Why I Hated My Stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort
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The Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort sprawls across 22 acres and occupies one of the widest stretches of Waikiki Beach. With nearly 3,390 rooms, it’s also one of the largest hotels on Earth — and the biggest property under the Hilton umbrella.
With only two days to review the massive resort, I decided to get a head start by exploring the property the evening before check-in. In the dark, it took me more than 20 minutes to find the lobby, following encouraging signs telling me I was “just five minutes from my vacation!” Needless to say, the iconic Hilton is a daunting destination hotel — the kind that requires a map and instruction manual to navigate.
I’m not currently pursuing any status with a hotel program, so we booked the $660 two-night stay through Hotels.com, with a Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns 10x miles per dollar spent on hotel reservations when booked through the special link at Hotels.com. You can also stack this with Hotels.com Rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights. Since the free night is based on the average price of the 10 nights, when combined with the 10x miles from the Venture Rewards, it effectively delivers a 20% return on this reservation. That’s one of the best credit card returns you can ask for when spending cash on hotels.
If you wanted to go the redemption route at this property, you should be able to find rooms for as little as 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night, though a quick search revealed that most nights will cost you more. If you want to give your Honors account a boost, consider signing up for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 150,000 Honors points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening.
At the edge of the Waikiki Beach neighborhood of Honolulu, the massive Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort was about 20 minutes by car from the airport and five minutes from the Hawaii Convention Center. In addition to five guest towers — one essentially an exclusive hotel within a hotel — the property was also home to a trio of Hilton Grand Vacations towers. Bordered by the Pacific, the Ala Wai Canal and bustling Ala Moana Boulevard, it'd be easy for travelers to spend an entire vacation wandering around the self-sufficient resort property.
The large, open-air lobby wasn’t at the entrance of the property. Instead, guests must walk or drive deep into the resort complex to check in. There were an alarming number of specialized front desks (one for Hilton Honors members, another for "Pre Check-in" — whatever that is — and more), and they seemed to always have queues. The lobby also had a handful of concierges, an activities manager, a desk designated for Japanese travelers, a guest-services desk — you get the idea. Despite the surplus of signage, it was an utterly overwhelming and not at all relaxing place to start my Hilton Hawaiian vacation.
At the desk, I was told my room wasn’t ready (check-in was at 3pm, and I had arrived an hour early). But the desk agent was determined to find something available. With so much inventory, you would think that would be simple. But after waiting for quite a while I said I didn’t care if it was a comparable room. But she insisted, and the search continued.
Finally, she found a room in the Tapa Tower, one of three towers offering ocean views and convenient access to the property’s main shops, pools and restaurants. She tried to upsell me on a room in the Rainbow Tower (one of two oceanfront towers), but I declined. It was only one of many instances during which I saw hotel staff acting as sales agents.
I received two room keys, two towel cards (exchanged for towels and costing $10 if not returned upon checkout) and a DVD card. At this, my heart sank. Literally used to rent DVDs and video games from Redbox-like kiosks around the property, the DVD card was also used for "complimentary" access to certain resort activities. It was all folded into the $40 daily resort fee, which, the front-desk agent told me, had been steadily increasing.
The Tapa Tower was a few minutes from the lobby desk. Everything at the Hilton Hawaiian Village felt far away.
Ears popping as I ascended the Tapa Tower (named for Polynesian barkcloth) to the 22nd floor, the age of the property was immediately evident in the elevators, which were dingy and plastered in advertisements for the property’s Waikiki Starlight Hawaiian Luau party.
When I opened my room, I found two double beds, a washed-out looking bench at the foot of one bed, a sickly yellowish wall color and a reading chair shoved in the corner with an ottoman and table too big for the space. Everything was drab, dated and uninspired.
The furniture was also beat up: dents and scrapes in the wood, vague stains on the straight-from-Office Max desk chair. A massive work desk with an adjustable leaf, a 37-inch flat-screen television and a PlayStation 3 occupied half the wall. There was also a spacious closet, an empty mini fridge and a coffeemaker.
In the bathroom, things weren’t much better. There were complimentary bath amenities, but they were cheap, and the soap left my hands feeling pasty. Fortunately, I had taken some bath products along from The Laylow.
The shower curtain was stained and too short for the length of the rod, and the tub was very shallow. No relaxing soaking baths here.
There were a lot of things I didn’t like about this room. The room felt like it hadn’t been fully refreshed since the Tapa Tower opened in 1982.
The only bedside and desk outlets were those around the base of the lamps (and they couldn’t accommodate my laptop charger) and were clearly a quick, cheap solution for a dated design. I ended up using inconvenient baseboard outlets instead. An alarm clock had a single USB charger, which took ages to charge anything. Another qualm? The carpet, which I can only describe as greasy.
I also found myself in a connecting room, so there was a locked door between me and very chatty travelers who used the blow-dryer for the entire duration of their stay. As if I weren't feeling crowded enough already, I came home from dinner my first night to find a rollaway cot shoved into the foyer. Feeling confined, I called the front desk and asked them to, well, roll it back away. I was a single traveler with two beds — I certainly didn't need a third.
I appreciated the relatively spacious balcony, or lanai, which did offer a nice ocean view off to the right, and plenty of people watching if I stared straight ahead. There was seating for two, and it was a relaxing place to observe the mayhem of the Hilton Hawaiian Village from a safe distance.
If you have a stay booked at this property, you should know that Hilton has poured millions of dollars into renovating. For example, it spent over $20 million just a few years ago to refresh the Diamond Head Tower. So, the bottom line here is that your results may vary, and there's a chance you could rest your head in a less dated space.
Food and Beverage
Hilton Hawaiian Village had 20 bars and restaurants, ranging from a nightly Polynesian luau to a poolside grill, an Italian restaurant to a New York-style delicatessen. There were even two Starbucks. Basically like being home in New York City.
During my stay, I dined at Tropics Bar & Grill (a beachfront spot recommended to me by a local Uber driver), tried the breakfast buffet at Rainbow Lanai, took myself out on a nice date at Bali Steak & Seafood, had drinks at the late-night Tapa Bar outside my tower, picked up a coffee at Lappert's Hawaii and ordered lunch from a Mexican cantina. The quality of the food ranged so drastically, it’s almost impossible to believe these restaurants were managed by the same hotel.
The single best meal I had during my stay at the Hilton was also one of the best meals I had during my entire trip to Hawaii. Bali Steak & Seafood was also outrageously expensive. I did order one plate more than I probably needed (all in the name of journalism, of course) but still spent nearly $100 with tip. I know what you’re thinking, but no: That was with just one cocktail. The dish to order is the ahi tartare: a sensational plate of ahi tuna served on crisps made with dried tapioca and squid-ink pearls.
If you want a more casual experience, head to the Tropics Bar & Grill, which had a friendly, social mix of patrons, an excellent sampler with two types of poke and a ceviche, and a cucumber-and-pineapple mojito sweetened with agave. I also had a refreshing green smoothie bowl at Lanikai Juice Hawaii: an açai bowl and smoothie shop by the Tapa Pool.
Do not order the fish tacos at the Hau Tree Cantina. The catch of the day was so dry and tough I thought I’d mistakenly been given chicken tacos.
Unless you need a full breakfast at 5:30am, I’d also skip the Rainbow Lanai buffet, which was expensive ($29.95 for continental breakfast, $39.95 for the full breakfast, including an omelet station and hot plates). I took a peek before ordering and stuck with the cheaper option, which was mostly cereals, breads and an extensive miso-soup station with century eggs, pickled cucumbers, fried gluten, pickled ginger, tofu and preserved bamboo shoots (along with a few items I didn’t recognize).
Though not technically on Hilton property, guests should also consider dining at the nearby food truck — Gilligan's Beach Shack — across from Duke Kahanamoku Beach. The truck serves excellent garlic shrimp, shoestring fries and grilled mahi that isn't overcooked. You can sit on the beach and watch the sun set while you eat.
The Hilton Hawaiian Village seemed to be making a major play for travelers who might be discouraged, either by price or by location, from booking a stay at the Disney Aulani Resort in Ko Olina.
Twice a week at sundown, for example, the resort hosted family-friendly movie nights with outdoor screenings on the Village Green ("Despicable Me 3," "Ratatouille"). Every night, so-called "Polynesian warriors" lit torches around the property, and every Friday, there was a short fireworks display.
There were no adults-only pools. I asked multiple times, hoping the answer might change, because all six pools — including the Kalia Tower Pool by the gym and the Ali’I Tower Pool, exclusively for guests of that building — welcomed splashing, sometimes screaming, kids of all ages.
The Paradise Pool had the longest waterslide in Waikiki, and there was actually a shallow, tiered pool specifically for young children. Guests could also swim (or paddleboard around) the man-made saltwater lagoon.
Included with the resort fee were daily activities, though as a grown-up I found these extremely limited. I wanted to do morning yoga, but a sign-up sheet wasn’t available until five days after my departure. Instead, I took aerobics, which I would only recommend to someone with a strong positive mental attitude. A bizarre mix of dance, jogging and squats, the 45-minute-long class did get me sweating. But it also left me unsure whether or not I had taken a Silver Sneakers cardio class or a Zumba lesson. Guests could also take lei-making, hula and ukulele classes.
For adults, the Hilton Hawaiian Village had a large, modern gym equipped with LifeFitness machines, free weights and weight machines, along with a medley of specialty equipment. Located on the fourth floor of the Kalia Tower, the gym was a solid walk for most guests.
And there was never a time it was empty. Though I had no trouble finding a machine to use, I went first thing in the morning, around 5:30am, and there were already a handful of people wrapping up workouts. There was a second gym exclusively for Ali’l Tower guests.
The Hilton Hawaiian Village also had a Mandara Spa and over 140,000 square feet of shopping space. For guests who weren’t all that interested in actually exploring Oahu, Hilton made it easy enough to shop, eat and play without stepping off the resort grounds or spending a single dollar elsewhere.
Staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village left me exhausted. Part of that, I suspect, was something to do with the fact that this property wasn’t all that interested in catering to travelers such as myself. Instead, the resort went to great lengths to appeal to traveling families.
With that said, if you’re looking for a place to keep kids occupied, I wouldn’t rule out the Disney Aulani Resort, which seems to do the job Hilton is trying to do, but better. (The per-night room rate at the Hilton may be cheaper, but nothing else is inexpensive.) If you’re a couple on a romantic holiday, don’t expect to find any quiet corners for canoodling here. And if you’re a solo traveler, well, good luck to you.