Maui not resting on its tourism laurels ...Neither is Bal Harbour, Florida
It's almost always named top island in the world by the big tourist magazines. But Maui isn't letting the attention get to its head.
The Maui tourism folks say the number of Canadian visitors were up 15.2 per cent in the first 11 months of 2011, to nearly 196,000 people. Nice.
Before I go any further on Maui, I should offer a disclaimer. I've been going on a regular basis since I was a little kid, and I absolutely love the place. I love the people. I love the Hawaiian culture. I'm a sucker for Hawaiian music, even when I can't understand the words. I love the beaches. I love the fresh fish. I love the golf. I love the fact you can drive to the top of an enormous volcano and drive through desert-like conditions and two hours later - if not less - be in the middle of a jungle with towering, orange African tulip trees dripping with moisture and the sound of waterfalls outside your car window. You can be at a perfect, tropical beach and, 20 minutes later be "upcountry" in Makawao, eating a Portuguese pastry and walking streets filled with cowboys and stores selling giant belt buckles and rich-looking saddles.
I've always been a bit of a Maui nut, which is probably why the tourism bureau took pity on me and gave me their annual Kalama award last week for helping talk about their culture and way of life. It IS a tremendous culture, that of Hawaii and Maui. There's rich history, with epic battles and fierce kings and kindness to strangers intent on stealing their land. There's a wonderful story-telling tradition that goes back centures. There are hugely colourful people; folks like Grammy-award-winning singer George Kahumoku Jr. and singer-songwriter Cody Pueo Pata.
Cody is a bit of a travelling ambassador for Maui. He started a tourism board meeting in Toronto last week with a deep, booming welcome chant and then sang a song about ice hockey that he'd written especially for the occasion. And that's not something you're likely to hear when the folks from, say, Slovakia or Burma come to town.
Anyway, it was quite something. The information passed along to journalists at the session is far too meaty to fit into a travel blog, but here are some highlights I took away:
The Sea House restaurant at the wonderful Napili Kai Beach Resort (that's it in the photo above left), which is on perhaps the best beach in the world, Napili, was given the award last year for the best breakfasts on the entire island. Not only is the food great all day long, it's perhaps the only restaurant/bar on Maui that fronts directly onto the beach. You can sit at a beachside table and the silky waters of the Pacific are perhaps 20 feet away. Sheer perfection, with great snorkeling, swimming and body-surfing and killer sunsets. Wednesday nights they do a Masters of Slack Key guitar, with folks like the remarkable George Kahumoku on stage for singing and storytelling. Don't miss it.
Ka'anapali Beach not only has great shopping, food and hotels (I love the very Hawaiian Ka'anapali Beach Hotel but the Westin and Hyatt also get great reviews), but they have a number of events that are free or cost less than $25. They do nightly torch-lighting along the beach, and there's also cliff-diving (which I've somehow never seen) and more. At the Hyatt, they'll take you up on the roof for a "couples stargazing" event, complete with chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne. The first-ever Ka'anapali food and wine festival, called Ka'anapali Fresh, will take place around Labour Day weekend this year. The Westin at Ka'anapali has added outrigger canoe rides, which I highly recommend. They also have Hatha Yoga and even belly-dancing lessons for teenagers. And, on Fourth of July, instead of shooting off fireworks they have a helicopter hover overhead and drop 50,000 orchids on the property and the pool area, and how romantic is that?
Down in Wailea, they have an outdoor film festival on the driving range, and they'll be doing a restaurant week in May and November with specially-priced meals. Proceeds will help a local food bank, which is terrific. And they'll have a wine and food festival of their own later this year. They're also big on civil unions for the LGBT crowd down at the Grand Wailea, a fabulous resort with a great pool (see photo at right) that features waterslides and rope swings and incredibly luscious grounds, right on a great stretch of beach. They've beefed up the spa as well and, in honour of their 20th anniversary, have a 20-hands massage treatment that sounds out of this world. Add in the new Amasia restaurant by Alan Wong, reportedly President Obama's favourite chef, and there's lots of reasons to check out Wailea.
Just a minute or two down the road is the lovely Makena resort area, a tad quieter and a little less brash than Wailea. The Makena Beach and Golf Resort has packages with free breakfast, free parking and no resort fees. They do wedding packages and have free bikes you can use. They even have a constellation night with campfires and iPads so you can learn about the stars.
Maui's tourism board also include the neighbouring islands of Moloka'i and Lana'i. Moloka'i has the only fringe reef in the United States, a massive, 28-mile long affair that stretches along a wide part of the island. There are no traffic lights and only a couple resorts on the island, which is a real throwback to a simpler way of life. Definitely worth checking out. It's the site of the famous leper colony where Father Damien did such remarkable work. They're adding new flights to the Kalaupapa peninsula, too, so it'll be easier to get there in the future. It's a stunning piece of greenery that lies alongside massive sea cliffs, with pounding surf and a real South Pacific feel to it.
Over on Lanai, things are a little more fancy. There's a small hotel in the tiny town of Lana'i (the Hotel Lana'i) that's quite charming, but most folks stay at the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele, an English-style getaway nestled in the cooler hillsides and surrounded by towering trees, or at the beachside Four Seasons Manele Bay, where you can dine on incredible Asian cuisine and swim in a quiet bay with a pack of wild dolphins. A simply magical experience. You also can rent UTV (ultimate terrain vehicles) or hike or cycle or go horseback riding or even hunting. And the golf courses at both Four Seasons resorts are among the best on Hawaii.
BAL HARBOUR BOOST
The new St. Regis Bal Harbour resort in Bal Harbour, Fla. is drawing attention to this enclave just north of Miami Beach. The property is a stunner that's right on the beach and right across the street from the glitzy Bal Harbour shops.
The hotel (see photo) features a Jean-Georges restaurant and all 243 rooms feature glass-enclosed balconies with "floor to ceiling panoramic ocean views and the brand's signature white-glove butler service."
The waterfront Bal Harbour Quarzo is a boutique hotel that opened just a year ago, with 29 condo-sized suites with full kitchens. There's also The Sea View Hotel for families or the ONE Bal Harbour Resort and Spa, which opened in 2009.
Top dining options include Makot by Stephen Starr, Mister Collins for oceanfront dining, a caviar and French wine bar called Savarin and the J and G Grill, which is the Jean-Georges restaurant.
They have an expansive cultural program, including fitness classes on the beach, a beach camp for kids and even movies on the beach, featuring the likes of Harry Potter, Casablanca, Indiana Jones and Midnight in Paris.