Each island in Hawaii has a unique appeal and some unique detractions. While the island of Hawaii — also known as the Big Island — has the only active volcano and a variety of other attractions, the “problem” with is that it’s so darn big. I have driven all the way around Oahu or one of Maui’s two halves in a single day on several occasions. During my trip to the island of Hawaii in September we sometimes drove for hours to get to our destination with little tropical scenery in between, but the Fairmont Orchid on the northern edge of Waikoloa was a great base for exploration and relaxation.
I’ve been trying to go the island of Hawaii for a long time now, though I’ve been traveling to all the islands of Hawaii for as long as I can remember. One thing that put me off is that I had a difficult time deciding where to stay, so I hope this review of the Fairmont Orchid will be helpful. (Omar has previously stayed at and reviewed the Fairmont Maui Kea Lani.) Among my usual sources, there didn’t seem to be reviews of any hotels on this island among as I was planning this trip.
To avoid confusion between the state and the island, I will refer to it as the Big Island for the remainder of this post.
Why Waikoloa? Why the Fairmont Orchid?
The Big Island is relatively young, geologically speaking, so there are fewer of the sandy beaches you find on other islands. Waikoloa is the only area with a cluster of luxury hotels, about an hour’s drive north of the Kona International Airport (KOA). Alternatively, you could stay in a condo or one of the many budget and mid-priced hotels in the city of Kailua-Kona. If you’re familiar with Maui, the closest comparison would be Lahaina. There are also a small number of hotels in Hilo, which is on the eastern coast with its own airport (ITO), but I don’t recommend the area.
I chose the Fairmont Orchid because it appeared to be the best full-service hotel while avoiding the crowds of families at the Hilton Waikoloa Village and the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort. The Hilton actually has its own tram to connect several large buildings. The other reason was that the Fairmont has a beach. True, it’s man-made, but the Hilton has no beach at all (there is a man-made lagoon), while the Marriott is separated from the public beach by a native Hawaiian fish pond.
A better option I’m leaving out is the Four Seasons. It’s closer to the airport, but it’s also over $1,000 per night. Booking through Costco Travel, we got five-nights at the Fairmont Orchid in a partial ocean view room, including breakfast and a rental car, for about $2,000.
Arrival at the Fairmont Orchid
We landed around 2 PM in beautiful sun and picked up our rental car in a torrential downpour. Still hungry after rushing to catch our flight in Honolulu, we first drove south to Kailua-Kona for lunch and some time to dry off before heading north as the sun came out again.
Fortunately the hotel lived up to its pictures. We drove down a beautiful landscaped driveway like many others in Hawaii and pulled up to the valet, who took our bags and car while we went to check-in. While self-parking is “free” as part of the $30 daily resort fee, an upgrade to valet parking is only $5 extra. We took advantage of that and found our car was always ready for us during the rest of the trip.
Our room was not quite ready even though it was after published check-in time. Still, the manager graciously provided us with a hospitality suite to change clothes and head down to the beach. It turned out our room was made available during that short window, so the bell staff took our bags as we continued with our original plan.
We arrived on Megan’s birthday and the trip coincided with our anniversary, so the manager provided us with four free Mai Tai coupons (two for each occasion) and a bottle of sparkling wine waiting in our room. Normally these free drinks need to be used for dinner service at one of the hotel restaurants, but because of the delay checking into our room we got an additional two free Mai Tais to use at the pool bar.
Service at this hotel was off to a great start. I thought they went above and beyond at reception, especially for such a minor delay, and it was indicative of the service we received during the rest of our five-night stay. On this measure alone I would be happy to recommend the Fairmont Orchid — but I haven’t even reviewed the rest of the hotel yet!
Partial Ocean View Room
Our room wasn’t huge, but it was very well laid out. I never felt like I needed an upgrade to a suite and the extra space that would have provided. In the main room was a king size bed, two large side tables, a sitting chair, a television, and a sizable desk.
The television cabinet contained a mini refrigerator and a beverage station underneath. There was no mini bar, but I’m sure if I needed anything I could have requested it from room service. They were pretty responsive to requests (although more than once they neglected trays in the hallway left by other guests).
After enough trips to Hawaii, I have realized that my favorite activity is waking up at 6 AM and watching the sun rise from my balcony with a cup of coffee. I do this nowhere else, but I do it without exception in Hawaii, so it was worth paying extra for a partial ocean view. We enjoyed it from the fifth floor of the north tower (the sixth floor is reserved for Fairmont Gold members) and were pretty happy with the location.
The bathroom also felt generously sized. I love having a double vanity, and the separate room for the toilet made it more functional when getting ready in the morning. There’s a separate tub off to the left side, though we only used the shower. Toiletries were provided by Rose 31 and were pleasant if unremarkable.
Dining and Shopping Options
Our room rate included breakfast, which was a buffet served at the restaurant below reception in the main building. The menu included a variety of fresh fruits, egg dishes, meats, bakery items, and other selections that changed daily. I wouldn’t go as far as comparing it to the amazing buffet at the Andaz Maui, but it did remind me of it in some ways.
Lunch was typically a couple beers and a sandwich or fish tacos delivered by one of the roving waiters to our beach chairs. There is a cafe and deli located you can order from in-person, including some extra menu items at lower prices, but I didn’t think it was different enough to be worth getting up from my seat. There’s also the pool bar, which has several tables in the sand and is open for lunch and dinner.
Full-service dinner is available Brown’s Beach House, next to the Hale Kai pool bar, or at Norio’s steakhouse and sushi bar, which is located in the same space as breakfast. We chose to eat at Brown’s one night and at the Hale Kai another night since being near the beach is a big part of why we go to Hawaii. It’s essential that you make a reservation at Brown’s at least a day in advance.
Our meals at all locations were pretty good, but I still have to say that dining at the hotel was disappointing due to its high cost. Long travel times made it difficult to eat off-site, and you certainly couldn’t walk down the beach to an adjacent hotel. I had read similar complaints about other hotels on the Big Island on forums like TripAdvisor.
I want to emphasize that the food was not bad; it just didn’t feel like we were getting value for our money. Room service delivered an enormous — but average — hamburger one night. My wife’s fish was consistently overcooked at every meal. Quality wins over quantity every time.
There are ways to get around this price inflation. When comparing rates I saw the option to pre-pay for meals on the Fairmont website, getting $100 in dining credit for $75. There appears to be a cap of one credit per person per day.
You would have no trouble spending $100 on two people at dinner, and could probably do it at lunch, too, if you added alcohol. We chose instead to book through Costco Travel, so this option was not available. Lest you think you can get around the prices by going elsewhere, it’s about the same when you consider driving two hours round-trip into town and paying for parking.
Pools and Spa
There is one large pool at the Fairmont Orchid, and it was recently renovated and seemed to be in good shape. It’s large enough that couples can find their own spot to relax without feeling crowded or watched by others. It seemed to be a popular hotel for honeymooners as well as families, but it was also the beginning of the shoulder season. The area is surrounded by large, comfortable beach chairs. We had no problem getting assistance from the staff in setting out towels. However, the pool is far enough from the beach that you may want to pick up and relocate all your belongings if you decide to swim elsewhere.
Only Megan used the spa (I hate them), but she came back with a good report on the ocean-view massage she reserved. There are three treatment locations available with slightly varying prices: indoors, garden-view, and ocean-view. The ocean-view treatments take place in one of several cabanas directly on the rocky beachfront of the hotel north of the beach.
The cabanas also each include a pair of wooden chairs. As the hotel was not very busy during our visit in September, this area was often unoccupied. It’s a great location to sit and read a book, or bring a drink and watch the sunset. I think the garden-view treatment area would also be pleasant, but with all the streams and waterfalls you might find them more noisy than peaceful.
Swimming and Snorkeling at the Beach
My original hunch about the value of having a real beach was confirmed. We were able to do lots of snorkeling in front of the Fairmont and saw several turtles in the water every day. In the morning and evening you could easily see them on the rocks, where they’d come up to rest, as many as eight at a time. There was also a large flood light aimed at the water, which confused me at first until I realized it was to see the manta rays swimming just below the surface.
Usually we walked past the Fairmont’s man-made beach to a more natural (but smaller) sandy area near the rocky path leading to the adjacent housing development and the Mauna Lani next door. This area had lots of shade, and it was popular with couples looking to sit, read, and nap all day. The main beach had rental kayaks, snorkel gear, and other activities, but it was fully exposed in the sun. Families might prefer a room in the south tower as it is closer to the beach.
Most days in mid-September had some clouds, though occasionally it would get very clear. On our second-to-last day we were able to see all three mountain peaks on the Big Island, including Mauna Loa to the south, Mauna Kea to the east, and Kohala to the north. If you’re wondering about that faint island visible across the water, that’s Maui.
Even though we did not swim much within the Fairmont’s man-made beach, the breakwater that the hotel constructed made it easy to get in and out of the water. If you’re up for more adventure, I recommend you walk south along the rocky trail. Go past the Mauna Lani (the beach here is too sandy for snorkeling) and the fish ponds to the Mauna Lani beach club. The beach club is private, and you cannot drive to it, either. But the beach is public. It provided better snorkeling with large rock formations, swarms of fish and baby jellies, and beautiful un-bleached coral.
Overall, we were very satisfied with the Fairmont Orchid. Travel times were long and dining options were limited, but that seems to be the price of staying in Waikoloa and is necessary for the kind of beach vacation we like to experience. Just expect the sticker shock, or plan your outings so it’s convenient to stop for dinner on the way back. My brother used to live on the Big Island and warned me of all these things before I visited. He wasn’t wrong.
I have considered staying in Kailua-Kona on a future trip, which would also be more convenient if you want to snorkel with the manta rays at night. Although the beaches near the hotels aren’t impressive, you can still drive to the public beach park by the Marriott or bicycle to the dozens of smaller beach parks in Kailua-Kona.
Ultimately, I don’t think Waikoloa should be your destination if all you want to do is sit on the beach. There are other islands where that’s easier and cheaper to accomplish. But we wanted to see a new destination, take a day trip to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and do other things that wouldn’t have been possible on one of those other islands. Given that we also wanted to relax on the beach, I think that Waikoloa was a great choice.