My brother-in-law invited Traci and me to be a part of the surprise Hawaiian vacation he planned for the family at Disney's Aulani Resort on the island of Oahu. It was a fabulous vacation consisting of great weather, tropical experiences, culture, and good food. Hawaii is an expensive destination but beautiful nonetheless.
Traci received a text message from our brother-in-law Audie in which he told her that he had just booked a surprise trip to Hawaii for my sister Sugar and their 11-year old son AJ. Audie had booked 5 nights at Disney's Aulani Resort on the island of Oahu. He wanted to know if Traci and I would like to join them on this Hawaiian vacation. It didn't take long for Traci and me to go into research mode. After all, the vacation would occur in a little over a month.
Traci and I suffered from a bit of sticker shock when we first started looking at the airfare and lodging. Hawaii is an expensive destination. Unlike the resorts in the Caribbean, the Hawaiian resorts are not all-inclusive - e.g., your meals are not included in the price of your lodging. Nonetheless, Traci and I love to travel. There was not much that was going to stand in the way of us joining Audie, Sugar, and AJ on this trip.
A week after receiving Audie's invitation, Traci and I tried to book our stay at the Aulani resort only to find out they had no more vacancies for the week of the trip. A little more research revealed there is a Marriott next door to the Aulani that actually had rooms available. After checking several websites and creating my good 'ol price comparison spreadsheet, Traci and I were able to take advantage of an air+hotel promotion on Travelocity. Furthermore, I was able to use an employee vacation discount offered by my employer to reduce the price even more. By the time we finished, we had managed to knock nearly $2,000 off the original prices we were seeing! Woo hoo! We are going to Hawaii!
Our flight out of Washington Dulles Airport was scheduled for 6 AM Sunday. Since Traci and I live close to the airport, our travel companions met us at our house the evening before so that we could head to the airport together at 4 AM. I was so proud of myself when I managed to fit the luggage for all five of us into the trunk of my Toyota Camry.
We were off to a good start but we knew not to get our hopes up too high. Our long-running joke is that whenever Traci and I travel with Sugar and Audie, the itinerary always seems to go awry. Such was the case when we attended the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans many years ago. The hotel we had booked and confirmed five months before our arrival decided to cater to a large tour group and consequently booted us and others to a hotel in a less desirable section of New Orleans. Then there was the Mediterranean cruise in 2010 when due to flight delays and a missed connection, Sugar and Audie showed up to the ship with only the shirts on their backs. Their luggage had to be flown and delivered to the ship when we reached Sicily 3 days later.
As fate would have it, this Hawaii trip made its contribution to our collection of travel mishaps. We arrived at the United Airlines check-in counter only to find out our 6 AM flight had been cancelled. United provided no reason for the cancellation but had already taken the liberty of moving Traci and me to the 1 PM flight. Although this new itinerary would get us to Honolulu 5 hours later than we had planned, Traci and I did not mind too much because the 1 PM flight was direct whereas the 6 AM flight would have had a stop in San Francisco. All was good with Traci and me but not so good for our travel companions. United had re-booked them on a different flight - an 8 AM flight with a connection in Chicago! After waiting in line again and pleading his case to two agents, Audie finally succeeded in getting Sugar, AJ, and himself re-booked on the 1 PM flight with Traci and me. Given it was only 5:30 AM by the time we got our itineraries sorted out, we found ourselves with several hours to kill until take-off. We decided to enjoy breakfast at IHOP and then relax at our house until it was time to return to the airport.
Our 10-hour flight from Dulles to Honolulu was not very pleasant. Despite the increasing airfares, it seems the quality of service on United has gone down in recent years. The complimentary blankets on each seat were not wrapped in plastic like they used to be. They appeared to have just been refolded and placed on the seats. My blanket still had strands of someone's hair stuck to it - yuck! The air condition seemed to be on max for most of the flight. I was wearing a jacket but my face was cold. Despite the cold, there was no way I was going to use that dirty blanket. Complimentary meals are no longer served on domestic flights. Box lunches were available for purchase but none of the options appealed to me. Therefore, I relied on the two bagels I bought in the airport and a box of M&M's to get me through the 10-hour flight. I dosed off shortly after take-off and woke up later feeling like I had been asleep for hours. To my dismay, the remaining time to destination displayed on the screen indicated we still had 8 hours and 32 minutes of flight time left - ugh!
We landed in Honolulu around 5 PM local time (11 PM East Coast time). I got a little sentimental as we walked by the spot in the airport where Traci and I posed for a picture 16 years ago as newlyweds. Back then, we only passed through Honolulu on our way to our honeymoon in the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Kauai. This time, we would spend all of our time on the island of Oahu. Sugar and Audie vacationed in Oahu 19 years ago. They were looking forward to seeing how things have changed since then.
Audie, Sugar, AJ, Traci, Me
We picked up our rental car, a dark blue Chevy Impala. Like my Camry, it was a full-size car; therefore, the trunk had enough space to store the luggage of all five of us. From the Honolulu airport, it was a 25-minute drive to get to our resorts located in Ko Olina. Ko Olina is situated on the west coast (leeward coast) of the island. We brought our Garmin GPS navigation unit (a.k.a. "the Navi") from home and thus had no problems finding our way around the island during our stay. I also made sure I had printed directions for all the sights we wanted to see just in case the Navi stopped working as was the case during our Southwest U.S. vacation.
As I mentioned earlier, this trip was supposed to be a surprise for Sugar and AJ. Knowing this, I was baffled when a week after Audie invited Traci and me to join them on this vacation, Sugar finished a conversation with me with, “I hope you and Traci can join us in Hawaii next month.” Huh? As the trip date approached, I sent an email to the rest of my family detailing our travel itinerary. Sugar and Audie were cc’ed on the email. I got a reply from Audie stating that where we were staying was supposed to be a surprise. Oops! (Mike = Strike 1).
About a week before the trip, Sugar casually mentioned to a friend that she would be vacationing in Hawaii the following week. The problem was she forgot she was still in the presence of AJ! Oops! (Sugar = Strike 2).
Well, AJ now knows he is going to Hawaii but at least he has no idea he will be staying at the Disney resort. Audie can still enjoy the expression on AJ’s face when we drive up to the front of the resort. As we exited the highway at Ko Olina and quietly began looking for the Aulani sign, Traci asked, “Mike, do you see any signs for the Disney resort?” When I did not respond, she asked again and suddenly realized what she had said. Too late... The next voice I heard was AJ's saying something like, “Cool! We’re staying at the Disney resort!” Oops! (Traci = Strike 3). Audie was too through with the three of us.
We pulled up to the front of the Aulani resort. In true Disney fashion, we were greeted by the most friendly and cheerful employees. In addition to the cold glass of water we were given, they placed a lei of fresh flowers around our necks as we got out of the car. Even though I told the greeters that Traci and I were not staying at the Aulani, they insisted we accept the leis. The fragrance of the fresh flowers filled our hotel room for the duration of our stay.
The lobby of the Aulani consists of dark arched wood creating the experience of entering a gigantic hut. There is constant Hawaiian music playing softly over the PA system. Out back are a pool, a water playground, and a lazy river for floating in inner tubes. Further beyond this area is one of four semi-circular beach lagoons shared by the resorts in the area. The Aulani has all types of programs for kids, tweens, and teenagers. The Aulani is not just for young people, however. There are plenty of facilities and amenities such as a spa, golf, and lounges to allow adults to have a relaxing, good time.
Traci and I left our travel companions so that they could get checked into the Aulani. We drove next door to get checked into the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa (locally known as the Ihilani). Having just left the Disney resort where there were cheerful greeters and a general atmosphere of playful fun, the contrast of the Ihilani was striking as we entered the lobby. This first impression was in no way negative. In fact, the Ihilani totally exceeded the expectations of Traci and me.
There was not much activity in the lobby when we entered. There was Hawaiian music playing softly in the background. Since the lobby is somewhat open, I could also hear birds and the sound of breezes blowing through the palm trees. Out back, a garden surrounds a pond traversed by a network of foot bridges. In addition to the colorful fish, the pond also has foot-long hammerhead sharks and stingrays. Beyond this area is access to the pools and the four semi-circular beach lagoons shared by the resorts in the area. The resorts are connected by a beach walkway. There are also complimentary shuttle buses that transport guests between the resorts.continue...