Freshly showered, with a frozen tropical drink in one hand, wasabi-brushed peanuts in the other and the scent of suntan lotion in my olfactory lobe, I amble past fountains, Jacuzzis and the pool to the beach. Center stage, a barefoot bride in white begins her wedding march toward her tuxedoed betrothed. A violinist begins to play, though I can't hear her music over the trade winds—the ceremony plays out as pantomime with the everlasting Pacific and the setting sun as its backdrop. I have been in Hawaii for exactly fifty-eight minutes.
As it happens, Maui has more than forty wedding planners. During my weeklong stay here and on neighboring Lanai (where no less a romantic fool than Bill Gates honeymooned after being married on the twelfth tee at the Challenge at Manele), I stumbled upon enough nuptials and newlyweds to make Vegas blush. But the magic of my introduction to these fantastical islands never waned. It hardly could have, given an itinerary heavy on gorgeous golf, gourmet dining and general self-indulgence in a place geared for all these.
Hawaii has long cast a spell on the mainlander imagination as a ripe-to-bursting paradise. In terms of golf, Maui and Lanai reached the height of their mythic power (and the various top-100 lists) in the mid-1990s, when seven of their finest courses opened in a five-year burst. RTJ Jr. is the number-one brand here, but other familiar names like Nicklaus and Crenshaw are also represented. Their works have now had a chance to settle in, and in spite of some recent wild weather (see the Challenge at Manele, below), they have matured beautifully.
Maui and Lanai Golf
The courses here are surprisingly varied—though it's only 120 miles around, Maui has two distinct golfing climates: the sun-soaked, drier Wailea area to the south and the more sultry Kapalua to the northwest. Lanai has two distinct golfing climates, too—no mean feat with just two championship courses. Everywhere, the rare hole that isn't drop-dead gorgeous as you look from tee to green likely will be from green to tee.
THE CHALLENGE AT MANELE
Lanai City, Lanai; 808-565-2222, lanai-resorts.com. Yardage: 7,039. Par: 72. Slope: 132. Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 1993. Greens Fee: $205. T&L Golf Rating: ****1/2
Tottering on 200-foot cliffs, with each hole boasting an ocean view, many of the jaw-dropping variety, this is the showiest of the local courses: Hawaii on steroids. It's also very nearly as good as it is spectacular and well on the road to full recovery after twelve inches of rain in three days last fall wreaked havoc. After a none-too-taxing opener, the Challenge leaps awake with a namesake of a par four, 442 yards traveling twice across shallow ravines. The second ravine is ringed at its protruding edge by lovingly pared shrubbery, a nice example of the ever-present tension between the wild and the manicured. (Playing more manageably at 380 yards from the resort tees—the fourth of five sets of tees—the hole illustrates the design's flexibility. It's rigorous, playable and interesting for almost anyone.) From here through the brilliant, scary dogleg-right seventeenth, plunging to a cliffside green, you get superb scenery, great conditioning, many clever holes, one famous one (the ocean-spanning par-three twelfth) and maybe one too many blind shots. Depending on your worldview, the straightforward inland closer is either a cooldown or a comedown, a process that rest assured will take a number of lava flows at the nineteenth hole to complete.