Travel: Aloha, Hawaii – meeting the mantas in heavenly haven
As the launch of Virgin Holiday Experiences makes it easier than ever to craft a dream trip, Abi Jackson heads to this Polynesian paradise to get up close and personal with some gentle giants
WHEN you're too old for Santa and don't bother with the Lotto, there aren't many moments in life where you experience total, wondrous, I-can't-believe-this-is-really-happening anticipation.
But right now, about 200-metres off the shore of Keauhou Bay on the west coast of Hawaii Island, wet-suited and flipper-booted, my snorkel-masked face planted firmly downwards as I stare into the inky depths, that is exactly what I'm experiencing.
I'm doing an Evening Manta Ray Snorkel Adventure with Fair Wind Cruises – one of the 300 'Experiences' Virgin Holidays has just introduced to their holiday packages, making it easier than ever to craft your dream trip.
The sun's already set, and me and about 15 others are clinging onto a special float affixed with torches, whose beams of light are peppered with plankton (a food source which will hopefully attract the mantas).
With more than 250 of the gentle giants – their wingspans can exceed 15ft – within a 30-mile stretch of this region, sightings are a pretty safe bet. But as the first few minutes tick by, I can't help wondering, 'What if they don't show up tonight?'
Then, out of the blue, a huge pale creature glides towards us, opening his mouth into a gigantic gaping grin as he starts to slowly somersault, making light but mesmerising work of swallowing up his plankton feast.
Excited gasps ripple through the water – and then he's back, swimming so close I can see straight down his gills and feel the tips of his wings brush against my belly (snorkellers are strictly forbidden from touching as it can damage the manta ray's delicate skin, but the wildlife has free reign).
Another slightly smaller ray with a smattering more markings follows, and soon they're in full Strictly Come Dancing mode, tumbling top-to-tail just inches below us.
After an hour in the water, shrivelled and shivering I clamber back onto the boat, burping with seasickness but bubbling with pure, unadulterated delight.
There was a time when experiences like this were the reserve of 'proper' adventurers. But that's fast changing - because we're no longer holidaymakers, we're holiday-doers, eager to make those precious weeks away really count by filling them with once-in-a-lifetime encounters.
And that's what Virgin Holidays Experiences is all about.
How does it work? After selecting your holiday, you can add the experiences you fancy, then all the organising's taken care of for you (no trawling through websites or bartering with excursion reps after check-in).
Let's face it: Hawaii is a dream destination, and getting there will set you back a few bob. It's also a very long way away (direct flights might be a possibility in the future but for now, it's basically a 24-hour journey, once you factor in a layover), so you want to get it right. Knowing someone else has done the groundwork for me when it comes to planning activities, is a welcome perk.
Not that you could go far wrong, mind you. This Polynesian paradise guarantees sunshine, surf and scenery straight out of Jurassic World (its lush landscapes feature in numerous blockbusters, including the hit dinosaur caper, plus Godzilla and Snatched).
Hawaii state is actually an archipelago of more than 100 islands, but they're not all inhabited and there are eight main ones, each with unique characteristics. My flying visit's split between two: Oahu, home of state capital Honolulu, and Hawaii Island, aka 'The Big Island'.
I start in Honolulu, staying at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Hotel, which backs right onto the world-famous golden sands and sits slap-bang in the middle of the city, on a street dotted with designer shops and restaurants that wouldn't look out of place in Miami.
While it'd be criminal not to devote some quality time to soaking up the sun and surf vibes on Waikiki Beach – and taking dips in the almost-bath-temperature sea – I'm keen to see as much as I can.
I've tagged on two 'Experiences' on Oahu. The first is an early morning hike up Diamond Head - a 300,000-year-old crater that was once an important military lookout, with panoramic views overlooking the island and ocean beyond. Though steep in parts, it takes less than an hour to reach the top and is a great way to work up an appetite: Honolulu is not short of great places to eat.
I feast on Crab Cake Benedict at Hau Tree Lanai, famous for its extensive takes on the classic eggs dish, while Tiki's Grill & Bar serves up down-to-earth but delicious hearty fare, and one of the best Mai Tai's in town.
I hadn't expected Honolulu to be quite so glossy and glam (what do you mean everybody in Hawaii doesn't live in flip-flops and board shorts?!), but this means a string of fancy restaurants have cropped up in recent years. Head to the newly-opened Baku for melt-in-your-mouth sushi, while Herringbone – both just a few minutes' walk from Outrigger – also serves spectacular seafood.
My second 'Experience', however, the Foodie Tour by Bike, is an ideal way to get a taste of Honolulu. Founder and guide Kelly - an ageing Californian hippy who "came to Hawaii on a surfing vacation 35 years ago and never left" - leads small groups cycle tours, stopping off for potted history lessons along the way, and to sample some of the city's more interesting, hyped and authentic food spots.
You don't need to rely solely on Virgin Holiday Experiences though - I also head to Kualoa Ranch, just over an hour's drive from the city, for a tour of the ancient fishponds and tropical gardens where you can step right into the heart of Jurassic World territory.
Getting to 'Big Island' for the second leg of my trip entails a short 45-minute flight, but it's totally worth it. The volcanic landscape is a world apart from Oahu; vast swathes of craggy pewter-tinged black rock stretch out on either side of the road on the drive to our hotel from the airport, a striking contrast against the bright blue skies.
And as I soon discover, the Hilton Waikoloa Village does a good job in matching the drama of the scenery - this epic resort is like a Bond villain lair, complete with boats and a monorail to transport guests from reception to room, it's so vast.
Luxurious sleeping areas, a sprawling spa and choice of bars, plus a pool far too big to fit in a single Instagram shot, it'd be easy to spend an entire holiday in the resort and love every minute of it.
But this island is begging to be explored. We've hired a car (there's very little public transport) for a day trip to Volcanoes National Park. It's a few hours' drive from the hotel, but we're rewarded with endless hikes and walks through jungles and caves.
Look out for steam vents – yes, Kilauea is live; in fact it's one of the biggest active volcanoes in the world, bubbling away since 1983 (but don't worry, there's little chance of it erupting without ample warning).
We lunch at The Rim, overlooking the Halemaumau crater.
It's a pinch-yourself moment. But of course, my ultimate Hawaii 'Experience' was the evening dip with those manta rays.
Though that said, tucking into an 'ahi' fish burger the next day at Lava Lava Beach Club down the road from the Hilton, deciding which cocktail to order my only care in the world, as ukulele music sounds in my ears and the sun hugs my shoulders, comes a close second.
Breathtaking encounters, unforgettable scenery and ultimate chilled beachy vibes... Aloha, Hawaii.
How to get there
Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk; 0344 557 3859) offer a 14-night trip from £2,295pp (two sharing), including flights from London Heathrow to San Francisco, with a United Airlines connection to Honolulu. Stay seven nights at Outrigger Reef on Oahu, and seven nights at Hilton Waikoloa Village on Island of Hawaii. Based on March 12, 2018 departure.
The Sunset Manta Ray Snorkel Experience costs from £72pp and Hawaiian Foodie Tour by Bike from £99pp. A range of other 'Experiences' are also available, including a two-hour surfing lesson from £69pp.
For more information about Hawaii, visit GoHawaii.com/UK.