Maui is a breeze, if you can handle the trade winds
Friday, March 30, 2012
MAUI, Hawaii - The legendary Greek traveling salesman Odysseus was really a bit of a whiner, wasn’t he? Compared to his supposedly perilous travails at sea – Circe’s lethal singing, an irascible Cyclops – my recent trip to Maui was a veritable tropical Trojan War: a grueling week’s worth of wind-whipped morning golf, capped by small doses of afternoon sun and sand, and washed down with umbrella-festooned cocktails and flapping-fresh local seafood.
Cue the violins – but please, no more ukulele music.
Truth be told, it takes a road-raging, L.A.-based, Type-A madman like me a good week to adapt to the mellower rhythms of Hawaii. Highway speed limits are tamped down to accommodate the paucity of streetlights; there are no self-checkout lanes in the supermarket; and nobody’s in a particular hurry to bring you the meal you ordered an hour ago. Get used to it, bruddah – it’s Maui, not Miami. And that’s a good thing, all in all.
After having been thoroughly seduced by the bucolic north shore of Kaua’i several times, and stunned senseless by the beauty of the Big Island’s black lava fields, I must admit my first impression of Maui was less than jaw-dropping. Kahului Airport flanks the city of the same name and is home to a Costco, a deep-draft harbor and a couple of sprawling industrial areas. It is not exactly prime postcard material.
But a mere 15-minute drive up the Honoapi’ilani Highway (more commonly known as Route 30 to the syllabically challenged) promises far better days ahead. Traveling northwest past largely undeveloped coastline, one sees an abundance of locals parked and cold-chilling alongside the pristine, public-access beaches. Workers in pickup trucks gather to eat lunch and grouse about their bosses and invasive haoles (gringos) like me. As much as I’d like to stop and hang with real Hawaiians, Kapalua is calling and I’m definitely picking up.
Once you turn off the highway into Kapalua Resort’s sprawling 22,000 acres, you are in another world altogether. Anchored by the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the former pineapple plantation still is dominated by nature – yes, bird-fanciers, the Hawaiian wedge-tailed shearwater is still alive and flapping here, as are innumerable earthbound species: mongoose, wild boar and feral cats among them. And, as always, keep an eye out for breaching humpback whales in the vasty blue sea beyond.
Early on the first morning, my son Nicholas and I took our modest golfing talents out to Kapalua’s fearsome Plantation Course, which was pretty much set up for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January. Not that the course needs any toughening – even the white tees play from 6,547 yards. Add a good handful of three-club winds to the equation and you might as well be playing the 7,411-yard tips. Windswept Hawaii is Scotland with hula skirts instead of kilts, palm trees instead of gorse and rice-wrapped Spam standing in for haggis. Um, I’ll stick with the mahi-mahi tacos, if you please.
The Plantation Course is nothing if not dramatic – nestled along the northwest-facing seaside slopes of the West Maui Mountains, one’s every other glance encompasses wide-angle views of the islands of Molokai and Lana’i. The par-73, Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore layout is playable if the trade winds behave as expected – otherwise, holes such as the downhill, 663-yard finisher might occasion a white flag instead of a driver and two hybrids. Just keep in mind that K.J. Choi carded a course-record 62 in 2003. That might inspire a modicum of hope.
Before tackling the considerably more forgiving Bay Course the next day, we spent a few fruitful hours with Jerry King, Kapalua Golf Academy’s director of instruction. His eye for swing defects rivaled that of a 47th Street diamond merchant, and his boundless enthusiasm was inspiring. Did we manage to go low on the Bay as a result? Well, let’s just say the shorter and less vertiginous Arnold Palmer design was far easier to negotiate than the Plantation, and that the par-3 fifth lived up to its seaside, signature allure. Otherwise, no comment. The work is still in progress.
It was painful leaving the cushy precincts of Kapalua, but we were expected at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in nearby Lahaina the next day. The Hyatt is far more rock-and-roll than the urbane Ritz-Carlton – the pools and hot tubs replete with beer-fueled jet-setters and a healthy selection of shrieking toddlers and their bedraggled keepers. Forty lush, beachfront acres are right there at your doorstep, as is one fine restaurant, Japengo, which has a right to boast about its extensive sushi menu and an exceptional, locally inspired fried rice dish with pork, prawns and chicken.
The morning sun meant more flag-seeking, of course, this time at Ka’anapali Golf Resort just down the road. I played 18 holes at Royal Ka’anapali GC with head pro Sutee Nitakorn and a genial giant named Fa’a, who once was a titular chief back in his native Samoa before relocating to Maui. “I’ll bet this is the first time you’ve ever been paired up with two guys named Sutee and Fa’a,” quipped the squat, long-hitting pro. For the record, Chief Fa’a putted with just his right hand on the grip and was preternaturally accurate. With his left, he must have been applying some arcane voodoo to the golf ball. Note to self: Stay on the chief's good side.
The 1962 Robert Trent Jones Sr. design affords capacious looks off the tee boxes but makes you work hard around the billowy Bermuda greens. The course starts at sea level, then meanders into the West Maui Mountain foothills, where one is either aided by or at the mercy of the ever-present trade winds. They are inescapable.
While we’re on the subject of those devil winds – the very ones that brought Captain Cook to these formerly named Sandwich Islands in 1779 – I may as well mention the Day from Hawaiian Hell that followed Ka’anapali: the enchanting island of Lana'i.
After a 45-minute ferry trip across a choppy sea, we arrived at the handsomely appointed Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay. We had an early evening repast at the resort’s Italian-themed Fresco outdoor restaurant, where a headstrong Mother Nature wreaked havoc on my otherwise fine mushroom risotto. It’s the first time I’ve dined in the midst of a two-fork wind and, yes, I ate from the tips like a real man. Next time I visit? Two words: room service.
But that little dinner-hour breeze was a mere amuse-bouche compared to what ensued the following morning at the Jack Nicklaus design known as The Challenge at Manele. That name proved to be the understatement of the trip, as we faced gusts of up to 50 mph, turning an otherwise memorable track into a harsh lesson in golf aerodynamics. Even so, the all-holes-facing-the-sea looks were like pineapple-flavored eye-candy, and the 202-yard 12th was stunning – the green hugs the steep cliffs of Huawai Bay and sits a good 150 feet below the tee. Bring a camera and an extra sleeve of dispensable balls.
We could have used an extra day to take in the Four Seasons’ glorious amenities – spa, tennis, white-sand beach. But this being – technically, at least – a business trip, we caught the ferry back to Maui that afternoon for a leisurely drive down south to golf-crazy Wailea, where we checked into the Wailea Grand Champions Villas, a low-key, buddy-trip condo-alternative to the ritzy, and pricier, resorts. That’s evident from the name of the restaurant where we had dinner, Joe’s Bar & Grill, home of the best fried calamari in memory. Surpassingly crunchy, they were complemented by a spicy-sweet Vietnamese nuoc cham dipping sauce.
We played 18 holes the next day – sampling one side each at Wailea Golf Club’s Gold and Emerald courses. After Kapalua and Lana’i, one must prepare for a little scenic beauty-withdrawal here, but the rugged, heaving terrain and forced carries at Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Gold Course make for a perfectly challenging round. The Emerald Course is far more forgiving, and is known for being particularly friendly to female golfers. There are bounteous views of the Pacific, as well as the soaring, 10,000-foot peak of nearby Mount Haleakala. And yes, that is Oprah waving at you: She apparently bought 1,000 acres up there where mere mortals find it hard to breathe.
Wonder of wonders, we actually had the rest of the afternoon off to laze at the beach for the first time in this golf-o-centric odyssey. Nicholas and I shared the sprawling white sand with locals and tourists alike, then repaired to the nearby Four Seasons Resort to sup at Ferraro’s, a fine-dining Italian venue featuring an excellent roasted sea bass with shaved Maui onions. It was too dark to actually see the food at this romantic outdoor venue, but at least the wind decided to give us a much-needed breather.
Just when I thought I could get very used to the kicked-back island lifestyle, it was time to return to brute, continental reality. Five hours later, I’d exchanged the lush fairways of Hawaii for the frantic freeways of L.A. My blood pressure is rising steadily and the compassionate aloha spirit I’d taken so to heart transmogrified into “What’s it to ya, buddy!?” before you could say King Kamehameha. Off with my beloved floral-print shirt, as my proudly earned tropical tan fades to Pro V1-white. Back to the urban jungle, where the “bores” are far less wild but much more ubiquitous.
– David Weiss is a freelance writer from Tarzana, Calif.