At three Hawaiian mega-resorts, water slides, Roman fountains, and acres of pools steal the show
Jim Franco
| Credit: Jim Franco

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.

"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;; doubles from $430.

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;; doubles from $240.

The massive lobby highlights one of the Hyatt's best assets—it provides an outsized frame for a stunning view of the Pacific. Even though I was here on water-slide duty, the public beach in front of the hotel called to me. Instead of gentle waves, Kauai's shoreline has booming breakers that draw an endless stream of surfers. Watching surfers is addictive: like them, you're waiting for the perfect wave. Soon the cackling opener to the song "Wipeout" was reverberating in my head, over the strains of a guy who sat quietly plucking a ukulele (no kidding!) under a palm tree.

The resort's beautifully landscaped grounds are laced with pools and artificial streams. There's a two-acre swimming lagoon and the requisite water slide (a little slow—maybe it was low on water). All this attracts plenty of families, but the overall mood is sedate. Because of Kauai's building code—no structure can be higher than a coconut palm—the 602-room building is so sprawling that guests strategize about shortcuts and concoct plans that won't require returning to their rooms during the day. Not that the handsome, plantation-style rooms aren't comfortable. Their high ceilings are trimmed with mahogany molding; botanical prints decorate the walls. My room's upholstery could have used a refresher—especially the faded ottoman, to which a previous guest had lightly applied ketchup.

Tidepools, a Polynesian-style dining room, serves its own version of Pacific fusion cuisine (yes, macadamia). The rapacious koi trolling the surrounding lagoon look capable of leaping up onto the floor if you dropped a large enough crumb. After dark, a quartet plays jazz in Stevenson's Library, which helps set the elegant tone of the 11-year-old resort. The shelves in the lounge are lined with leather-bound books (the sort whose spines you admire) in apparent tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson, after whom it is named.

Since every male tourist on the islands appears to feel compelled to wear a Hawaiian shirt, it can be hard to distinguish them from the hotel staff, who are compelled to wear Hawaiian shirts. Staff members perform as entertainment directors, and every day brings different events. One night I watched a group of very serious girls dance the hula; toward the end, their accompanist plugged her own CD (available for sale) and finished up with a rendition of "My Heart Will Go On." Almost every morning brings a parrot talk, during which the resort's six birds are sprung from their perches.

A tanned attendant answered a few of my nosy questions about the lagoon. "They had to build it to keep guests from being pounded to hamburger on the reefs," he explained cheerfully. How do they keep a large artificial body of water so clean?The two million gallons are a constantly recirculating mix of fresh and salt water, with a dose of chlorine. The sand is imported from California because you can't borrow from the beaches here. Its coarse grains brush off easily, and it's gone from guests' feet by the time they reach their rooms. As with most of Hawaii's high-end hotels these days, there isn't much left to chance. Nature's fine—as long as you keep it firmly under control. 1571 Poipu Rd., Koloa, Kauai; 800/554-9288 or 808/742-1234, fax 808/742-6248;; doubles from $350.