Seasons Hualalai Hawaii’s number-one resort. Built to blend into the natural beauty of the island’s ancient lava desert and lush jungle foliage, the resort is unimposing and unpretentious.
After our check-in was complete, a short, sprightly man drove us on a golf cart through the winding paths of the endless property to our bungalow. “Your room is 601,” he said with a heavy sigh. “You’re going to hate it, such a terrible view.” His eyes were wide in the little rearview mirror as he chuckled to himself. The room was the bottom floor of a two-story bungalow with a deep soaking tub and an outdoor lava rock shower.
A big book in our room ticked off the various activities offered by the resort: meals on the beach, rock climbing, a full service spa, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, tennis, Pilates, yoga, in-room massages, outdoor massages, an award-winning, Jack Nicklaus- designed golf course, hiking, spinning, swimming, Ping-Pong, shopping…
We stared at one another, giddy but still a little lost. When the sun rose the next morning, we discovered there was a snorkeling pond adjacent to our room and a breathtaking view of the ocean just beyond.
After a few days at the resort, we had developed a few luxurious habits. We would wake up early—one advantage of westbound jet lag is that you tend to take full advantage of the daylight—and head to breakfast at the ‘Ulu Ocean Grill. All tables at the grill face the ocean, which provides an inspirational start to the day as you sip fresh-brewed Kona coffee and the daily, fresh, island fruit juice concoction and ponder the day ahead. The buffet is extensive and stocked with farm-to-table fare, fresh- baked pastries and spiky alien fruit.
Lunch was generally poolside at either the Beach Tree Pool or the Palm Grove (which is for those over 21). The Sea Shell pool is a nearby kiddie pool. If you’ve come for a family vacation, you’re set. If you’re here for romance and isolation, the kids at the resort blend seamlessly into the distant background. The food here is rich, and after a few days of Four Seasons living, you may be a little poorer. My companion and I split either the tuna or turkey burger most days, which was more than enough to share. You can eat, drink, and even get your scalp massaged while tearing through the trashy novel you bought at the airport.
Our next stop was ususally the Ka‘upulehu Cultural Center. This laid-back activity hub may not be a must-visit for everyone, but it’s a fantastic option for families and the aforementioned impoverished travelers. Lessons in Hawaiian culture and crafting are educational, fun and, most importantly, free to guests. We made bookmarks, shell bracelets and ti-leaf leis with natural materials and learned how to say “I love you” in Hawaiian.
The final stop before dinner was two particular bar stools at the Beach Tree restaurant for the most beautiful time of day. Sunset is serious business in Hawaii—you don’t want to miss it. The entire resort would gather at about 5:30 to look west and watch the pink sun descend into the ocean. On a few nights, we all gave it a standing ovation.
Dinner at the Hualalai resort is, as you might imagine, fresh, inventive and scrumptious. So fresh that your server can point to where the heirloom tomatoes are grown just beyond the hills to the east. We dined on local lobster wonton soup, sushi rolls and grass-fed steaks at ‘Ulu and Mediterranean pastas at Beach Tree. My favorite dishes, by far, were the miso-glazed big island butterfish at ‘Ulu and the wild boar ragout over papardelle at Beach Tree. The boar is so local that our server hoped ours might be one of the beasts that were eating her avocado trees.
As the days passed, we fell completely in sync with island time. The staff was aware that they were working in paradise, and they all seemed to want to share their stories with us. Some of them were transplants who had fallen in love with the islands, some were natives who had fallen in love with the idea of never leaving. At the Hualalai, the Four Seasons has captured the best of the luxurious brand in one breathtaking retreat. As you walk the grounds and receive warm smiles and waves from every housekeeper, landscaper and manager, it’s apparent that the staff is handpicked for their naturally hospitable personalities. One staffer told me that the Four Seasons Hualalai is like the Google or the Yahoo! of the Big Island. It’s the exciting, innovative place where everyone wants to work.
If you have the good luck and good sense to stay for any amount of time at the Hualalai, you’ll hear “my pleasure” over and over. It’s the response to any request you make. After a long week of watching talented people take hospitality very seriously, I came to believe that when they said “my pleasure,” they truly meant it. Lots of hotels can be welcoming, but this one raises welcoming to an art form.
On our final night, as we sat on our beloved bar stools, sipping coconut beer and wistfully watching the sunset spread across the sky for the last time, I noticed our bartender taking it all in as well.
“You’ve got a great shift,” I said.
“You’re telling me,” he said without taking his eyes off the view. A serene smile rested on his face as the watercolor sky faded into night.