It’s a cliché that visitors fall in love with Hawaii and never want to leave. I tested this cliché, or shall I say it tested me, as I floated in the warm ocean water in a cove off Napili Bay in Maui. The nearly empty beach was silent, except for the rhythmic breathing in my snorkel, as I watched colorful tropical fish dance under me, and I imagined a life there.
As I boarded Hawaiian Airlines nine days earlier with my good friend, Michael, and my four-year-old son, Stephen, welcomed by smiling lei-print-shirted flight attendants with greetings of “Maloha,” I could not know that soon I would be contemplating an escape from civilization, but this is how it happened.
Our first base was the Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui, (www.fairmont.com/kealani) on the pristine white sands of Polo Beach on Maui’s south side. The 22-acres of the luxury resort are exquisite, featuring three saline clarified pools, including a swim-up bar, a 140-foot slide, two bubbling hot whirlpools, and an adults-only pool.
While all beaches are public in Hawaii, the out-of-the-way beachfront at the Fairmont felt private. A concierge shack on the beach provides for a variety of activities, such as snorkeling, sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddling scuba diving, oceanside spa treatments, and a cultural canoe tour hosted by a private guide. Guests can also pedal around the island on the hotel’s BMW bikes; or if you prefer your RnR indoors, the resort’s 5,500-square-foot spa and fitness center is world class.
The Fairmont features 450 suites and 37 villas with superb amenities for the discerning traveler. Our spacious ocean-view suite was beautifully decorated in an island plantation motif and featured a super-sized bathroom with dual-sinks, a deep tub and separate shower, and a large bedroom adjoining a lounge area with a deluxe sleeper sofa — which Michael attested was indeed the most luxurious sofa bed he had ever slept on.
My son was thrilled the suite had all the hi-tech gadgetry we could possibly want, including high-speed wi-fi, wide-screen TVs and an entertainment center with a DVD player. The accommodations, amenities and service at the Fairmont were impeccable, with every comfort and need covered, down to the complimentary self-service clothes washers and dryers on each floor.
The Melting Pot of the Pacific
The Fairmont’s signature restaurant, Ko, Hawaiian for “sugar cane,” is renowned for its plantation era-inspired cuisine, featuring authentic Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese menu items, prepared by culinary master Executive Chef Tylun Pang. During our visit Ko was undergoing a transformation, as part of a multi-million dollar property-wide renovation, so the menu was served at the Kea Lani Restaurant, the same eatery where we ate a wondrous buffet breakfast each morning.
Though it was a temporary site, the casual dining restaurant was fabulously re-dressed at night, serving us at an elegantly adorned poolside table under a private cabana. Our dinner was exquisite, beginning with the chef’s delicious treasured family recipe, “Lumpia” shrimp and pork Filipino spring rolls, served with a green papaya achara and spicy dipping sauce, producing the sweet, sour and salty mixing of flavors that originated in the Philippines. Our entrée was a succulent lobster tempura, complemented by tastes of spicy-sesame, sweet pineapple and chile garlic and grapefruit soy sauce, many of the spices, herbs and produce grown on the property in the chef’s organic garden. * Note: the newly remodeled Ko restaurant is now open for business.
The Little Island
For parents traveling with children aged 5 to 13, the Fairmont’s Keiki Lani Kid’s Club offers year-round activities supervised by accredited staff. The camp features a stage, kitchen, craft area, TVs and computers. Activities include storytelling, games, arts and crafts – such as building volcanos and hula lessons.. Not just at the kid’s club but everywhere around the resort, the kid-friendly nature of the Fairmont is evident, such as at dusk when, as a tradition, sarong-wearing torch bearers ignite gas lamp posts around the property, followed by a parade of children who run after them, signaling the end of the day.
Road to Ohana
Our next haven on Maui was Makena Beach and Golf Resort (www.makenaresortmaui.com), which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with an extensive multi-million dollar renovation. Formerly the Maui Prince Hotel, the resort’s A-shaped design is a signature of its legendary builders, Anbe, Aruga and Ishizu Architects, Inc. The unique configuration allows for every one of the 290 rooms and 20 suites to feature ocean-view lanais. Situated on 1800 acres of tropical landscaping, it is easy to see why Makena is a premier wedding destination in Maui with its panoramic lawns and romantic oceanfront vistas.
As we arrived, we immediately experienced Makena’s warm and friendly hospitality and their focus on “ohana,” Hawaiian for “family,” as the staff showed their eagerness and readiness to win our hearts. Greeters welcomed us with shell necklaces in the open-air lobby, designed to feel like a giant, welcoming living room. Then the front-desk clerk offered us cool hand towels to freshen up. Along with room keys, the clerk handed me a small bag of pellets to give to my son. It was fish feed for the koi in the hotel’s immense courtyard pond, featuring more than 300 types of koi and a tranquil lush garden with babbling waterfalls.
Beach Body, Spirit and Mind
Makena hosts a concierge center, Play Paradise, where guests can get recommendations on a plethora of local activities, such as stand-up paddle-boarding, snorkeling, scuba, whale watching and outrigger canoe cultural tours. The resort also has a resident catamaran snorkeling cruise that casts off Makena’s beach every morning. For a unique Maui experience, Makena guests can star gaze around a bonfire while an astronomy guide explains the cultural significance of the constellations.
Besides its incredible setting on the quarter-mile Maluaka Beach, Makena is also known for its golf and tennis, with programs and packages including equipment and lessons available for all ages. Makena 18-hole Golf Course is a main attraction on Maui, prized for its rugged terrain, rock walls, natural streams, exotic flower gardens, stunning ocean views and abundant wildlife that makes it part greenway, part nature walk. The world-class tennis facilities and the clubhouse, Café on the Green, which are currently undergoing renovation, also boast an inspiring setting and full array of services for players of all skill levels.
For more passive pleasures, the Makena Kai Day Spa offers massage, aromatherapy, reflexology and other pampering treatments, indoors or in private open-air cabanas on the beach.
The Molokini Bar and Grille at Makena offers a brunch buffet that is noted as one of the best on Maui. Honestly, I cannot think of a single menu offering that was missing, from stone crab claws and chilled shrimp cocktail to fruit crepes, Belgian waffles, custom-made omlettes and a spread of desserts to die for. We had dinner at the same restaurant which is reset at night for fine dining. The décor is on the plain side, but the friendly, eager-to-please service is outstanding. The menu by Executive Chef Mark McDowell is chock full of all-fresh, made-from-scratch dishes. His menu is as creative as his presentation is artful — down to my son’s order of skinny fries, seasoned with truffle sauce, served in a designer spiral basket.
Our Own Private Maui
The final few days of our trip we spent at the magical Napili Kai Beach Resort (www.napilikai.com). We arrived during the first rain shower of our trip, and while Michael double-parked in front, I ducked into the lobby to check in. Perhaps bummed out by the drizzle, my first take was that the lobby was dated and unimpressive, but what I anticipated would be the least luxurious of our destinations would end up earning a special place in our hearts.
Napili Kai is situated on Maui’s West side on the crescent-shaped Napili Bay, looking out on the islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i. The 10-acre resort features 167 one and two-bedroom suites and studios. All of the 11 buildings are two stories, nestled in lush gardens of tropics plants.
Just a few steps outside our building was a curvy path, lined by tropical trees and rocks, that led along the bay and to the sandy beach. In the quiet, dewy early morning, as we winded our way along the path to the resort’s Sea House Restaurant for breakfast, the only sign of civilization we saw was a lone paddle-boater in the distance. It was like our own deserted isle.
The Key to Low-Key
Our spanking newly renovated one-bedroom suite was furnished in a casual plantation style which belied its modern amenities, including flat screen TVs, DVD player, automatic window blinds, and a fully equipped kitchen with range, oven, microwave, fridge and dishes and cookware. Just below our unit was a coin-operated washer and dryer, with complimentary detergent.
Though Napili Kai was a more self-serve than concierge service resort, everything a guest could want was there, from an exercise room and barbeque areas to babysitting, massage treatments and dry cleaning service. You did have to go to the lobby to log onto a wireless hotspot, and you had to carry your own beach chair to the water’s edge, but the laid back atmosphere was worth the trade-off for these full-service extras.
Just Like Family
We began each day at Napili Kai at a big canopy on the beach where a cultural speaker would regal a small gathering of guests with a short talk about life on the island. My son was particularly taken with a young fisherman who told of near escapes from hungry sharks as he held his breath in deep water while hunting fish with just a spear. Each speaker followed his or her presentation with a raffle for a token prize, such as a shell necklace, or a hand-woven palm-leaf basket, made by one of the staff.
The families we met at Napili Kai were as taken in by the beauty, friendliness and accessibility of the place as we were. One guest told us it was his eighth year visiting, and he brought his grandchildren with him to snorkel at his favorite sea turtle hangout. We learned that many families return year after year to Napili Kai, such as one family of more than 40 people that has held an annual reunion at the resort for two decades.
Kids had plenty to do at Napili Kai, including complimentary children’s activities in season. Besides beach activities, guests of all ages could enjoy snorkeling and body boarding with complimentary equipment, swimming in the four swimming pools, shuffleboard, and an 18-hole putting green. There were also cultural activities, such as a children’s hula dance exhibition by the Napili Kai Foundation. Our favorite part of all the activities was that they were all low key. No hustle, no tight schedules, no attitude.
Our snorkel sail on the Ali’i Nui (www.aliinuimaui.com) was one of the most adventurous of our Maui outings. A shuttle bus picked us up bright and early from our hotel and drove us to the Ma’alaea Harbor where we departed along with about 20 other guests aboard the 65-foot catamaran. Captain Dennis and his enthusiastic crew catered to our every need on this tightly run ship. Not to mention, the healthy continental breakfast, including some incredibly delicious custard pastries, and the hot lunch, were superb.
As it was my son’s first time snorkeling, the dive master recommended a Boogie Board with a specially carved viewing window. The staff coached me and Michael on how to swim beside Stephen so we could all enjoy snorkeling safely. The Ali’i Nui anchors far away from the most crowded snorkeling areas, so we had the ocean to ourselves to observe abundant sea life, including my son’s favorite, giant sea turtles. A professional underwater photographer, Michelle O’Byrne, captured all the fun under the waves to create a souvenir video and photos of our exciting excursion.
Goats, Gardens and Fish
Back on land, we cruised to the Surfing Goat Dairy (www.surfinggoatdairy.com), a real dairy farm where kids get to feed the goats. If you reserve your tour at the right time, you can even watch the goats get milked. At the tour’s end, we sampled a variety of fresh gourmet goat cheeses.
We also toured the fabulously fragrant and beautiful Ali’i Kula Lavender Gardens (www.aliikulalavendar.com), where a most-knowledgeable apprentice, Harrison Keillor, snipped varieties of lavender and other herbs, explaining the fragrances, properties and uses of them. The unique garden gift shop carries every imaginable lavender-infused product, such as lavender scones, and an aromatic lavender and rosemary soothing hand salve that I took home.
While you can see plenty of tropical fish in their natural habitat in Hawaii, you can see them all at the Maui Ocean Center, the Hawaiian Aquarium, (www.mauioceancenter.com), where a extraordinary collection of some of the most exotic animals of the ocean are displayed in more than 70 vibrant exhibits. My son was mesmerized watching the brilliantly colored, bizarre and rare sea species behind the glass, especially the monstrous-sized sting rays and sharks in a tunnel surrounded by 750,000-gallons of water.
Cirque de Maui
One thing that is remarkable about Hawaiian cultural activities is how deeply devoted natives are to telling their history and mythology. Maui Theatre’s Ulalena (www.mauitheatre.com) is one of the island’s most entrancing stories of Hawaii’s people that is as beautiful for its vocal performances, costumes and dance as it is educational. The stage production takes the audience on a musical journey of dance, acrobatics and song as a tribute to the birth of a culture and the strength of its people.
No self-respecting tourist can visit Hawaii without attending a luau, so we went to the granddaddy of them all, the spectacular Grand Luau at Honua’ula (www.honuaula-luau.com) at the Grand Wailea resort. The event, held at sunset on a grassy lawn overlooking the ocean, reminded me of a wedding, where all the guest wore Hawaiian-print shirts and maxi dresses and ushers were bare-chested, muscled, henna-tattooed male warriors in loin cloths.
During the cocktail hour before dinner we ambled around the grounds to view tables of crafts by local artists, and Stephen was invited to play a cricket-like lawn game with a couple of the warriors. Later the warriors put on a show of unearthing the main course, smoked Kalua Pig, buried in a fire pit. Then we helped ourselves to a generous buffet of Hawaiian delicacies, such as poi, Lomi salmon and Haupia, and we enjoyed a stage show of singers, drummers, stilt walkers and of course, hula dancers. Even Stephen got on stage with other kids from the audience for a hula lesson. The grand finale was a spectacular display of fire dancing, with a three-time world-champion of the art.
A Maui Primer
Our only regret about Maui was declining the GPS navigation unit at Budget Rental Car. We found it’s not such a small island after all. We also learned that experienced Maui tourists pack light and then shop at Maui’s Costco for vacation accoutrements, paying the same prices as the big box store in the other 49 states. Lastly, a durable spinner suitcase set, like the Briggs-Riley Baseline collection (www.briggs-riley.com/baseline), can help roll things along through airports and hotel lobbies, and in our case it can double as an unofficial child ride-on when traveling with an exhausted preschooler.
Another tip is to book a round-trip ticket, or seriously, you may never leave the island. On my final day on Maui I decided that Island life suited me, and I began to plan a new life in Hawaii. Ultimately, obligations called me home, but I took heart in knowing that there were seven other main island left to explore, and that as soon as I can, I will go back again.