2002: Surf and turf

By Jeff Barr

Honolulu

Oahu, Hawaii’s most visited and populated island, offers an aura of the surreal. Perhaps even venturing into the mystical. Tales of ancient kings and local legends, modern-day splendor of mountains and ocean, and a magnificent array of places to play golf allow the imagination to conjure Oahu as a spot of magic.

But Oahu, which translates literally to “the gathering place,” is real. There are real people with real problems and everyday issues. There is an aura of magic, all right, but a close look – beyond the beauty and the fairways and the rainbows that touch the ground – offers new perspective. Magic Island, which juts into the Pacific midway between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, actually is a peninsula. The magic, by its very nature, is not always what it seems.

“In a lot of ways this place is magic,” says Michael Yamaki, director of golf for Hawaii’s department of business, economic development and tourism. “People who come here are blown away by the obvious beauty of the place. Things to see, places to play golf like they’ve never seen before. Sometimes, they forget . . .”

That Oahu is not without a scar or two. Honolulu is a city of more than 800,000 – about 100,000 less than Detroit – and the area has its share of big-city issues. Ala Moana Beach Park is a beautiful emerald green orb that abuts the sea, complete with spots to picnic, jog and relax. But, it also is a place for the homeless to gather, the homeless that were forced to migrate from A’ala Park when the downtown recreation area was fenced off for renovation. And toxins preclude a dip into the Ala Wai Canal.

Waikiki’s Ala Moana Boulevard is a tourist lane filled with stunning luxury hotels and restaurants. The Shore Bird restaurant offers a view of the Pacific from its back window-wall and a tasty crabmeat and bacon sandwich from the grill. But the crowded street also includes posters of “endangered runaways” and a cluttered little boutique where you can get “exotic body piercings” and rent Harley-Davidson motorcycles and adult DVDs all under one roof. This ain’t Detroit, but it ain’t heaven.

“This is a big city, and you’re going to have some problems,” says Ted McAneeley, who saw his share of big cities before making the unlikely journey from NHL player to general manager of the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki. “But, as far as a place to visit, you tell me if you’ve ever seen a place that offers more beautiful things to see and experience.”

Oahu, a grand lady of an island, is not without her blemishes. She wears them well, however, with cosmetic assistance from a coastline lined with state parks, mountain ranges that reach the clouds, crashing Pacific waves and rainbows that reveal the absolute mythology of the pot of gold. There are no riches at the end of the rainbow. For in Oahu, you can walk through rainbows just as surely as you can bury your feet in the sand.

And don’t forget the golf. Which, of course, is the reason we’re here. Perhaps God has created a more splendid setting to play His game.

But you’ve got to look awhile.

“Another beautiful day to play golf,” Jim Richerson, general manager of Ko Olina Golf Club, says to a visitor who couldn’t agree more. “Enjoy yourself.”

Not a difficult task. A walk onto the first tee at Ko Olina, and you are back into magical imagery. Only, as we’ve said, this isn’t magic. It’s real. And, standing awestruck at the combination of God’s and man’s handiwork, the realness of the place makes it even harder to believe. Oahu golf is where imagination and reality converge. “OK, it’s beautiful,” you are forced to tell yourself, “now swing the club.”

There is a difference here. Oahu golf separates itself from the rest of Hawaii’s islands, and perhaps is not No. 1 on Hawaii’s checklist of places to play. Maui, Kauai and the Big Island get priority in the minds of many golf travelers. These are the islands that feature pure resort golf, with the vast majority of courses adjacent to beautiful hotels, combining to make a “one-stop shopping”

experience of places to play and stay that is equal to the best in the world. Resort golf is convenient beauty.

On Oahu, where only four of the 35 tracks are resort courses, you might have to work just a little bit harder. But, what did they say about “anything worth having . . . ?”

“The personality of Oahu golf is different,” says Dennis Rose, director of golf at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s famed North Shore. “By the time golf became a real driving tourist draw in Hawaii, the tourism plant on Oahu – Waikiki – was already here. The hotels, the restaurants, the shops, all the places were built. There was no room for a golf course next to the hotels.

“The other islands began building these golf resorts that attracted the pure golf traveler, and of course that might make it more attractive for a person who is only going to Hawaii to play golf.”

Rose runs the golf operation at Turtle Bay, one of the four resort courses on Oahu (Ko Olina, Hawaii Prince and Makaha are the others), but Turtle Bay is every bit of an hour’s drive from Waikiki, where a vast majority of Oahu’s visitors stay.

“We’re the only resort course in Waikiki,” says Tim Herek, head golf professional at Hawaii Prince Golf Course. “And that’s a pretty big selling point.” Perhaps, but even that has an asterisk. The Hawaii Prince Hotel is in Waikiki, but its golf course is a 45-minute shuttle away in Ewa Beach. Its 27 holes are without question worth the shuttle-bus trip from the hotel, but it’s a little bit trickier than walking out the back door to the first tee.

So Oahu, historically, has not relied on the pure golf traveler to fill its courses. But, there is no poor-sister feeling among the golf proprietors here. The strategy has been a little different, but very successful. Because Waikiki draws so many general-interest tourists, there are more than enough golfers in that number to keep the courses busy. You might not come to Oahu strictly to play golf, but bring your clubs, go the beach, drink a mai tai, and play a little golf while you’re here.

Even if a small fraction of tourists elect to play a round or two, it is enough to keep the golf economy flowing smoothly. In fact, Ala Wai Golf Course in Honolulu is believed to be the busiest course in the world.

The “play while you’re here” strategy has worked, but there is a movement to change that ploy. A good number of Oahu’s courses have formed a consortium, each pitching in funds to create a new marketing strategy. The Hawaii Visitor’s Bureau has matched the consortium’s money, and the marketing technique concentrates on selling Oahu as a golf destination, as well as a great place to visit and then play a little golf.

“That’s the direction they’re heading, and it’s a little bit different than in the past,” says an official at one of the clubs that belongs to the consortium. “I mean, why wouldn’t you sell Oahu for what it is. You’ve got Waikiki, one of the most famous beaches on the planet. If you spend the money on forcing it to be a golf destination, I’m not sure people are going to buy it. That’s what the other islands are. Sell Oahu for being Oahu.”

The change in marketing strategy has been predicated by a drop in Oahu tourism – some estimate the number of tourists to the island to be down 20 percent this year – but there is a feeling that the pendulum is swinging.

“Yes, tourism is down, but it works in 10-year cycles, it always has,” says Rose, former director of golf at Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Big Island. “September 11 didn’t help, obviously, and the U.S. economy is slow and the Japanese economy – where many of our visitors come from – is even worse. So there are a lot of factors that have slowed things down. “But it’s picking up. And, I think we’re coming out of that down cycle. There’s no reason to panic. We’ll be fine.”

Rose’s sense of all-is-well is genuine, though it probably isn’t too difficult to be at peace when your office is paradise and your clients are smiling visitors having the time of their lives.

“Well, yeah, it’s a nice place to be,” Rose says.

There is a bounty of evidence: A sunrise breakfast of eggs benedict and papaya on the oceanside Hau Tree Lanai in Waikiki, watching the surfers catch the magnificent waves. An early-morning drive with ocean on your left, mountains on your right, Frank Sinatra in the CD player and Turtle Bay in your sights.

Tourism might be down a bit. There’s a big-city woe or two. But, the more you think about, the more you are convinced.

This place might just be magic, after all.

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