The Brancatelli File



April 2, 1987 -- Thanks to aggressive route expansion by United Airlines, frequent travelers can now fly direct from the mainland to the neighbor islands of Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii. But Oahu remains true to the name it was given by the old Hawaiians. Now, as then, Oahu is "The Gathering Place."

The heart of Oahu is Honolulu. It's a pleasant and convivial small town that hasn't quite figured out how it's come to be ranked the tenth largest city in the nation. And the soul of Honolulu is Waikiki, a once-sleepy beachfront community that has transformed itself into the most outrageously eclectic urban resort in the world.

The beachfront Halekulani, which opened in its latest reincarnation in 1983, may be the best hotel in Hawaii and one of the best hotels in the nation. Even though in the heart of Waikiki, the hotel's grounds are tranquil, shielded from hubbub by an ingenious architectural design. Each of the 465 rooms is gloriously spacious and sprinkled with special amenities such as lanais (balconies), deep soaking tubs and separate glass-walled showers. Amenities include: pool and beach center; elegant shops; five restaurants and bars; 24-hour room service; and same-day valet. (2199 Kalia Rd.; telephone: 808-923-2311; rates: $165-$275.)

The Aston Waikiki Beach Tower, a deluxe high rise across the street from the beach, is a quiet, private, elegant condominium operated as a luxury hotel. Each huge suite features a full kitchen, a wet bar, a dining room, a living room and a lanai. The two-bedroom suites comfortably accommodate a family of six or two couples. Amenities include: pool, whirlpool and saunas; lighted paddle tennis court; and same-day valet. (2470 Kalakaua Ave.; telephone: 808-926-6400; rates: $175-$290.)

The twin-towered, 1,200-room Hyatt Regency Waikiki, sits directly across from Waikiki Beach and atop Hemmeter Center, a 70-shop, nine-restaurant open-air atrium that features three waterfalls, a 45,000-pound chandelier and tropical foliage. In other words, it's a Hyatt with all the glitz and glamour the name has come to imply. Amenities include: "Regency Club" executive floors; eight restaurants, bars and nightclubs; pool; and catamaran. (2424 Kalakaua Ave.; telephone: 808-922-9292; rates: $95-$210.)

Sheraton operates a phalanx of hotels in Waikiki. The best is the Royal Hawaiian, the famed "Pink Palace of the Pacific." Opened in 1927, the Spanish-Moorish beach-front property has just received a $4 million face-lift and remains the most famous and recognizable hotel in Waikiki. There's a weekly luau and even a weekly tea-dancing party! Amenities include: pool; 24-hour nurse and physician service; and four bars and restaurants. (2259 Kalakaua Ave.; telephone: 808-923-7311.)

The New Otani is a quiet and small (138-room) hotel with the flair of the Japanese hotel chain of the same name. The rooms are on the smallish side, but some of the amenities are truly special. General manager Stephen Boyle, an expert hiker, leads guests on climbs up nearby Diamond Head. The hotel is situated on secluded Kaimana Beach. There's a kite shop in the lobby and the Hau Tree Lanai, a delightful open-air restaurant, serves both Japanese and American breakfasts. (2863 Kalakaua Ave.; telephone: 808-923-1555; rates: $65-$165.)

All but a handful of Oahu's guest rooms are in Waikiki, but one of the island's most treasured hotels is not. The Kahala Hilton, a resort nestled in a posh residential neighborhood about ten minutes from Waikiki, has been a legend since it opened in 1964. It's where locals hold their grandest functions, where penguins frolic on the grounds and where there's a private little island for private little picnics the hotel will gladly pack. The Kahala Hilton is much like a club: half the guests are repeat customers and the doormen seem to know most everyone by name. Amenities include: secluded beach, pool, tennis and fitness club; elegant shopping; four restaurants and bars; 24-hour room service; and same-day valet. (5000 Kahala Ave.; telephone: 808-734-2211; rates: $155-$395.)

Although the Big Island came by its name prosaically enough--it's twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined--it's no prosaic place.

Consider: There's an actual cow town here, complete with cowboys and horses from the nearby cattle ranch, but the place looks like a rustic New England village. The town's name is Waimea. Or Kamuela. The locals can't seem to decide. Probably doesn't matter, though, because everything in town is called Parker: the school, the ranch, the visitor center, the steak joint, the lodge and the shopping center. Except for the German restaurant. That's called Edelweiss.

Vacationers can ski on one of the Big Island's dormant volcanoes. The ski center isn't far from the Kohala Coast, where there are always perfect beach days. Across the island is the Hamakua Coast, where it rains all the time. A couple of hours away is Kilauea, the active volcano.

The Big Island's preferred method of public expression is graffiti. Folks gather up hundreds of white stones and then spell out messages in the volcanic rock.

And when Laurence Rockefeller found Hawaii's perfect beach--a pristine crescent of white sand fronting crystal blue water--he went ahead and hacked the Mauna Kea Resort out of the Kohala Coast's barren lava rock. Two decades later the resort's hotel, the Westin Mauna Kea, remains one of the most admired guest houses in the world. The service is impeccable, the dining is legendary and one of the world's finest collection of Pacific Rim art is on display everywhere. The hotel's activities list is endless: golf on a Robert Trent Jones Sr. course; tennis at a 13-acre Oceanside tennis park; sailing on a 58-foot catamaran; horseback riding; bird and game hunting; and anything else imaginable. Except television. There are none in the rooms. (Kamuela, Hawaii; telephone: 808-882-7222; rates: $198-$278; modified American plan: $248-$378.)

Down the road from Mauna Kea is the Mauna Lani Resort, an elaborate and sophisticated master-planned community funded by Japan's Tokyu group. The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel opened here four years ago and has carved out its own niche among the Big Island's upscale visitors. It brings a cool and chic California style to the Kohala Coast. Mauna Lani Bay has its own 18-hole golf course, tennis park, beach, pool and lagoon, boating facilities and shopping arcade. There's also riding and hunting. Guest rooms are especially attractive, and the hotel dining facilities are anchored by a branch of The Third Floor, Waikiki's best restaurant. (P.O. Box 4000, Kohala Coast; telephone: 808-885-6622; rates: $195-$295; modified American plan: $245-$345.)

After Waikiki, no place in Hawaii is better known and more beloved than Maui. It's the second-largest island, the second-most-popular tourist destination and a particular favorite of well-to-do Japanese and West Coast trendies. But anyone who's journeyed to the "Valley Isle" knows there are really two Mauis.

One Maui is an island of planned resort communities and massive rental condominium complexes. The visitors who come to this Maui never seem to leave their manmade paradise: they play golf, they play tennis, they shop, they sail--they go home happy and tan and contented. The other Maui is an island of nature. The visitors who come here never get enough of their god-given paradise: they ride horses, they cycle down volcanic Mount Haleakala, they challenge the treacherous Hana Highway, they hike--they go home happy and tan and contented.

The 600-acre Kaanapali Beach Resort on Maui's west coast was Hawaii's first master-planned development, and it still sets the pace for the others. Located about 45 minutes from Maui's Kahului Airport, Kaanapali plays host to over a half-million visitors annually. More than anything, Kaanapali resembles a jovial suburbanized version of Waikiki. There are six beachfront hotels, 1,300 condo units, two 18-hole golf courses, 36 tennis courts, 40 restaurants, a museum, a movie theater, 100 shops, a riding stable, a narrow-gauge railroad line with passenger trains and water sports of all definitions.

The $80 million Hyatt Regency Maui is the queen of Kannapali's hotels. It maintains a $2 million art collection, its own Japanese garden, a bird menagerie, a two-mile network of streams, waterfalls and grottos, a 55-foot catamaran and a half-acre free-form pool with dual waterfalls. There are 815 guest rooms and four "Regency Club" executive floors. (200 Nohea Kai Dr.; telephone: 808-667-7474; rates: $175-$320.) The Aston Kaanapali Shores is a deluxe beachfront condominium complex operated as a luxury all-suite hotel. Each huge suite includes a lanai and full kitchen. The two-bedroom suites will easily accommodate a family of six or two couples. (100 Kaanapali Shores Place, Lahaina; telephone: 808-667-2211; rates: $110-$210.)

About 20 miles north of Kaanapali is Kapalua Bay, a serene 750-acre resort nestled amid a 23,000-acre pineapple plantation. This unmistakably upscale beachfront development features ten tennis courts, two 18-hole golf courses, two dozen elegant shops, a collection of vacation homes and one hotel: The Kapalua Bay. The hotel is small (194 rooms), specializes in personalized service and is considered by many to be Maui's best. (One Bay Drive, Kapalua; telephone: 808-669-5656; rates: $175-$325.)

On Maui's southwest coast, about a 25-minute drive from the airport, is the 1,500-acre Wailea Resort. Every bit as self-contained as Kaanapali and Kapalua, Wailea boasts two 18-hole golf courses, 14 hillside tennis courts (including Hawaii's only public grass courts), five sandy beaches, several hundred condos, a shopping village and two hotels. Stouffer's Wailea Beach is a five-diamond AAA resort that's already undergoing a major renovation even though it's been open for less than a decade. Raffles, the hotel's elegant dining room, is probably the best on Maui. Its Sunday champagne brunch is so elaborate that a serious buffet hound could eat for hours and still not sample everything. (3550 Wailea Alanui Dr.; telephone: 808-879-4900; rates: $215-$350.)

Maui's newest resort, Makena, is taking shape several miles south of Wailea. The resort's first hotel, the Maui Prince, was greeted with delight about eight months ago. Operated by the Japan-based Prince chain, the hotel is serene and extremely pleasant. Mainlanders who appreciate the Japanese conception of luxury will be very happy here. (5400 Makena Alanui, Kihei; telephone: 808-874-1111; rates: $200-$270.)

Hawaii's most challenging drive is the 50-mile ride from Kahului Airport to Hana in East Maui. The 100-mile roundtrip is a full-day affair. The reason? The so-called Hana Highway is really no more than a narrow blacktop that is barely two cars wide. It has 617 curves, 56 one-lane bridges and handles 300,000 cars a year. The reward is the scenery: roadside waterfalls and mountain pools, nineteenth-century churches and luscious tropical and ocean views every mile of the way. The ultimate reward at the end of the ride is a stay at the Hotel Hana Maui, a tiny jewel of a property situated on 4,500 acres of working ranchlands. The hotel's 82 exquisitely furnished rooms are located in one-story bungalows with trellised verandas, enclosed gardens and views of Haleakala and the ocean. There's riding for both guests and nonguests, a swimming pool, Hamoa Beach, tennis courts and a three-hole practice golf course. (P.O. Box 8, Hana; telephone: 808-248-8211; rates: $187-$400.)

Kauai is almost indescribably beautiful. This tiny, roundish island is everyone's fantasy of a South Seas paradise with silver waterfalls, sun-dappled valleys, misty caverns, fog-shrouded mountains, deserted beaches, small plantations and majestic sea cliffs that defy hikers and road-builders alike. In fact, Kauai is the South Seas fantasy--the producers of South Pacific came here to shoot their scenes of Bali Hai.

Each of Kauai's best and most interesting resorts reflects a different generation of Hawaiian tourism:

Coco Palms Resort, built on a 45-acre coconut plantation, is a remarkable example of Hawaiian fantasy, circa 1960. Cottages have thatched roofs and chandeliers, guest rooms have huge clam shell basins rather than sinks and the lobby is Hawaiian-Danish Modern. The Coco Palms wedding chapel was built by Columbia Pictures for Rita Hayworth, then starring in Sadie Thompson. The grounds encompass a lagoon, a 2,500-tree coconut grove, a museum, a zoo and a library. And the new owners are spending $7 million to keep everything the way it was. Amenities include: five restaurants and bars; shopping; beach, three freshwater pools and a lava-rock waterfall; nine tennis courts and pro shop. (4241 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa; telephone: 808-947-9477; rates: $85-$140 for rooms and $160-225 for cottages.)

The 460-room Waiohai on sunny Poipu Beach is the picture-perfect Hawaiian fantasy of the 1970s. The laid-back resort is awash in silk and brass, etched glass and teak, marble and mahogany. Everything at Waiohai is California cool and casually elegant--almost as if Kauai were located just off the San Diego Freeway. Amenities include: six restaurants and bars; shopping; same-day valet; tennis complex; health and fitness center; sauna; snorkeling and sailing and an 18-hole golf course. (R.R. 1, Box 174, Koloa; telephone: 808-742-9511; rates: $125-$200.)

The 18-month-old Sheraton Princeville is built into a cliff overlooking Kauai's dramatic north shore. It's the Hawaiian fantasy of the 1980s. A crock of complimentary brownies is delivered soon after check-in, and there are more toiletries in the bathroom than in a well-stocked kit bag. The room décor--Hawaiian Country, complete with quilts and period replicas--is bright and airy and right out of the pages of Metropolitan Home. Amenities include: six restaurants and bars; 21 tennis courts; 27-hole golf course; horseback riding; elegant shopping; beach, sailing and scuba. (P.O. Box 3069, Princeville; telephone: 808-826-9644; rates: to $200.)

Ron Letterman has a strange idea: he thinks frequent flyers should buy "packages" when traveling to Hawaii.

"I know how frequent flyers perceive package tours," says the vice president of Amex' Hawaii Vacation division. "They think packages are for the common traveler. They think packages are about traveling in herds with surly tour guides. But they're wrong."

Upscale travelers have, of course, traditionally perceived tours and packages as inflexible and aimed at budget vacationers. But at least two companies, American Express and Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, have products on the market designed especially to meet the needs of travelers with bigger budgets and freer spirits.

These are "tours" for independent travelers, who can select from Hawaii's premier hotels and resorts, and who need never meet a tour guide or board a sightseeing bus.

Amex says its packages offer savings of 10 to 15 percent over prices travelers would pay if they booked their own flights, hotels and rental cars. If the traveler needs something in particular, the company staffs service desks at many Hawaii hotels.

"A package is the only way to buy a Hawaiian vacation," Letterman says. "You only have to make one call and all your reservations are made. And once you get to Hawaii, you can get as much or as little help from us as you want."

Similarly, Hawaii's largest and most influential tour operator, Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, recently introduced Posh Hawaii, a line of upscale packages designed for discriminating travelers who want more than a "welcome cocktail" out of the experience.

Best known for low-cost travel to the Islands. Pleasant Hawaiian will operate its new upscale programs "almost as a separate division of the company," according to a company executive. Its lavish Posh Hawaii brochure, available from travel agents, vaguely resembles a coffee-table book about the Islands.

For information on American Express Hawaii Vacations, call 1-800-33-ALOHA. For information on Posh Hawaii packages, call 1-800-FOR-POSH.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1983-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.