Defying the odds in Maui

The view from the 18th tee at Wailea's Emerald Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.


And they said I couldn’t play golf on my family vacation, as I’m the family’s only golfer. But I just can’t go to Hawaii and not squeeze in a few rounds, right?

So I got  organized to make golf as non-evasive as possible. Once we had our hotels in order – three of them in six nights, don’t ask – I arranged golf rounds for morning, so I wouldn’t really miss family activities. And early rounds play faster, anyway. A win-win. Also, because schlepping luggage for four people was already enough work without the golf travel bag, I’d opt to play rental clubs. Now I was set to enjoy the Aloha State.

Boarding our Hawaiian Airlines flight, we’re instantly relaxed by the ukulele music piped through the plane’s speakers. And this might be the last U.S. airline that still serves free meals in coach on domestic flights!

Arriving in Maui, we drive to the Wailea area and check in at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel. It’s what you picture when you think of a luxury tropical hotel, right down to the indoor/outdoor check-in desk and the fact that every employee there instantly knows our name. Pure class. Our room turns out to be an upgraded 1,800-square-foot, two-story, two-bedroom villa with a private pool and jaw-dropping ocean views. There’s a full kitchen, living room, and even a laundry room. I suspect there’s a butler’s quarters, too, but I never did find it. And of course, the place is fully stocked with every essential we’d ever need.

Next morning we head to the Kea Lani restaurant by the pool for a buffet breakfast. The food and choices are outstanding, especially for picky eaters like our kids. After the children decide which pool they’re going to spend the morning at, I head right across the street to the Wailea Old Blue Golf Club.

It’s supposed to be the easiest of Wailea’s three layouts. The Gold is ranked most challenging, followed by the Emerald. The first thing I notice about the 6,765-yard Old Blue is that it has a lot of really nice houses and condos all around it. The winds pick up as the day goes on (if you don’t like wind, you’re better off playing in the morning on Maui). The people here are very friendly, as is the layout. In fact, I quickly see that if your game is rusty, this is a great first course to play once you land on Maui. It’s a typical resort style course, meaning it’s fairly easy, very forgiving, has large greens that roll true, is in terrific condition, and it’s fun to play. In other words, they really want you to score well and enjoy the place. That said, the course can also be very challenging and catch you off-guard. There are plenty of sand traps around – most of them located by the greens. But they’re easy to get out of. And as the locals explain to me, all putts break towards the ocean and move faster in that direction – despite how they might appear. There are plenty of optical illusions on this course’s greens. The front nine is full of nice undulation along the fairways and greens. You’ll find some uphill tee shots, mesmerizing ocean views, downhill angles, and all of them are affected by the breezes. Wind’s an even larger factor on the back nine, where there are more tree-lined fairways that seem wider to me. The large greens have plenty of undulation, so many putts look as if they’re downhill but are actually going uphill into the distant mountains. Overall, while this my be an easier course, it presents plenty of hazards that can make it penal. But if you want to play a course in Hawaii with incredible Pacific views from nearly every hole, this is a must. There’s also wildlife wandering the course. Even the cart paths between the holes are beautifully landscaped. Best of all, the round plays in less than two-and-a-half hours for 18 holes. And I was taking my time to enjoy the surroundings. An absolute pleasure.

That night we eat at the newly remodeled and open-air Ko Restaurant, located on the hotel terrace overlooking the property and ocean. It’s a very relaxing and child-friendly atmosphere. I opt for the paella, which turns out to be so good that I don’t know if I can ever order it again at my favorite place back home. Ko’s version is superior and all ingredients are local, fresh and succulent. There’s even lobster in it. My wife and kids devour their meals, too. After we split a chocolate cake dessert, it’s time for bed.

The next day I get up early for golf, knowing that my family is partaking in the hotel’s Outrigger Canoe service at the beach. While they’re canoeing and swimming among giant turtles, I’m enjoying Wailea’s 6,825-yard Emerald Course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.

As promised, this course was slightly more challenging than Old Blue, but very enjoyable. The fairways seemed narrower, the greens were large, and the pace of play nice and breezy. The round took less than three hours to finish, even though I was paired with a nice couple. Maybe I was mesmerized by the fact that you can see the ocean from every hole, but many shots seemed to play longer than they appeared. Could’ve been having to adapt to the rental clubs, too. Regardless, I scored well. I love putting the ball whenever possible instead of chipping, and on the Emerald, I could putt from everywhere because the grass was cut nice and tight and played as smooth as anyplace I’ve been. Palm trees frame some of the holes, and I found the bunker sand to be even softer than Old Blue’s, which is saying something. Very easy to hit from and very predictable. And like Old Blue, this course had greens that held shots very well, so I didn’t need to worry about shots bouncing and rolling through the greens. Only to enhance a great experience, the colorful flowers and foliage on this course were very enchanting. No wonder Hawaiians are so relaxed.

After golf, I hook up with my family for breakfast and take the kids to the beach for some body surfing. Did I mention that our room is just steps from the beach?

We regretfully pack up and check out. But adventure awaits. We make the hour drive north to Lahaina, return the Budget rental car, then take the Expeditions Ferry to Lana’i. It’s a 45-minute boat ride and gets choppy at times, but nothing too uncomfortable. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and clean.

We check into the luxurious Four Seasons at Manele Bay, roughly a three-minute shuttle ride from the dock. After quick showers, we’re off to dinner at Fresco’s, a casual Italian eatery by the hotel pool. Underneath the flaming tiki torches, we’re served amazing food. The kids devour pizza and minestrone soup while my wife and I agree to split the roasted chicken and mahi mahi, the latter of which is served over lobster mashed potatoes. One word: Wow. And to think we were remiss at not ordering the lasagna and rigatoni. You simply cannot miss, whatever you order here. Afterwards, we shoot a family game of billiards up in one of the lounges.

Next morning, I set out to play some golf at the hotel’s The Challenge at Manele Bay. This is a 7,039-yard Jack Nicklaus “Signature” course that’s so beautiful, Bill Gates held his wedding at the 12th green. I have the first tee time of the day and play alone, so I know it’ll go by fast. Never having played here before, I rely on the golf cart’s touch screen as my hole guide. The course meanders up and down along a cliff well above the crashing waves. There are canyons to carry, greens with several terraces and levels to them, uphill and downhill shots, and severe doglegs. You never really know what lies ahead for your ball, even when you can clearly see your target. The ball sometimes bounces in a direction I didn’t anticipate — which was both charming and frustrating at the same time. Some of the ocean vistas are simply spectacular. There are points I feel as if I’m standing on the edge of America — looking out at the Pacific, I see nothing but water. No other islands. No boats. Nothing. The course is in magnificent condition and I feel dumb because I pompously assumed I could play the tips. In retrospect, I would have been better off moving up a tee box. But that honestly didn’t lessen my appreciation for this masterpiece. After I putt out for a par on 18, I drive back to the clubhouse where the starter greets me with “Wow, Mr. Kramer. Did you realize you just played the entire course in one hour and 58 minutes?” I admitted to him that I actually played two balls on most holes, as I was enjoying it so much.

The balance of the weekend is spent hanging out at the hotel’s private beach, sipping tropical cocktails, exploring the island, and relaxing with the family. There’s not much to do on Lana’i and that’s frankly the point of what makes it such a wonderful getaway. The kids never complained about getting bored – the youngest spent some time in the hotel’s attentive children’s program and made some new friends, while our oldest played at the beach and pool, enjoyed miniature golf, and read books.

We catch the ferry back to Maui after two days. After a visit to the acclaimed Maui Ocean Center aquarium, we return to the Wailea area and check into the Makena Beach & Golf Resort, nabbing an ocean-view room. Then we head to Monkeypod Kitchen for some dinner. This is a popular, relatively new restaurant at the entranceway of Wailea. It has a great, lively vibe and is jam-packed with families. From the vast menu, we order and share steak, fish, pizza and a cheeseburger – all excellent – and then split the restaurant’s trademark banana cream pie drizzled in caramel sauce and peanut-chocolate cream pie. Awesome food and service!

I’ve decided by mid-next morning that going back home to play golf will never be the same again. That’s because as I’m finishing my round at Makena Beach & Golf Resort, I will sorely miss ocean views on every hole of golf. This is a phenomenal 6,914-yard Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design that’s fairly difficult, especially if you’ve never played it before. Every hole sports ocean views. Better than that, I feel that you can always tell a solid course by when you stand on the green, look back at the tee and see well-framed holes. In this case, every hole looks superb in both directions. It certainly isn’t the easy, fun golf resort course like Wailea’s Old Blue. This one makes you think more. There are plenty of bunkers in play on pretty much every hole, the fairways are little bit narrow and the trees are mature. The staff here prides itself on being over-the-top friendly and helpful. And that is the case, replete with providing guests cold towels after the round, helpful cart girls, and a well-manicured course. It would be great to play this course later during your trip through Wailea, as the area’s other courses set you up and ease you into thinking golf while you’re still in vacation mode. These greens while generous are not as enormous as Old Blue’s and the Emerald’s. Yet they all roll perfectly true, smooth and fairly. Warning: You will hit traps off the tee if you’re not completely familiar with the course. I don’t care which tees you hit from, there are going to be traps in play. In fact, each different set of tee boxes offers a completely different playing experience. Aside from the distances which are obviously different, the angles of your tee shot, the elevations, and the direction to the hole can be completely different. A really nice, good course that I highly recommend. And in my fast-play spirit, I’m done in two hours and 20 minutes. My youngest child came along to ride in the cart. Her first golf experience on a full-length course and she loved it. Perhaps I’ll have a golf partner on our next trip?

It’s our last night in Hawaii, so we opt for the Stargazers Dinner at the hotel’s Molikini Bar & Grille: Salad followed by small portions of steak, mahi mahi and fried chicken. Best of all, it comes with a s’mores kit that we take down to a courtyard on the lawn where an astronomer guides diners across the sky – fire-pit-side – via a large telescope, laser pointer and loads of interesting facts.

We leave paradise to head back home the next morning. Aside from completing a great vacation that everyone’s thoroughly enjoyed – I admit I took the kids one day to give my wife some “me” time – I successfully pulled off four rounds of golf while hardly making a dent in the togetherness of a perfect family vacation.

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