As soon as most golfers hit the ground in Maui, they make a beeline to one of the island’s famous resort towns—Kapalua, Wailea, Makena—whose names alone bring to mind idyllic oceanfront pleasures. Little do they know that just a ten-minute drive from Kahului Airport, carved out of a former kiawe forest, lies one of Hawaii’s golf jewels: the Dunes at Maui Lani.
There are no billboards along the highway proclaiming that an exhilarating links is just a turnoff or two away. The only markers are a small sign for the Maui Lani Parkway and, beyond that, a larger one announcing you’re entering the upscale residential community of Maui Lani (not to be confused with Mauna Lani, the popular resort on the Big Island). A right turn puts you on an entrance road that leads to a tasteful plantation-style clubhouse.
The Dunes at Maui Lani, a reasonably priced (by Hawaii standards) daily-fee course that is not attached to a resort, sits majestically on an isthmus between Haleakala, the ten-thousand-foot volcano that forms three-quarters of the island, and the smaller but wonderfully scenic West Maui Mountains. ("Lani" means heavenly in Hawaiian, and the description is apt.) The layout’s appeal derives mainly from the natural setting: a rolling wooded dunescape through which the holes effortlessly flow up and down. The site proved the perfect canvas for the minimalist touch of Robin Nelson, a California-based architect who has worked extensively in Hawaii.
At Maui Lani, Nelson drew inspiration from storied Irish links such as Royal County Down (for its pot bunkers and blind shots), Ballybunion (risk/reward options) and Enniscrone (wide fairways). The par-three third hole, with its narrow diagonal green wedged between a pair of dunes, clearly borrows from the Dell hole at Lahinch. From there, the routing plunges deeper into the dunes, demanding an increasing number of blind or semiblind shots. "It brings the element of surprise and a bit of luck into the round," Nelson says.
Surprised and lucky is just how golfers feel after venturing off Maui’s well-trodden path to experience the unsung Dunes at Maui Lani.