Hawaii's Big Island Is Back and Better Than Ever
My daughter, Agnes, has reached an age — 4 — where she asks questions like “Why did the dinosaurs die?” and “Where does hot lava come from?” So after Hawaii’s Kīlauea began erupting last May, we checked out some YouTube videos of the lava flow into the ocean, which led to a new recurring question: “Why, in Hawaii, is there new land?” When I told her a few months later that our family were going to visit the Big Island and see the volcano, she expressed her approval, then added sternly, “But we can’t get too close.”
Then came the hurricane. A few days before we were set to travel, Lane had grown into a Category Five storm a couple hundred miles south of Hawaii that, as the headlines blared, threatened a rare direct hit on the archipelago. TV talking heads opined on the lousy luck of this poor, beleaguered paradise, which in 2018 had already endured the false missile alert as well as the eruption of Kīlauea. Are you going to cancel your trip?, people asked. Let’s just wait and see, I said.
I didn’t really think of canceling because I’d dreamed of visiting Hawaii since I was a kid, but had somehow never been, and because we were headed for the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, which I’d been told by many people is the platonic ideal of family vacation destinations. The folks at the resort, in contrast to the sensationalized headlines, were blasé about the hurricane, reassuring me that the property lies on the dry side of the island. When the outer bands of the storm arrived, they reported that it had just gotten a little gray where they were, and it wasn’t even really raining.
In the ensuing hours, the storm was downgraded to a tropical depression. Our journey went off without a hitch, and the four of us — Agnes, my son Rex, my wife Chi, and I — arrived to scattered clouds and the moderately humid perpetual 84 degrees for which Hawaii is so legendary. After guava juice and damp towels in the lobby, we were ferried by electric cart along serpentine paths, past the volcanic-rock walls and dense native plantings that fronted the villas, to our tranquil Deluxe Suite. It overlooked King’s Pond, a manmade lagoon just behind the beach inhabited by 4,000 fish species, including a spotted eagle ray named Kainalu, who the kids would get to feed the next morning.
This area, at the north end of the resort, is definitely the most family-friendly, and as we walked the grounds the next few days, I came to understand the Four Seasons Hualalai as an ingenious piece of social engineering. It’s laid out as a series of interlocking crescents along the ocean, each of which speaks to a different life stage: At one end lies King’s Pond; at the other, the golf course, with areas better suited for singles on romantic getaways and families with older kids in between. The resort’s seven pools exemplify this idea: a short walk from our room, we found the Seashell Pool, a classic family pool surrounded by palapa cabanas, with an infinity edge that looks out over the Ocean Pool, a protected area off the beachfront that is an ideal place for children to learn to snorkel. Behind the Seashell Pool is the very shallow, sandy-bottomed Keiki Pool, where Chi could camp out on a chaise and drink rosé, leaving the kids more or less to their own devices, when I got a massage at the spa. Walk a little further along the oceanfront promenade and you’ll come to the more grown-up Beach Tree Pool, where the emphasis is on quietude, and then the truly adult Palm Grove Pool, which has a swim-up bar that serves a sensational Hendrick’s-cilantro-cucumber-jalapeño number called a Cool & Spicy.
Chi and I took turns at the Palm Grove Pool while the kids were napping. One afternoon I was sitting on one of the submerged benches, engrossed in a novel and enjoying a Cool & Spicy, happy as a clam except that the basalt deck I was leaning on to read was just a bit too hot. Almost the moment I realized I was uncomfortable, a pool attendant appeared with a towel to keep me from burning myself. When I left the pool, I left the tab open for Chi, whose turn it was next. She told me later that she’d been greeted by name and shown to a chaise that had already been made up for her.
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This kind of service — anticipatory, empathetic, always nearby but never intrusive — is like a glass of ice water on a hot day. It’s disarmingly bracing on first encounter, then routinely gratifying thereafter. We experienced it wherever we went at the Four Seasons Hualalai. On our first night, we went to Ulu Ocean Grill, steps from the Sea Shell Pool and the beach, for a dinner prepared by the executive chef, Thomas Bellec. Everything was marvelous: the craft cocktails, the kampachi crudo, the ocean view, the special grilled oyster Bellec brought Agnes when he found out she was an oyster lover, and most of all the double rainbow that suddenly appeared over the beach. And then, as will happen with jetlagged kids, suddenly everything fell apart. As Bellec carved the just-caught whole snapper tableside, both children went into full meltdown. “Just go,” he told us. “I’ll have it sent to your room.”
To be honest, I thought that would be the end of the dinner. But, as if by magic, a staffer materialized minutes after we’d gotten the kids to sleep to set up a feast for us on the balcony. We sat in the dark, devouring that beautiful fish, drinking the bottle of lemony Sancerre we’d ordered, and listening to the waves.
One morning, I got away by myself for a stargazing and sunrise tour of Mauna Kea, the million-year-old dormant volcano whose summit is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. “Thank you for not being afraid of the volcano, and the hurricane, and the 2 a.m. wakeup,” said Justin Larkin, our driver and guide from Hawaii Forest & Trail, as the Sprinter van carrying 14 bleary-eyed travelers bumped up the side of the mountain in the predawn light. He explained that the ancient Polynesians had thought of Mauna Kea as the belly button of the Hawaiians. The sunrise, when it came, was ravishing, like filagree lace edging the cloud cover before rushing further to flood us with celestial light. Just as remarkable to me was the shadow Mauna Kea projected onto the atmosphere in the opposite direction, not far from the southern coast of Maui, which was visible in the distance Maui, Larkin had told us, began life where Mauna Kea is now, before wandering over the eons to its current location. Set free for a moment from the realities of parental time, I marveled at the slowness of geological time.
Of course, I had promised Agnes that she’d get to see a volcano too, so the hotel had also arranged a tour for us with Paradise Helicopters. As we drove through the lava fields toward the airport, Agnes’s existential questions took a more personal turn: “Papa, why, in our family, aren’t there three children? Why are your parents alive and mama’s aren’t?”
To my relief, we were soon aboard the helicopter with our our affable pilot, Keith Darby, who informed us and our fellow riders, also Four Seasons guests, that he would do his best to “entice us out of the Garden of Eden.” He kept up a steady patter about the magnificent sights below us, from the perfect white-sand beach where Captain Cook met his end to the green, mist-enshrouded coast above Hilo, once the site of an ill-fated railroad. Rex was airsick, and whined until he fell asleep. Agnes was most excited about asking me questions over her headset, until she too fell asleep.
We circled the black-and-umber crater of Kīlauea a few times, trying to see in, but the view was obscured by a giant puff of steam and what Darby called the storm’s “residual gunk.” “Not to rub it in,” he said later, when he put down the helicopter for a quick picnic on a secluded mountaintop, “but the lava flow was amazing until August.” Of course, the disappearance of the lava has in many ways been good news for the Big Island, which was able to reopen Volcanoes National Park a few weeks after we visited (now sans lava). Agnes told me afterward that she hadn’t seen the volcano, but it was okay, because she’d had fun in the helicopter. And while we didn’t get to see lava — or do other things, like snorkel, that we’ll do the next time — it was okay, because we’d had fun in Hawaii.
One morning as we enjoyed the incredible breakfast buffet at Ulu, I chatted with our server, Tiffany, about Lane’s near-miss. “For those of us who grew up on the island, each day is its own day,” she told me. You get into that mindset very quickly here. The next morning, Tiffany was our server again, and she pointed out a pod of dolphins that had surfaced off shore. Agnes and Rex and I rushed to the beach just as one corkscrewed its body up out of the water and landed with a splash.
Agnes turned to me, her face alight. “We saw — ” She could barely get the words out. “We saw a dolphin do a trick!” I was as excited as she was.