MAUI, HI. — This is golf heaven, a place the all-too-often cruel golf gods, in good conscience, just have to cut hackers some slack.
An old-timer at Capilano Golf & Country Club once told me that playing at his winter home here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean took five strokes off his game.
He credited the warm climate, saying it made his creaky backswing smoother, his short game more supple and his putting stroke more pure. He added that the trade wind infused temperatures made his body feel three decades younger.
As I stood on the first tee of the Wailea Gold course, the first rays of another day in paradise beginning to peak over the ancient volcano Haleakalā, I thought of the old guy and his handicap-shaving story. But as I stared down the 400-yard, dogleg left opening hole of the Robert Trent Jones II masterpiece, I came to a different conclusion as to why my golfing buddy took strokes off his card — and apparently years onto his life — playing on Maui.
Those aforementioned golf gods giddily pile on the strokes to your card when you play the ancient links of Scotland, but you’re okay with that since there’s an expectation of being beat up by the whipping wind, bumpy greens and coarse rough of the olde country.
But here on the Valley Isle, pleasure is your playing partner, not punishment. The firm fairways add yards to your drives; the hard-rolled greens are easier to read than Dr. Seuss; and, like PGA pros, you almost relish when you land in a soft-sand bunker, fully confident that you can cozy one up to the pin in a spray of white powder.
Six days after that morning round at Wailea, having played four courses on Maui and one on nearby Lāna‘i, each perfectly paired with a luxury hotel and dinner destination, I was convinced more than ever that this is golf’s Promised.
Here’s the bucket-list itinerary, including courses and accompanying dining/accommodation experiences:
Wailea Golf Club
The golf course: I had the pleasure of playing the Gold course with Victoria native Charles Head, the sweet-swinging GM of the nearby Fairmont Kea Lani, and benefited greatly from his course knowledge. The fact that there are four to six tee boxes built into all 18 holes allows for groupings of all levels of golfers, which is what you want in a resort course. That said, this is a challenging layout that requires strategic ball placement and a bit of reining in of that ‘go-for-it’ spirit that grips most of us when presented with a seemingly wide open fairway. I probably used every club in my rental bag but what I pulled out most was my camera. There is no shortage of amazing ocean views, the best being from the tee box on the par-3 #8, with the crescent-shaped isle of Molokini as a backdrop behind the coconut-tree ringed green. (waileagolf.com)
The main course: I was once again paired with the affable Mr. Head as he hosted an outdoor dinner at his hotel’s premier restaurant, Ko. The sumptuous cuisine is inspired by the island’s sugarcane plantation era, with a varied menu including family recipes of Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean and Japanese origins. A highlight was the Ahi tuna starter, in which you sear it yourself on a hot rock that comes with the dish. (korestaurant.com)
The hotel course: The Fairmont Kea Lani is one of the premier resorts in Wailea, and just a two-minute shuttle ride away from the three Wailea Golf Club courses. All rooms are suites, while the oceanfront villas provide space for two couples or four golf buddies. (fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui/)
The King Kamehameha Golf Club
The golf course: One of the true golf secrets of Maui, this private club is on a big-time membership drive, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for non-members to check out the Ted Robinson Sr. and Jr. design. Located at 700-feet above sea level, the course provides a unique overview of Maui’s Central Valley, along with two distinct view corridors of the Pacific Ocean (a rarity). The four tee boxes stretch the course from 5,254 to 7,060 yards, and the holes are nicely sculpted, with the Robinson-signature waterfalls a hallmark of many approaches. The real treasure of the club, however, is the Frank Lloyd Wright designed clubhouse, a futuristic — and pink! — 74,778 square feet masterpiece based on a 1949 home design named Crownfield. No game at King K is complete without a full tour of the clubhouse, where you might just happen to run into club member Clint Eastwood. It’ll make your day. (kamehamehagolf.com)
The main course: After your round and clubhouse tour, head towards Lahaina for a patio table at Kimo’s, to watch surfers and enjoy some of the best fresh fish on the island. You can never go wrong with the Maui Brewing Co Bikini Blonde Lager-battered fish and chips, but save room for a slice of Original Hula Pie. (kimosmaui.com)
The hotel course: Many options in and around Lahaina, one of the most historic towns in all of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s also a great place for walkers, with its Front Street named one of the Top 10 Greatest Streets by the American Planning Association. (lahainatown.com)
Manele Golf Course
The golf course: St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and Manele. Yes, this Jack Nicklaus signature course belongs in the same sentence as those two legendary layouts. Located on the island of Lāna‘i — a one-hour ferry ride from Lahaina harbour — and part of the over-the-top Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i compound, this course has to be seen, and played, to be believed. The fact that up until just a couple of months ago it was open only to resort guests (translation: deserted) means it is often in PGA tournament shape, its fairways amazingly divot-free, and its greens snooker-table true. Then there are the views from the course, situated as it is atop lava rock with dramatic cliff faces plunging into Hulopoe Bay (and yes, that is a humpback whale breaching in your backswing). Tough to pick a signature hole, but the par-3 12th — famous for having no fairway as it is a 200-yard carry over the crashing ocean 150-feet below — probably qualifies. (fourseasons.com/lanai)
The main course: To cap off what will be one of the more memorable rounds in you lifetime, keep the fantasy alive into evening with dinner and drinks at the Four Season Resort’s One Forty, a beautiful ocean-view restaurant specializing in steak and seafood. Just be sure to make time to pop in post-round to the clubhouse restaurant for a signature Four Season ice cream sandwich. A handful of flavours, but Ginger Snap Cookie is the local legend. (fourseasons.com/lanai)
The hotel course: Let’s just say the Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i is the ‘Manele Golf Course’ of accommodations, and leave it at that. Wow! (fourseasons.com/lanai)
Kapalua Golf Club
The golf course: Famed for hosting the PGA Tour every January — and for being a featured course on Wii Resort Golf — the Plantation Course at Kapalua is built around the West Maui Mountains. As such, its 18 epic holes are situated on a massive piece of prime property. How big? Twice as large as your average 18-hole track. Daunting to be sure, but in a way more forgiving as when you’ve got a fairway that is 100-yards wide, well, that slice or fade doesn’t seem quite so pronounced, does it? As to my friend who scores well on Maui? This course is probably the exception to that rule as you have to hit it long and straight to avoid a scorecard covered in red. Best to just put the card away, take out your camera and enjoy the moments. (kapalua.com/golf)
The main course: After playing a course built for the pros, we had dinner at a restaurant that caters to the world’s best golfers when the Tournament of Champions comes to town each January. The Banyan Tree at the Kapalua Ritz-Carlton offers open-air dining with sunset views, ingredients sourced from the resort’s two-acre organic garden and traditional Hawaiian classics, from poke to sweet bread to kula corn risotto. And leading it all is head chef Alvin Savella, a Maui native with some serious and savvy social media chops. Check out @thekitchenassassin on Instagram. (ritzcarlton.com/banyantree)
The hotel course: If you like spacious accommodations, first-class service and world-class spa services — yes, yes, who doesn’t? — the Montage at Kapalua Bay is the place. Set on 24 beachfront acres, the resort has the kind of ambiance that will make you quickly slip into a state of pono (balance and harmony). Most welcome following a round at the Plantation Course… (montagehotels.com/kapaluabay)
Ka’anapali Golf Resort
The golf course: After the splendor of Manele followed by the grandeur of Kapalua, it might seem that closing out the five-day tour at Royal Kā’anapali — what with one of Maui’s main highways running through it — would seem a let down. Far from it. Having played (survived?) those two big courses, the wonderful fairway undulations and very readable greens of the Royal course brought out the best in my game. Yes, I kept score, and yes, I shaved strokes off my handicap. The 6,700-yard Robert Trent Jones Sr. design was just the course to wrap up what was one of the most memorable golf trips of my life. (kaanapaligolfcourses.com)
The main course: Pulehu means ‘grilled’ in Hawaiian, and this Italian restaurant in the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas proved the perfect place to sit back with a big, bold glass of red and a plate of Kaua’i Prawn Cabonara and reflect on the rounds played, the friends made, and the places seen. (westinkaanapali.com/dining/pulehu)
The hotel course: One of the true architectural wonders of the Ka’anapali resort district, the Hyatt Regency Maui is so much more than a beachfront hotel. There’s a live penguin display in the lobby, more than 30 other wildlife species on the property, a half-acre swimming pool with two waterfalls and a 150-foot lave tube waterslide. Who has time for golf? (kaanapalibeach.hyatt.com)