After a first day on the Big Island that just could not be topped, we began a day filled with site inspections before heading to the Four Seasons Hualalai. The most noteworthy of the inspections was the Mauna Kea, a 50 year old hotel built by the Rockefellers and situated on the prettiest slice of beach the Big Island has to offer (from what I saw).
This postcard-perfect property has the same charm that it must have had 50 years ago, a certain nostalgia that flanks the rooms and halls, yet doesn’t feel the least bit dated. The resort has done a fantastic job of growing old gracefully – any clients who want to celebrate such an achievement can take advantage of their 50th anniversary specials in 2015, one of which includes a Modified American meal plan (a rarity for Hawaii!).
After a couple more sites we landed at the Four Seasons Hualalai, a property that skyrocketed on my personal list of favorite resorts in the world (easily in my top 5). Hualalai feels like stepping into another world – your follow the trail of black lava fields toward the ocean for a couple of miles, then out jumps this world of lush, green foliage, subtle and well-designed buildings, and an oasis of pools.
The buildings sit just two stories high and are tastefully designed in a distinctly Hawaiian style, although the entire resort does have a slight Asian touch. We were lucky enough (and by lucky, I mean well-connected enough – thank you, Jodie!!) to get upgraded to an ocean view room situated right on King’s Pond, a 1.8 million gallon “aquarium” carved out of the lava rock. This area is a snorkeler’s paradise with thousands of exotic fish and even a Spotted Eagle Ray. One of seven pools on property, including an adults pool and family-friendly pool, this was my all time favorite.
While we had been planning on returning to the Mauna Kea for a luau that evening, we stopped by the concierge desk to make our final arrangements. It was there that I enquired about an activity that I’d heard time after time was well worth overcoming whatever bit of sanity might be holding you back from participating: night swimming with Manta Rays. My mother, who was firmly on team “Let’s go to a nice luau,” lost as soon as the concierge started describing the Manta Ray diving. The Big Island is one of the only places on earth where you can do something quite like this! So, it had to be done – because you can go to a luau later (in the concierge’s words, “Luau, shmuau, where else are you going to swim with 15 foot manta rays?!” – this seemed like good enough logic for me).
Mom and I enjoyed our afternoon by the sea at the Four Seasons before driving 20 minutes to Kona’s marina, where we hopped on a not-so-Four-Seasons-quality boat to speed off into the sunset, stopping in an area that the Mantas have been conditioned to feed every night. The way this works: divers swim down to the bottom of the ocean floor and shine lights toward the surface, which illuminates the plankton. Over the years, these Mantas have learned that the quickest, most efficient way to get as much plankton as possible is to do a barrel roll at the surface of the water. This is all great unless you, too, are at the surface of the water – which, as a snorkeler, you definitely are.
In pitch black darkness – don’t ask me how I did this with my paralyzing fear of sharks and the ocean at night – we held onto a raft and laid ourselves flat at the surface of the water, hovering over the “campfire” of lights cast by the divers. Within minutes, the Mantas approached, just as graceful as they could be. Many people describe the Manta’s swimming and feeding patterns as a “ballet” – they glide effortlessly through the water, floating like clouds beneath the surface. They really are magical once you get over the fact that they are about 15 feet wide and barrel rolling with their mouths wide open straight toward you. Honestly, you never quite get over this fact – it was evident when a Manta was approaching each group of snorkelers as you’d hear screams projected through the snorkel gear, kind of an eerie sound.
The Mantas would approach the groups, careening straight toward the surface of the water, their giant mouths getting within about 5 inches from a snorkeler’s face before flipping at the last minute, sometimes repeating the barrel roll several times before gliding off to the next set of snorkelers and plankton. Mantas, while giant and part of the shark family (I read a description of them as “sharks flattened over the years of evolution,” which is a terrifying way to think of them) only eat plankton. It should be noted that, if they ever decide to change their minds and eat humans, they will have no problem in doing so because their mouths are large enough to swallow most of us in one bite.
All in all, the experience was out of this world, a definite item to put on the top of your bucket list just to say you’ve done it. We didn’t get any pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll leave you with a video from the wonderful company that took us out, Neptune Charlie’s: