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May 3, 2004 -- I never thought I'd get mugged in Maui. That's what they call it when a humpback whale approaches a whale-watching boat -- by law the captain has to shut the engines off and float like a cork until the whale's finished watching us. In our case we hit the jackpot: It was a 50-foot-long, 80,000-pound momma whale and her calf. As she propped her baby up with her enormous head -- newborn calves are often too weak to swim unassisted -- she slowly swam directly underneath the catamaran, just 10 feet below the surface.

Our reaction? Chaos. Sandwiches and sodas went flying as 30 formerly well-behaved tourists lunged to one end of the boat, gracelessly piling on top of each other. Then, as the whales passed underneath, we went tearing to the other side, yelling very scientific remarks such as, "Look at the size of that thing!" and, "That's the biggest 'fish' I've ever seen!" Mom and junior came around for a second pass, then slowly faded into the deep blue water, leaving a swirl of water and indelible memories for a very lucky boatload of Maui vacationers.

AOK at the KBH

That unforgettable whale-watching trip was part of the "Whale Encounter" package offered by Trilogy (808/661-4743; www.sailtrilogy.com) through the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel, a 430-room (including 14 suites) beachside lodging on the sunny western shores of Maui. The rest of the money-saving package deal included five nights in an ocean-view room, a rental car, daily all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, a dinner for two at the hotel's Tiki Terrace restaurant, and an elaborate ti-leaf welcome basket filled with Hawaiian snacks and beach toys. I'd read that the KBH -- as the locals refer to it -- was rated "Hawaii's #1 Best Value Hotel" by Travel & Leisure magazine and, after several days of participating in the hotel's wide array of complimentary cultural activities, I had to agree.

While most other hotels on Maui just provide lodging and dining, at the KBH the entire staff sincerely wants to you learn about Hawaiian culture by participating in one of their many free daily activities such as braiding haku flower leis, taking hula lessons, weaving lauhala baskets, and making ti-leaf skirts. During the Cultural Garden Walk I learned so many fascinating things about the medicinal properties of native Hawaiian plants that I found myself sneaking around the resort picking flowers, nuts, and herbs for the trip home (you wouldn't believe all the ailments a kukui nut can cure).

But what really had me enamored with the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel (2525 Ka'anapali Parkway; Lahaina, Maui, HI 96761; 800/262-8450; www.kbhmaui.com; parking: $5 per day; rack rates: $179-$300 rooms, $255-$610 suites) was the interaction between the guests and the staff, most of whom have been working here for so long that they consider it their second home. They are more than hospitable, they treat everyone like they're part of an extended ohana (the Hawaiian word for family). I have to admit, it's a bit disconcerting at first to be given so many hugs and be treated like a sorely missed relative, but once you drop your guard and get into the aloha spirit, you realize that these people aren't faking it -- they really are happy that you chose to be their guest.

There's even a heartfelt farewell ceremony for departing guests: members of the staff that you befriended during your stay join together in the lobby to sing you a traditional Hawaiian farewell song, place an authentic kukui nut lei around your neck, and give you a big hug (guests were almost weeping at a few of the ceremonies I witnessed). It's a very Hawaiian way of thanking guests for visiting Maui and something you won't experience at any other hotel in Hawaii.

Family Fun

Both parents and kids have it good at the KBH. Each child is given an "Aloha Passport" when they check in, which leads them on a sort of Hawaiian treasure hunt during their stay that's both culturally educational and loads them up with fun toys to take home with them. What's enticing for the parents is that children under 17 stay for free, kids under five dine for free, and there's a special discounted menu for kids six to twelve. There are also free introductory SCUBA lessons at the whale-shaped swimming pool, and a complimentary "Ohana Welcome" buffet breakfast that includes a somewhat kitschy but amusing hula and music show by the employees.

And since you're right on the beach, consider signing up the kids for surfing lessons. The professional surf instructors guarantee that their students will stand up and ride the waves in a single lesson (if they can get me up, they can get anyone up). Another memorable Maui adventure is taking a helicopter tour of Haleakala, Maui's massive dormant volcano that looms 10,000 feet above the sea. I took a trip with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters (105 Kahului Heliport; Kahului, Maui, HI 96732; 800/745-BLUE; www.bluehawaiian.com) and was blown away by the scenery, including a dazzling rainbow -- so close I thought I could reach out and touch it -- that followed us into a breathtakingly beautiful canyon that was blanketed with lush ferns and dozens of cascading waterfalls (really, I have it on videotape).

Maui Moments

Each night as the sun sets on Ka'anapali Beach the hotel guests are invited to gather at the lush tropical courtyard for the nightly torch lighting ceremony, followed by a lively hula show (don't sit near the front or you might be in it) and a talented duo playing Don Ho-style melodies. I'm more of a rock-n-roll kinda guy, but after a couple of mai tai cocktails there I was on dance floor with my gal as the silver-haired singer crooned classic Elvis tunes under the starry skies.

All too sudden it's your turn to hear the Hawaiian farewell song, receive your lei and a kiss on the cheek from your new friends, and head to the airport with your bags full of handmade mementos. That's how it works at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel -- you arrive as just another tourist and you leave as ohana.

Do you have a question or comment concerning this article? Have you stayed at the KBH, gone whale watching or taken a heli-tour while in Maui? We'd love to hear about your experiences on our Hawaii Message Boards.