Discover the Big Island, the youngest and largest island in Hawaii, by unwinding at a luxury resort on the Kohala Coast and spending unprogrammed days oceanside.
“Nearly twice as big as all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined (hence, its nickname, ‘Big Island’), its sheer size is awe-inspiring.”www.GoHawaii.com
The “Big Island” of Hawaii was the birthplace of King Kamehameha I as well as the ancient Mauna Loa volcano. It is a desolate place if you are surveying the lava fields cruising down Highway 19 enroute to my hotel on the majestic Kohala Coast.
In fact, visitors to the Big Island frequently think they landed on Mars when they exit the Kona International Airport. The collective image of Hawaii is green—lush rainforest, fragrant flora, and swaying palm trees.
But my rude awakening that not all Hawaiian islands are the same came as we careened down the highway. How could this be Hawaii? It looked so desolate. We zoomed past fields of black lava rocks. But 30 minutes later, our Uber pulled into the circular driveway of the Fairmont Orchid.
A former Ritz-Carlton property, the Fairmont Orchid hotel is aptly named. An orchid is “a plant with complex flowers that are often showy . . .” The hotel blooms in the Hawaiian desert like this rare flower.
Its exotic landscaping features tropical flowers set against lush Hawaiian trees and a sweeping ocean backdrop. The architectural style is hotel-without-walls, so you always see panoramas of sea and sand from the third-floor lobby.
“Immerse yourself in an authentic Big Island vacation experience, surrounded by 32 oceanfront acres of lush tropical gardens, cascading waterfalls and a tranquil white sand beach and lagoon.”Fairmont Orchid
The hotel features its award-winning Spa Without Walls, a 10,000 square foot oceanfront pool, Hui Holokai Beach Club, six restaurants, an oceanfront golf course, and a tennis pavilion.
From the moment the hotel bellman hands me a lei, I feel pulled into the old world of the Hawaii nation. Although the traditional lei uses flowers, I am given a lei necklace that I can keep. It drapes over my shoulders and hangs over my blouse.
“In Hawaiian tradition, lei is a symbol of hospitality, love, respect, and aloha.”Hawaiian Airlines
I don’t know whether it is from the salty smell of the ocean, the rippling breeze in the foyer, or just the perfume of orchids in the air, but I am on island time … instantly.
From the moment that I check into the Fairmont Orchid, I want to drop off my luggage in my room so I can go explore.
There are two routes. I can walk through the sushi restaurant to the outdoor cocktail lounge on the third floor, then descend down the regal staircase to the court below. Or I can take the elevator down to the ground level, and follow the sidewalks that meander to the beach, pool, jacuzzi, or golf course.
With any staff (and most visitors) I meet, there is always a smile and the melodic “Aloha!” greeting, with the uptilt on the third syllable. The Hawaiian language is so musical.
Aloha sounds like the wind that lifts the sail of a boat in the air or the red-headed bird which takes flight after resting on a tree branch.
Water surrounds me at Fairmont Orchid.
As the night gives way to dawn, the ocean rolls toward the beach. This is my favorite time of the day when I can wander aimlessly along the beach coast.
After breakfast, my next stop is the sparkling pool. In just a few hours, every lounge chair will be covered with a white towel. Sun worshippers usually descend on the pool by 8 am to grab the best chairs.
A day can be spent poolside, swimming, listening to book tapes, drinking pina Coladas, and napping. I love to see the chairs begin to empty by 430 pm. Suddenly, no one is splashing or swimming in the pool. I can just float on the surface and stare up at the sky.
Within 15 or 20 minutes, I am chilly enough to soak in the whirlpool, hidden from view. It is nestled in a grotto, facing a waterfall. I listen to the sound of the water hitting the rocks while I soak.
My mornings at the Fairmont Orchid start before sunrise as there is a 6-hour time difference. I get up to drink my Hawaiian Kona coffee at 5 am. Then I open my balcony door and exercise with the swaying palm trees. By 6 am, I race outside to watch the sunrise over the Mauna Kea mountain range. The waves lap onto the lava rocks. Birds serenade me.
Although walking around the hotel grounds is lovely, I recommend leaving the property and following the lava rock path around the bay. It meanders under palm trees and past a stacked black lava stone path leading into the water. Although I experiment with listening to Hawaiian music, the best audio track is the water lapping over the rocks.
Sometimes I meet a walker toting her Kona coffee in a styrofoam cup and following the beach path. But I mostly have the beach path between the Fairmont Orchid and the Mauna Kea Resort to myself at daybreak.
I think of all those weeks spent in isolation during the pandemic lockdown in spring 2020 in Washington DC. It seemed impossible to ever get on a plane and fly anywhere. But now, two years later, I am in Hawaii, chasing down island cats, like Midnight, just like I did pre-pandemic during hiking trips in Croatia and Portugal. Like a cat’s swishing tail, no one can guess where the future points.
The definition of “Aloha” is one of unconditional love. In Hawaii, it rushes like a waterfall over the rocks and then streams into an ever-widening pool.
Big Island Sunset
Everyone makes an appointment to be outside to watch the sunset nightly around 6:23 pm at the Fairmont Orchid. This is the free polytechnic fireworks show for anyone staying at the hotel (or on the Big Island).
At the Fairmont Orchid, the best seats in the house are the Adirondack chairs facing the ocean, the beach recliners on the lawn, or the white gazebo near the golf course.
Sunrises and sunsets mesmerize me. On the second to last night, before I flew home, I spend an hour meditating at the water’s edge. You can stare into the horizon and forget all the competing thoughts bothering you.
Suddenly, the sun seems to catch fire. You are riveted. A cauldron of lava bubbles in the sky. Then the bright orb slips under the blanket of night and disappears.
“No sun outlasts its sunset but will rise again and bring the dawn.”Maya Angelou
Watching a sunset teaches patience and exaltation. You can always bring life into perspective if you can stop to watch and wonder. “Sunset is the opening music of the night,” writes Mehmet Murat ildanz.
Centuries ago, seafaring people from Polynesia discovered the Hawaiian islands. They brought with them their folk tales about ancient gods and respect for the ocean.
“1,500 years ago: Polynesians arrive in Hawaiʻi after navigating the ocean using only the stars to guide them.”Go Hawaii
Then in 1778, British Captain James Cook steered his ship fleet into Waimea Bay on the Kauaʻi island. He was the first European to make contact with the Hawaiian Islands.
Many native Hawaiians perish over the next 100 years as they had no immunity to fight epidemics like measles, smallpox, and other diseases. “Until their contact with Europeans, Hawaiians had lived in an isolation that helped their culture and population flourish,” according to The History Channel.
King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu died in 1824 after contracting measles during a visit to London.
I regret that I didn’t read more about the nation of Hawaii and its monarchy, particularly how the last Queen of Hawaii was disposed and the kingdom of Hawaii was annexed to the United States in the 19th century. Looking back now, I wish I had devoted several weeks (pre-vacation) to read about Hawaii’s history.
Instead, after my vacation began, I quickly read Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen. It was written in 1898 by the last Queen of Hawaii Lili‘uokalan.
I also recommend reading the novel Moloka’i written by Alan Brennert. It tells the heartbreaking story of how Rachel Kalama, a 7-year-old girl growing up in Honolulu in the 1890s, is diagnosed with leprosy. She is separated from her family and sentenced to live in isolation in an isolated colony for lepers on the island of Moloka’i. Some of my favorite chapters were about the native healer, Haleola, who teaches Rachel about Hawaii’s rich culture and mythology.