There are innumerable reasons to love the Hawaiian island of Kauai. From fifty miles of beautiful beaches, which is more beach per mile than any of its sister islands, to the fact that only about 5% of the island is developed at all. No building can be taller than the tallest coconut tree, and many places on the island are only accessible by air or sea. Nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” the landscape is lush and verdant, rife with green and gold mountains, turquoise Pacific Ocean waves and waterfalls.
Golf is a key component of the myriad recreation options available. Grab a National Rental Car at Lihue, the island’s primary airport, and in ten-minute’s time you’ll be at Wailua, regarded as one of the most beautiful municipal courses in the nation, and recently named the third-finest public course in Hawaii by Golf Channel. Built on the site of an old coconut plantation, the course’s original holes date back to the 1920’s, and in 1962 then expanded to a full eighteen under the direction of Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Toyo Shirai. There are some ocean views, plenty of breeze, and the sticker shock will be minimal, especially considering how expensive Hawaii can be. Green fees top out at about $60. (Sounds too good to be true, until you consider residents can play for $15!)
Puakea is another fine course in very close proximity to the airport. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping scenery or scintillating ocean views of other Kauai courses, particularly on the opening nine, which have a few holes near roadways and retail establishments. But this course, which happens to be owned by AOL founder Steve Case, is adjacent to the actual Jurassic Park movie set at the foot of Mount Ha’upu. It has many natural streams and ravines which are lovely and provide challenging design features. The inward nine is more remote, with a series of tough par 4s, varying length par 3s and some slam-bang par 5s, the split-fairway eleventh, in particular.
For a dozen years Poipu Bay played host to one of the most exclusive professional golf tournaments in existence, so restrictive it makes the Masters look like an open audition. For a dozen years, from 1994 through 2006, the course played host to the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf, open only to the winners of that season’s four Major championships. Once-and-future Hall-of-Famers named Norman, Crenshaw, Els, Lehman, Mickelson, Furyk and Woods have all tasted victory at Poipu Bay, considered by Golf Digest to be among America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. This seaside beauty sits on more than two hundred manicured acres adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, with its dramatic open-air lobby looking out to the Pacific. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation, set between lush mountains and rugged ocean bluffs, is one of Hawaii’s most colorful, not to mention enduring, golf venues. The resort underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2012, and now features a water playground with river pool, waterfalls and a saltwater lagoon, among other amenities.
It’s an ongoing shame that the ferocious Prince Course at Princeville Resort, on the island’s north end, remains closed. It was one of the most exciting and memorable tracks in all of Hawaii. However their eighteen-hole Makai Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is open and ready for play, and is a favorite of visitors and islanders alike. Makai offers many memorable holes, but none better than the seventh, a long par-3 over a gaping chasm, the turquoise Pacific waters churning below. It is one of the most thrilling holes on Kauai. It incorporates serene lakes and stunning ocean coastline throughout, while the adjacent nine-hole Woods Course winds through native woodlands against a backdrop of lush mountains.
Not too far from Princeville is a unique hotel that will appeal to those who enjoy getting ‘off the grid.’ (The polar opposite of a St. Regis, or other glitzy resort hotels.) The Hanalei Colony Resort is found north of the town of Hanalei. It’s about fifteen winding minutes, and seven one-lane bridges from town. There’s no AC, no TV, but comfortable rooms, superb ocean views, the soothing sound of pounding surf, a very nice on-site restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Speaking of eateries, Kauai doesn’t offer the richness or diversity that are found on other, more populous Hawaiian Islands, but nobody’s going hungry either. One of the best bets is also one of the most cleverly-named restaurants on the island. Bar Acuda, in Hanalei, offers delightful tapas of all kinds in a very hip setting. The seared tuna and lamb chops are particular highlights, but everything they serve in this ultra-hip outdoor-and-indoor bistro is wonderful.
In busy Kapaa Town, there is a sedate, French-inspired bistro called Art Café Hemingway, which is unique in that the same space affords two separate-but-connected eateries. The original founders, Markus and Jana, run the operation Friday through Sunday, while talented protégé Jeremiah is in charge Monday through Thursday. It doesn’t matter what day one visits, because they offer delectable brunch (with vegan options) and subtle, savory dinner (fresh fish, wonderful cuts of beef, ethereal desserts, etc.) every day of the week.
Viewing the ocean from the fairway is one thing, but all visitors would be well served in getting out onto the deep blue proper, and no outfit does a better job than Holo Holo Charters, which offers a wide range of water-borne activities, including sightseeing, snorkeling, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the ‘forbidden island” of Niihau, which offers no visitor’s accommodations, and is home only to native Hawaiians. (IE—of pure Hawaiian ancestry.)
Try their Napali Sunset Tour, which brings lucky passengers up the remotely beautiful Napali coast, on the northwest side of Kauai. The amazing craggy, mountainous topography, which is characterized by sheer drops right down to the azure waters, is unforgettable. Add in the flowing bar, fine appetizers, excellent dinner service and lively music, and you have the recipe for a vacation highlight in a trip that will have plenty, both on and off the course.