Martin's Travel President Tanzman: Exploring Big Island's diversity could fill two weeks

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Susan TanzmanA longtime Aloha State expert, and the president of Martin's Travel and Tours in Los Angeles, Susan Tanzman spent a week on the Big Island of Hawaii in November, rediscovering the destination's extraordinary diversity. She spoke recently with Shane Nelson, contributing editor for Hawaii, about what makes the state's largest island so remarkable.



Q: Why is the Big Island of Hawaii such a special destination?

A:
Number one, it's [one of] the only place really in the United States where you can actually visit an active volcano, and there are times when you actually get to see the lava flowing; [and] now that they have developed the volcano area to the degree that they have, you have an opportunity to really learn and enjoy a completely different part of the Big Island that hasn't been explored by very many people. A lot of people think just doing a day trip to the [Hawaii Volcanoes National Park] is enough, but I am now putting my clients anywhere from one to three nights in the area. There is so much to see up there.

The Big Island is also a place where you can really see and enjoy the farm-to-table experience. You have the macadamia nut farms, you have the coffee farms, the orchid farms, the botanical gardens, [or] you can visit a vanilla farm, where you can have lunch at their restaurant.

Akaka Falls State Park on the Big Island.They also grow cocoa on the Big Island, [and] it's the only place in the world that's raising seahorses in captivity. At the end of the seahorse farm tour — it's the neatest thing — you get to hold a seahorse on your finger. They actually wrap their tails around your finger. I thought it was for kids. Forget it. It's for adults, too.

You're going to laugh at me, but I think the Big Island is a seven- to 10-day trip, and you could easily do two weeks. I wouldn't have said that until my last trip. I was blown away by how many experiences there are on that island. There's just so much to do there.

Q: What do you tell clients to interest them in a visit to the Big Island?

A:
First of all, it's not crowded. You're not going to feel like you're in a tourist destination. You're going to feel the vastness of how huge that island is compared to the others. If you don't stay right in Kona, then everything else is wide open, and there's so much diversity. When you drive over Saddle Road, for example, it looks like you're on the moon. And going to Waipio Valley, you'll see the most incredible waterfalls, or if you take the road to Hawi, you're surrounded by rain forest. You have lava on one part of the island, rain forest on another. You've got beaches that have green, red and black sand. You have a city in Hilo. You have a city in Kona. You have Mauna Kea [a dormant volcano], which is home to some of the most incredible astronomy [facilities] in the world. I don't think there's any other island anywhere else in the world that has so much diversity with weather, topography and things to do.

Q: The Big Island is often overlooked by travel agents selling Hawaii vacations. How would you sell the destination to another agent?

A:
I send more people to the Big Island now than any other Hawaiian island because I'm getting a lot of people that want a unique experience. And it's a fabulous place for kids because there is so much for them to learn and do that's educational. It's learning about the Hawaiian history and culture. It's being able to go see a seahorse farm, being able to see an active volcano, to visit a Tsunami Museum, to take them up to a world-class telescope. You really have a chance to educate your kids and not just take them on a vacation where they go back to school and say, "I went swimming." I just don't know why more people don't sell more of the Big Island.

The Big Isle is home to the active Kilauea volcano.Q: What are some Big Island activity options you like to sell to your clients?

A:
I think the [all-terrain vehicle] experiences on the Big Island are fabulous. The ziplining is incredible. I think Kauai and the Big Island really have Hawaii's best hiking, and there's so much diversity of hiking on the Big Island. I think you also have a lot of restaurants dedicated to farm-to-table. There's a lot of farming going on there on the Big Island, and the freshness of the food is terrific. You also have fantastic whale-watching and great diversity in snorkeling, especially at Captain Cook's monument. It has some of the best coral reefs in Hawaii, [and] snorkeling with the manta rays at night is fantastic. You also have the drive to Hilo, which gives people a great look at gorgeous waterfalls. [And] Puukohola Heiau National Park, near the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, is something people should not miss. The national park rangers do a great talk about how King Kamehameha was born on the Big Island and how he was hidden as a baby. Everything about that place is just fascinating, and really from a cultural aspect it's a very remarkable island.

Q: Which activity companies do you like to use?

A:
I think Hawaii Forest & Trail is probably one of the best companies. They are travel agent friendly. They are phenomenal at paying their commissions. They deliver incredible service to the clients. I've never had a client come back who hasn't raved about either ziplining with them or the Mauna Kea experience where they take people up the mountain at night. Or they have a fabulous twilight tour at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where you see the pink clouds reflecting the light off the lava in the caldera. 

Q: Do you book activities before the trip?

A:
Always. Travel agents just don't get it when it comes to delivering experiences. You don't want them to go to the concierge. You want them to depend on you for your expertise. That's the biggest thing we miss with Hawaii. There are times that I make more commissions off the activities that I sell than I do with the commission from the hotel.

The most important thing in selling Hawaii is you have to have product knowledge. You need to be the real expert in what you're selling, and then what you need to do with that is turn it around so your client is dependent on you to figure out what to do. You don't want them to go the next time and not use you. What you want to be able to do is share those secret little things and be able to explain that to a client, and then all of a sudden, once they believe what you're talking about, then you're going to have a client for life.

A telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatories.Q: Which hotels do you like?

A:
I think people can really look at staying in three places on the island. Staying in or near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; staying at a place like the renovated Sheraton Kona, because then you can snorkel at Cook's monument and you can do the manta snorkel at night; [and] then you've got the Kohala Coast, which is home to incredible hiking. The Sheraton Kona, now that they've redone it as a four-star property, is now very nice and something I can recommend, as long as you are clear about it being four stars.

The three top five-star properties are the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the Four Seasons Hualalai and the Fairmont Orchid. And I think each one delivers something different. If you're talking the ultimate in luxury, it would probably be the Four Seasons, but if you want an incredible beach experience, then the Mauna Kea and the Orchid are better. [And] the Fairmont Orchid delivers a fabulous Hawaiian experience. It's amazing how local the feeling is there. From the time you check in there, everybody knows your name. It's just a very unique property.

Q: What about for the folks you have staying closer to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park?

A:
There are three places I absolutely love. If you want just a gorgeous place in a garden setting and want to do some of your own cooking, there's a place called the Volcano Mist Cottage that's fabulous. The other place is Kilauea Lodge, and I've also been using the Volcano House now that it's reopened.

Q: Do you prefer to send your clients to the Big Island on nonstop flights from the U.S. mainland?

A:
Yes. There's just so much less hassle. You arrive at the airport and then drive straight to your hotel on a road that's just one lane in either direction. It really puts people in that mood of being on vacation from the minute they arrive. They're not going through a city, and they have no idea why the place is so dark at night until they get up the next day and see it's all lava fields. There are just so many neat things about arriving at the Big Island that just blow people away.

For more information, visit www.gohawaii.com/big-island.
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