Golfing on Hawaii’s Kaua‘i
Some of the Best in the Hawaiian Islands

Story by Steve Donahue
Photos courtesy of resorts

Generally speaking, I strongly dislike e-mails, 95 percent of which are junk. So, it was with good fortune that I didn’t automatically delete the unexpected e-mail inviting me on a mid-May group golf trip to Kaua‘i, the northernmost of Hawaii’s six main islands.

ABOVE: The Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa — which completed a renovation in 2012.
BELOW: Kaua‘i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach, a short shuttle ride to the Kaua‘i Lagoons Golf Club, which has a remodeled 18-hole course
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Let’s face it — there’s no bad time to be invited to Hawaii. My invite to Kaua‘i was like an e-mail straight from heaven.

I also visited Kaua‘i on a group golf trip in 2001. This is significant only because of the complete renovations to the courses I played then, and would be tackling again on my six-day, five-night Kaua‘i visit.

The cool thing about Kaua‘i is there are more things to experience on the laid-back island than just its superb golf courses. For instance, you won’t find the endless condos and timeshares, not to mention touristy vibe common to other islands. In fact, only five percent of Kaua‘i is developed for commercial and residential use, while two-thirds of the island is uninhabitable. Meanwhile, its 50 miles of white-sand beaches offer more beach per mile than any other Hawaiian island.

“The Garden Island’s” lush, tropical terrain and stunning scenery makes it a go-to location to film Hollywood’s favorite movies. Among the many major productions shot on Kaua’i since the 1950s include South Pacific, the four-film Jurassic Park series, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Descendents, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Tropic Thunder, Blue Hawaii and King Kong.

Despite the fact 5,148-foot-tall Mount Wai‘ale‘ale is one of the world’s rainiest places — more than 452 inches annually fall on the mountain — it thankfully minds its own cloud-shrouded business. You see, fortunately for tourists, the wet stuff has no affect on the rest of the island, which always boasts warm, mostly sunny weather.

In fact, that fantastic climate enhances the island’s reputation as a golfer’s paradise and a golf destination (www.golfkauaihawaii.com) featuring a cooperative of five world-class courses (Princeville Makai Golf Club, Kaua‘i Lagoons Golf Club, Poipu Bay Golf Course, Puakea Golf Course, Wailua Golf Course) and three award-winning resorts (The St. Regis Princeville Resort, Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa, Kaua‘i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach).

We kicked off our trip with a two-night stay at The St. Regis Princeville Resort, whose opulent lobby is uniquely located on the ninth floor, with all the hotel’s rooms below, set in a series of tiers on the side of a cliff overlooking Hanalei Bay, and the famed “Bali Hai’’ mountain of South Pacific fame, on the north shore. The hotel is also home to the fabulous Halele‘a Spa and The Kaua‘i Grill by Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

The St. Regis Princeville Resort.

The Princeville Makai Golf Club, which I played in 2001, re-opened in 2010 after an extensive, superb renovation by original designer Robert Trent Jones Jr., who improved the layout so much I didn’t even recognize it. Now measuring a stern 7,223 yards from the tips, Makai has climbed 15 places to No. 65 on Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses 2015-2026” ranking, and is rated No. 4 by Golfweek in Hawaii’s “Best Courses You Can Play” 2015. Five sets of tees, with the shortest tees measuring 5,078 yards, make it playable for all handicap levels. Jones utilized serene lakes and spectacular ocean coastline brilliantly for aesthetic and strategic effect. Makai’s nine-hole sister, the Woods Course, is a budget alternative ($55) that winds through native woodlands.

ABOVE: Poipu Bay Golf Course
BELOW: The Princeville Makai Golf Club

Our group enjoyed a great local experience that night, which was Mother’s Day. We tailgated on the hard-packed sand at Black Pot Beach Park, drinking beer, playing bean-bag toss and watching an other-worldly sunset along with dozens of picnicking families. Afterwards we headed into nearby downtown Hanalei — which is a “downtown” in the loosest sense of the word.

In the mood for pizza, we headed to Tahiti Nui Restaurant & Tiki Bar, which turned out to be a great move. Being a northeast pizza snob, I was shocked that the pizza was pretty darned good — and there’s a lot more on the menu than just pizza — but even better was the casual, friendly vibe. A hard-working guitarist provided the entertainment, accompanying dancing customers. We also met charismatic owner Christian Marston, who actually had a cameo in The Descendents, starring George Clooney and filmed on Kaua‘i.

If you stay on or visit the north shore, Hanalei is a must-visit destination — not only for a fun time, but for a truly local experience. By the end of the night we had befriended half the patrons.

The next morning we drove an hour southeast to Puakea Golf Course, owned by AOL co-founder Steve Case. During my previous Kaua‘i visit Puakea only featured 10 holes designed by course architect Robin Nelson, who completed the remaining eight holes over the next few years with stunning results. Puakea is now a polished gem that, like Makai, was unrecognizable to me, except for the signature, downhill sixth hole a 176-yarder with a 70-foot drop to a green fronted by a pond. Golfweek ranks the course No. 15 in Hawaii, and golfers are treated to gorgeous views of Mt. Ha‘upu and, on several holes, deep, lush ravines used as the backdrop to the original Jurassic Park movie.

I was happy to see Puakea’s golf shop and restaurant are still located in a double-wide portable trailer, which was moved from a street-side location next to Home Depot to a new dedicated spot adjacent to the practice range at the end of a winding course driveway. It was fun to see my fellow golfers’ faces drop when they entered the trailer to check in, thinking the course would be awful, then to hear their excited post-round reactions to the superb course.

Kaua'i Lagoons #5 Kaua'i Lagoons #16 Poipu Bay Golf Course #16 Puakea Golf Course

Incidentally, the quality of the food served at Puakea’s Ho'okipa Cafe is so outstanding that it is one of the area’s most-popular places to eat for locals, and that also includes a lot of non-golfing regulars who dine there for breakfast, lunch and supper. My advice? Plan your tee time so you finish your round in time for lunch or supper, and be amazed.

The Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa — which completed a renovation in 2012 — served as our home for the next two nights. The walk to my guest room after checking in took about 10 minutes, although it seemed like twice that. However, it’s a pleasant stroll along the outdoor “hallways” because it feels as if the sprawling hotel is set amid a jungle paradise, thanks to a water playground with a river pool, waterfalls, a saltwater lagoon and the celebrated Anara Spa, where I enjoyed a lomi lomi massage that loosened up my ailing lower back tremendously. The outdoor, slatted-wall treatment rooms allowed the breeze to relax me even more than I already was.

Poipu Bay Golf Course has been honored by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top U.S. golf resorts.

The next morning, after my trek to the lobby, I walked five more minutes to the Poipu Bay Golf Course, which, along with the adjacent Grand Hyatt, has been honored by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top U.S. golf resorts. Poipu Bay — designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. — was named to Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses 2013-2014 and GOLF Magazine’s “Top Resort Courses by State” ranking in 2014. The course — which also hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from 1994 through 2006 ¬¬— underwent a renovation and unveiled eco-friendly seashore paspalum turf on all its greens in 2011. The layout’s final four holes play atop a jaw-dropping 150-foot sea cliff. If nobody is behind you, walk to the rear tee box on the 427-yard 15th hole for a vista you’ll remember for a long time.

Be sure to add the nearby Beach House Restaurant in Poipu to your itinerary. We dined on the outside veranda, which is virtually on the beach. Watching numerous surfers and an incredible sunset complemented an outstanding meal of Macadamia Nut Butter Sauteed Fresh Mahi Mahi, accompanied by multiple lava flows — a delicious Hawaiian pina colada-type drink. Warning — don’t sample these before surfing.

Puakea, Wailua is owned and operated by the county, making it one of the nation’s most beautiful, if not challenging, municipal layouts.

Kaua‘i’s golf scene goes beyond resort-affiliated courses. Wailua Golf Course, like Puakea, is public and a super deal (non-residents $48 weekdays, $60 weekends) but, unlike Puakea, Wailua is owned and operated by the county, making it one of the nation’s most beautiful, if not challenging, municipal layouts. The original holes date to the 1920s. Wailua expanded to 18 holes in 1962 under the direction of Hawaii golf Hall of Famer Toyo Shirai.

The course — a favorite of both locals and tourists — parallels Nukoli’i Beach on Kaua‘i’s Coconut Coast, just north of Lihue Airport, and there are several oceanside holes. Golfers are accompanied by constant crosswinds, the smell of sea air and the sound of roaring surf. Don’t let the wind take your tee shot onto the beach — the actual beach, not a bunker — on the signature downhill, oceanfront, 173-yard 17th hole. Golf Channel recently named Wailua Hawaii’s No. 3-ranked public course.

Our last evening on Kaua‘i was spent at the massive Kaua‘i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach, a short shuttle ride to the Kaua‘i Lagoons Golf Club, which has a remodeled 18-hole course instead of the three nines it had during my previous trip. The Kiele Course — which now consists of the Kiele Mauka and Kiele Moana nines — is a scenic thrill ride. Golfweek named the layout No. 10 in Hawaii in its 2015 “Best Courses You Can Play” by state ranking, and MSN Travel tabbed Kiele one of the “World’s Most Beautiful Golf Courses.”

Indeed, the layout — Jack Nickluas’ lone Kaua‘i Signature Golf experience — features the state’s longest continuous stretch of ocean holes, with more than one-half mile of oceanfront golf. The front nine is highlighted by the uphill, 219-yard par-3 fifth hole’s green, encircled by a tropical mango and guava tree forest. However, I’ll forever hold a soft spot in my heart for the 506-yard, par-5 fourth hole, which I eagled before an audience of greenside maintenance workers.

Thank goodness for that e-mail.

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Steve Donahue is a veteran freelance writer and editor who has played more than 900 golf courses in all 50 states and 10 countries. He is based in Watertown, Conn.  He can be reached at steve.donahuecomm@gmail.com.


FOR MORE INFORMATION:

WHERE TO PLAY

Kaua‘i Lagoons Golf Club
3351 Hoolaulea Way
Lihue, HI 96766
800-634-6400
www.kauailagoonsgolf.com

Poipu Bay Golf Course
2250 Ainako Street
Koloa, HI 96756
800-858-6300; 808-742-8711
www.poipubaygolf.com

Princeville Makai Golf Club
4080 Lei O Papa Road
Princeville, HI 96722
808-826-1912
www.makaigolf.com

Puakea Golf Course
4150 Nuhou Street
Lihue, HI 96766
866-773-5554; 808-245-8756
www.puakeagolf.com
 
Wailua Golf Course
3-5350 Kuhio Hwy.
Lihue, HI 96766
808-241-6666
http://www.golfkauaihawaii.com/wailua-golf-club

WHERE TO STAY

Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa
1571 Poipu Road
Koloa, HI 96756
808-742-1234
http://kauai.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html
 
Kaua‘i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach
3610 Rice Street
Lihue, HI 96766
808-245-5050
http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lihhi-kauai-marriott-resort/
 
The St. Regis Princeville Resort

5520 Ka Haku Road
Princeville, HI 96722
808-826-1912
www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lihxr-the-st-regis-princeville-resort/