Maui's Favorite Sun.
As our plane broke through the clouds over the Pacific Ocean, Maui in all its glory came into view--a lush green playground surfacing from a huge expanse of turquoise water. Winter seemed a world away as I prepared to enjoy all the comforts that this chunk of paradise offered: exhilarating activities, breathtaking views, sumptuous but healthy cuisine, top-notch accommodations, and a staff determined to pamper its holiday-weary guests. I would not be disappointed. My destination was Wailea Resort, the plush cluster of properties on Maui's sunny southern coast. During my week's stay, Wailea would more than live up to its promise.
Recuperating from the long flight from the mainland, I relaxed in a suite overlooking the ocean and sampled my first assortment of fresh tropical fruits. This feast would be renewed daily, I soon learned, and would always arrive encircled by a necklace of purple and white baby orchids. But these eye-pleasing and delicious treats were only warmups to the island delicacies to come. No welcome would be complete without a luau, and no hotel creates a more lavish feast than the Aston Wailea Resort. The buffet allows guests to exercise restraint and not stray from their New Year's resolutions by offering fresh fish and vegetables, tossed spinach salad, pineapple and papaya slices served with Kona coffee, and tropical fruit beverages.
Then came the native Hawaiian entertainment. Imagine this: a glowing tropical sunset over the ocean as the backdrop for talented dancers dressed in exotic costumes and performing the graceful motions of the kahiko, the ancient hula dances. Audience members of all ages took to the stage to join in the fun. The evening was topped off by a stunning performance featuring Ifi So'o, the three-time world-champion fire-knife dancer.
Exercise: What's Your Pleasure?
Hosts at all the luxury hotels and condominiums on Wailea gladly help you arrange all sorts of tours and junkets. Among the most fascinating are the many hiking treks along tropical streams, through lush valleys, into enchanting rain forests, and in the midst of 60-foot bamboo trees. Because I am a member of the over-60 club, I wanted to be sure that I wasn't taking on more than I could handle. The information host at the Aston Wailea Resort recommended M. J. and Ken Schmitt's Hike Maui group, the oldest of the adventure-eco land tours, which offers hikes from five to ten hours and welcomes all age groups.
"Older hikers can do almost anything younger hikers can do," says Ken. "It just takes them a little longer."
Courtesy of the guides, luncheon can be served at the base of a 40-foot cascading waterfall in the Kipahulu Valley or, for the most adventurous hikers, at the top of a 200-foot fall. As you hike, you can stop to swim and play in the many small pools along the way. You'll need your swimsuit and towel, but the accommodating guides will supply day packs, first-aid equipment, bottles of water, rain gear, and fascinating lectures. All guides on the "Hike Maui" trips are trained naturalists who share bits of geology, botany, culture, and Hawaiian history.
The kinds and varieties of terrain are limitless, depending on where you go. For example, on a tour along the coastline of La Perouse Bay, you can mix hiking with snorkeling in a tiny bay where some of the 420 species of Hawaiian reef fish abound. (The bay is also accessible by kayak, a little too risky for me.) A marine biologist guide will identify dozens of sea creatures for you. Further down the coastline, you will hike through 200-year-old gray-black lava and archaeological ruins of ancient Hawaiian sites, including temples, fishing shrines, and canoe sheds. The trip is rated "moderate" and costs $90 for adults and $70 for children under 15.
Explore Haleakala Crater
Count on a full day if you choose to explore the grandeur of the Haleakala Crater, where the first lunar astronauts trained, by the way. Two hikes--one 8 miles, the other 12 miles--are rated "strenuous." Hikers descend either a 1,500-foot cliff or a 3,000-foot path down to the' crater's 25-square-mile floor. (I opted for rain forests, bamboo, gentle pools, and waterfalls.) For those desiring no hiking at all, yet wanting to see the gorgeous views, a helicopter ride might be the best bet. The peek into the dormant volcanic crater is spectacular.
Another option for the truly hardy and fit (riders must sign a form acknowledging the risk) is a cycling adventure in Haleakala National Park--from the rim of the crater (about 10,000 feet) to the Hana Highway coastline 38 miles below. Tour companies arrange pickup at Wailea Resorts, rent custom-built bikes, and provide gourmet picnics. Age and height requirements rule out young children. As might be expected, pregnant women also are excluded, as if any sensible pregnant woman would want to coast at high speed for 38 miles straight down the side of a volcano.
If you prefer horses to bikes, Maui has that covered, too. Guides provide all gear and horses, of course, and both experienced and novice riders are welcome. Rides are available across Maui's largest cattle ranch or down into the Haleakala Crater. A teenager I met while swimming at Wailea Beach raved about the great time he had horseback riding. He labeled the panoramic view from the crater as "awesome."
For those more inclined to less strenuous activities, sailing and golfing are delightful choices. Aboard the high-performance catamaran Paragon II, the handsome and salty captain offers delicious food, snorkel gear, and flotation devices so sailors can enjoy clear blue waters, schools of colorful fish, green sea turtles, manta rays, humpback whales (December through May), and the glorious scenery of the Coral Gardens and the crescent-shaped island of Molokini--a natural marine preserve and bird sanctuary. Sailing in the afternoon trade winds, the captain promises speeds up to 20 knots. Our group, however, had an even more thrilling ride--speeds of almost 50 knots as the trade winds suddenly picked up, catching us in an unexpected squall. It was for most of us the ride of a lifetime, a treat beyond any we could have imagined.
Less hair-raising but equally enjoyable is time spent on Wailea Golf Club's three championship courses. All have spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and are ablaze with golden gazania, hibiscus, plumeria, bird-of-paradise, and lavender beach morning glory. The rugged Gold Course challenges the best of golfers with indigenous Hawaiian grasses, lava rock outcroppings, and prehistoric lava rock walls built by early Hawaiians. The training facility features two putting and chipping areas, two fairways and greenside bunkers, and three built-in target greens on the driving range. A golfer's dream in the middle of the ocean!
Four Seasons Specialties
Although all the resort hotels provide special activities and counselors for youngsters, the Four Seasons seems to have the largest number of programmed activities, in addition to a health club, games room, tennis courts, mountain bikes, morning aquacize classes, and daily scuba demonstrations in the pool.
The Four Seasons also is famous for its award-winning cuisine, originated by chef George Mavrothalassitis. When he came to Maui, he was surprised to find that traditional native cuisine, including the fantastic varieties of fresh fish, was seriously under-represented on Wailea menus. His culinary delights are now renowned for featuring the fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables available on the island. His special kumu, or goatfish, is prepared in parchment paper and seasoned with Maui onion, olive oil, basil, shiitake mushrooms, and ogo, a special seaweed farmed at the bottom of the ocean off the island.
"Cooking is for me an art, a passion, almost a religion. If you don't have time, don't cook," says George, who cooks dinner for his wife every evening. "Cooking at home for two is a great pleasure, and I often come up with my finest recipes there."
His words remind me that I soon would have the same cooking opportunity--if not the same talent--back home. A week on Maui is not nearly enough, but, alas, that was all the time I could spend in paradise. My kitchen--and the Midwest's snow and ice--awaited me. Hotel transportation drove me to the airport, where I boarded a Delta jet for the long trip home. The only solace I felt was knowing I was traveling first class, not a necessity on the way over, but a sensible luxury on the way back. It helped ease the gloom of the exit from paradise.
RELATED ARTICLE: Taking the Waters
So you hiked, swam, snorkeled, golfed, and danced the hula. Now it's nearly time to say aloha to beautiful Maui. What could top off this activity-packed week? How about "taking the waters" at the Grand Wailea?
Knowledgeable staff members at the Spa Grande treat you to relaxing international water therapies to improve circulation, as well as cleanse and revitalize both body and soul. Experts counsel those with special medical conditions to make appropriate choices from the many options available ($50 for hotel guests and $100 for nonhotel guests).
The Terme Wailea Hydrotherapy Circuit begins with a brief shower, followed by the "Atrium Whirlpool," then by a cool plunge, steam room or sauna, loofah scrub, or a full traditional Japanese-style bath.
Next a cascading waterfall massages your neck and shoulders, while special jets massage your calves. You may choose from speciality baths--Moor Mud, Limu (seaweed), Aromatherapy, Tropical Enzyme, or Mineral Salt--or try them all. Finish with a Swiss jet shower, a vertical needlepoint water massage that soothes the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
To complete your day, indulge yourself in a full-body massage in an upper-lounge treatment room overlooking the ocean. Then, after a relaxing stay on the outdoor lanai, you are physically and psychologically prepared to board the plane for the long flight home.