I’ve been many “places you don’t want to leave” before. And I knew this would be another. One, it’s Hawaii. Two, it’s an island I’ve never visited before. Three, photographs of the famous 12th and 17th holes at Manele Golf Club had me itching to take my own shots (with both camera and golf clubs). And Four, the food and lodging was provided by the most luxurious of hosts — Four Seasons Resorts.
That’s an “All Star Team” of reasons to take a Lanai golf vacation.
My bags were packed and I was ready to go about a month before my flight left — a product of winter life in Minne-snow-ta. With golf photographer (extraordinaire) Brian Oar committed to the trip, the hate mail began to arrive: friends, relatives, my son, my wife, my editor. I genuinely felt bad that I couldn’t bring everyone along. My wife, for her 60-hour work weeks, deserved it. My son Dylan would’ve loved to make Hawaii his 47th state visited. Plus, Lanai is just a great island to explore with friends — and the more the better. But this was business masquerading as pleasure.
Brian arrived in Lanai before I did. He toured the course while I sat at the airport in Honolulu awaiting my connection. “Yo,” he said. “This place is better than anyone billed it.” Considering we’d both heard it was worthy of a Top 100 ranking and, knowing how Brian sees everything through a photographer’s lens first (followed closely by a golfer’s eye), I knew the course had to be beautiful — and more than just those two “signature” holes.
I landed in the near dark, the last traces of sunlight fading west toward Asia, and anticipation only grew on the 20-minute airport shuttle ride from Lanai City. “Do you golf?” the chauffeur asked. “Somewhat,” I replied. “Manele is the best course in Hawaii,” he beamed, presumably with a bit of bias, then added. “Maybe even best in America.”
I tend to hate build-ups — the sort of “movie buzz” or hype that can’t possibly meet expectations. Unwilling to hinge my bets on the opinion of a resort employee, I nodded back and mumbled, “We’ll see.”
Not yet having been to Kauai or golfed on Oahu, I can’t say for certain where Manele Golf Club ranks among Hawaii’s best public-access golf. It certainly belongs in the conversation with such courses as Kapalua Plantation, Mauna Kea and the South Course at Mauna Lani. And Manele’s back nine might very well be the best nine in all of the islands. But the “package deal” — The Four Seasons Resort and Manele Golf Club — is even tougher to beat. Almost downright impossible.
The secluded oceanfront hotel has a spruced-up “Survivor Tribal Council” vibe at night. Palm trees waving, torches flickering, massive wooden doors leading you into the light where a smiling staff member places a lei of dark Kukui seeds around your neck. Not having eaten in 18 hours, I sat down right away for dinner at the Sports Bar & Grill off the main lobby and tangled with Maui Gold Pineapple wings with a macadamia nut glaze, Kalbi Short Ribs and the chocolate mousse Flourless Manjari Chocolate Cake for dessert. Wow. “What’d you have for dinner?” my wife asked over Facetime. “Peanut butter and jelly,” I replied with as straight of a face as I could maintain. She hung up on me.
It was early but time for bed. Brian headed off to his room intent on a sunrise photo session, and I already had my mind on breakfast in bed while hopefully watching Tiger Woods win at The Masters (and hopefully cashing me a golf-pool paycheck). We both got our wish. Brian caught some great light. I watched Tiger pull off what I contend is the greatest comeback in professional sports history (notching his 15th major title) while I tackled a stack of buttermilk pancakes with coconut syrup, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a chocolate croissant — all from the most plush and comfortable of beds.
One historic golf round in the books, Brian and I took the quick courtesy shuttle over to make our own history. What Brian calls one of his “10 Favorite Golf Rounds in the World” was also “One of My 10 Windiest Rounds Ever.” We were a bit bludgeoned for four hours, with steady 35 mph winds mixing with some stronger inopportune gusts. Brian, who typically plays hickory clubs, “sold out” (according to loyal hickory players and GolfTripX team members Darin Bunch and Mitch Laurance) and played his brand-new PXGs. “I would have played awful with hickories today,” Brian said. “But that course …”
Yes. That course. Windy as it the conditions were, the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course was a visual knockout in every sense of the word — so much beauty it almost hurt the eyes. Critics contend the front nine is “far weaker and less memorable” than the back. To be honest, I don’t think the golfer could mentally or physically handle 18 holes like the back nine. Other than one weak hole, the insane par-4 No. 5, I had no issue with the front nine and, in fact, found holes 2, 3, 6 and 7 to be pretty great. You can still see the ocean from every hole, and many of the opening set were intriguing holes I couldn’t wait to play again.
Brian walked up to me on the No. 10 tee and said, “Here we go, dude.” He’d been around the course twice already with his camera and drone. He knew what we were in for. I’d only heard rumors. Could it possibly live up to everything I’d heard about it?
The back nine was better than I’d imagined, and I’d imagined plenty of greatness. Back at the clubhouse, I was asked (by the seriously excellent outdoor staff) what my favorite hole was on the back. I knew it wasn’t 15 or 18, and was pretty set on the “signature” cliffside par-3 No. 12, but I couldn’t deny the greatness of the other six holes. “Sixteen,” I said, surprising them, and even myself a bit. “The panoramic view from that tee box, and then again from the middle of the fairway and from that green — looking out over the Pacific and over 12 and over the other incredible golf holes. There’s something about the 16th hole that just made me stop and shake my head, completely overwhelmed.”
The guys nodded. “You can’t go wrong with any of them,” Brian agreed. “It’s epic golf.”
Brian and I played the course two more times, both under perfect playing conditions and incredible light for photography. Each of us fell more in love with the course on each round, the ultimate compliment from a golfer’s perspective. We had fully intended to play it a fourth time, until the water below us got so crystal clear that we could hear the cove over at the Four Seasons Hotel screaming at us: “Come snorkel, you fools!”
We gave up golf for snorkeling that last afternoon, and can’t overstate how much we would have missed if we hadn’t. After marveling at the magnificent cove from the restaurants, lobby and waterfall pool areas of the hotel — the white sand and sparkling spectrum of blues constantly beckoning — our admiration from a distance absolutely paled in comparison to total immersion. A couple hours on that beach and cruising around those warm waters yielded great fun and some superb seashell discoveries.
The Four Seasons experience on Lanai ranks as my favorite of 12 worldwide Four Seasons visits to date. The golf was otherworldly but the resort (large rooms and suites with water and waterfall views plus the most technologically advanced toilets I’ve ever seen) was so much more than that, beginning with the incredible setting. You can start every day soaking in the Hawaiian “ahhhs” with the buffet breakfasts at One Forty — panoramic palm, flower and ocean views on one side and panoramic food spreads on the other — and end every day at One Forty for American Steak and Hawaiian Seafood or …
Or you can capitalize on one of the world’s most indescribable dining experiences at NOBU Lanai. One of the kindest public-relations people I’ve ever worked with, Lori Holland, warned me of NOBU: “Get comfortable and ready to have your mind and taste buds blown.” Once again, my level of readiness wasn’t ready enough. NOBU Lanai was surreal.
There are NOBUs all over the world, but I can’t imagine any are as memorable as this one. NOBU Lanai offers an assortment of seating options, and we settled into the couches on the cliffside terrace as we scanned Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s menu. NOBU takes the concept of “tapas” to sushi and Teppanyaki extremes. Our feast that last night included: Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapenos, Wagyu Short Rib and Tuna Sashimi Tacos, Grilled Venison Kushiyakie (my favorite), Avocado Sushi Rolls, Prime Tenderloin with Teriyaki Wasabi Pepper and Anticucho, Braised Teriyaki Short Ribs, Soft Shelled Crab Sushi, and this incredible combo of square Crispy Rice with Avocado Balls. More than 90 minutes later, when it didn’t seem possible to eat any more, the dessert trays they kept marching past our table forced our hand. We finished the night with a Bento Box of Dark Chocolate Fondant and Goma Tuile Imperial Matcha Gelato and some more Mochi Ice Cream.
I asked the kind lady at the front desk how you say “Thank you very much!” in Hawaiian. She said, “Mahalo!” I replied that “Mahalo didn’t seem like enough.” She laughed. “Depends on how much you mean it.” I meant it as much as possible.
“Mahalo as much as possible!”