Descending on Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s easy to image yourself a member of James T. Kirk’s landing party (hopefully not wearing a red shirt) touching down on an exotic planet. As you drive or hike across the island, the otherworldly fantasy blossoms in the bright red pineapples, pink and yellow plumeria, and mossy green dormant volcanoes. It could be as frightening as it is enthralling, were it not for several centuries of taming, first by missionaries and colonizers, then the tourist industry, which exploded after the Second World War.
On the northwest tip of Maui, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua packages the Hawaiian experience into easily digestible and delicious bites. Across its 54 acres of beachfront property, the resort complex offers little reason to leave it; with a golden sand beach; 10,000-square-foot tri-level swimming pool; an even larger sundeck; two tennis courts, one basketball court, 36 holes of golf, 6 restaurants, and a spa with Hawaiian massage treatments.
Room 2812 (starting at $699 per night) wasn’t too shabby either. Located on the eighth floor of the Napili wing, it presented the usual hotel layout of bathroom off the entry corridor and bed area beyond, but with far lusher amenities including hypo-allergenic feather beds and pillows, flat-screen LG LCD television, and a travertine bathroom stocked with generous quantities of Asprey purple water bathroom products. A spacious balcony overlooks the golf course, which although not with a full view of the ocean, is certainly quieter than the other side of the building, which overlooks the pool area. The myna birds and red-crested cardinals also seem to appreciate it, as they flit from balcony to balcony, hoping for a morsel of food. More often than not, they get it.
Club level does have its advantages at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, mainly all-day access to a private lounge on the eighth floor, which serves meals and snacks during the day, including an excellent continental-buffet breakfast in the morning and damn fine mai tais and other cocktails throughout the day. Considering the cost of the hotel’s restaurants, as well as others nearby, the $100-$200 additional charge for club level is actually a great value.
The centerpiece of the hotel, which the main buildings curve around, is the three-level pool facing the ocean. In May, the energy levels certainly buzz, but don’t overwhelm, as the full range of ages cavort in the water or bronze on the pool deck. It’s a testament to the Ritz’s hospitality ethics that each pool comes equipped with a crane chair for disabled people to enter and exit the water.
A bit more seclusion and wildness can be found down the path at the D.T. Fleming Beach. Set in a cove with gentle green hills to the right and a craggy jut of rock called the “dragon’s teeth” (also worth exploring) to the left. It’s not a beach on a cinematic level, but the softness of the sand and easy rolling waters are a distinct pleasure. If baked and buffeted into a pleasing, non-commuting quiver, golf carts are on hand to taxi you back up the hill to the hotel. However, a walk is recommended, at least one way, to see the large ancient Hawaiian burial mound, which was discovered during the initial phases of construction in 1986, pushing the hotel further up the hill to protect the site.
When staying in any large, self-contained resort like this, it’s a legitimate question for guests as to how authentic the “native” experience is. Happily, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua has an ace card, not just up its sleeve, but slapped down on the table. Clifford Nae’ole, is not just the resort’s Hawaiian cultural adviser, but the much beloved poobah of the island. For 19 years, he’s steadfastly imbued the resort with local culture, from sunrise chants and ablutions on the beach to weekly historical tours.
His efforts culminate each year in the annual Celebration of the Arts, a three-day festival, which pays tribute to the people, art and culture of Hawaii. During the event, now on its 21st year, the Ritz’s common areas, conference rooms, and lecture halls host dozens of cultural events—documentary films, culinary workshops, artists markets, and demonstrations of Hawaiian rituals. The finale is the massive luau, which provides ample example of the Hawaiian love of a good party, complete with hula dancers and live music by bands like the Grammy-nominated Kahulanui swing band. Yes, it’s big, glitzy and probably not entirely how the natives do it, but you’d have to be totally devoid of spirit to not join the fun.
It’s at that point that the Ritz shows its strength. It’s nearly impossible not to have a good time here, especially with just about every experience you could possibly want at your fingertips—excellent food and cocktails at the restaurants, fabulous landscape, spa treatments, and entertainment. If the Hawaii’s off-the-beaten paths are more your pleasure, they are less than 20 minutes away, but I guarantee you’ll be happy to return home to the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua
All photos by Mike Dunphy