Forget about Haleakala, the dormant volcano that climbs 10,000 feet above Maui — the most dominant feature of this island is the great golf. Maui boasts more than a dozen big-time courses, and the island is surprisingly top-heavy with pro tournament venues. As journeys go, this is a long one, but the quality of the offerings definitely justifies the time in the air.
Maui’s most underrated course lacks the pro tournament pedigree of its neighbors, but it provides everything else. This 16-year-old layout peaks at the memorable par-5 14th, which twists and tumbles 620 yards downhill to the green. With ocean backdrops at every turn, Makena North deserves to be better known.
Wider fairways and fewer all-or-nothing tee shots and approaches make the Emerald a friendlier alternative to Wailea’s Gold course. Another product of the Robert Trent Jones II stable, this Emerald sparkles at the 10th and 17th holes, which share a double green next to a lake. Mostly, though, it’s one glorious Pacific vista after the next, which makes the healthy green fee easier to bear.
Nestled into the rolling hills of a century-old pineapple plantation, Kapalua is best known for its superb Coore/Crenshaw-designed Plantation course, home to the PGA Tour’s season-opening SBS (formerly Mercedes-Benz) Championship. The Plantation’s massive, canted fairways and similarly contoured greens have both entertained and baffled the best in the game since the course opened in 1991.
A gentler ride than its sibling Plantation, this 35-year-old Arnold Palmer/Frank Duane creation showed plenty of bite when it hosted an LPGA event in 2008 — only a handful of players broke par for four rounds. The relatively flat greens and resort course ambience are a pleasant counterbalance to the Plantation.
Home to the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game and the television reality show The Big Break, Royal Kaanapali has been in the limelight since its 1962 creation. The layout bears the classic imprints of its creator, Robert Trent Jones Sr., with broad, boldly bunkered fairways and large, sloped greens. Following a $13 million renovation in 2005-06, it’s better than ever, even if it is short by modern standards.
The sternest challenge of Wailea’s three courses is this 1994 Robert Trent Jones II design, with steep-lipped bunkers, vast, heaving greens and prehistoric lava rock walls forming the bulk of the test. Home to the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game from 2001-2007, famous footsteps include Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who teamed up to win here twice. For those with less famous footsteps—or those who struggle with forced carries—the ocean views will soothe.
Stay, Eat, Do
The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua (808-669-6200, ritzcarlton.com/kapalua; rooms from $299) has two luxurious options for spa lovers: the Ritz-Carlton Spa onsite, or the brand-new Kapalua Spa next door. At sunset, trust the Banyan Tree to deliver a stellar oceanfront dining experience. The mile-long stretch of Kaanapali Beach is home to a collection of resorts, condos and timeshares, but the Sheraton Maui (808-661-0031, sheraton-maui.com; rooms from $240) is still among the best. Other worthy diversions include snorkeling at famous Black Rock and shopping at nearby Whalers Village.
In the heart of Maui’s “desert” region (as the locals call Wailea) sits the low-key Four Seasons Resort Maui (808-874-8000, fourseasons.com/maui; rooms from $395). With only 370 rooms and suites, the Four Seasons offers vacationers a more intimate feel than Maui’s other mega-resorts. The property’s newest restaurant, DUO, is a poolside eatery where Kobe beef steak entrees, complimentary cotton candy for dessert and sunset views are all menu staples.
A 2008-09 Golf Magazine Premier Resorts Gold Award winner, Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa (808-875-1234, grandwailea.com; rooms from $369) is renowned not only for its spa but for its family-friendly pool complexes (think waterslides, rapids, rope swings and swim-up bars).