NAPILI BAY, MAUI - Arguably the best beach in North America. A fabulous, small hotel founded by Canadians. A terrific restaurant with awesome ocean, neighbour island and sunset views. Lush grounds filled with manicured lawns and tropical flowers of every colour. And a weekly show that brings together the funniest and most talented musicians in Hawaii.
Yeah, it must be hard to market yourself when you’re the Napili Kai Beach Resort here on Maui.
I’ve stayed in a lot of fancy places around the world, but there’s no hotel I’d rather come to than this one. Mind you, I first came to this beach with my family in 1968 so there’s a lot of emotional history with Napili Beach and the Napili Kai, the site of many a wonderful family dinner over the years, including my Mom and Dad's 50th wedding anniversary bash. Still, I’d put up an argument that this beach and this hotel offers up the perfect balance of style and sophistication underpinned by warm, Hawaiian hospitality.
Unlike most parts of Hawaii in general and Maui in particular, all the condos/hotels on this perfect, crescent beach are two-storeys high. No massive buildings to block out the views.
The Napili Kai stretches along a lovely point that separates Napili Beach from the equally lovely but smaller Kapalua Beach, another one that’s often named in magazines as Hawaii’s best. I prefer Napili because it’s a little bigger and makes for a nicer walk. They both have gentle north sections protected by points of land, but Napili has better surfing and body surfing, mostly down at the south end that is more open to the Pacific swells.
Both have terrific snorkeling, with a nice if not award-winning array of brightly coloured fish and lumbering sea turtles.
The only drawback to the Napili area is that, because it’s so far to the north and west on the west Maui coast, it’s not as well protected by the west Maui mountains. That means it gets more cloud cover and occasional showers than, say, Ka'anapali or Lahaina. This week I played golf at Kapalua, a fabulous course right next door to the Napili Kai. It was cloudy and windy, although pleasant for golf. Down in Lahaina, however, there was hardly a breeze to be found and it was clear and hot.
(Kapalua’s Plantation course is where the PGA Tour players tee off in the season-opening tournament each January. I opted to stick to the more familiar and more scenic Bay Course, which has a couple holes right on the Pacific. It’s fairly wide open on the fairways and most greens are large, but they have waves and undulations and swales that make putting a rather frustrating adventure at times, at least yesterday. I don’t remember them being like that but this week the pins were in crazy positions. And in a strong wind and it made for a challenging but fun day.)
One of the great features here is the food. The Sea House restaurant at Napili Kai is one of the few Hawaiian spots that’s right on the beach. Dinners are in the $30 range but the early bird special includes salad and dessert, plus get rice and veggies. You can have your fish served four ways, including the always popular macadamia nut crust. Yum.
Even better? From 2 to 5:30 p.m. the Sea House packs ‘em in with cheap appetizers or puupuu’s. Mostly $5 to $6, the selection includes ribs, kalua pork tacos (incredible), calamari, mahi and crab cakes with corn and peppers, ravioli and more. Local and imported beers are $4.50 to $5 and you get awesome views of Napili Beach.
The Sea House breakfast has been named the best on Maui in some years. It’s understandable given the view and the diversity and breadth of the menu. You can try a Kenui omelet with Portuguese sausage, pineapple and Swiss cheese, or a Thai omelet with crab, Maui onions, mixed cheese and sweet Thai chili. They also have chocolate and macadamia nut pancakes, pineapple sausage, sweet potato eggs frittata and more.
For eight years the Napili Kai has been staging a weekly slack key guitar show at their 275-seat pavilion. Each Wednesday at 7:30, George Kahumoku Jr., winner of four Grammy awards, is emcee and plays a few tunes and tells some stories. I don’t know how true they are but he’s a sheer delight and a Hawaiian treasure.
One of his regular stories is how he once was earning ten cents for every car he washed in Honolulu as a boy. As it happened, he was working next to a strip club and someone from the club heard he could play guitar.
“I played a song and made $27.10 from the stevedores at the club,” Kahumoku said. “I decided to learn another song.”
He then brings along any of a number of fabulous Hawaiian musicians. This week he had the wonderful Da Ukelele Boyz – a fixture at these gatherings – and also featured legendary slack key guitar player and singer Ledward Ka’apana.
The slack key guitar is a regular guitar but the Hawaiians loosen or slacken the strings for a fun and funky sound. The bass line is played with the thumb and the fingers pluck out the rhythm or even a lead. It sounds like two or three instruments rolled into one, and it’s a magical sound in the hands of folks like Kahomoku and Ka’apana, who put on a virtuoso performance on Wednesday of this week. He’s also got a great, mellifluous voice and can do a terrific Hawaiian falsetto.
Right next to the Napili Kai but further out the point between Napili Beach and Kapalua Beach is the hugely successful Merriman’s Kapalua restaurant, where they serve inventive cuisine in a stunning setting. I didn’t eat there this week but I have in the past and it’s always amazing.
They also have a great outdoor patio out on the point and serve exotic or classic drinks. There’s even a fire pit at night, and sitting out this week watching the moon light up the Pacific while being warmed by a fire was a pretty good way to end the night.