Cold Shoulder in the Tropics: Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa on the Big Island in Hawaii
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Back before American Airlines introduced basic economy on flights to Hawaii, my husband, JT Genter, and I booked flights to Hawaii's Big Island for just $414 per person. Since TPG is doing a large Hawaii package, we decided to review two Big Island hotels during our four-night stay. We spent our first two nights at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort and the last two at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. Note that we completed both of these stays in August just days before Marriott and SPG combined.
Although some might be hesitant to visit Hawaii's Big Island due to recent lava flow, rest assured that it only affected a small portion of the island. It's perfectly fine to visit the rest of the island.
We booked our two-night stay shortly before arriving on Hawaii's Big Island. We booked an Ohana larger guest room with one king bed, sofa bed and balcony for $701 including taxes, or about $352 per night, using the AAA rate. It was a Category 6 hotel, so if we'd used points, it would have cost us 50,000 points per night, which TPG's latest valuation valued at $450. Note that a $30-per-night-plus-tax resort fee was charged even on award nights.
Since JT matched the SPG Gold elite status he received through having The Platinum Card® from American Express to Marriott Gold elite status, we booked directly to have access to elite benefits. But we quickly found that many elite benefits weren't offered at Marriott resorts or included as part of the mandatory resort fee. So it might be better to book through Hotels.com Venture with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card to get 10x miles per dollar spent through Jan. 31, 2020. You could also stack this return with Hotels.com rewards, which awards one free night per every 10 paid nights, effectively giving a 20% return.
During our stay, the only benefits of our elite status were late checkout and a room upgrade. Neither benefit was proactively offered, though — we had to ask for each.
The Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa was a 25-minute drive north of Kona Airport (KOA) and about a hour and a half from Hilo (ITO).
Hawaii's Big Island is larger than you might expect, so you'll probably want a rental car. We found a cheap option using AutoSlash and were upgraded to a convertible.
The Waikoloa Beach Marriott was situated on 15 acres overlooking Anaeho'omalu Bay. Kings' Shops were directly across the road from the resort, while Queens' Marketplace was slightly farther down the road. Both shopping areas offered many dining and shopping opportunities. I highly recommend a fresh poke bowl, one of the main dishes of native Hawaiian cuisine, available from a staffed counter at Island Gourmet Markets in Queens' Marketplace. It may just be the cheapest and most delicious food you'll eat during your stay.
After self-parking, we carried our Osprey backpacks the short distance to the lobby. Although the family entering the lobby ahead of us was greeted with shell necklaces, we were initially ignored by the greeter. He only brought us necklaces after we'd gotten in line at the front desk to check in.
The check-in agent didn't offer us an "enhanced" room upgrade for our Marriott Gold elite status until we asked. At first, she handed us the room keys to a ground-floor Ohana room. We'd booked a 550-square-foot Ohana room on Marriott's website (the only higher-category rooms were suites and 620-square-foot Na Hale rooms) and requested a higher-floor room at booking. But the agent claimed that the only upgrade possible was to a 410-square-foot ocean-view room with two double beds, a smaller and lower-category room with a different sleeping configuration than we'd booked.
It'd be one thing if there weren't upgraded rooms available, but we'd checked availability before approaching the front desk and saw multiple upgraded rooms still being sold, including other Ohana rooms that were presumably on higher floors, Na Hale rooms and various suites. When we inquired about the slightly larger Na Hale rooms, the agent impatiently said that these were "much larger" than the room we booked and that the resort didn't upgrade anyone into the Na Hale rooms because they were cabanas. However, after she began making conflicting statements about the room sizes and other elite benefits like late check-out, we asked to speak with a manager.
The manager listened to us and explained that no level of elite status provides upgrades to Na Hale rooms "because there are only twelve of these rooms." She asked how long we were staying and then asked us to take a seat while she went to her office to see what she could do.
It’s our policy here at The Points Guy not to tell properties or employees who we work for, and we didn’t in this case either. We don’t know if anyone at the hotel looked us up between our first and second interactions, but the manager's attitude completely changed when she returned with keys to the presidential suite and an apology for the rough start. Although we’re appreciative of the upgrade, especially for the purposes of this review, I don’t think the upgrade would have happened for most other guests in the same situation.
We stayed in a one-bedroom presidential suite called the Kukui Suite. Despite searching many dates, I was unable to find any availability for this room on Marriott's website.
The living room included a 65-inch flat-screen TV with a couch, chair and coffee table. Various Hawaiian-themed books and decorations surrounded the TV.
Off the living room was a nook with a working desk and a chair. The one power outlet under the desk was difficult to access.
Toward the entrance was a half bathroom with a sink and a toilet. Strangely, the sinks all had small bottles of hand wash instead of bars of soap or normal soap dispensers.
The dining room had two side tables and seating for six at the table.
The living room and dining room shared a balcony with four chairs, a coffee table and a smaller table. The view from the balcony was perhaps the best view on the property, as it looked across the pool and luau grounds to Anaeho'omalu Bay.
The kitchen was seemingly set up for a party. The refrigerators looked industrial, and there was an ice well suitable for serving drinks.
The cabinets had cups, wine and champagne glasses, utensils and plates for six. There were also ample empty cabinets and drawers.
There was a Keurig coffee machine with plenty of coffee pods and creamer, a microwave, an ice bin and a large sink. But there wasn't a dishwasher, dish soap or any kitchen towels.
Next to the kitchen was a locked door, presumably to an adjoining room.
The walk-in closet came with two robes, an iron, an ironing board and a larger dresser in the closet. On shelves were extra pillows, slippers and a safe.
To the right of the walk-in closet was the bedroom. There was a bed that was just about king size. The bedroom also had a 42-inch flat-screen TV, a table with two chairs and a lounge chair with a footrest.
There were nightstands with three drawers on either side of the bed. These nightstands had two US-style three-prong outlets and a USB plug.
The bedroom had its own balcony with two chairs and a small table.
To the left of the walk-in closet was a large bathroom. There was a tub, large shower, two sinks and a large toilet stall. The water pressure in the shower was low, and it was impossible to take a cool shower, since the coldest setting was still rather warm.
Hand soap, bar soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cotton buds and a hair dryer were all provided. When we ran out of lotion, more was delivered five minutes after we called to request more.
Decorations throughout the suite were minimal and understated but adequate, seemingly designed to fit with any event that one might want to host in the suite.
Food and Beverage
There were two restaurants on site, Hawaii Calls Restaurant and Lounge and Aka'ula Lunai. Aka'ula Lunai, just off the lobby, operated as a coffee shop from 6am to 2pm before converting to a bar and bistro from 4pm to 9pm. Hawaii Calls was down one level near the pool. It served breakfast from 6:30am to 11am, lunch from 11am to 5pm and dinner from 5pm to 9:30pm.
We had a late lunch at Hawaii Calls one afternoon. We originally enjoyed overlooking the pool, but soon found ourselves constantly having to shift the table to avoid being seated in direct sunlight. We each got a mai tai using the drink coupons that came with our resort fee. The drinks (normally $16 each) were surprisingly strong.
For lunch, JT and I split two meals: a fisherman's basket with beer-battered mahi mahi and shrimp for $20 and a club sandwich with shrimp, lobster and avocado, also for $20. Although the fisherman's basket satisfied my cravings and was tasty, the sandwich tasted fresher and was more filling.
On our last day, we tried the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at Hawaii Calls. Breakfast cost $30 before the 25% discount from the resort fee. Although we arrived as breakfast was ending, the restaurant offered to keep the breakfast buffet and omelet station open for us until 11:15am, which gave us plenty of time to get what we wanted from the buffet.
The buffet food was surprisingly fresh and good, considering that it'd likely been sitting out for a while. The omelet-station worker was friendly, but my omelet ended up being overly oily.
A stand on the beach sold ice cones for $3.50 each, as well as a variety of snacks and drinks.
The schedule said a "pool pleaser" would be poolside every day at 1pm. I went to the pool shortly before 1pm one day and waited until 1:30pm but never saw any snacks being served. An attendant at the pool shack merely shrugged and said, "Sometimes they're late, sometimes they never come."
A luau was hosted by the resort every Monday and Wednesday evening. The luau ($108 plus tax per person) featured high-quality entertainers but was disappointing in most other aspects.
Even if you didn't attend the luau, you could attend the imu viewing at 9:30am any day a luau was being held. You got to watch the underground oven being prepared. Then, a large pig was lowered into the oven and enclosed in the oven to be slow-cooked all day until being unearthed for the luau.
Front-row seats for the luau cost $30 more and were in the first two of five rows of tables. This meant that not all front-row seats were actually in the front row.
The food options were of lower quality than you'd expect for the price. To make matters worse, about a fourth of the food was gone (and not replenished) before half of the guests had gotten their first serving.
Luau tickets were only checked when getting food. So people without tickets could, and did, get drinks from the open bar and enjoy the show.
Speaking of the bar, there were only two bartenders, so it took about 15 minutes to get each drink.
The luau was more fun for groups. If you have children, be aware that staff were giving children tattoos with permanent Sharpies. If you have an oceanfront or ocean-view room on a high floor, you might be able to get a free, but admittedly distant, view of the luau from your balcony.
At check-in, we were handed a flyer that said that there was a daily island orientation each morning with a complimentary continental breakfast. I figured this was a disguised timeshare pitch, but I went mainly to see if I needed to warn TPG readers to avoid the session.
To my surprise, I found myself in a useful orientation to the island hosted by a concierge and local expert. Although her job was admittedly to sell tours and activities, she did provide useful information about tours, do-it-yourself activities around the island and free activities. All in all, it was a useful and entertaining 90 minutes with no hard sell.
The mandatory resort fee of $30 plus tax per night per room included:
- Enhanced high-speed internet access
- International long-distance calls (60 minutes per day)
- Calls to US and Canada
- A 45-minute photo session with souvenir digital photo
- Daily one-hour snorkel-equipment rental for two
- Daily beach yoga class for two
- Daily pool fitness class for two
- Daily cultural activities
- Shell lei upon arrival
- Waikoloa logo cooler bag
- 20% off regular luau prices
- 15% off daily car rental with Enterprise, when booked online or at the lobby Enterprise desk
- 25% off regular breakfast buffet
- Two coupons for a mai tai drink
- Two coupons for coffee at Aka‘ula Lanai
The enhanced internet access wasn't enhanced or high speed, at just 5 MBps upload, 4 MBps download and 11 ms ping. It was stable, though.
I tried out the one-hour yoga class held on the beach at 8am each morning and included in the resort fee. I'd never tried yoga before, but the instructor tried to make the class approachable to beginners, and I really enjoyed it.
I also tried out a lei-making activity offered three days a week at 12:30pm. Although it would've been better for families with children, I did make my own beautiful lei out of fresh flowers.
There was a modern and extensive gym on the ground level of the Ka'ahumanu Tower. There were four elliptical machines, three exercise bikes, five treadmill machines, a stair machine, various weight machines and assorted tools for stretching and exercising.
The resort had two swimming pools, both freshwater, and three hot tubs. One swimming pool had a slide and a shallow sand area for children.
The other swimming pool was a long infinity pool.
Shady seating could be difficult to come by at both the pool and the beach, especially after 10am.
A pool shack and beach shack provided towels and equipment, but were only open from 8am to 5pm, though many guests were at the pool and beach outside these hours.
The "ancient" fish ponds between the resort and the beach were pretty and contained a surprising amount of wildlife. Children of all ages enjoyed watching crabs, snakes, eels and other creatures in the ponds.
A few short trails snaked through the property between the buildings and beach.
There were four cabanas and three pavilions around the pools that could be rented at the pool shack. The cabanas were $50 per day and provided seating for two, as well as two mai tai drinks.
The pavilions were $100 per day and provided seating for four, two mai tai drinks and a hot or cold pupu sampler.
Lamont's Gift and Sundry Shop on the first floor of the Kamehameha Tower had branded clothing and souvenirs. There was also a small business center in the lobby that featured a few computers, a computer set up for printing boarding passes, a paper shredder and a lending library.
There were Marriott Vacation Club sales staff onsite. Although we were never approached or otherwise bothered, we did receive an invite in our room to come visit for a gift.
We also found a letter under our door before checkout offering a six-day vacation package for $799. Both of these advertisements contained small print noting that the purpose of the promotion was to solicit timeshare sales and that attendance at a 90-minute timeshare presentation was required if you accepted the vacation deal.
Parking wasn't included in the room rate or resort fee. The only parking options were to valet park for $31 per day or self-park for $21 per day. In either case, our car would've been parked in a large asphalt lot that offered little shade.
One benefit of the resort sharing space with a Marriott Vacation Club property: There were affordable self-service laundry machines on the first floor of the Ka'ahumanu Tower. The cash price was much lower than the credit-card price for these machines, so it was worth using the change machine to get quarters instead of using a credit card. Laundry supplies like detergent could be bought through a machine for four quarters each.
Our suite was significantly larger and better-equipped than we needed, but even as digital nomads that work on the road, we didn't spend too much time working in the room. Indeed, I spent most of my time working on the balcony. Although the balcony seating wasn't the most conducive for working, the views more than made up for any discomfort.
Although I liked that the property was within walking distance of off-resort shops and restaurants and found the walking areas between the resort and beach enjoyable, the staff members weren't particularly friendly, and it was difficult to find a shaded chair at the pool or beach in the middle of the day. Based on my experience, I preferred the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, particularly the Westin's atmosphere, beach and patio furnishings, and would try a different property before returning to this Marriott.