Here’s what I knew about Maui going in: It’s one of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s beautiful, the water is pretty blue, the PGA Tour holds a big tournament there each year, and as a teenager I had a huge Maui & Sons sticker on my favorite surfboard. I’d been to Oahu, Lanai and “The Big Island” (Hawaii), and loved all three of those, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from “The Valley Isle” of Maui. I figured I’d love it. After all, it’s still Hawaii. But how much? That was the question.
On the short ferry ride over from Lanai, I got a phone call with good news. “You’ll be having lunch with Ben Crenshaw today.” I turned to photographer Brian Oar and yelled over the boat noise: “Hey, we’re eating with Ben Crenshaw.” He gave me a quizzical look and I tried to figure out what he thought I’d said. (Eating on a big seesaw? Seeing a Zen rickshaw?) Who knows? “Ben Crenshaw,” I shouted again. “Cool,” he yelled back, with both thumbs up. Yeah, definitely cool.
The ferry pulled into Lahaina Harbor, a chaotic place on Maui’s northwestern shore with an “Oriental-Bahaman” vibe and Southern California-style traffic. We took a taxi five miles north to the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel. Regardless of which of the 10 oceanfront hotels you’d pick along famous Ka’anapali Beach, from the Hyatt Regency at the southern end to the Westin up north and Ka’anapali Beach Resort in the middle, they all provide access to the same two 18-hole golf courses — former host of huge golf events such as the Champions Tour Ka’anapali Classic (for 14 years), Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, the LPGA Kemper Open and The Canada Cup. Royal Ka’anapali is a 6,700-yard, par-71 Robert Trent Jones Sr. design (1962) updated by Robin Nelson in 2006. Ka’anapali Kai is a par-70, 6,388-yard course by Arthur Jack Snyder.
Kapalua Resort screams “best of” a lot of things. Pulling up to the clubhouse of The Plantation Course and stepping out of the car, you “feel” like you’re in Hawaii. Dynamite views. Dynamite smells. Dynamite golf. Dynamite everything … everywhere. Crenshaw and Bill Coore are no strangers to dynamite, having used a ton of it when building The Plantation Course back in 1991. They were told they wouldn’t be able to put golf holes where they wanted, given all the volcanic obstructions. They did anyway. That’s kind of their thing. Coore was similarly told he couldn’t fit 18 good holes onto the Sheep Ranch property in Bandon, Oregon. He did that too. (They announced they were spearheading that project while we were in Hawaii with Mr. Crenshaw.) These guys do what they want to do, and they do it exceptionally well.
Sitting down for lunch with Mr. Crenshaw — who insists on “Ben” — felt a bit surreal, especially with those floor-to-ceiling views of the Pacific behind him. He’d just flown in from Augusta, where he’d watched Tiger win The Masters, his 15th major championship. That subject, unsurprisingly, came up right away. Ben knows what it takes to win The Masters — he did it twice — and he’s a big fan of Tiger Woods. “He won it a different way than I did,” Ben said with a laugh. “He has a few more muscles than I do.”
A “Top 100” course in the world and host of the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions, The Plantation Course was closed as part of a nine-month, multimillion-dollar “refinement” while we were on the island. For someone like me, who has had UNIQLO CEO Tadashi Yanai’s celebrated course on my bucket list for more than a decade, that fact was a bit demoralizing. But getting to tour it with one of the guys who built it — the first course Crenshaw and Bill Coore built together — and with our other friendly hosts Kelly Williams from Troon Golf and Director of Instruction Ben Hongo, was still pretty amazing. “You’ll just have to come back,” Ben Crenshaw said with that perfect, friendly smile — making it sound so simple. I stopped short of the accent in replying with Arnold Schwartznegger’s well-known catchphrase: “I’ll be back.”
As great as The Plantation Course always was, Ben insists it is getting even better (re-opening in November 2019). There were many changes the PGA Tour wanted them to make (namely “calming down” the greens) in advance of the 2020 Tournament of Champions, scheduled for Jan. 1-5, 2020. Bill and Ben, along with Troon’s design and agronomy team and Golf Channel’s Mark Rolfing oversaw the re-grassing of 107 acres of fairways, tees and rough; Jeff Bradley’s masterful rebuilding of all 93 bunkers; and a complete overhaul of the practice green and chipping areas.
“The course has all these micro-climates and gets 80 inches of rain a year,” Ben said. “That’s a lot to consider on a project like this.”
I’m sure that’s true, but Coore and Crenshaw always make it look so easy and deserve a ton of credit for their massive worldwide success. This place is absolutely worthy of making everyone’s “must play” list.
Kapalua Golf Resort has another 18-hole championship course — the Bay Course — that opened in 1975 and has hosted more than 20 professional events. With less elevation than The Plantation Course, but still plenty of epic scenery, the Bay Course has the only hole in Maui (No. 17) that plays over the ocean.
In addition to 36 holes of golf, Kapalua Resort offers Hawaii’s “most complete state-of-the-art” golf school and practice facility with a Golf Academy (opened in 2000) and 23 acres of practice space. Hongo has twice won “Teacher of the Year” in Hawaii, and his Academy has been lauded as one of the “Top 25 Golf Schools” by Golf Magazine.
The courses and academy surround the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, the logical place to stay for visitors coming to this part of Maui. Kapalua translates into “arms embracing the sea” — and it does just that. This beachfront resort is the epitome of island luxury. And with all that golf, a world-class spa, surf and sand all over, we can pretty much promise you’ll never want to leave.
But if you must leave Kapalua, you should come to Wailea — about 40 miles south on Maui’s southwest coast. Wailea is a high-end luxury resort community known for its five beaches and 1,500 acres of oceanfront land (roughly three times the size of Waikiki on Oahu).
One of the more opulent paradises amidst that massive pod of luxury hotels is the honeymoon favorite — Grand Wailea Maui, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. Directly and indirectly connected to 54 holes of golf — the Wailea Blue, Gold and Emerald courses — Grand Wailea features a private cove, wedding chapel, a wet-and-wild water park with some pretty great slides, stunning ocean-view rooms and amazing food served in incredible settings like the on-another-island restaurant Humuhumunukunukuapua’a with their “on-another-planet” desserts. This is one of those hotels you’ll never forget for a variety of reasons.
Guests can stay here the entire time or get out and explore. If you’re out looking for places to eat, check out Nalu’s South Shore Grille six miles north in Kihea. After our Nobu experience on Lanai, I didn’t think I’d be writing about too many other eateries in Hawaii, but I was impressed by Humu at the Grand Wailea, and equally impressed by the casual setting and food at Nalu’s. If you’re there for breakfast, try the Corn Flake Crusted French Toast. If you’re there for lunch or dinner, you can’t go wrong with the Cubano or Island Style Ribs.
If you’re looking for places to golf, there are plenty to choose from, but start with the Wailea Gold and Emerald courses — a two-mile drive from the hotel. Those two courses share the same clubhouse and same crazy ocean views, with fairways that rise and fall up and down the mountainside near the Molokini Crater and sunsets set to music (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” of course). We spent two days and two nights out there, shooting a couple hundred golf shots and a couple thousand pictures.
We don’t typically cover private golf courses in our “Destination” pieces because most people don’t have access to them. However, thanks to various reciprocities within the Troon Privé program, more people than ever can play their best and most exclusive courses. That means you just might be able to play King Kamehameha Golf Club on your own Maui visit. (From time to time they also offer Guest for a Day rates to unsponsored guests for around $250.) Never hurts to call and ask!
King Kamehameha is built 750 feet up the side of the West Maui Mountains, physically set just above the public Kahili Golf Course, approximately nine miles from Kahului Airport (OGG), which you’re probably flying into or out of at some point. The golf course stands out visually, but not as much as the incredible Franklin Lloyd Wright “Marilyn Monroe” clubhouse based on the home that her then-husband, Arthur Miller, had intended to build for her before they divorced. 350 golf members call it their home away from home now.
The panoramic views from that $35 million clubhouse over sugarcane fields, volcanic slopes, waterfall features and golf fairways is remarkable, especially since that vantage point allows you to see the ocean both to the north and the south. Stepping out onto the golf course you’ll find shapely greens with an average size of 6,600 square feet and some pretty wild golf holes. Originally designed by Ted Robinson Sr., the course was later “revised” by his son Ted Robinson Jr. Featuring no less than eight “signature” holes, some favorites include the stunning downhill opener, a 5-par that can feel like a long 3-par with the right wind, and the uphill No. 12 hole — a 4-par with the coolest set of “frag grenade” bunkers defending the green.
In all likelihood you’ll be visiting Kahului Airport at some point unless you’re island-hopping by boat. However you get here, there’s plenty you shouldn’t miss. Kahului is a pretty cool town, right on the north-central shore of Maui, six miles from the great Baldwin Beach Park (a great place for picnic lunches) and essentially the gateway to the famous Highway 36, otherwise known as “The Road to Hana.” Millions of tourists take that long scenic coastal drive. Others prefer to skip the traffic and take in the incredible views from the sky, courtesy of the fantastic crews and crafts of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.
This is the perfect itinerary add-on to the end of a Maui vacation. Blue Hawaiian’s base is immediately adjacent the Kahului Airport, so getting back and forth is quick and simple. Plus, sitting back in comfort and reliving all your Hawaiian highlights one last time before you head home? This is a pretty cool way to do it.
Our pilot was both skilled and informative, maneuvering the brand-new T2 Eco-Star chopper with first-class seats through the mountains and valleys at crazy speeds, hanging us out over the disappearing falls, the Haleakala Crater and Jurassic Rock, tracking a pod of whales, zipping us by the Grand Wailea and looping us all around the Road to Hana. We spent 90 minutes hovering over various portions of Maui. Every minute of the exhilarating flight lived up to the company’s goal of “The Tour of a Lifetime, Every Time.” We cannot endorse the experience highly enough.
ALOHA and MAHALO
Yes, it means “hello.” But it also means “goodbye.” I hate that meaning of the word. I’ve been to Hawaii three times now — to four of the islands. I haven’t yet been to Kauai, and that fact is killing me, but I’ve loved every minute I’ve had over here and wish I could move my family here instead of ever having to go back home.
The greatest thing about Hawaiian vacations is that they always live up to the hype, they’re always better than you imagine they’ll be, and they always leave you wishing you could stay and play more.
Maui was a spectacular host with superb ambassadors like our personal guide (Leanne Pletcher) from the Visitors Bureau and the many golf and hotel professionals who did all they could to make sure we had (and you will have) the best of times every single time. Mahalo to all the wonderful people of Maui. Mahalo so very much.
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Private Club Notes: We were asked a dozen times on the island why we weren’t playing the exclusive Makena Golf & Beach Club. My reply was always the same — it wasn’t for lack of desire, but that they were, well. a little “hard to reach.” Turns out Makena was recently purchased by Discovery Land Company and all my contacts were wrong. They’d have loved to have us out. My apologies to Makena for missing you this time for this article. We’ll make it a point to catch you next time.