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I am fortunate that every Thanksgiving my workplace gives both Thursday and Friday off, ensuring an annual 4-day weekend.
Each year I typically stay local and take my family out to a restaurant to eat.
This year I wanted to change things up.
I decided to get a little more bang for my vacation buck by requesting coverage for the remaining 3 work days which allowed me to take advantage of a 9 day break from work.
The travel bug had hit me hard, rekindled because of my recent summer Florida vacation whetted my appetite for more, and especially after enduring a previous prolonged travel abstinence courtesy of the pandemic.
I wanted to make this trip special as it would be the last opportunity to travel with my daughter in 2021.
Because border restrictions had started to ease up, my daughter was going to resume her trips to England per the court orders (every other Christmas and 4 weeks each summer), starting this Christmas break.[Because Christmas 2020 was my turn to have my daughter, the pandemic only caused her to miss her England summer visits of 2020 and 2021.]
My daughter absolutely loves the beach and I try to book vacations with that in mind.
The Florida trip to revisit Universal Studios and Disney had an important beach leg included.
Even the vacation planned prior to this was an all-inclusive Cancun beach vacation that unfortunately had to be canceled at the last minute as COVID reared its ugly head.
Because of these still uncertain times, I felt remaining within the United States would present the least potential problems for travel.
Because of this, I did not try and reattempt a Cancun trip.
For me the choice was easy, the beautiful state of Hawaii.
My daughter had always wanted to go to Hawaii so I knew this would be a hit with her.
It was quite a bit of a coincidence that the only time I had previously gone to Hawaii was when I was in 11th grade, the same grade my daughter is in now.
Come Fly With Me.
For my first vacation after the lockdown, I chose to travel by car and make a big roadtrip out of it.
Back then I was a bit hesitant to travel by air because I was unsure how much additional pain points would be present because of COVID.
Of course there was no way I was driving to Hawaii so I knew that this vacation would require booking flights.
I ended up booking a vacation package via Expedia that included flights and a 7 night stay at the Hilton Grand Waikoloa Village, which was located on the Big Island, for a grand total of $6553.
My original booking included one stop at LAX airport both ways however repeated schedule changes by the airline (Delta) required an additional leg to be added (Minneapolis) on the way home.
Flight uncertainty was probably the most nerve-wracking part I experienced in the days leading up to the trip.
I would periodically get emails from Delta saying this flight got canceled and that an alternative route was available if I accepted it.
I believe there were 3 changes in the flight itinerary total, with the last one requiring some tight time windows to make the connections.
I still considered myself fortunate that we actually had flights to Hawaii and back when my vacation actually started.
Hawaiian Safe Travels.
Before I could step foot on Hawaiian sand, I had to meet the Hawaiian government’s requirements to enter.
Fortunately it was a relatively straightforward process which required logging into their State of Hawaii-Safe Travels website, uploading a vaccination card for each traveler and then, the day before travel, completing a questionnaire.
If you successfully complete the process you are rewarded with a QR code for each traveler which you then show the airlines upon checking in.
My airline offered a wristband documenting I was cleared through the Safe Travels program so that I could bypass the Hawaiian airport check point on arrival.
If you are traveling from the US into Hawaii without meeting the Safe Travels requirement, you are required to do a self-quarantine of 10 days (which in my opinion would defeat the purpose of visiting Hawaii in the first place with my limited time frame)
Day 1 (Saturday):
For prior vacations I would always be anticipating the trip weeks prior to departure.
This particular vacation was odd as it almost snuck up on me.
I think it was a defensive mechanism because until the last moment I did not know if it would occur or not (I think I was scarred from the huge letdown when my Cancun vacation plans did not come to fruition in 2020).
But lo and behold it was the day of the flight and I was actually going to go through with it.
My daughter and I had an early morning flight.
It was about an hour to the airport from where I live, so we ended up leaving home at around 3:30 am (the temperature was 34 degrees).
I did not know how much delay there would be with COVID protocols in place at the airport, and, because I always give a big time cushion for airport travel, we ended up arriving at the airport 2.5 hours before boarding.
Surprisingly, going through airport security was a breeze, perhaps because of how early it was.
The main difference between pre-COVID air travel and now was that we had to wear masks while in the airport and throughout the entire flight (except when eating or drinking).
I did find it amusing that it was acceptable to have masks off while eating and drinking and not at other times.
It is as if the people making these policies thought that when you are eating or drinking the virus would be on its best behavior and not spread when everyone’s masks were off at the same time.
We arrived at LAX on time and had about 1 hour to spare before our connecting flight boarded.
Unfortunately our connection was on a partner airline (Alaskan) which required us to change terminals.
I still do not know why it is designed this way, and I asked security at the starting terminal if this was indeed the only option (it was), but we had to enter unsecured space to travel between terminals and thus had to go through airport security screening all over again.
It made absolutely no sense to have passengers who have been cleared at a prior domestic airport to then do the process all over again.
Instead there should be a designed inter-terminal transfer system in place that would allow you to continue to be in a secured area throughout the process, eliminating the need for a 2nd screening.
I was far more nervous now than at any other point of the trip.
With a pretty tight connection window and being in an incredibly busy airport I was worried we would not clear this 2nd security screening in time.
Fortunately we made it and got to the gate as boarding started to commence.
I have to say I was incredibly disappointed with the Alaskan airline flight from LAX to KOA.
For an almost 6 hour flight I feel in this day and age it is almost criminal not to provide monitors on the seat backs for in-flight entertainment.
They offered free in-flight WiFi that was so slow/glitchy that it made it unusable for me.
When I first sat down and saw my predicament I quickly attempted to download media from Netflix before the door closed and airplane mode had to be turned on.
I sort of panicked and picked the first few titles that caught my eye.
I therefore ended up binging on the 2nd season of Tiger King on my smartphone.
After this dreadful leg of the trip we finally arrived on the big island (KOA airport).
KOA airport does not provide a jetway so my daughter and I were immediately greeted by the warm Hawaiian weather (75-80 degrees throughout our stay) as we had to exit the plane via a staircase.
We got into a taxi and headed to our resort, 17 miles away, with the fare and tip coming in at $69.
Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort:
We were amazed at the sheer size of the resort when we walked in (I would say it was larger than one city block).
The resort actually had a monorail system going to shuttle guests along the various stops if they chose not to walk the complex (there was also a small boat shuttle that was available with far more limited access times).
The grounds were absolutely beautiful with the gorgeous pacific ocean as a backdrop.
I knew we would not accomplish much the first day and only had made plans for an ocean side Chef’s 3 course menu at their signature restaurant, Kamuela Provision Company (KPC).
The sun had already set by the time our reservation time came up (I made it at 8pm just to account for any possible delays in arrival).
The food was fantastic (so much so that my daughter and I ended up eating there 2 more times for dinner during our stay).
Day 2 (Sunday):
I purposely made day 2 a day with no planned activities.
I thought it would be a good day to recover from the long flights as well as the change in time zone (Hawaii is 4 hours behind)
My daughter and I made full use of the resort lagoons where we got to swim next to tropical fish as well as a resident sea turtle.
For dinner we again ate at KPC but this time our reservation allowed us to enjoy the amazing Hawaiian sunset from our seaside table.
Day 3 (Monday):
The major activity of the day turned out to be my daughter’s favorite of the whole trip (and my 2nd favorite), a 3 hour sailing and snorkeling tour off of Kohala coast by Ocean Sports ($318 for 2).
The water was warm and clear and my daughter and I saw sea turtles, a puffer fish, sea urchins, as well as the more routine reef fish.
It was great sailing along the coast of Hawaii and viewing the various resorts and ocean front homes.
We truly felt like we were in paradise.
Day 4 (Tuesday):
Having explored Hawaii by sea, I thought the next way to conquer it was by land.
I accomplished this by booking the Big Island In A Day package by Wasabi Tours ($408 for 2) which was a 12 hour guided tour in a Mercedes transit van around the entire island and hitting some of the more popular scenic points.
This was an incredibly long tour, covering over 300 miles and taking 12 hours to complete.
Due to the spacing of the destinations, the majority of the time was spent in the vehicle along with 8 other people, with everyone required to wear face masks.
We first stopped at a Kona Coffee farm where we sampled some of the coffee which we could later purchase.
Next was a stop by a local favorite bakery where I bought a couple of donuts for my daughter and I.
We then drove to a famous black sand beach and got to see a couple of turtles that were on the shoreline.
We had a quick stop for lunch which was provided by the company.
The tour company drew my ire after I found out that the food provided contained an allergen I had warned them about for my daughter (she has a severe allergy to nuts and mild/moderate reaction to sesame).
When I booked the trip they assured me they would make plans for my daughter to have allergen free food but lo and behold everyone got the same meal and the bed of rice her food was on contained sesame.
My daughter had to pick around the sesame and eat what she could.
I did not think the food was that great at all, similar to what you could get a strip mall with cold teriyaki chicken on rice and some small fried fish pieces that were incredibly bland.
Fortunately she did not have a reaction but she felt hungry throughout the remainder of the trip (the snacks they provided in the later half of the trip also all contained nuts).
I was glad I had gotten those donuts earlier otherwise she would be absolutely miserable for the majority of the trip.
We then went on to see the national volcano park.
For those expecting to see a cauldron of hot lava you would leave very disappointed.
Essentially the hike along volcanic areas only gave you several vantage points to see large amounts of steam in the distance.
Fortunately the 2nd half of the tour was more spectacular.
Our next destination allowed us to walk through a lava tube (almost like a cave where lava had flown through).
Then it was off to two separate waterfall sites where we truly got to see the beauty of Hawaii.
Finally we drove to a scenic point where we saw the cliffs of Hawaii and another black sand beach.
I have to say that at the end I could not wait to go back to the hotel as I felt I was in that transit van way past my tolerance level.
If I had to do it again, I would probably do 2 separate tours or even skip the volcano component altogether.
Day 5 (Wednesday):
The only event I had on the docket for this day was something that I think everyone needs to experience visiting Hawaii, a sunset Hawaiian Luau.
I had booked this at the Marriot which happened to be at an adjacent resort ($420 for two).
The food was actually quite nice with pulled roasted pork being the main course.
I had booked the VIP premier seating option so my daughter and I had a private table in the center of the stage, front row.
We were treated to hula and fire dancers and enjoyed the entire show which lasted for almost 3 hours.
Day 6 (Thursday):
This was the day I was looking forward to the most, which happened to fall on Thanksgiving.
The excursion I had booked ended up being my favorite of the entire trip (and most expensive), the Big Island Spectacular & Volcano Helicopter Tour by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters ($1169 for two).
We were supposed to start off by flying over the same volcano I had walked around on Day 4, but this time, from an aerial vantage point, I would be able to see the molten lava.
Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and due to low-lying clouds over the volcano park, that component of the tour had to be canceled.
We were given the choice of a full refund, reschedule the event, or just participate in the waterfall part of the tour and get refunded the difference for the smaller package.
Because the earliest availability was the day after we left the island, rescheduling was a non-option.
There were 6 passengers for the flight and two ladies ended up asking for a refund.
The remaining 4 of us decided that doing a helicopter tour of the waterfalls would still be an amazing experience and we therefore went with that option.
It was fortuitous for my daughter and I that the ladies chose to cancel the booking.
That meant that the center seats were empty and my daughter and I were each able to get window seats on the 2nd row (the other couple sat in the front).
This activity truly was awe-inspiring.
The pilot would point out various sites and brought us close to the lush mountainside where we saw more waterfalls than I could count, the majority of them close to 1000 feet in height.
I was snapping photos and taking videos for the entire flight.
We were even blessed to see a rainbow from a perspective I have never been able to see one before.
We truly were “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
The flight time was reduced from the original 2 hour package to a little over an hour.
The refund turned out to be $580 so the actual activity ended up costing me $589.
It was the first time my daughter and I have ever been in a helicopter and the memories created were priceless.
Day 7 (Friday):
The last excursion I purchased was the Sunset Manta Snorkel Trip ($250 for two) by Wahine Charters.
Snorkeling with Manta rays is another one of those must do things when visiting Hawaii.
However this activity started off on the wrong foot and never really was able to redeem itself.
The first issue was that despite numerous calls I was never able to reach anyone at the company.
The meeting point provided by the company was incredibly vague on the Expedia voucher, essentially saying meet at the Harbor with no provided business address.
Our Uber driver dropped us at one side of the boat harbor near the boat ramp.
There was no signage of the company to be seen anywhere.
Asking passersby also did not provide much help.
I walked a distance to a local restaurant and they actually provided the wrong information as well saying we were in the right vicinity and that the Wahine Charters did not have a dock slip but would bring the boat to the ramp and to meet there.
I continued to try and call the charter but again no answer.
When the check-in time came and no one was to be seen I decided to do some research and ended up navigating to the company’s website.
Wahine Charters website was poorly designed in terms of pointing out the actual location and by some miracle I came across a page where there was a link that told guests to copy and paste into Google Maps to reveal the true location (it was under their Contact US section I was in looking for an alternative number to call).
To say I was furious is an understatement.
I did not sign up for some treasure hunt to start the charter.
It turns out my daughter and I were dropped of on the complete opposite side of the harbor where we needed to be.
We ended up walking a half mile to the meeting spot.
I expressed my frustration to the staff about no one picking up the phone or how inadequate directions for the meeting spot were.
One staff member said yeah, there’s no one in the office and that the directions could indeed be improved upon.
Of course if the actual Manta ray encounter was amazing the day could still be salvaged.
Unfortunately, unlike what other friends have experienced or what is most commonly advertised, the Manta rays we experienced were very few and far between and did not come up near the surface to interact with the guests.
We remained on the ocean surface holding on to lighted flotation boards and looking down.
The water was fairly murky reducing visibility a lot.
I saw maybe 3 or 4 Mantas total (always solo and possibly the same Manta over and over again), probably 20-30 feet below me.
I don’t hold the company responsible for this, however, as these are wild creatures and you can not predict what kind of encounter you will have (they even mentioned that sometimes there is no manta ray sighting at all).
There were some fish that came fairly close which did provide for some nice picture taking opportunities (I brought a small portable camera enclosed in a waterproof case specifically for this activity)
It was sad that we had to finish the Hawaiian excursions on a bad note.
I happened to speak to a resort guest the next day and he had a completely opposite experience with another charter who apparently took his family to a completely different location.
He said the manta rays came right up to them and they were completely surrounded.
I would definitely choose another manta ray excursion but with a different company.
Day 8 (Saturday):
Our return flight was late (10:30 pm) so this was almost like another free day in Hawaii.
After checkout my daughter and I remained a good bit at the resort walking the grounds, etc.
We went to a local shopping center and had authentic shaved Hawaiian ice (Original Big Island Shaved Ice Co (OBISIC) where I had the best dessert I have eaten in ages.
On our return to the resort I had arranged my daughter to receive a manicure.
We finally ended our stay in Hawaii with another incredible sunset ocean dining experience at KPC.
Some parting thoughts and experiences.
Hawaii is a gorgeous tropical paradise but its residents pay a premium to live there.
Because most goods have to be imported, there is a considerable surcharge to everyday items.
A gallon of milk is close to $7, a gallon of gas is $4.78 for regular and $5.28 for premium.
During my stay at the resort we apparently had a resident prankster.
If you chose to not use the monorail system but instead walked the long open corridors of the premises you were treated to beautiful galleries filled with cultural art and statues.
Well someone, of incredible comedic genius, decided that these exhibits could be taken to another level.
This person carefully collected stones along the pathway and proceeded to place them in incredibly strategic positions (as evidenced by the following photos).
I made it a mission to try and find each instance of this artist’s work, sort of a Where’s Waldo, poop addition . (I came across at least a dozen examples)
All good things did come to an end as the saying goes and my vacation flew by far quicker than any routine work week.
I was glad that my daughter and I began to resume traveling, specifically traveling by air, again while the world is trying to get back to normal.
I only have her for another year or so before she spreads her own wings and flies off to college so I was glad to squeeze this incredibly memorable vacation in.
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