Golf Travel: Rating the Islands of Hawaii

A Polynesian-flavored archipelago in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii provides a unique setting for the game—from vibrant green jungles to toasted black lava. But there’s far more to Hawaii than golf, and here is a ranking of the five major islands, taking into consideration the golf courses, resort hotels, off-course attractions, scenery and mana, or “sense of place.” Keep in mind that the ratings are relative to each other. The scenery of Oahu, for example, might suffer relative to Maui, but remains more stunning than most mainland locales.

Number 1: Maui

The 9th at the Wailea Golf Club Gold Course


Maui no ka oi. You needn’t be an akamai (in the know) resident to make the translation: Maui is the best. A dazzling amalgam of volcanic mountains, verdant gorges and splendid beaches, Maui specializes in sensory overload.

The island began as a pair of bubbling volcanoes; its two land masses now are joined by an isthmus. The west is lush and breezy; the east is dry and sunny. Terraced among pineapple fields is west Maui’s kingpin, Kapalua Resort. The Plantation course, host of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, is a brilliant Coore-Crenshaw behemoth, its broad, heaving fairways leading to huge, tilted greens. It’s the best play-by-feel layout in the state. The Bay course hangs its hat on a pair of coveside holes where humpback whales breach and spout in winter.

Hikers can explore the ramparts of the mountains to rediscover Eden; snorkelers can watch coral reef dwellers dart into lava tubes in one of the resort’s bays. At night, slack-key guitarists fill the air with soulful tunes at the Ritz-Carlton, the elite chain’s finest U.S. resort.

Heading south, fans of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s vintage work can tee it up on Kaanapali’s Tournament North course, treated to a major overhaul in 2006. Nearby is the historic whaling town of Lahaina, its waterfront lined with art galleries and open-air cafes. Cheeseburger in paradise? Have it here.

East Maui, the island’s larger half, is dominated by Mount Haleakala, a 10,023-foot dormant volcano that shields the coast from inclement weather. For a eureka moment, ride a bus to the summit in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise.

Carved into the flanks of Haleakala is Wailea Resort, where the ocean floods the horizon from nearly every hole. The Gold and Emerald courses, by Robert Trent Jones Jr., are worth crossing half an ocean to play.

Après-golf? Race giant sea turtles in a kayak, stroll five lovely beaches, browse the shops. Lodging? Grand Wailea Resort has outsized sculptures and an opulent spa; the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea entices with tropically colored rooms and cutting-edge cuisine.

Maui’s sleeper is Makena Resort, with a pair of Trent Jones Jr. courses etched into Haleakala’s lower slopes. The rugged North course, routed around groves of kiawe trees, offers ocean views. The flatter, more open South course draws near the sea on the back nine. The Maui Prince Hotel spills onto Naupaka Beach, one of the best (and emptiest) beaches on an island that brooks no rivals.

Number 2: the Big Island

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai


Think of the sunny Kohala coast, the Big Island’s main resort area, as a giant sheet of overcooked brownies that cooled off in the Pacific. At just over one million years, the Big Island is the youngest of the islands and, at 4,000 square miles, by far the largest.

The queen of the Big Island is Mauna Kea Resort. Conceived by Laurance Rockefeller in 1965 and fronting a crescent beach, the hotel’s public spaces are decorated with Rockefeller’s collection of Asian and Pacific artifacts. The Trent Jones Sr. course has a famous trans-cove par 3 (No. 3) and rolling fairways framed by exotic flowering trees. Mauna Kea’s sister property, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, is a sleek resort nestled on a lava plateau, its Palmer-Seay target-style course sculpted from volcanic foothills.

At Mauna Lani Resort, ancient Hawaiian fishponds, petroglyph fields and shelter caves create an “old Hawaii” ambiance. The hotel’s ponds and lushly landscaped open-air atrium make an indelible first impression, as does the Fairmont Orchid, formerly a Ritz-Carlton. Mauna Lani’s well-groomed North and South courses are woven like green ribbons through spiky blankets of black lava.

The Big Island’s big kahuna is Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, an ultra-luxe enclave that offers Hawaii’s finest resort experience. Within the corridor-free resort are three oceanfront swimming pools, a snorkeler’s “aquarium” pond stocked with tropical fish and the torch-lit Lava Lounge, where the mai tais are perfect. The resort’s Jack Nicklaus-designed course begins in an oasis, proceeds through lava fields and draws near the pounding surf at the finish.

Off-course attractions range from horseback riding to blue marlin fishing. All the islands offer helicopter tours, but none can match the Big Island for scale and splendor, starting with 13,680-foot Mauna Loa and 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest volcano. Watch as rivulets of molten lava spill from still-active Kilauea; delight in the chasms and 1,000-foot bridal-veil waterfalls in the Waipo Valley.

Number 3: Kauai

The Kiele Course, Kauai Lagoons


For diversity and charm, Kauai, the oldest, greenest and most beautifully eroded of the islands, occupies a niche of its own. The Garden Isle’s golf courses play through an array of microclimates, from lush to semi-arid. If the backdrops look familiar, more than 60 movies, including South Pacific and Jurassic Park, have been filmed on Kauai.

On the cooler north shore within view of the accordion-pleated Na Pali Coast is Princeville Resort. Perhaps Trent Jones Jr.’s finest design, the Prince course spreads across rolling tableland spliced with ravines. The clifftop hotel, angled toward Hanalei Bay and the fabled peak of Bali Hai, is on the rebound. Off campus, there is no hike like the Kalalau Trail, which winds through fruit trees high above the cliffs.

Near the airport in Lihue, Kauai Lagoons has two Nicklaus layouts built in the late 1980s. The headliner is the Kiele, which calls for brave carries over rain forest canopies as well as unerring approaches to greens perched on fingers of wave-washed lava. The Kauai Marriott Resort, situated above palm-shaded Kalapaki Beach, boasts a giant rosette-shaped pool and is one of the best family resorts in Hawaii. Catamaran thrill sails in Nawiliwili Bay cap the day.

Make time for Puakea, a daily-fee course set at the base of the Haupu Ridge, before journeying to the Poipu Beach area, the dry, sunny side of the island. Poipu Bay, a breezy, links-style track routed along ocean bluffs and framed by volcanic peaks, was the annual site of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. The Grand Hyatt Kauai attached to the club, a low-rise, Hawaiian-themed property fronting a saltwater lagoon and a beach, is the ne plus ultra of the island’s resorts.

Not far from the Poipu Beach area is Waimea Canyon, a colorful gash in the earth that plunges 3,567 feet. Mark Twain described it as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” The sea and canyon views along the Kukui Trail are, like Kauai itself, sublime.

Number 4: Lanai

The 12th at Four Seasons Manele Bay Golf Course


What it lacks in quantity, the Pineapple Isle more than compensates in quality. A pair of resorts built in the early ’90s by David Murdock was reflagged by Four Seasons in 2006. They offer a perfect yin-yang experience on a tranquil island.

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai, The Lodge at Koele, as it’s now known, occupies a setting that could double as a tropical version of the Scottish Highlands. The 102-room Lodge, inspired by a colonial-era plantation house, is the largest wooden structure in the state. Its interior centerpiece is the Great Hall, which is highlighted by custom frescoes and eclectic objets d’art.

The resort’s golf course, the Experience at Koele, is a Ted Robinson-Greg Norman creation routed on a plateau nearly 2,000 feet above sea level. Topmost holes offer views of offshore islands. The signature par-4 17th is a stunner: From a hilltop tee, drives drop almost 250 feet to a slim fairway laid into a lush, mist-shrouded gorge. “Estate adventures” include sporting clays, archery, hunting, horseback riding, hiking, biking, four-wheel excursions, even croquet and lawn bowling on the resort grounds.

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay stands in contrast to the upcountry Koele. Projected onto a lava terrace, the hotel overlooks turquoise-blue Hulopo’e Bay. The Challenge at Manele is a Nicklaus course cut along a long volcanic slope. For sheer spectacle, the signature holes, pushed to the brink of 150-foot red lava bluffs high above ocean coves, are unmatched.

Hulopo’e Bay is a marine sanctuary that teems with colorful fish. There’s also sailing, sea kayaking, whale watching excursions and scuba diving in coral grottoes and lava caves. Best of all, the virtually private island is your exclusive playground.

Number 5: Oahu

Ko’olau Golf Club


Oahu’s golf scene was boosted in 2003 with the opening of Royal Kunia, located 35 minutes from Honolulu and blessed with views of iconic Diamond Head, an extinct volcano. Farther along the leeward coast is Ko Olina, a pleasant spread accented by waterfalls. The course is attached to the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort, a big-box hotel with good views of Kaena Point.

Feeling macho? Head to the island’s windward side and cross swords with Koolau, a 7,310-yard monster rated as the toughest in the U.S. Set within the crater of an ancient volcano and walled in by a 2,000-foot ridge, the course snakes around ball-swal-lowing, jungle-choked ravines. Bring two balls for every stroke in your handicap. Spectacular views take the sting out of high scores.

On Oahu’s north tip is Turtle Bay Resort, a revitalized 36-hole complex. The George Fazio course, the recent beneficiary of a new nine, offers a pleasant test, while the Arnold Palmer course, host to Champions and LPGA Tour events, is an eco-sensitive gem that forms a horseshoe around a wetlands preserve and bird sanctuary.

The undisputed center of the surf universe, Oahu is known for its North Shore sites like Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Waimea, where the winter surf is mountainous. Beginners should stick to Waikiki Beach, where the waves are manageable.

When in Oahu, go local: shave ice, mahi mahi burgers, outrigger canoes, kiteboard-ing. Honolulu’s Chinatown, popular with GIs in the 1940s, is a nightlife hotspot with dozens of new bars and clubs along Hotel Street. Other diversions: the somber memorial at Pearl Harbor, ethnographic displays at the Bishop Museum, people watching on tourist-thronged Waikiki.