Hilton Waikoloa

Hilton Waikoloa In the time it takes to say “100% Kona Coffee,” Kei and Liko rip across Dolphin Quest Learning Lagoon at the 1,240-room Hilton Waikoloa Village. It’s comforting to know these playful mammals never tow humans or even perform stunts when the mood doesn’t strike. But that’s not to say they’re shy about flaunting their talents.

Dolphin Quest has been the main attraction at Waikoloa Beach Resort’s marquee property since it debuted on The Big Island’s sunny Kohala Coast in 1988. Mark DiMartino, regional sales/marketing manager, notes that eco-focused encounters promote ocean preservation through mellow interaction.

“It’s all about what the dolphins feel like on any given day,” he says. “They’re never forced to do anything they don’t want to do. If one isn’t feeling social, there’s always another one that is.”

Following a $6 million revamp, the 4,000-sf, LEED-certified Dolphin Quest venue adds splash to private events for up to 75 with 2,500 sf of function space. Overall, the hotel has invested over $100 million in improvements in the last three years.

Out at sea, the adventure operator Ocean Sports takes people out to swim with Pacific spinner dolphins. Their 49-pax Sea Smoke is a 58-ft luxury sailing catamaran originally built for James Arness, best known as Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. It’s a party above and below the surface, with a hearty spread and open bar capping a mingle-fest with marine life off a black sand beach. But the highlight was being there during the tail end of whale season. We were awestruck during a handful of fairly close humpback sightings.

The Big Island’s land mass is a marvel in its own right with 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones. (If you’re into Arctic and Saharan environs, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) Often snow capped, Mauna Kea’s 13,800-ft summit is home to 13 international research telescopes, where you can view 90% of all the stars visible from earth. Its calescent counterpart is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Mount Kilauea, a lava-spewing volcano that has churned out magma since 1983.

We toured the latter with Hawaii Forest & Trail, romping through lava tubes and pahoehoe fields where resilient ohia lehua flowers bloom from tiny crevices. As night fell, we gazed across Halemaumau Crater where a 460-ft diameter fiery pit glowed from a nearly 2,000° magma river flowing 650 feet below.

A member of the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism, Hawaii Forest & Trail customizes itineraries and incorporates teambuilding activities for up to 140.

“We’ll work with groups to build our interpretive delivery to play off any themes their programs center around,” says Rob Pacheco, founder.

FANTASY ON AN ISLAND Hilton Waikoloa Village is a fully integrated experience in itself, with mahogany canal boats shuttling guests around the 62-acre oceanfront grounds, and the winding Museum Walkway with 1,800 pieces of Polynesian art. It’s a great setting for cultural activities like the Legends of the Pacific luau, hula lessons, ukulele classes and petroglyph field tours across the lava rock landscape.

Rooms are spread across three lowrise towers, and many of them are over 500 sf with balconies facing the ocean, gardens or dolphins. The decor is tropical and traditional, with lots of natural light streaming through the big sliding doors. For dining, our group’s fave was the luau, of course. Be sure to also try the washoku (traditional-style) Japanese teppanyaki at Imari.

Hotel amenities include the 25,000-sf Kohala Spa, a 452-seat tennis stadium, a trio of freshwater swimming pools and two championship golf courses crawling along the ancient flows. There’s 235,000 sf of indoor meeting space and another 175,000 sf outside. And the 22,000-sf Kona Pool requires no additional theming, flush with dramatic waterfalls and lush grottos.

“This property offers significant options for group travelers,” says Mary Beth Kahn, executive vp of Hawaii-based DMC, MC&A. “Where else can you step outside a meeting into a foyer overlooking a dolphin lagoon?”