Hotel report: The Kohala Spa at the Hilton Waikoloa Village

The sad-looking nene goose I visited with right before heading to the Kohala Spa. What the heck is the Hilton doing with a nene goose? Aren't they endangered!?

The Kohala Spa was teeming with Big Island residents on staycations when I first entered early in the day. It turned out Hilton Gold status granted me free access to the spa facilities and the fitness room. Hotel guests ordinarily have to pay $20 for access and non-hotel guests, $25. I decided to get a 50-minute lomi lomi massage although I generally associate the term with the tasty salmon dish. (I love lomi lomi salmon! Yum! Sadly, there no salmon came with my massage.) There was a 15% kama’aina discount on the $145 price tag, which still wasn’t cheap, but there wasn’t much else to do and it had been years since my last massage, thus the massive knot in my back I usually refer to as my “Greek shoulder” (it gets exceedingly painful when I’m translating Greek for some reason. Homeric Greek makes it especially bad. Don’t even get me started on Pindar.). Sort of like tennis elbow, but more insidious.

reception area of the Kohala Spa

The citrus and vanilla infused water readily available in the gender-segregated spa areas was quite delightful and I helped myself to a lot of it. Chris, my masseur, came to fetch me from the waiting area and led me into a private room. He had me oiled up with kukui nut oil like a New Years Day hog within moments (I’m not entirely sure what that means either but I like the sound of it). I instructed him to apply as much pressure as he could possibly muster. My Chinese logic tells me that the more pressure I receive, the more I am getting my money’s worth.

It was a pretty awesome massage and although Greek shoulder still continues to irk me, I wasn’t expecting to completely eliminate it anyway. It is really very insidious. I was asleep by the end of the massage.

Afterwards, I whiled away several hours in the women’s spa area, which had a sauna, steam room, rainfall showers and an outdoor jacuzzi that was artfully hidden from the rest of the world by high walls and palm trees. I took like four showers. I was also thrilled to find a basket of free plastic shower caps by the row of shower rooms (ARGH! My Chinese is showing).

Everything smelled appropriately spa-like and lovely: the steam in the steam room, the self-branded toiletries that spurted happily out of large dispensers in the shower rooms, the fluffy, white towels.

An hour before the 7pm closing, I had almost the entire spa to myself. Everything was peaceful and perfect. Except for the old naked lady who kept wandering around. She eventually settled herself in the outdoor hot tub, where I was longing to settle myself.

What is the etiquette in this situation?

Once, in a hotel in Munich, a naked guy eased himself into a tiny sauna that was populated only by myself and my friend. We left. It was too European for us.

But the old naked lady didn’t seem European enough for me to be able to join her nonchalantly in the not terribly large hot tub. I wandered between the sauna and the steam room like a hungry ghost for a bit.

At one point, I squeezed my eyes closed and slipped into the hot tub for a moment, pretending that I was just, uh, relaxing with my eyes closed.

It wasn’t all that relaxing, so I scampered off and took another shower.


Hotel report: Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Big Island

lagoon-like pool at the Hilton Waikoloa

I hate resorts. Hate them. But my dad got it into his head that we’d take a short trip to the Big Island and settled on staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. I figured I could shove my snobbish, intellectually-charged disdain aside for a couple days and endure some utterly manufactured and Disney-fied “paradise.” I also figured that maybe it was time to drag myself off my grandma’s couch.

I was further lured in by Hilton’s first quarter promotion entitled More Points and having registered for it, I would be receiving, well, more points — 1000 per night since we’d be staying during the week (you get 5000 points on weekend stays). In addition, I had just managed to get myself free and instant Hilton Gold Status (along with a number of family members and whoever would listen to me badger them about it on Facebook) through this scheme. I was eager to test out Gold benefits, which include a 25% bonus on HHonors base points earned, free breakfast and internet, etc.

We had a corporate rate which made a standard room about $191 per night. Taxes added on another $25 or so. Gold benefits at the property alloted us a total of four $10 food certificates in lieu of a free continental breakfast.

standard digs at the Hilton

standard digs at the Hilton in the Ocean Tower

spacious dressing area

Kohala Spa branded toiletries in said spacious dressing area

The Hilton Waikoloa Village turned out to be a pretty resorty resort. The lobby was graced (?) by a number of spunky parrots. There was a mini-train. It encircled the entire property, stopping at a tower inspired by a different Asian destination every few minutes. A recorded voice cheerfully announced each stop and interspersed those announcements with helpful facts: “One of the longest words in the Hawaiian language is the humuhumunukunukuapua’a and now we are arriving at the Ocean Tower!”

stupid mini train and spunky parrots

In this Truman Show-esque version of reality, there were several restaurants, including: Kirin, the Chinese restaurant, quite naturally packed with tour groups from Mainland China, and the Japanese-ish Imari, where we dined alongside quite a lot of Japanese tourists and some “aloha-attired” midwesterners who were surely stepping far outside of their comfort zones.

Not terribly thrilling pork katsu

We received a 15% kama’aina discount on all meals, which I really appreciated. If you don’t know what a kama’aina discount is, you’re likely not eligible for it. The meals were, unsurprisingly, horrendously overpriced. We ordered five little pieces of hamachi for $18 and two entrees, miso butterfish and pork katsu, both around $25 and not that thrilling. My mojito was thankfully just strong enough to dull my senses and keep me nice.

The property is quite a bit lovelier at night. The pseudo-museum displays develop a sort of kitschy charm. The concrete Roman-ish statues are no less puzzling, but after several beers at a poolside bar, I finally ceased my struggle to cull any sort of mythological analysis from the scene pictured below. I also stopped wondering why the cherubs were so, um, well-developed.

puzzling statue group

On our second day, my dad and I split a rather unfortunate but extremely large loco moco at the Big Island Breakfast at Water’s Edge. The rice was hard, the hamburger patty was poorly seasoned and by the time it arrived at our table, the gravy had developed a skin. But our server was overwhelmingly sweet and gracious. My dad pointed out the hard rice and she brought over a heaping plate of assorted breakfast breads to compensate when we refused a replacement loco moco.

The loco moco that broke my heart

Looking at this photo of the loco moco makes me too sad to go on. I will have to finish up the Kohala Spa portion of this report some other time.

The Flying Nerd and the Neurotic Nerd on what the heck to do during an 11 hour flight

NN: How am I going to handle 11 hours on the plane? Won’t I get terribly bored?

FN: 11 hours is nothing. I sneeze at 11 hour flights. 11 hours!? That’s like a nap.

NN: 11 hours is like the combined sleep I get in 2 nights, on average. I can’t sleep that long! I’m NEUROTIC!

FN: Oh right. How could I forget? Well, I’m also against drugging myself on planes (even though I often really, really need dramamine), I’m too fidgety to tuck in with a book on planes and I read too fast for trashy magazines to last very long. I’d need like 50 US Weeklies for an 11 hour flight.

NN: Let’s talk about the obvious potential solution: booze. Good idea, or bad idea?

FN: I say great idea since you’re traveling with a significant other (I’m assuming this is not just a situation that provides good company but someone to hold your hair back in case you drink too much). Alone, I tend not to drink because I have this tendency to pass out on airplanes.

NN: I got food poisoning in Brazil and it hit on a flight from Sao Paolo to Iguazu.* I puked SO MUCH. There were only Brazilians to hold back my hair. Not fun. (*This is why I do not eat seafood and never, ever will.)

FN: Ew. Okay so I think we can agree that puking can take up a good portion of flying, but I think podcasts and TV shows are better ideas. For my last long flight, I resisted watching episodes of the Layover on iTunes for weeks so I could save them for watching on my iPad in midair. I downloaded a bunch of those free TV shows on iTunes (like Undercover Boss, which actually made me cry and Kitchen Nightmares, which did not make me cry). I also had hours and hours of podcasts downloaded onto my phone: Freakonomics, WNYC’s Radiolab, Wiretap from the CBC and the Tobolowsky Files. The latter two because I like to be entertained and the former two because I like to um, learn stuff.

NN: OMG I love Undercover Boss! It made me cry, too. Specifically the Baja Fresh episode and the Frontier Airlines one. The embarrassing part is that I was at the gym. I pretended the tears were eye sweat. I like watching Pan Am on planes because it’s meta.

The kalua pig, haupia, chicken long rice and and beef stew from Ono's (726 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu) is worth an 11 hour flight. Heck, they're worth at least a 79 hour flight.

Flight review: HNL-KOA and KOA-HNL (and some Hawaiian Miles remarks)

Boeing 717 at KOA

For this Hawaii trip report, I’m assuming no one wants to hear about the two weeks I spent on my Grandma’s couch. In any case, there’s no point in me reviewing those accommodations, no matter how comfortable, since you’re not welcome to stay there.

I am therefore going to skip straight to the couple days I spent with my dad on the Big Island. It was a last-minute trip, which is not really the way I like to plan things.

We flew Hawaiian Airlines from HNL to Kailua-Kona. A round-trip ticket cost just over 200 dollars (not too awful, since it’s winter season), booked only two days beforehand. I’m not a Pualani elite (Gold level earns 50% flight bonus miles on revenue tickets and Platinum earns 100%), so I earned a measly 163 miles per flight. Each flight took about 25 minutes. I barely had time to drink the little container of passion orange guava juice the flight attendant handed out. Interisland flights are like that – you ascend and then two seconds later, you descend. The other airline I’ve flown in the recent past from one island to another is Go! Mokulele, which is shabbier than Hawaiian, but has exceptionally spunky flight attendants going for it.

I’m really grateful that the interisland aircrafts are Boeing 717s and not those stupid and horrible, tiny-ass propeller planes that fly to smaller airports on the mainland and are essentially glorified helicopters. I’ve never managed to deplane (de-glorified-helicopter?) one of those without at least a smidgen of projectile vomit.


It was kind of weird landing in the middle of a lava field at KOA, but it was also nice in an I’m-landing-in-the-middle-of-a-lava-field way. If you cross your eyes, you can’t tell where the runway ends and where the lava field begins.

On the flight back to HNL, we received free reusable tote bags, courtesy of Foodland, which Hawaiian is partners with (if you live in Hawaii, you should be aware that you can earn Hawaiian Miles when you shop at Foodland with your Maika’i card. Details here).

free Foodland tote

Also, from Feb 1-21, you’ll earn an additional 200 HawaiianMiles for each redemption of a My Rewards certificate.  I adore these bags and all the other local-food-themed products at Foodland. My collection is admittedly pretty impressive. I can wear my spam musubi t-shirt while eating a spam musubi and clutch my spam musubi grocery tote as I am lying on my spam musubi beach towel with my poke-bowl-shirted boyfriend, who may very well be clutching his own matching poke bowl grocery tote.

Photos from around the Big Island

finding love in a lava field


driving from KOA to Waikoloa


Ma'Ona lunch counter in Hilo (really big, juicy burgers were consumed shortly after this photo was taken)


steam billowing from Kilauea


thrift store in Naalehu


Naalehu Theatre


Hawaiian quilt-themed flooring of Naalehu Theatre


Attack of the 50 foot Woman in Naalehu

The Neurotic Nerd’s first mileage scheme

white rock letters on the Big Island's endless lava fields

The Neurotic Nerd is getting married this summer (yes, someone is actually insane enough to marry the Neurotic; please stop laughing). Despite her crippling fear of flying, Neurotic is getting married in Hawaii, halfway across the world from where she lives. There is nothing quite so smart as deciding to combine a Huge Life Change with Extensive Air Travel when one vomits at merely the thought of turbulence. Or has panic attacks when flying over water.

Anyway, this epic trip (which includes stops in CA and the midwest) is going to involve at least 2 airlines and 9 segments. Airfare would be staggering, except Neurotic has been mentored by the Flying Nerd and has figured out how to use miles to fly free.*

Neurotic and her better half already have some American miles;** only enough for a one-way flight, however. They have no Hawaiian miles. So step one was signing up for a Hawaiian Airlines Visa and an American AAdvantage credit card. The Hawaiian card got them 20,000 miles outright; after a $1000 charge another 15,000 will post. What will that $1000 charge be? RT nonstop flights from the East Coast to Hawaii, on which they will earn double miles for the purchase. The pair also followed Hawaiian Airlines on Twitter and will get 1000 miles for that. So: very quickly they’ve gotten 35,000 miles plus approx. 5000 from the flight purchase and Twitter follow. Boom. That’s enough to cover their 6 interisland flights.

The AAdvantage card will get them 30,000 miles after a $750 purchase (hotel reservations/deposits), plus a $100 statement credit for American air travel. Those miles plus their existing combined 45,000 mean that they can cover all their domestic flights except one one-way ticket. They’ll buy that with the card and the $100 statement credit will apply, so domestic flights should be free but for approx. $100.

Of course, this is like trip-planning Jenga (It could be AWESOME or it could all topple over and be a waste of time) and it remains to be seen how quickly the miles post to their accounts and whether blackout dates will prevent this plan from working. But if it works, they could get from the East Coast to Hawaii, island-hop 3 times, fly to LA, to the midwest, and finally back east for only the cost of a ticket to Hawaii plus about $100. Not bad for a first effort.

*Not free of fear, but whatever. THAT’S WHAT THE BEVERAGE CART IS FOR.
**Neurotic has six figures of lifetime miles on AA. How has that happened with the crippling fear? She is a frequent phobic flyer, and yes that is masochism.

Stuff I’m bringing back to the mainland from Hawaii and why

gifts from others and for others

Many a savvy traveler will brag about how they avoid checking bags (and those pesky fees), how they can fit two weeks worth of clothing into a carryon fanny pack and how crucial it is to make choices — not black shoes and brown shoes, but black shoes or brown shoes. There has recently been a slew of such articles in the NY Times Travel Section like this one, heralding the advantages to packing light.

I admit that on short domestic trips, I, too, can pack like a ninja (I imagine ninjas pack very light), but when it comes to those long trips that truly matter, my bags (definitely large and definitely needing to be checked in) are swollen with foodstuffs, gifts for others and pride. The thought of showing up at someone’s house without a gift or, as we say in Hawaii, having borrowed it from Japanese, omiyage, is anathema to me. In the same vein, the thought of returning from a long trip without gifts for my loved ones in whatever place I’ve just arrived is just as unthinkable.

Some of the things I pack may be ridiculous and you may think to yourself, Why bother? I can get that just about anywhere! But when it comes to food, transporting it to a new place extends the memories of the old one, easing the transition from location to location. For me, it’s not just a necessary habit, it’s become my own version of an extreme sport.

I am not in a minority, as evidenced by what a friend has referred to as a “private network of couriers” and by the people behind, who were recently featured in the Hawaiian Airlines’ inflight magazine Hanahou in this article. This quotation sums up the extent of this practice rather nicely:

“From a recent trip to Hawai‘i, the Abraham family returned with a culinary cache that included manapua, kalua pig, squid lu‘au and twenty pounds of Chinese noodles. ‘It seems kind of ridiculous to bring all that back,’ says Abraham, ‘but no one around here makes noodles like they do in Hawai‘i.'”

When a cousin from Hawaii came to visit me in Philadelphia recently, she showed up with pounds of Hawaiian snacks, many carefully wrapped presents and six cans of Spam-flavored macadamia nuts (lovingly purchased by her boyfriend) for my boyfriend, who is rather inexplicably addicted to them (he was running so low before her arrival that he had been fostering a mini-collection of almost-empty Spam-nut containers in the cupboard. “Almost-empty” as in each can had exactly one nut in it. He couldn’t bear to eat the last nut).

omiyage from my cousin: 6 cans of spam nuts, a hang loose cap and a Men of the Islands calendar

The contortions on my boyfriend’s face when he happened upon the Spam nut pyramid alternated between joyful confusion and something like “OMG I just won the lottery!” — a reaction I believe made the process of hauling six cans of Spam nuts all the way to the East Coast well worth the effort.

Humans are gloriously impractical creatures, evinced by this list of the contents of my two 50 pound suitcases (what is pictured in the banner photo is in addition to clothing, late Christmas gifts that still need to remain surprises and all the stuff my aunts brought over after I had already photographed and documented the omiyage listed below). Most of it was given to me by family members to share with my mainland friends and all of it is intended to remind me of home.

To my family from Hawaii, any place outside the islands is cold and lonely. Even if I know this to be not entirely true, the perpetual homesickness I’ve felt for much of my life (for years I’ve been in voluntary, self-imposed exile due to school, work and whatever) is eased by every packaged snack and every bag of coffee beans that has found its way from the hands of my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents into my absurdly and abundantly stuffed luggage.

So here’s the list:

1 lauhala box of Hawaiian quilt-style cushion covers

5 bags of coffee beans (4 of which are 100% Kona from Hualalai Estate)

3 small bags of macadamia nut flavored Lion Coffee

2 pairs of size small pink latex gloves from Japan (do you know how hard it is to find dishwashing gloves for tiny hands in the continental US?)

4 bags of assorted li hing mui-dusted candy

1 bag iso red peanuts

1 bag of banana and mango flavored hi-chew candy

1 bag of Japanese milk candy

1 copy of Goodnight Hawaiian Moon

4 bags of Hershey’s kisses with macadamia nuts (3 small, 1 gigantic Costco-sized)

1 48 oz. (that’s 3 lbs for you non-metric types) container of Keoki’s Kalua Pork

1 package of dried squid

1 package of poke mix (given to me with the belief that fresh ahi can be found everywhere and I can just mix up my own poke in Philadelphia)

2 bags of ginger candy (honey lemon and li hing)

1 tan, bikini-wearing stuffed Hello Kitty

2 sets of microwave mitts

1 copy of a local “Power Potluck” cookbook

1 packet of nori covered crackers

2 large Hawaiian Hello Kitty-themed saimin bowls. Would this theme better be referred to as “Aloha Kitty”?

2 boxes of Hawaiian Host chocolate covered macadamia nuts

3 packets of Knorr’s leek soup mix (to make my aunty’s amazing spinach dip which pairs with her homemade lavash. For some reason I can’t ever find leek soup mix in Philadelphia super markets.)

2 packages of rice flour crackers

1 4 oz. jar of lilikoi butter from the Big Island

1 4 oz. jar of poha berry jam from the Big Island

1 large (2.75 lbs) Costco-sized container of macadamia nut blossom raw Hawaiian honey

1 pikake-scented candle

1 box of Golden Curry mix

1 pack of chocolate yan yans

1 large bag (1.5 lbs) of pine nuts from Costco

1.6 lbs of parmigiano reggiano from Costco (not that I can’t get cheese or pine nuts in Philadelphia, it’s just a lot cheaper from Costco and I don’t have my own membership. My Chinese side is showing.)

1 packet of shoyu chicken sauce

4 12oz. Redondo’s Portuguese sausages

1 box of Punalu’u coffee flavored macadamia nut shortbread cookies

1 box of Punalu’u guava flavored macadamia nut shortbread cookies

1 bar of Tahitian monoi soap

2 bottles of monoi oil (one tiare-scented and one pikake-scented – perfect for dry winter skin, a common mainlander complaint)

2 packets of Hawaiian Sun guava juice mix

1 packet of Hawaiian Sun Passion Orange drink mix (these are GENIUS and a fairly new product. When I was a little kid and before any liquids more than 3.4 oz were banned, I used to smuggle cans of guava juice in my carry-on whenever I had to leave Hawaii)

1 can of dry roasted Mauna Loa macadamia nuts

1 large bag of honey roasted Hawaiian Host macadamia nuts

1 large bag of Maui onion flavored Mauna Loa macadamia nuts

1 Hawaiian quilt-themed coffee mug