The Hilton Waikoloa is probably one of Hawaii’s most iconic resorts. However, a lot has changed over the years with the hotel and its guests, all of which contributed to what ended up being my disappointing Hilton Waikoloa stay.
As a child, I remember seeing the Hilton Waikoloa advertised as a prize on Wheel of Fortune – something my grandparents would watch every night. I was in awe. A hotel with its own tram system, boats, dolphins, and private saltwater lagoon?! Back then (mid to late-90s), the Hilton Waikoloa truly was a magical place. The grounds were well-kept, there were tons of dining options, and everyone was so friendly. Fast forward to today, and things aren’t quite the same.
Booking the Hilton Waikoloa
Being such a popular resort, the Hilton Waikoloa gets somewhat pricy – especially during holiday weekends. However, I had a free weekend night certificate available and a decent amount of points, so I booked a two-night stay for the certificate plus 70,000 points. Unfortunately, you can only book a resort view room in the Palace Tower using the certificate. Though I likely wouldn’t pay the exorbitant rates they have listed for a room with a view!
After lunch at Suisan’s and our brief shopping trip in Hilo, we headed out to Saddle Road to make the trek over to the Big Island’s leeward coast. We arrived at a bit past 2 pm when we ran into our first negative experience – the parking lot. If you’re self-parking here, know that it’s an open lot with a sometimes confusing layout, and the only entrances into the resort are via a gate that leads to the Makai Tower or a very long set of stairs up to the main lobby. Also, the stalls closest to the resort are reserved exclusively for Makai Tower guests, though I’m not sure how they know who’s parking where.
We made our way through the gate and took an elevator up to the main level of the Makai Tower, where we waited for a tram to arrive. By the time we got to the main lobby, it was already 2:30 pm, at which point I made my way over to the Hilton Honors Gold and Diamond line.
Luckily, there wasn’t too much of a wait. But while we waited, an associate came up to us to talk a bit and brand us with the Hilton Waikoloa’s wristbands. The bands identify us as hotel guests and granted us access to the resort’s facilities. Oddly enough, you get one band for the entire stay. Previously, you’d get a new color each day to control unauthorized access. Weird!
Soon after, an associate greeted us and began the formal check-in process. She was friendly and well-intentioned but a bit unpolished. For some reason, she giggled almost constantly throughout. She did thank me for my loyalty but didn’t offer an upgrade – in fact, the hotel makes sure you know this isn’t going to happen before even checking in. But, soon enough, we were waiting for another tram to take us to our room in the Palace Tower.
A word on parking. Just pay the damn valet fee. They make self-parking so inconvenient here. It really is worth the few extra bucks you pay for valet. And they’re usually quite fast! Yes, I realize this is likely all by design.
Hilton Waikoloa Layout & Transportation
Now, before I continue on with this review, I think it’d be helpful if I covered some resort basics. First, the obvious – this is a MASSIVE resort. Covering 62 acres, the Hilton Waikoloa is spread out over three guest towers, three large pools, and a four-acre saltwater lagoon. In fact, the walk from the Ocean Tower at one end to the Makai Tower at the other is about a mile long. It’s no wonder there are transportation systems built into the resort!
The quickest way to get around the Hilton Waikoloa is to catch their tram. As mentioned earlier, the tram runs between the three guest towers, the lobby, and the conference center. The website says the trams operate from 7 am to 11 pm, though we were told it now runs till 1 am. However, I noted that outside of busy check-in and check-out periods, the tram runs VERY infrequently. In fact, when we arrived back at the hotel, particularly late one night, the digital signs were quoting a 20-minute wait. Yeah, no thanks.
It’s worth noting that these trams aren’t the same as the ones I experienced as a kid. They’re slower, the HVAC is louder (so loud it’s difficult to have a conversation), the HVAC doesn’t effectively cool the cars, and the seats are firmer yet more wobbly. Yes, these things aren’t pleasant to ride. This, combined with crowding and long wait times, eventually lead us to begin walking everywhere towards the end of our stay. Even with our bags.
Another point I want to mention is that the Hilton used to operate three trams at once, vastly reducing wait times. This is possible because there are two sidings along the length of the route. That’s no longer the case. They use a maximum of two and only during peak times. Also, I find it odd that they stop at the conference center even when there aren’t any events.
The more popular way of getting around the Hilton Waikoloa is its boats. Unfortunately, they operate only between 2 pm and 10 pm. Plus, most of the seating on the boat is uncovered, meaning you’ll be roasting under the hot Kohala sun. That said, this is a much more pleasurable – if not slower – experience.
I didn’t walk the length of the resort. But, what I can tell you is that the distance from the Palace Tower to the lobby is about 0.3 miles. We did it in 10 minutes with our bags and having to dodge jerks taking up most of the walkway and walking slowly.
Hilton Waikoloa Towers
When the Hilton Waikoloa first opened, the entire property was a standard Hilton hotel. That’s no longer the case. In fact, just two of the towers are now a Hilton hotel. The Ocean Tower has since been transformed into a Hilton Grand Vacations Club tower. That said, the Makai Tower (formerly the Lagoon Tower) is now the property’s premium tower – that used to be the Ocean Tower. This means that even no-view rooms at Makai are significantly more expensive than the same room types in the Palace Tower.
Hilton Waikoloa Dining
I’m going to be straight with you guys. Though I had my Diamond dining credits and the hotel graciously gave us drink coupons for our anniversary, we didn’t dine at the Hilton at all. Not even for a snack. To be quite honest, the dining options here sound so mundane. It’s like they’re not even trying at all. What’s more, the only place open for breakfast is the relatively small Nui Italian restaurant. And even then, they’re only open for a few hours. I’m not dealing with that to overpay for mediocre food. No thanks. We just ate mochi for breakfast instead!
We were assigned room 5215, which is a standard room on the fifth floor of the Palace Tower. You know, I always wondered why they call this tower the Palace Tower. It doesn’t look like a palace, nor does it feel like one.
Anyhow, the shape of this tower and the landscape means the ground floor walkways are quite narrow. That, coupled with our lovely fellow guests, meant it was difficult to pull our bags through to the elevators. Then, when you get to the elevators, there’s often a wait! There are just three elevators for this entire tower, and they’re on the smaller side and move slowly. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have to wait five minutes or more.
Once we finally made it to our room, I found it to be a bit underwhelming. Maybe my perception was a bit tainted already, but I found the room to be a bit sterile – the generic Hawaiian-y photos don’t really help either.
That said, the bathroom area is absolutely massive. Unfortunately, the vanity is open to the rest of the room, as is the walk-in closet. The only closed-off area is the toilet, along with the shower/tub. Interestingly, the Hilton Waikoloa uses the same hilariously useless safes as Aulani.
The one thing that hasn’t really changed at the Hilton Waikoloa is the toiletries. They’re still using Kohala Spa branded stuff with a Coco Mango scent. It’s essentially the same stuff you’ll find at the Grand Wailea, only there, they brand it as Spa Grande.
Moving on to the rest of the room, things don’t get much more interesting. Our rather spartan standard king room featured a king bed with a wood headboard and was flanked by two large nightstands. To the left was a small coffee table and loveseat, while the opposite side featured a blank wall with the HVAC controls.
There was a small fridge in the cabinet under the TV, while the open shelves featured a PS3, ice bucket, disposable cups, and single-serve coffee maker. A small dining table with two chairs and a floor lamp occupied the space between the TV and the sliding door. That sliding door, of course, leads out to a small balcony. The view we had wasn’t bad! From our balcony, you could see the lobby, Makai Tower, the tramway, the boats, and a bit of the ocean off in the distance. Our room also had a great view of Hualalai, including Pu’u Wa’awa’a.
The noise was, unfortunately, an issue here. Sound isolation was seemingly non-existent, as we could hear every person that walked past our room. Luckily, the HVAC was equally loud and would drown out most, except for the screaming kids – but at least it was effective. Oh, and the birds. A large colony of noisy parrots lives somewhere near the Palace Tower, so when they leave and return to their roosts, they create quite the racket! Our bathroom was also a source of noise, making loud gurgles at 6 in the morning.
Hilton Waikoloa Activities
We ended up being far busier during our stay than I anticipated. As a result, we didn’t really have time to do anything on-property. We didn’t walk around the property as I had originally planned, nor did we even see the dolphins.
What we did do, though, was snorkel in the saltwater lagoon. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t so great while we were there, so the water was quite murky. That said, we did see a nice variety of aquatic life, including a small manta ray, our state fish, Moorish Idols, Uhu (parrot fish), Manini, puffer fish, raccoon fish, and more! It’s just too bad none of the turtles I used to see as a kid were there that day. The rocks along the bottom of the lagoon were also quite a bit uglier than remember, being covered in thick layers of orange-brown algae.
We did also rent a stand-up paddle board for a bit, which set us back around $50 for an hour. It was fun trying it out in a calm, protected environment, but it’s a lot harder than it looks! Also, swimming or doing anything in the lagoon can be difficult and dangerous, as there are so many people in rented equipment, and they don’t necessarily look out for others.
In case you’re wondering, the three pools at the Hilton Waikoloa are split between the Ocean Tower and Makai Tower. The Ocean Tower has two pools – one in its courtyard and one along its exterior – while the Makai Tower has one large pool between it and the ocean. The two larger pools are definitely more kid-centric, as they feature waterslides, bridges, and other play structures.
This was the first time I stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa as an adult, and I must say, I’m sorely disappointed. To be clear, this isn’t a bad hotel, and I still like the lagoon. However, staying here is inconvenient. Everything is so far apart, and there are limited options on-site. Plus, it just feels worn, tired, and less friendly than it used to. Back when I was a kid, I’d say that 90% of the employees were constantly smiling and had a genuine warmth to them. Today? You see more worn-down employees going through the motions, though there are still some gems there.
I just don’t feel like staying at the resort is worth it. Everything is very mediocre and very overpriced. I know, that’s the name of the game, right? But comparing this stay to my experience at the Westin Hapuna, even without the suite upgrade, I know which property I’d choose. Hell, I think I’d even rather stay at the Courtyard in Kona.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I probably wouldn’t stay at the Hilton Waikoloa again. The place is too much of a circus for my liking and, again, the fact that everything is so spread apart makes staying here so inconvenient. This is especially true since, despite the space, the towers, beach, transportation, etc., are so incredibly crowded. It all made for a rather exhausting stay. Of course, the hilariously limited number of dining options on-property doesn’t help, either.