Diverse distinction at Hawaii's five-star hotels

By Shane Nelson
Kahala Hotel Dolphin LagoonLoaded with terrific five-star hotels, the Hawaiian Islands offer affluent travelers a diverse collection of luxury properties, each influenced considerably by the charm and distinctive personality of their respective locations. In recent years, I've been saddled with the enviable task of covering many of these lavish resorts -- often after a night or two in one of their opulent guestrooms. The following are some of my favorites on the state's four major visitor islands.

Oahu Oasis: The Kahala Hotel & Resort

The bright lights, busy sidewalks and bustling beaches of Waikiki appeal to many different travelers, generating a thrilling urban energy fused with the destination's great shopping, first-rate restaurants and range of tempting nightlife.

But for those interested in only occasionally sampling that rowdy Waikiki vibe and then escaping to a nearby and far more iconic Hawaii atmosphere, the Kahala Hotel & Resort is a wonderful alternative.

"I love Waikiki," said Roseann Grippo, the Kahala's general manager. "I love to go shopping there. I love to dine there, and as a matter of fact, I live there, but one of the things that we boast here at our hotel is almost a sense of a private island. We are an outer island experience within Oahu."

Just a 15-minute drive from Waikiki, the hotel is nestled between a stunning white-sand beach and the Waialae Country Club golf course, rising above one of Honolulu's most affluent, residential neighborhoods as a lone multistory tower in a patchwork of multi-million-dollar homes.

Susan Tanzman, president of Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel and Tours, first stayed at the hotel back in 1964, shortly after its grand opening, and has been a big fan since, visiting again on her honeymoon and frequently thereafter with her kids.

"You find that authentic culture and the real feeling of Oahu at the Kahala," she said. "They really know what the word aloha means, and it truly is the friendship, the warmth of the culture, that sets it apart from a lot of other hotels."

Tanzman said she books a lot of young honeymooners at the property but also regularly recommends the Kahala to families because of the top-notch children's program and the protected beach.

"I love the beach at the Kahala because of the protective reef about a half a mile out," she explained. "So there are no waves that come in, and for small children you don't have to worry about them being knocked over."

Mauna Kea Beach HotelHome to Hoku's, an extremely popular high-end restaurant among Oahu residents, the property's Plumeria Beach House buffet also boasts some delectable dishes.

"I tell all my clients, 'You have to eat their delicate thin maple pancakes,'" Tanzman said. "They're almost like a crepe, with this maple butter sauce, and they are absolutely to die for."

Guests won't want to miss the hotel's extraordinary wall of fame, made up of dozens of photos of celebrities and dignitaries who've stayed at the property over the past 50 years, including Elton John, a returning regular, and others like George Clooney, Michael Jackson and even Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

And according to Grippo, the presidential suite has housed every president since Lyndon Johnson.

Supreme Beach: The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

As the most recently formed Hawaiian Island, it's true the Big Island would finish last in a statewide ranking of the sandiest shorelines, largely because its beaches just haven't had time yet to form.

Even so, one of my favorite beaches in the entire state can be found on the Big Island's Kohala Coast at Kaunaoa Bay, fronting the gorgeous Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

"I've often tried to determine what it is about the Mauna Kea that brings people back, and I still think it's the beach," said Jon Gersonde, vice president of operations at the Mauna Kea Resort. "It's the tranquility of the setting and just the magic of sitting on that beach."

It was, in fact, a swim at the Kaunaoa Bay beach that inspired Laurance Rockefeller, a noted conservationist and venture capitalist, to build and open the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in 1965. At the time, the $15 million property was the most expensive hotel project ever developed.

The crescent-shaped stretch of powdery sand is still an extraordinary spot to launch a snorkeling expedition, and during my last visit the clarity of the water and vibrant colors of the healthy reef, plentiful fish and other sea creatures, all just 20 yards or so from shore, were spectacular.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel room"Guests love to snorkel just off the beach," Gersonde said. "And we have a huge paddleboard following now. We rent them right at the beach, and the bay tends to be very flat, so it's a great place for a beginner to learn how."

Following structural damage suffered during a Big Island earthquake, a major renovation was completed at the Mauna Kea in 2008, during which guestrooms were dramatically expanded by reducing the room count in many sections from three to two. Today those accommodations feature huge bathrooms, complete with his-and-her sinks, separate bathtubs and showers and their own private lanais.

Les Burger, president of Ladera Travel in Menlo Park, Calif., said many of his clients, who regularly return year after year to the property, loved the upgrades but were especially pleased that the project didn't alter the hotel's long-established appeal.

"The Mauna Kea is a lot like the insurance business, where you have an annuity, because people who actually go just love to go back," he said. "And I think it's the fact that the hotel is large enough to have all the amenities you want in a first-class property yet small enough to still feel warm and personalized."

Connecting Through Culture: The Fairmont Kea Lani

One of my favorite moments on Maui took place a couple years ago during a canoe excursion right in front of the Fairmont Kea Lani. A complimentary offering for guests at the property, the activity offers participants a chance to paddle away from Wailea's Polo beach, with help from a pair of hotel guides in a modern replica of a traditional Hawaiian canoe, while listening to all sorts of terrific cultural and historical stories linked to the region and its marine life.

Fairmont Kea LaniIt was the peak of whale season when I joined the Kea Lani canoe tour, and after seeing a pair of not-too-distant humpback spouts and flukes, the guides encouraged me to slip overboard and dive down a bit to listen for the whales singing.

Those songs are something I'll never forget, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Kea Lani's cultural programs, including activities like the canoe excursion, a cultural property tour and Hawaiian language lessons, are some of the most sought-after in the state.

"To be honest, some of them have become so popular that when people are planning their vacation and booking a stay with us, they should also be planning their participation in these activities," said Charles Head, the Kea Lani's general manager, noting agents should reserve spots early because the hotel limits participants to increase the intimacy of each experience.

"The feedback has just been great, and we also have lots of kids joining the activities," he added. "But they've become so popular we can't always meet all the demand."

The all-suite property also features 413 one-bedroom guestrooms boasting 860 square feet of living space.

"What clients pay for a suite at the Kea Lani, vs. a nice room at another five-star hotel, is comparable, but then you have so much more space to spread out," explained Mickey Weill, the vice president of sales development for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Protravel International.

"And our clients really appreciate the property's casual elegance," he continued. "It's a five-star property, but it's a lot more casual than certain other five-star hotels. People really like that it's not a stuffy place."

Another attractive option is the Kea Lani's 37 two- and three-bedroom villas, which are just a "stone's throw or a seven-iron from the ocean," according to Head. Offering all the amenities of the luxury hotel, including twice-daily maid service and 24-hour in-room dining, they also have gourmet kitchens, barbecues and even laundry facilities.

St Regis Princeville Kauai poolThey're also well-liked by some familiar Hollywood stars, although Head declined to name names.

"But I will say if people are going to stay at a villa, there's a distinct possibility they might recognize their neighbor," he said.

Room With a View: The St. Regis Princeville

The view of Hanalei Bay, along with the plentiful waterfalls and the verdant angles of Kauai's Na Molokama mountains looming beyond the windows of the St. Regis Princeville resort, is no doubt one of Hawaii's most magnificent.

But ask the hotel's general manager, Milton Sgarbi, about the remarkable location, and he'll tell you pictures don't do it justice.

"This is a place you really have to experience in person," he insisted. "Sometimes with pictures taken at other locations, you get there, and it's not quite as nice as the photo, and there's obviously been some Photoshop help. Here … no matter how much you Photoshop, you'll never do justice to the reality of this place."

I found myself sharing those sentiments while watching the recent George Clooney film "The Descendents," which features several scenes shot at the St. Regis Princeville. Even Hollywood had trouble capturing the sprawling scale of Kauai's beauty.

"It's one of the most beautiful views in the world," Sgarbi said. "And the St. Regis Princeville just has one of the best addresses in the world."

The grandeur and natural beauty of Kauai's North Shore is one of the destination's strongest selling points, according to Jessica Griscavage, a leisure travel consultant for McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va., and the St. Regis' location, surrounded by that splendor, has made it a favorite for many of her clients.

"I've never had a client who hasn't absolutely adored the hotel," she said. "It's a resort that pleases so many of our clients on so many levels."

Griscavage sends a lot of honeymooners and couples in search of romance to the property but regularly books families there, as well.

"I like the children's program at the St. Regis because they really focus on not only nature and wildlife but also on local Hawaiian history and culture," she said.

Sgarbi was also quick to point out the property's growing role as a backdrop for momentous celebrations.

"Just about every guest is celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, a promotion, a graduation," he said. "Obviously that raises our responsibility, because how many 50th birthdays, for example, does one have in life? [But] we thrive in this kind of pressure."

Another high-end draw at the hotel is the St. Regis signature butlers, who offer guests a range of services like unpacking and packing luggage, ironing articles of clothing and even serving in-room morning coffee.

"They can also offer suggestions throughout your entire stay," Sgarbi said. "There are some areas on Kauai, for example, that are more beautiful in the summers and others that are amazing in the winter, and our butlers know all of that."
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