Shoulder-deep in an oceanfront plunge pool, I watched lightning brighten a towering mass of nighttime clouds along the Maui coastline. Thunderstorms are unusual in Hawaii, but when they do spring up, the best place to enjoy the show is always near the ocean after dark, where lightning often colors both the nighttime sky and the sea with fleeting bursts of electric blue and violet.
The walled, private lanai of my two-bedroom, two-story oceanfront villa at the Fairmont Kea Lani provided a terrific spot to take in the late August light show, and with all the humidity in the air, I couldn't resist a dip in the surprisingly ample plunge pool.
Featuring full gourmet kitchens, en suite laundry facilities and even their own barbecue grills, the oceanfront villas at the 22-acre property help set the luxury resort apart from its stiff south Maui competition, according to Dave Ferran, senior director of sales for luxury packager Classic Vacations.
"Kea Lani is a hybrid-type experience that can take care of so many different types of customers," he said. "It may be that you really like the idea of having your own barbecue grill and the plunge pool, but you want twice-daily housekeeping and you want the housekeeping staff to come in the next morning after you've made dinner in the kitchen and take care of everything."
A newly renovated Fairmont Kea Lani villa living room and lanai plunge pool.
Ferran added that each of Kea Lani's 413 spacious, one-bedroom suites in the main building also has tastefully concealed refrigerators and microwaves, making the guestrooms a great fit for families or couples looking for accommodations with some helpful touches from home.
"The property can serve so many different customer needs," he said. "It's strong for the family market or multigenerational travelers, and it's strong for couples. I think it can suit anyone, because they have so many different inventory options."
Ferran was also quick to champion the three-year, $70 million renovation that wrapped up at the resort earlier this year.
"There have been so many enhancements to the product that it's almost like a rebuilt property," he said. "It's really that outstanding."
A new suite bathroom at the resort. A recent $70 million renovation included improvements to the villas and suites.
Kea Lani General Manager Charles Head said that "almost everything was touched" during the extensive overhaul, pointing to the substantial improvements to all 37 villas and each suite; a dramatically expanded, 9,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa; and the creation of award-winning restaurant Ko as major highlights.
Head described 2015 thus far as "a banner year," saying the property was on a record-setting pace thanks to extremely strong leisure sales. The renovations have helped boost bookings, in Head's opinion, but he also pointed to the property's commitment to authentic cultural experiences as a critical component of the resort's success.
"You can go to a beach resort anywhere; there are beautiful beaches all over the world," he said. "Hawaii is an established market, and people keep coming back, and I think a lot of that is because of our cultural experience."
Jonelle Kamai is the Kea Lani's cultural ambassador and also serves as the property's chef concierge, recommending authentic, off-property activities along with developing intriguing new cultural experiences for resort guests.
One of those initiatives, set to launch early next year, will enable visitors to work in the Kea Lani's recently planted loi, or taro patch, getting their hands dirty while receiving a hands-on education about one of the Hawaiian culture's most crucial culinary staples.
"They'll be able to get right into the loi and harvest with us, then pound their own poi and even replant with us," Kamai said. "It's going to be absolutely amazing."