Maui offers a great mix of big-time resorts and sleepy bed & breakfasts, each with their own unique sights, sounds, and flavors.
Photography by the authors
The perfect vacation should offer choices. Maui does, of course. If you want to treat the resort as the destination vacation, nothing beats the Fairmont Kea Lani. The staff treat you like royalty. Some of their guests may well be. The resort is in South Maui, in Wailea, the ritzy part of the island. It is expensive.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a fancy condominium with high end capabilities, take the 20 country miles to Ka‘anapali in West Maui. Amfac started building there in the 1960s in what was the first planned resort in Hawaii. Here, where Hawaiian monarchs once played and surfed on the best beach on the islands, the condo is now king. Two in particular would please any visitors. Families would be happy with the facilities at the Ka‘anapali Ali’i , and couples would enjoy the Whaler ,with its beautiful rooms and its mirrored walls bringing in the sunshine and the scenery.
Visitors might detect a change in Hawaiians, some of whom have increased their attempts to honor their past and more appropriately make their land more fertile, their children more conscious of their heritage, and visitors more aware of their history. Many visitors sense this and find it fun to discover places to stay that somehow offer a glimpse of what Hawaii used to be like.
For example, about four miles north of Ka‘anapali lies Napili Bay, and on its shores sits the Napili Kai Beach Resort. It’s a condominium started by Canadian and American investors in 1962 with 11 units. It now sprawls over 10 acres with 11 buildings and 163 rooms, of which the staff boasts, “96 percent have an ocean view.” The resort also brags that it has the largest whirlpool in the state (built beside the largest of its four pools). It has an 18-hole putting green and an interesting cliff walk off to the north that will take you to Kapalua, where the 463-room Ritz-Carlton struggles under its current financial difficulties at that location.
“Our guests could afford the Ritz-Carlton but prefer this,” says Diane Farnsworth, the resort’s public relations director, as she waves her hand over the landscape and the beach. Farnsworth is originally from Idaho, and she says this is as far west she’s going to go. “This is not about glamour,” she says. “It’s about being independent and having our own philosophy—which is not to gouge our guests.” The policy has worked for both guests and staff: Turnover is slight. The assistant chief engineer, for example, has worked at the resort for 37 years and one of the torch boys (they light the garden torches at sunset) has done so for 14 years. As for guests, the return business is an incredible 65 percent, a figure equaled only by Kona village on the Big Island, a resort unfortunately now out of business because of the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
The large global convention hotels have faced problems with the recession, but smaller resorts have, on the whole, fared better. The Napili Kai hosts 70 family reunions a year in which families take more than four rooms. It maintains an excellent Sea House restaurant, so popular even with locals that it produces 500 meals a day for a resort where all the condo units have kitchens.
Asked why she thinks many guests prefer stays in condominiums rather than more formal resorts, Farnsworth replies: “Costs. We have farmers’ markets and stores nearby. You can save much of the price of eating out. We are more spacious. We’re low density and more spread out; there’s no waiting for an elevator. We have four pools so people find their niche. But I think what’s important is that our guests don’t need to see anyone else in the morning before they have their coffee! Our first-time guests come with lists to do…and never get around to doing them. It’s as if we have a sign here saying ‘Give yourself permission to do little.’”
The non-smoking Plantation Inn has a pool and uses Gerard’s for its wonderful breakfasts. The 19 rooms are small but comfortable. The architecture has the sedate, almost languid, look that plantation owners enjoyed. You can almost see the inn’s former guests sipping their mint juleps on its porches. If so you’d have quite an imagination. The inn was built in 1985! Yet guests apparently have said this was like going to Grandma’s house. There are plans to make this more so, says Herb Coyle, the hotel manager. In particular, he notes, this is an adult-preferred property. “Our rooms offer quiet ambiance. We want the inn to be an oasis for guests who’ve had a busy day sightseeing, and we feel our pool would attract kids who would be noisy. When we discourage guests from coming with children, they say they understand, but kids are perfect. I tell them their kids are not the issue,” says Coyle, “It’s the guests’ expectations of serenity.”
Though the inn is only 26 years old, it was done in the style of Hawaii’s plantation period because the Canadian owners wanted to represent that period, Coyle says. Fair enough: it does offer tranquility. Coyle is a retired college counselor; he started here to help someone out and before he quite knew it, he was manager. “A psychologist who manages an inn,” we say, “How does that work out?” He replies, “A manager who cares.”
About 15 miles along Highway 30, which swings languidly south east round the mountains of West Maui then hurries up to Kahului in Central Maui, you find a couple running a B & B Inn, the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono . The couple not only care about their guests but love doing running the inn. This is a common finding about owners of country inns: They are people persons. And they have a thing for the past. This small inn, for example, is featured in an old architectural book about Wailuku. The book informs that the inn it was the 1924 wedding present of a prominent banker, Charles Dexter Lufkin, to his son and daughter-in-law. Lufkin had developed the First National Bank of Wailuku in 1901. The house was beautifully built and lovingly restored by its new owners Janice and Tom Fairbanks when, in 1997, they opened it as the 10-roomed Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, a house registered on the Hawaii State Register of Historic Places.
The Fairbanks were born and raised in the islands. Tom is a 6th generation Hawaiian. “I was 13 when I got my first pair of shoes!” he says. They met when both were working in the Royal Lahaina Resort. Tom is currently the Food & Beverage Director of the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel. Janice was running a nonprofit before they bought the inn. “I was never a people person,” she says, “I had to grow up and develop new skills.”
What are the benefits of staying in a small B & B like theirs? “First, costs,” says Janice. “The price may be the same as a discounted resort rate, but you get better value. We are more responsive. Guests sense we care more about their welfare. I play Mommy!” She hands us our gourmet breakfasts and continues, “Second, our location in the center of what became the Maui County seat in 1905. It’s close to the airport [and] the Iao Valley State Park. Our local shops on Market Street have great gift ideas for visitors at prices much less than you’d find in the resort areas.”
The inn doesn’t have a pool or a beach. Is that a problem? “No,” says Janice, “We have guests who come for a few days. I say to them ‘Why don’t you go somewhere in Lahaina and do the beach scene then come back to us?’ And they do exactly that!”
We ask Tom, “Why do you think visitors should come to Hawaii?” He replies: “We have consistent and comfortable weather. Our population is a gracious people willing to serve. And they offer a rich and diverse culture on beautiful islands where people respond to a smile. A bumper sticker once said: Lucky Come Hawaii. But for us, it’s Lucky Live Hawaii!”
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.