Golfing In Paradise

King Kamehameha G.C., Waikapu

Maui’s ancient history comes alive at its world-class golf resorts

To drive across the island of Maui is to drive through the history of Hawaii itself.

Walking out of the Kahului Airport into the warm afternoon sunshine, your eyes are immediately drawn upward to the peak of 10,023-foot Haleakala, the volcano whose very existence defines all that we know of Maui. Centuries ago, Haleakala gave life to Hawaii’s second-largest island, pouring its molten contents into the clear blue sea for millions of years until its flow merged with that of nearby Pu’u Kukui to form the island we know today.

Early Hawaiians named the volcano Haleakala, “House of the Sun,” because they believed it empowered the demigod Mau’i to slow the sun’s journey across the sky. Today, tourists celebrate this legend by renting bicycles at the volcano’s summit before sunrise, then slowly descending its slopes as the sun rises from its nightly prison and begins its slow march across the heavens. You’ve never seen a sunrise until you’ve seen it from Haleakala.

Immediately to the west of Kahului, just minutes from the airport, is Wailuku, home to the oldest existing structures on the island – temples the Hawaiian oral tradition credits to the legendary Menehune, magical dwarfs and skilled craftsmen who were overpowered by early Tahitian settlers. According to the stories, the Menehune were driven from the lowlands and forced to live out their existence in the lush rainforests of the Iao Valley, where in 1794 King Kamehameha I – with the assistance of American cannons and military expertise – slaughtered the Tahitians to complete his conquest of Maui and unite the Hawaiian islands. One can only assume the Menehune, if they indeed did exist, smiled down from their mountainside villages.

After leaving Kahului, the modern Maui traveler passes between the ghostly Iao Valley to the northwest and Haleakala to the southwest through seemingly endless fields of sugarcane, planted in the 1800s to make the rum so desired by sailors aboard the hundreds of whaling ships that berthed on Maui’s southwestern coast each year. The midpoint of the Pacific between the whaling centers of Japan and South America, Hawaii – and specifically, Maui – soon became a key port for oceangoing travelers, who brought with them Western culture, religion, and other influences that would set in motion the chain of events that finally led to statehood, in the still-quite-recent year of 1959.

Of course, few vacationers think of these things as they point their rental cars along the 20-minute drive from Kahului to Ma’alaea Bay, where travelers can choose to turn southeast towards Wailea, one of America’s premier recreational communities, or northwest towards the more touristy locales of Lahaina, Ka’anapali and Maui’s most famous golf course, Kapalua.

Separated by just 39 miles, a golf vacationer can truthfully stay anywhere on Maui’s southwestern coast and be within easy driving distance of each of the island’s major golf destinations. And, with golf, lodging and dining options to meet just about any budget, from luxury resorts to more modest oceanside hotels, vacation rentals, even beachfront villas, it’s easy to plan a trip to meet your specific needs.

Best of all, getting to Maui is a lot easier these days than it was for 18th-century Tahitians. Direct flights to Kahului, Maui’s main airport, start lower than $500 round trip from Seattle, Everett or Portland; knock another $100 off if you’re willing to make at least one stop along the way.

We’ve saved you time – and money – by checking out the area’s top resorts and courses, and put our recommendations in this issue. No need to thank us – that cold beverage at the clubhouse bar, with the pikake smell in the air and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean before us, was thank you enough.

Wailea Old Blue Course, Wailea

Located in a protected rain shadow at the southwestern corner of Maui’s larger half, at the base of the majestic Haleakala, Wailea has established itself as a leading resort community, with thriving golf, shopping and restaurant industries that exist to satisfy the thousands of part-time residents who spend at least a portion of the year on the island.

Much of the area’s best golf is centered at the Wailea Resort, whose 54-hole complex, Wailea Golf Club (888-328-MAUI), makes it not only one of Hawaii’s top golf resorts, but also one of its top values. In addition to the largest collection of championship courses in the islands, Wailea includes five superb hotels and eight excellent condominium/townhome options, plus spas, shopping, numerous restaurants, live entertainment, an award-winning tennis club and – most importantly for those travelers looking to relax – the No. 1-ranked beaches in the United States.

Of course, what matters to us is the golf. With three varied layouts, ocean views from almost every hole and a 200-foot elevation change from top to bottom, it was a no-brainer for Golf Digest to rate Wailea one of its “Best Places to Play” in a recent story.

The Wailea Gold, formerly the site of the Champions Skins Game, is a ruggedly beautiful layout marked by native wili wili trees, stark lava outcroppings, and a solid design that demands careful club selection to be played well. Low lava rock walls, built centuries ago by early Hawaiians and preserved for their historical interest, dot the course, a constant reminder of Maui’s ancient history.

The Emerald is a sensuous delight, lushly landscaped with fragrant blossoms and tropical foliage, and numerous island vistas. Fewer forced carries offer a measure of forgiveness, but even avid players will find strong shot placement is key to success. Most memorable about the Emerald is the double green – Hawaii’s first – at holes No. 10 and 17, bordered by a 1.4 million gallon brackish water lake and a stunning ocean view.

The Old Blue is Wailea’s original layout, a more typical “Hawaiian” course with wide fairways, challenging greens, numerous fountains, tropical plants, coral sand bunkers and several lakes. The course meanders through much of the resort, with views of the ocean from almost every point.

In addition to the three courses, Wailea is home to the only David Leadbetter Golf Academy in the islands, part of a 12-acre training facility where resort guests can work on their game between rounds.

Combining golf with a stay at one of the resort’s hotels or condominiums can save nearly 25 percent on the full-price greens fee, while a popular Seahorse Swing golf pass can be purchased for just $465, giving a golfer unlimited access to the Gold and Emerald courses for a three-day period (add top-of-the-line rental clubs for all three days for an additional $90, just $30 a day). In addition, kids play free after 3 p.m. with a paid adult, while unadvertised seasonal specials and packages are periodically posted to the resort’s website.

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