More than anything else, the sea defines the Hawaiian experience. But nature can be inconvenient. Sand sticks to skin, jagged reefs can shred feet, waves can pound swimmers to jelly. To create a water world that's tempting but tame, some resorts have simply fashioned their own versions of a beach and, while they're at it, have thrown in a few slides, a rope bridge, a grotto or two — why not a Jacuzzi inside that grotto?Here, three places that have pushed the water fixation a few notches above the rest yet still deliver a real Hawaiian punch.
GRAND WAILEA RESORT, MAUI
"This is it, the Taj Mahal," I hear one couple joking after breakfast. "Once you've been here, you can't go anywhere else." At 780 rooms, the Grand Wailea is nowhere near Hawaii's biggest resort, but it has to be the most lavish. Its opulence, though, manages to stop just short of being ostentatious.
The "water features" (as they're known in these parts) start in the open-air lobby, where flower-filled outrigger canoes float on a lagoon. The grounds are a mix of exotic gardens, strategically placed contemporary artworks, and a series of pools and slides. The sound of rushing water is inescapable—millions of gallons of it, cascading over falls, sluicing down streams, shooting up in fountains.
I waste no time in testing the seven water slides. "I'm glad to see I'm not the only adult doing this," a peach-fuzz-faced 20-year-old tells me. In fact, the slides (distributed among nine free-form pools) are gleefully employed by guests of all ages and sizes. The longest one, a 2,000-foot ride that drops you through a tunnel and under a waterfall, has one attendant stationed at the top with a walkie-talkie, and another at the bottom to report when each slider makes a splashdown. During a brief wait, I chat with the attendant. "Sometimes a kid will deliberately stop in the middle," he explains, "and if a big adult goes down next, the kid could get creamed."
"We hook the families through the kids," resident manager Patrick Flinn admits freely. "They come once and just insist on returning." Not that adults are ignored: they have their own swimming hole, the serene Hibiscus Pool, restricted to grown-up use, and a spa, where the focus is also on water. (In a rare glitch, the spa's reservation service lost my booking. Luckily, they had room for me anyway.) For a blissful hour before your treatment, you can steep in the thermé hydrotherapy circuit, part of which is a series of five stone tubs, each filled with its own concoction. One is an aromatherapy bath; one a tropical enzyme bath whose water is a simmering chartreuse; one a seaweed solution with a musty scent. Then there's the invigorating Swiss jet shower, the thundering "cascading shower," and the huge whirlpool tub with its gilt mosaic tiles. All this is only a precursor to a full menu of treatments, such as hot-stone lomilomi massage and Hawaiian Salt Glow exfoliation.
Inevitably, there's even water where you eat. In Kincha, a Japanese restaurant, a stream gurgles past what is touted as 800 tons of lava rock imported from the foot of Mount Fuji. Then there's the seafood restaurant named for the state fish, Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (go ahead, just call it "Humu"), which is built out over its own (artificial) saltwater lagoon. The 47 tables are distributed among a series of thatched-roof Polynesian huts, making it intimate despite its size. The gimmick here: lobsters may huddle in their own private lagoon till guests select them for dinner.
Opened in 1991, the Grand Wailea is remarkably well designed. Guest rooms have distinctive non-floral prints and delicate furniture (nearly all have ocean views). Though there's plenty of space—enough to accommodate an outstanding children's center and a row of high-end boutiques—it's still easy to find your way around. Oh, the resort does have a beach. Looked nice, too, with its tame water and clean sand. And no more than a handful of people—the rest were too busy enjoying the supercharged water features. 3850 Wailea Alanui Dr., Wailea, Maui; 800/888-6100 or 808/875-1234, fax 808/874-2442; www.grandwailea.com; doubles from $430.
HILTON WAIKOLOA VILLAGE, BIG ISLAND
Here, the man-made beach was a necessity, since the craggy shoreline of volcanic rock keeps guests well away from the ocean. But the Hilton didn't stop at building a four-acre beach lagoon. It also installed the one-acre Kona Pool, with water slide, falls, and rope bridge, as well as two other pools, a dolphin lagoon, and a series of canals plied by cruisers that ferry guests around the resort.
The 1,240 rooms are in three towers that rise from putting-green lawns amid the west coast's lunar landscape. At room prices less than half those of the Grand Wailea, the Hilton gives good value. The whole place has a theatrical appeal—starting with the resident Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, who live to perform. The hotel runs several strictly choreographed sessions each day, allowing a few lucky guests (chosen by lottery when the demand is great) to share the lagoon with the dolphins.
Besides its water features, the Hilton distinguishes itself with Swiss-made electric trams that transport guests who choose not to travel by boat. The conductors' silky-voiced announcements sometimes resemble those of HAL, the computer in 2001. ("Doors closing . . . doors closed.") Both the launches and the trams are heavily used, since the resort covers 62 acres. For the few foot soldiers, there's a treat: the flagstone-floored covered walkway that traverses the resort is lined with Asian and South Pacific art and artifacts, including Burmese puppets, lacquer panels from China, and spears and shields from Papua New Guinea.
The Hilton's layout is frustrating—the buildings have few elevator blocks and fewer passageways, and more than once I had to hike around the whopping Ocean Tower instead of being able to cut through. Gigantic white marble urns carved with koi mark the entrance to the Palace Tower, which, unlike the other two towers, has an elaborate atrium lobby with chandeliers and an ornate Roman fountain. Even so, rooms in the Palace Tower resemble all the others in their simple this-could-be-anywhere style. (The resort opened in 1988, and I'm told a major overhaul is planned; let's hope the results are more distinctive.)
Two nights in a row I made my way to Buddha Point, where guests gather, mai tais in hand, to watch the sun go down. And here's where I spotted the bare-chested athlete whose job it is to lope from one end of the grounds to the other at sunset, lighting hundreds of tiki torches. In another theatrical touch, an outrigger canoe moved slowly along the canals each evening, carrying a costumed hula dancer and two musicians, one on guitar and one on ukulele, both singing into mikes. Hokey, but somehow charming at the same time.
As expected at the price, the service sometimes falls short. While most staff members are pleasant, they could be more attentive and less animatronic. Small lapses—like the clock alarm unchanged from the previous guest's 5 a.m. wake-up call—tend to annoy. Gilding the Hawaiian lily involves treading the fine line between faux and phony: it's not long before you notice that the boat captains, decked out in nautical white uniforms, don't even touch the steering wheels (the launches run on underwater tracks); the canal water has left a white high-tide line on the "rock" banks; and those deer on the lawn are actually bronze statues. If you need to escape the constant sounds of rushing water, just as pervasive here as at the Grand Wailea, you can drive five minutes to Waikoloa Beach, where (real) waves lap against a shoreline of (real) coarse, dark sand. For many guests, however, there's no need to leave the village, with its nine restaurants. One serves Italian food, one Japanese, another Chinese. At the Kamuela Provision Co., it's Pacific fusion cuisine—code words for "macadamia-encrusted." Definitely worth trying, but once will do. 425 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Waikoloa, Hawaii; 800/445-8667 or 808/886-1234, fax 808/886-2900; www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com; doubles from $240.