Hawaii’s northernmost island – Kauai – is trying to establish itself as the state’s best value for golf.
Having already played on three of the state’s other islands, I accepted the challenge to see how Kauai matched up with Oahu, Lanai and the big island of Hawaii. I make a plan to play five top rated courses, and jet over to Lihue Airport.
Arriving there late afternoon, I put golf on hold for the day and check into the exclusive St. Regis Princeville Resort on the north shore, into a junior suite with a jaw-dropping view that spans Hanalei Bay – to the right is where famous surfer Bethany Hamilton met her life-altering fate with a shark. And just to the left is where some of the boat scenes in Gilligan’s Island were filmed. But the mile between me and Hanalei Bay is spectacular, open water. I could lay in my “Heavenly” bed and watch the unimpeded view all day … while listening to the crashing waves … and ordering complimentary French press coffee service from my butler. But as has happened in past visits to Hawaii, there’s something so tranquil about the atmosphere that I’m quickly asleep until morning.
Rested and golf-ready, the first course I play is Makai Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones, Jr. (RTJ) design from 1971 – his first-ever solo project that reopened in 2010 after a $6 million makeover. Originally, the course was flat. While the bones of that initial layout remain, it’s now a wonderful resort-style course with plenty of terrain, large greens, deep bunkers, subtle challenges and a high degree of player friendliness. Many of the greens are so contoured that locals claim any putt longer than 20 feet is likely a double-breaker that can be aimed right at the center of the cup.
The course staff tells us that Golf Digest ranks Makai 80th among the Top 100 U.S. courses you can play, while GOLF Magazine lists it among Hawaii’s 10 best. The course gets 80″ of rain annually, but handles drainage just fine. In fact, the mountain just across the bay is officially the world’s wettest spot with 450″ of rain every year. While there are no snakes on Kauai, there’s plenty of wildlife on the course, including roosters aplenty and baby albatross. The bunker sand was brought over from Vietnam in containers, because it’s lighter, fluffier and whiter than local sand. And much more playable.
Locals can play Makai for as little as $60, but hotel guests need to shell out $175. If you like jaw-dropping ocean views, wonderful golf, great service and fair holes – and who doesn’t — then it’s well worth it. There are several long holes from the tips, but they tend to play downwind more often than not. Shorter holes were designed to play into the usual trade wind. Today, we get Kona winds, moving exactly the opposite.
The front nine embraces the Pacific Ocean, and we see several beachgoers walking the cart paths down to the shore. The downhill, par-3 3rd hole is RTJ’s favorite – its’ bunker shaping mirrors the distant bay. Shortly after, holes number 6, 7 and 8 along the bluff offer amazing panoramas. The back nine is supposed to be easier to score on. I find the opposite to be true. It’s more of a links-style layout that’s longer and more open. But it also has more wind and water in play. On the No. 13 green, you’ll see a lighthouse that’s Hawaii’s northernmost point. Next stop north: Russia. Lakes on the final two holes can be very penal: Good scores until this point can quickly turn for the worst. Don’t play the finishing holes meekly. Intelligent aggression will be rewarded. Without a doubt, players of all skill levels will enjoy this layout. There’s also a nine-hole course on property.
After golf and some time in the hotel’s hot tub that overlooks the bay, I head to dinner at Makana Terrace in the St. Regis. From the sushi to the crab salad to the macadamia nut-crusted mahi-mahi, I’m blown away at how tasty it all is. Yet the chef was saving his very best for last: The chocolate chip macadamia nut tart served with sour cream rum raisin ice cream instantly ranks among the best desserts I’ve ever eaten. And believe me, I’ve eaten more than my share of good desserts. Already, the jaunt to Kauai is worthwhile. And I still have four days left!
My itinerary sets up where I play the renowned Prince Course at Princeville Resort the next day. The Prince Course, ranked by many experts as the best in Hawaii, is profiled in detail in our separate Course Review; click here to read the story.
After the amazing experience that is the Prince Course, it’s time to check into the 600-room, 52-acre deluxe Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. Located along the beach well south of Princeville, it also offers its own salt water pool, lazy river, water slide, hot tubs, and adult and family pools – all seamlessly laid out amidst black lava rocks on multiple levels. This seems like an island oasis for both families and couples. The beds are comfortable and then some, and the hotel even offers free daily scuba lessons.
Dinner at the open-air Tidepools down by the pool area is simply amazing. It’s got to be the ultimate non-luau Hawaii dining experience. My tropical smoothie with a hint of vodka is the ultimate opener to a layout of sumptuous crab cakes, wasabi crusted calamari, and more macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi. For dessert, I devour some molten chocolate cake.
Next morning, I take the three-minute walk over to the 7,123-yard Poipu Bay Golf Course that reopened three years ago, after a 15-month greens renovation. Although Tiger Woods won the annual Grand Slam event here seven of the eight times he competed, Phil Mickelson holds the course record 59 at this RTJ design. Green fees range from $95 to $170. The course is wide open, playable for all skill levels, and generally forgiving. There are plenty of subtle contours on the greens, which roll fast, true and predictably. The back nine veers toward the Pacific, and then along it by Hole 14. In fact,
I find the last five holes to be among the best collective group of finishing holes I’ve played anywhere. The 225-yard downhill par-3 17th, which for us played into the wind, is a masterpiece. Then the 18th challenges you with a greenside lake. You truly never want the round to end. This course is on the receiving end of 36″ of rainfall every year. The sand is local, but packed much tighter than at The Prince, which makes it easier to negotiate. As my playing partner noted, this course would fit seamlessly into the Wailea Golf complex on Maui – one of my favorite golf destinations — due to the impeccable layout, scenery, level of challenges, and overall feel. It’s simply an awesome resort-style course that’s neither too easy nor difficult. Just fun with a very friendly staff.
After golf, I beeline to the Anara Spa inside the Grand Hyatt for the Lomi Lomi massage. It’s a perfect antidote to a third straight day of golf. My masseuse Connie’s magical hands reenergize my aching back, so that I can tackle my final two rounds for the week.
Dinner at the award-winning Beach House Restaurant afterwards is about a 10-minute ride away. The seafood corn chowder, Caesar salad, panko-crusted calamari, lemongrass and kaffir lime crusted scallops, and some bananas foster with mango sorbet were all delicious. The ambiance of the establishment led to it being rated among America’s 50 most-romantic restaurants for 2013. It’s no wonder: Located right on the beach, it sports a huge glass wall along one entire side to enjoy the view. Tiki torches light up the shore at night, while patio diners feel the ocean breeze.
The next day I jaunt to Puakea Golf Course, which opened to the public in 1997 as a 10-hole, par-41 course. In 1992, during the original course construction, a hurricane hit the island. Only 10 of the holes were salvageable, so that’s how it opened. Then in 2003, the final eight holes were added during a renovation. This unassuming Robin Nelson design is a find that GOLF Magazine readers ranked the 14th best course in Hawaii. Green fees top out at just $99 for tourists, but you can play for even less. Up front, I’m warned that the trailer clubhouse and the first hole that plays toward Costco collectively make you wonder why you’re even here. But, the course quickly turns both beautiful and interesting, throwing plenty of rolling doglegs and elevation changes your way. There are no oceanfront holes nor lava rocks, but this gem has gorgeous Pacific vistas and a really solid design. Pay attention and you should score well, whatever your handicap. Its signature hole, the par-3 6th, is downhill and scenic, with the set of Jurassic Park as the backdrop. While the newer eight holes have a different feel — the trees are less mature – the layout and challenge are consistent. It’s not the fancy resort golf experience, but it is quite the find. In fact, this course would be ranked among the must-plays anywhere and our group thoroughly enjoyed it. Get here early for the breakfast at Ho’okipa Cafe. It’s reasonable, oversized and fantastic.
That night, I check into the 345-room, 10-story Kauai Marriott Resort. A great family destination, it sits in the middle of a little town, in view of the cruise ship dock and five minutes from the Kauai airport. A Las Vegas-style pool – oversized with a middle island, fountains, and bars abundant – is simply spectacular. The rooms are spacious and nicely appointed. There are restaurants and a sports bar on property, and there’s plenty to walk to. Of course, the beach is right there, as is the Jack Nicklaus-designed Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, the original home offer PGA Tour’s Grand Slam event.
Green fees range from $95 to $205. The day I play it’s windy. More so than usual by the back nine, I’m told. As in a three-club gust, at times. Although there are 27 holes here, we play the Kiele Mauka and Kiele Moana nines. The front nine rolls smoothly. There are some really scenic holes. That’s one thing about Kauai courses — the scenery is so amazing everywhere that it’s very easy to get visually distracted and lose focus of your golf game. Frankly, I expected some more beast-like holes from Nicklaus on the first nine and was more than pleasantly surprised that it was a very player-friendly layout. Hmm, what’s lurking on the second nine, I wonder. Then we play the par-5 1st hole (second nine holes are also numbered 1-9) into a strong headwind, and it’s a four-shot reach just to get there. Within a few holes, we’re staring at the Pacific from the front row. Hawaii’s longest stretch of contiguous ocean holes – a half-mile’s worth, spanning four holes on the back nine – quickly elevates my until-now decent score. The knockout punch occurs on the downhill par-3 5th that flanks the water. Let’s just say the Pacific now officially has more golf balls in it than my stand bag. This course has been ranked among America’s top 70 and Hawaii’s top 4, and it’s certainly up there for me, too – for its sheer combination of beauty, challenge, layout and flat-out fun factor.
It’s time to take the red-eye home. A rarity, I sleep almost the entire way back to Southern California. You can find non-stop service to Kauai from both LAX (United, US Air, American, Delta and Alaska) and San Diego (Alaska). Non-stops are a lot easier and more time-saving than changing planes at the very confusing Honolulu airport. And in many cases, the price is no different.
So is this Hawaii’s best golf value? The green fees do seem relatively more reasonable than on some of the neighboring islands. And the golf experience is outstanding, as it is throughout the state. My suggestion: Take the time to play golf on all of Hawaii’s islands. Then you’ll be able to decide for yourself.