Aloha from Maui: As Much of the Island Reopens, Tourism Plays a Key Role
As our nonstop flight from Los Angeles began its descent into Kahului Airport during the first week of November, a flight attendant came on the intercom with this announcement: “The captain has just given us the forecast. The weather in Maui will be sunny, 85 degrees and beautiful … (pause for effect) … for the next three years!”
Indeed. The weather was everything the Maui Convention and Visitors Bureau has always touted in its marketing brochures, and for which Maui has always been best-known — until the headlines dramatically changed after the deadly wildfires last August that ravaged historic Lahaina Town and nearby areas in West Maui.
Immediately following that disaster, visitors and tourists were urged to promptly leave the island so that recovery and investigative efforts could proceed, displaced residents could find refuge and the healing could begin.
In full disclosure, the reservations for my birthday golf trip to Wailea — situated along the southwestern coast of Maui some 30 miles from the affected areas — had been made a month before the tragic events that unfolded, so my immediate reaction to the news was that my visit would have to be postponed, out of respect for the grief-stricken residents.
But after Hawaii Gov. Josh Green declared that West Maui would begin a phased-in reopening to tourism on Oct. 8 — later amended to Nov. 1 by Maui County Mayor Richard Bisen for all affected areas except the burnt-out section of Lahaina — the trip was back on. Even so, I was still reticent about traveling to Maui until Kathleen Costello, director of marketing and communications for the Wailea Resort Association, put everything in perspective.
“We need everyone to please come back,” Costello implored. “It helps us heal. Everyone is hurting. Tourism helps us heal.”
The fire’s trickle-down effect on the island’s economy greatly impacted everyone from farmers and restaurateurs to retail workers and resort employees. All of them need tourism to make a living and sustain businesses.
Luxury Beyond Compare
Founded 40 years ago, Wailea is a master-planned resort community along Maui’s leeward southwest coast that is known for its luxury resort properties, award-winning golf courses, golden-sand beaches and, of course, its refreshingly redundant climate. Twelve months of sunshine, warm temperatures, gentle ocean breezes, breathtaking sunsets and very little rainfall (an average of only 11 inches a year) make it a paradise for tourists — especially golfers.
For the same reasons, it’s also not surprising that Maui — and in particular the Wailea-Makena area — has become a vacation-home destination for the rich and famous, including Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson, Clint Eastwood, Steven Tyler and Woody Harrelson.
If you’re keeping score at home, Wailea offers 45 restaurants and lounges, five pristine beaches, three golf courses and eight luxury world-class resort hotels: Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui; Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea; Grand Wailea, Waldorf Astoria Resort; Hotel Wailea, Relais & Chateaux Resort; Wailea Beach Resort, Marriott; Residence Inn Maui Wailea; AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea; and Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort.
A stroll or peaceful jog along the 1.5-mile Wailea Beach Path, a paved coastal trail that runs between the beaches and several of the resort properties, affords scenic views of the deep-blue Pacific on one side and rows of resort pools and cabanas on the other. (Yes, my wife Cathy and I momentarily left the trail to sneak a peek at the Four Seasons Resort pool, where many scenes of the HBO series White Lotus were filmed in season 1.) If we had visited a few weeks later, we also would have been greeted by breaching humpback whales, also known as Maui’s renowned “free entertainment.”
Everywhere we went, everywhere we dined, everywhere we ordered the obligatory tropical drinks with umbrellas, every course at which I teed it up, staff were beyond friendly and helpful. At the Fairmont Kea Lani, where we stayed for a few days, almost everyone asked us where we were from and thanked us for being there.
“At a time when aloha is more important than ever before, we invite you to connect with the culture of our islands and embrace the kuleana of a meaningful visit to Maui.”
That was the message that greeted us at Fairmont Kea Lani.
Message received and understood.
Golf With a View
There are few places in the world that are better suited to year-round golf than Wailea.
Wailea GC, honored by GOLF and Golf Digest as one of the top golf resorts in the U.S, offers three award-winning, 18-hole courses: the classic Blue Course (1972, Arthur Jack Snyder), the picturesque Emerald Course (1994, Robert Trent Jones Jr.) and the tournament-worthy Gold Course (RTJ, 1994).
One of the first pieces of land developed in Wailea during the 1970s, the Blue Course — sometimes referred to as “Old Blue” and as the “Grand Lady of Hawaiian Resort Courses” — was constructed in the foothills of Haleakala, Maui’s towering dormant volcano.
The course features wide, sloping fairways; several uphill approach shots to crowned greens, some with false fronts; and brown coral-sand bunkers that are shallow and usually easy to escape. The greens are tricky to read and easy to three-putt the first time you play, perhaps because you’re distracted by the jaw-dropping views of Molokini island to the west and Haleakala to the east. The Blue was also the site of the LPGA’s Women’s Kemper Open from 1990-92.
Even if you or your spouse don’t play golf, you can enjoy Maui’s spectacular views by scheduling a “Sunset Cart Tour,” a self-guided late-afternoon drive to some of the most scenic vistas along the Blue Course.
The Emerald Course lives up to its name because of its lush green tropical landscaping and colorful flora — such as bougainvillea and plumeria — that line the course. Of the three courses, it is considered the most popular by locals, most picturesque (ocean views from every hole) and most playable for all skill levels, having been honored by Golf for Women magazine multiple times for being a women-friendly track. It also has fewer forced carries and offers more bump-and-run options on approach shots than the other two courses.
RTJ’s Gold Course is clearly the most challenging of the three, measuring 7,078 yards from the tips (6,152 from the white tees) and featuring 93 strategically (read: diabolically) placed bunkers and huge undulating greens. It has also earned the most accolades, including from GOLF and Golf Digest, as well as from the Maui Historical Society for its preservation of lava rock walls, which you must navigate on several holes.
The Gold was also the host venue for the nationally televised Senior/Champions Tour Skins Game from 2001-07, featuring Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd and Hale Irwin. Trophies and photos from the competition adorn the walls of the award-winning golf shop.
I played the Gold with a father and son from Las Vegas who were belatedly celebrating the latter’s 30th birthday after years of pandemic-related delays.
Just another sign that Maui tourism is getting back to normal.
Glad I made the trip, too.
Can’t wait to go back.