Who says you can't teach old dogs new tricks? They sure know how on Maui, the glamorous island that is the essence of romantic retreats. On a recent visit to three long-time resorts there, I discovered they are right up to date when it comes to making guests happy while also observing new standards about sustaining the environment, promoting indigenous culture and networking with the local community. And did I mention laid back? At two of them, taking it slow and easy is the cool rule for real enjoyment. (The third place was under reconstruction, so staying calm might have been hard to do.)
"We aren't into mass marketing any longer," said Douglas Kahikina Chang, "as our ideal tourist would want to participate in island life, not just observe." Also the General Manager of the Hana-Maui Resort, Chang was appointed by Governor Linda Lingle to be Chair of the Hawaii Tourism Authority after nearly 20 years of experience in the travel industry. The authority worries about natural resources, "about everything that affects the islands," he said. "Not just about hotels and tourism infrastructure."
If Hawaii wants the environmentally alert tourist, it can't do better then the Dalai Lama, who visited Maui on April 24-25 this year, speaking on World Peace one day, Buddhist philosophy the next.
Since the island of Maui, in particular, is as ecologically "green" as green can be, and a center of the current enthusiasm for wellness, it's fitting that I took a look at how much the preaching here has been followed by the practice. Hawaii, after all, has more than 350 plants and animals unique to this state that are on the endangered list, say the Napili Kai Resort folks. So I chose to look at what three of Maui's oldest resorts have done.
(At the three resorts visited, by the way, there were dozens of activities, from horseback riding to lei making, aerobic lessons or kayaking, tasting tours to hiking. A few were even free, such as ukulele lessons with Leokane at the Hana-Maui.)
Hana-Maui (Opened 1946)
"I asked him, why have I seen you twice with that laptop? You come here to relax," the General Manager told me, referring to another guest. "He said he knew that, but he was electronically addicted." The manager then explained that there was only one room in the entire resort where that guest (or any other) could get a Wi-Fi connection, and none of the cottages have radios, TVs or clocks, for that matter. Hana-Maui is the resort for the Hawaii of 50 years ago, a sprawling 67-acre paradise with its 70 rooms and cottages scattered far apart, on a slope overlooking the ocean. (For TV addicts, the same Club Room that has the Internet connection also has a big screen.)
Because it's on Maui's eastern (windward) side, with only a couple of good beaches nearby, it's far from the crowded, hassle-ready western (leeward) side, where dozens of high-rise resorts cater to people who don't mind busy places, or perhaps just can't afford the quieter ones. You get here by private or charter plane, by boat, or by a mind-numbing " Road to Hana." This consists of 660 curves and 66 one-way bridges in a 52-mile stretch from Kahului Airport to the town of Hana (most of the twists are in one 30-mile stretch), and some drivers actually get a little dizzy from the constant eye movement needed. Unless, that is, you slow down and stop often at some of the gorgeous natural scenic sites along the way, mostly waterfalls and bosky dells. (There are only a few ocean-view turnouts.) The east side is the rainy side, and nearby is the Hana Rain Forest, the largest tropical rain forest in the nation.
The town of Hana has only about 2,500 inhabitants, of whom nearly 300 are hotel Hana-Maui employees, many second- or third-generation staff. In 1946, a San Francisco retiree named Paul Fagan founded an inn that later became the Hana-Maui, which has been owned since 2001 by the Ohana Hotel Company, which also owns the town center.
The hotel's Honua Spa is calm and luxurious, as befits this island of wellness seeking.
Prices for the cottages run from $475 (garden view junior suite) and up. There are at least five kinds of packages, including one in which you stay six nights, pay for five.
I was lucky to hear some former employees join current staff in a marvelous performance of music and hula one evening in the Paniolo Bar, where Front Office Manager Michelle Wilhelm danced superbly to the tunes of three local players and singers. The group included lead singer CJ Helekahi (Boom), his marvelously voiced mother Aunty Lovei Helekahi (a lead singer in the 60s and 70s, making a rare return appearance), and Boise Kawaiaea. Michelle at one point taught six guests a hula or two, and none of them had to be dragged onto the floor. It was perfection to my ears, especially as there was no unnecessary electronic amplification. (Boom's father, a retired executive chef, was there to listen, too.)
On the culinary side, the hotel "has experienced a full turn-around in its culinary philosophy" under Executive Chef David Patterson by utilizing local, sustainable food sources while supporting the islands' communities. He buys directly from four to seven Hana families fishing for him, 11 small Maui farms, and perhaps another eight or nine on other islands. (One farmer arrives in a truck fueled by the hotel's used fryer oil!) Local residents bring in tropical fruit that grows in their back yards and the produce appears on the menu mentioning that, such as, for instance, "Ikaika's backyard tangerine sorbet."
My traveling companion and I dined at the resort's Ranch Restaurant one evening, enjoying BBQ ribs immensely ($22), but deciding Molokai sweet potatoes ($3) were too fibrous. I had my first-ever pineapple risotto ($31) with mahi (a local fish) in the main dining room another night (sweeter than expected, what was I thinking?), while my friend said her beef tenderloin ($36) was perfect. For dessert, you might as well choose the coconut canoli with macadamia nuts ($9).
The fine print: Hotel Hana-Maui, 5031 Hana Highway, Hana, Maui, HI 96713 (tel. 800/321-HANA or 808/248-8211; www.hotelhanamaui.com).
Wailea Marriott (Opened 1976)
The first resort built in Wailea, the Wailea Marriott consists of eight buildings, seven of them low rise, which make the place look like Hawaii used to look, spacious and airy. If you are going to stay in South Maui, as this part of the island is known, and if you want a calmer ambience than the high-rise spots can offer, stay here. The newer resorts claim they can't afford the luxury of 22 oceanfront acres, in this case sited on a low promontory with a golden beach on either side.
They're smack in the middle of a $60 million renovation, with new spa and fitness center (opened October 2006), new lobby (late Spring 2007), new "Serenity" pool with over-water cabanas, and a newly designed Hula Moons Restaurant (already open). The point of the renovation, of course, has been to preserve the wide open spaces, and to sustain the attractive gardens surrounding the complex buildings, as well as the marvelous, sweeping ocean vistas. There are 546 rooms and suites, all completely renovated also. Shoppers will love the proximity of The Shops at Wailea, right next door, where you can find two good markets I liked for all sorts of good stuff: the ABC and the slightly downscale Whalers General Store, on the second and first floors, respectively. And the usual overpriced suspects -- Gucci, Coach, Tiffany, etc.
Rooms run from $475 up. There are at least four package rates, too. You should note the obligatory "Resort Activity Passport" at $20 per room that gives you two mai tai drinks a day, free parking and a liter of bottled water, plus discounts on other items. Since the drinks alone cost $8.50 each and the Fiji water $4.95, it's a fair price. (Servers said we could order some other drink if we didn't want the sweet mai tai mix.)
You can dine well at Marriott's Hula Moons restaurant, but it was in the Lounge, ordering from a mixture of restaurant, lounge and room service menus offered by the very pleasant server, that I had the best appetizer of my Hawaiian week. This was Manila clams with soba in miso broth ($13), a succulent presentation both flavorful and surprising. My partner thought highly of the fried calamari ($8.95), and we both liked friendly chef Todd Mullikin, who wanted us to sample a spicy mussel dish he was thinking about. At breakfast, you can choose from a healthy cold buffet at $15.95 or a hot and heavy one with customized omelets at $23.95.
The fine print: Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, 3700 Wailea Alanui, Wailea, HI 96753, tel. 800/367-2960 or 808/879-1922; www.waileamarriott.com.
Napili Kai (Opened 1962)
When the Napili Kai resort opened, the resort history says, there were only two others on the whole island, the Hana-Maui (see above) and the Maui Palms. In addition, Lahaina's Pioneer Inn (no resort, for sure) offered ten rooms. Napili Kai started life as a 16-room resort, doubles going for $15, suites for $20. The venture was designed to be low key, with two-story buildings scattered around a small inlet with a splendid beach. Now there are 163 rooms (in ten low rise buildings), 96% of which, they say, have ocean views.
You can't ask for a better climate, the temperature being between 72 and 82 degrees year round, but you shouldn't mind the breeze too much, trade winds being 10 to 15 mph most of the time. They pursue a policy of not nickel and diming their guests, so there are no "resort fees" or other hidden fees, they say. Garden view rooms start from $220, ocean view from $260. There are at least five packages.
Very much family-oriented, the Napili Kai nevertheless has regulations. Tucked into your welcome kit when you check in is a list of "A Few Simple Rules," including mention of a Quiet Time (10:30pm to 8am) and a reminder that the lawns are not for horseplay. On the premises are four smallish pools, whirlpool, a spa and the Sea House restaurant. There is free high-speed Internet access in each unit and wireless access in the lobby and at the Lahaina pool. At ten each morning, the resort presents cultural demonstrations (canoe facts, coconut husking, etc.) with coffee.
Maintaining good relations with the community was essential to the Napili Kai developers, who have continued to help out in many ways. One such is the Napili Kai Foundation (www.napilikaifoundation.com), which provides funds for children of the community to learn the history, arts, crafts, language and dances of Polynesia. On Tuesday evening at the resort, the foundation kids (ages 6 to 18) put on a charming, one-hour Polynesian show ($10, proceeds to the foundation). Many employees are second- or third-generation, the hotel's Director of Guest Services, Diane Farnsworth, told me. She believes than only here and at the Hana-Maui are there such long family ties with Maui island resorts.
At the hotel restaurant, I had a dry seafood cioppino (ask for extra sauce) on angel hair pasta at $36, and a standard onion soup ($5). A big glass of very good Pinot Grigio cost $9. If you're looking for Cantonese Chinese fare, head for China Boat, about a ten-minute drive south of the Napili Kai, for very much above average treats such as orange beef ($14.95), pot stickers ($7.25) or vegetable egg rolls ($3.95). China Boat, 4474 L. Honoapiilani Road, Kahana (tel. 808/669-5089).
The fine print: Napili Kai Beach Resort, 5900 Honoapilani Road, Lahaina HI 96761, tel. 800/367-5030 or 808/669-6271; www.napilikai.com.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Hawaii Message Boards today.