Neighbor Island vibe intact after upgrades to Ko Olina resorts

By Shane Nelson
InsightTwo of west Oahu’s marquee hotel properties have now completed significant renovation projects in 2013, enhancing Ko Olina’s appeal as an alternative to busy Waikiki.

The 21-acre, oceanfront Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, officially opened its Ka Maka Landing expansion last week, unveiling a sprawling new infinity pool and grotto feature along with an energetic splash zone for toddlers and a new “fresh food fast” dining option.

ShaneNelsonAccording to Elliot Mills, Aulani’s vice president and general manager, the improvements were developed thanks to a better understanding of how guests were using the resort, which first opened in 2011, and recognizing they wanted more water-related fun and room for poolside relaxation.

“It’s a brand new resort, the first stand-alone resort for Disney, and we had to learn and evolve with what our guests wanted,” he said. “So we just listened to them, understood what they wanted and tried to meet their expectations, and it’s working out fantastic so far.”

Earlier this year, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa at Ko Olina, located immediately north of the Aulani, completed a $30 million “top-to-bottom” renovation, overhauling each of the property’s 387 rooms, redesigning the 35,000-square-foot Ihilani Spa while also refurbishing all its public areas and resort pools.

Longtime home for NFL all-stars during the league’s Pro Bowl week, the high-end JW Marriott Ihilani opened in 1993 and has seen the master-planned Ko Olina Resort grow a great deal over the past two decades.

With occupancies soaring in Waikiki in recent years, thanks in part to a range of large-scale resort and retail space renovations, properties like Aulani and the JW Marriott Ihilani offer Oahu travelers a distinctive contrast, featuring a far more relaxed and less frenzied atmosphere.

“We’re more like Wailea, on Maui,” Mills said of the Ko Olina Resort, adding that, depending on traffic, it’s generally not much more than a 35-minute drive to Waikiki. “We’re close to entertainment, but we’re not in the middle of that urban core, [and] I think we really look and feel like a Neighbor Island resort.”

First-time visitors should certainly spend time in Waikiki and explore Hawaii’s most popular tourism destination, but spending a few nights on Oahu’s west coast, as well, soaking up the often missed serenity of Ko Olina, is a terrific way to round out a stay.
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