Four Seasons Oahu: Experiential elegance

The exterior of the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, which had been the JW Marriott Ihilani before a 20-month, $500 million renovation.
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Floating facedown over a sprawling patch of coral, I watched the snorkeler beneath me disappear into a void in the reef. Several seconds passed as I hovered there on the ocean's surface, but just as I began to worry, the free diver emerged a number of yards away, rising through another opening in the coral and climbing toward the sunlight to poke his head into the fresh air.



"You should try," he said to me above the water with a smile. "Take a look."

Fifty yards or so from shore, I was bobbing next to an outrigger canoe with Dayne Van Gieson, an activities attendant working with the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. A former lifeguard for the city and county of Honolulu, Van Gieson grew up not far from the hotel on Oahu's west coast and has been paddling canoes in the region's waters since he was a small boy.

On this occasion, we'd taken a break from our canoe excursion to explore a collection of underwater voids in the reef. According to Van Gieson, the openings, created in part by freshwater seeping into the ocean from west Oahu's mountains, are a favorite haunt for sharks.

"The caves, especially those sandy bottoms, that's typically where the sharks like to reside and hang out to rest," he said later. "The coolest thing about this area is that some of the cracks last so long that the sharks can traverse the bottom without being seen."

A luxury cabana at the Four Seasons Oahu, which has amenities such as optional butler service.
A luxury cabana at the Four Seasons Oahu, which has amenities such as optional butler service.

We didn't spot any of the ocean predators during our examination, but when I finally peeked into one of the voids, struggling with the pressure of snorkeling nearly 15 feet below the surface, it was hard not to admire the many shades of blue created by sunlight filtering through the reef. I don't mind admitting, however, that I didn't have the courage or breath to swim through the cave like Van Gieson. 

"When the skylights illuminate the bottom, it glistens off the white sand and creates kind of a unique feeling," he said of swimming through the voids. "You definitely feel that sense of serenity in there when it's calm.

"Until maybe you get this big shark poking up behind your head," he added with a laugh. "Then it gets a little sketchy."

Offering opportunities such as my canoe and snorkeling experience with Van Gieson, where guests have a chance to genuinely connect with employees who were raised on the island's west coast, is an important focus for Sanjiv Hulugalle, general manager at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu, which celebrated its grand opening July 4.

The resort’s adults-only pool, one of three swim areas at the resort.
The resort’s adults-only pool, one of three swim areas at the resort.

'Emotional experience'

"The days of luxury hospitality are changing," he said. "It's really trying to create a resort which has guestrooms and standard amenities but also creating a special emotional experience which allows guests to truly believe they are a part of the destination and a part of a sense of place."

Developers spent 20 months and $500 million renovating and rebranding the former JW Marriott Ihilani into Oahu's first Four Seasons, which contains 371 rooms, including 55 suites, and five restaurants. Work also included the upgraded, 35,000- square-foot Naupaka Spa and Wellness Center with 17 treatment rooms indoors and three lovely outdoor options.

One of the open-air treatment rooms in the 35,000-square-foot Naupaka Spa and Wellness Center at the Four Seasons Oahu.
One of the open-air treatment rooms in the 35,000-square-foot Naupaka Spa and Wellness Center at the Four Seasons Oahu.

Guests at the property can take advantage of three pools, as well, including a family-focused option and a spacious, adults-only facility, which features a large infinity pool and an impressive collection of luxury cabanas.

"You have your own lounges, and you have your own TV," Hulugalle said of the cabanas. "You can have your own massage in there. You can have Champagne. You've got your own icebox and cooler. You also have your own butler available."

The property's renovation impressed Jack Richards, the president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, who made his first overnight stay at the Four Seasons Oahu in September.

"I thought it was very peaceful," he said. "It's a very elegant resort. You feel very comfortable. The food and beverage was good, the room quality was good and the staff service was excellent."

The Fish House is one of five new restaurants at the Four Seasons Oahu.
The Fish House is one of five new restaurants at the Four Seasons Oahu.

The property's guestroom enhancements and design stood out for Richards, who told me he was a fan of the 65-inch HD TVs.

"The room product to me was dramatically improved," he said. "They're also using iPad minis for a lot of things in the room, like setting alarms, the lights. Very, very cool stuff."

According to Hulugalle, the Four Seasons Oahu, which sits next door to Disney's Aulani resort, has been welcoming about a 50/50 split of couples vs. families traveling with kids thus far, and he added that "business has been phenomenal," noting that the hotel was 100% full the weekend right before our interview.

Richards, meanwhile, thought the Four Seasons would really appeal to the couples market, though he did say parents traveling with older children could be a good fit.

"We're going to market it as a honeymoon destination and an anniversary, weddings option," Richards said. "We see it as a romantic getaway."

The hotel's opening has played a role in drawing more of Pleasant's luxury business to Oahu, Richards said, explaining that a Four Seasons option combined with the new Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach have bolstered high-end vacation interest for the island.

An oceanview guestroom.
An oceanview guestroom.

"Maui was the dominant luxury island for us, but we are seeing a shift to Oahu with these two resorts coming in," he said. "And now people can choose between the Four Seasons, the Halekulani, the Ritz [and] the Kahala, so there are some very high-scale, five-star options that were not available before, [and] it gets new people to come, but it also appeals to repeat visitors."

Oceanview rooms at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina start at $825 a night. Visit www.fourseasons.com/oahu.

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