Stylist’s digital features editor Sarah Biddlecombe chases manta rays and waves in Hawaii.
It’s 7pm on a Saturday night and I’m lying face down in the middle of the sea in Hawaii, clinging to a giant life raft with 30 other cold humans. We’re not shipwrecked; we’ve paid to float, our faces stuck in the water behind snorkelling masks. Beside us, a guide is explaining that the flashing blue light being emitted into the water is working to attract what we’re all waiting to see: manta rays.
It feels like a long 15 minutes of bobbing up and down before a giant black-and-white creature swoops into view. The manta glides casually, just inches past our faces, as the tube we are holding vibrates with our collective excitement. Embarrassingly, one of the guides captures my muffled shrieks of glee on his phone as the manta, whose wings span a colossal 12 feet, dips and swirls below us, putting on a show like the megastar it is. I don’t need my phone to capture the magic of the next half-hour; this is one of those experiences that stays in your brain forever. And it’s just a taster of the activities on offer in Hawaii.
I’ve flown to Hawaii’s brilliantly nicknamed ‘Big Island’ (it’s the largest of eight in the archipelago) and am staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village: a Disneyland for adults where guests are taken to their rooms via tram or mahogany canal boat. My balcony looks on to a pool of dolphins, to continue the fairytale aesthetic. As well as being on its own private beach, the hotel’s 62-acre “oceanfront playground” has a lagoon, three pools, a waterfall and a 175ft water slide – which you reach via a swaying rope bridge. A stay here isn’t complete without experiencing the most traditional of Hawaii events: a luau, or party, with Polynesian food such as a kalua pig and ocean fish and entertainment in the form of hula and fire dancers, all held under the stars and swaying palms.
Despite hosting luaus three times a week, the hotel is the exact opposite of how I pictured Hawaii to be – empty stretches of sand dotted with tiny, sparse hotels – but it’s a fantastic base for my stay, and you could easily spend a week alternating relaxing by the pool with adventurous day trips. It’s on the latter that you really get to experience some of the magic of this vast, wild island.
Take a day to explore the Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea and Mauna Loa, where astronauts used to train for moon voyages on its hardened lava fields. Also worth a visit is Punalu’u Beach, which offers a breathtaking stretch of charcoal-black sand on which to look out for the resident honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles. Or if that’s your bag, the main island is also known as the golf capital of Hawaii. It’s diverse here.
Next I set off for O’ahu island, home to Honolulu and the famous Waikiki Beach, which is a 45-minute plane ride away. It’s also the birthplace of Barack Obama, which becomes immediately apparent when visiting shops full of quirky Obama-themed merchandise; an Obama bottle opener is clearly the souvenir your kitchen deserves. Hawaii’s celebrity connections don’t end there: Oprah has a farmhouse in Maui, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Rihanna are regular vacationers.
When visiting Hawaii, be sure to hop between at least two islands. There’s so much to explore, and it makes the long journey (there are no direct flights, so you’ll have to catch a second flight from North America to get here) worth it; three to four days for each island is sufficient. The diversity of the islands, and the ease of travel between them, is one of its biggest draws – especially for someone like myself who gets easily restless.
In Honolulu, my hotel, the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, occupies its own stretch of beach (you’ll notice a theme emerging here). One morning I pad across the sand for a swim as the sun rises in pinks and oranges above me; on another I eat the best eggs Benedict in Hawaii at beachfront restaurant Hau Tree Lanai – a 30-minute stroll down the beach. It’s a solid start to the day and the perfect reward after a sunrise hike to Diamond Head, a steep, rocky trail that winds past a 300,000-year-old crater and offers incredible ocean views.
September is the ideal time to visit, with a warm climate, bath-like sea temperatures and fewer crowds than summer, but those looking to surf should visit in December, when the waves are at their most powerful. Although the island is generally dry, be prepared for sudden bursts of rain at any time. And be sure to sample Hawaii’s fresh pineapple or homegrown coffee – the state produces more than a third of the world’s pineapples and is one of the only places in the US to grow coffee beans.
Away from the waterfront, Waikiki is something of a surprise. Walking down the main strip, Kalakaua Avenue, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in a much bigger metropolis – from the designer stores to the ever-present queue for The Cheesecake Factory store, it couldn’t be further from the typical image of Hawaii.
If the buzz of neon and late-night shopping aren’t your scene, seek respite from the crowds at International Market Place. Here, chic bars and restaurants offer beautiful interiors alongside artfully designed plates of food and drink – newly opened Japanese restaurant Baku was a favourite, and it’s the only venue in the shopping centre to offer a view over the ocean. For food served in a less glitzy environment, visit one of the city’s poke bars – the raw fish salads may be relatively new to the UK, but the traditional Hawaiian dish has been served here for generations.
Of course, you can’t take a trip to Waikiki Beach without surfing. Despite having a complete lack of affinity with any sport, I keep my “I love a challenge” rictus grin on my face even when I’m presented with a giant surfboard twice my height (apparently they’re easier for beginners to stand on, although it takes two of us to drag it into the water in the first place).
The tutors give clear, easy-to follow instructions, but it’s still a complete surprise to me when I actually manage to stand on the board and crest a giant, exploding beast of wave. I feel completely exhilarated as the huge board drives itself forward, narrowly missing the other, more seasoned surfers who sensibly give me a wide berth, before flinging myself into the sea in triumph as the wave subsides. When I swim back up to the surface, there’s a wise-looking turtle floating in the water beside me. Just when you think Hawaii can’t get any better…
Seven nights at Outrigger Reef with Virgin Holidays, including Virgin Atlantic flights from London Heathrow to Seattle, with a Delta connection to Honolulu, from £1,365 per person. To book, visit virginholidays.co.uk