It’s no secret I love traveling. But I have to admit, sometimes rather than traveling, you just want a vacation — you know, the kind involving lots of lounging around, colorful sunset-hued drinks, a tropical melody wafting in the background interrupted only by the rhythmic lapping of waves on creamy golden sand …
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Oahu? We’ve done Oahu! Besides, Waikiki is too touristy.
Ah, but you’ve never done Oahu Ko Olina-style. That’s because Ko Olina is located on the leeward, or west, side of the island, the complete opposite side of Waikiki. And not only is Ko Olina about an hour away from Waikiki, it feels like a world away when you’re there.
Now if you’re worried that you’ll be far away from the food, drink and fun at Waikiki — don’t. Ko Olina is 642 acres of varied attractions and amenities (the same size as Waikiki, but with one-third the density). On one end you have the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa. Rooms are extra big here and my room had two lanais. Saltwater pools span the property, complete with a resident stingray and a few baby hammerhead sharks. (They release the sharks into the ocean once they’re full grown.)
The Ihilani is also known for their award-winning Ihilani Spa. Try the Deluxe Thalasso Therapy, which incorporates light, color, water jets and Hawaiian seawater for a particularly luxurious experience, or the traditional Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage.
At the other end, Hawaii’s only luxury marina. (They’re shooting the newest installment of the Pirates of the Carribbean movies nearby and you can see the Black Pearl pirate ship they built for the film.) Housing 344 wet slips with watercraft ranging from 30-footers to 240-foot luxury yachts, the Ko Olina Marina accommodates an international clientele from British to Japanese to mainland American. Sign up for all manner of water sports at the Marina Shop — everything from helicopter tours to deep sea fishing to swimming with dolphins.
And esconced in between is the luxurious Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort, complete with Roy Yamaguchi-designed gourmet kitchens and special touches like the floating lily pad lounge chaises in the pool. With two to three bedrooms going for half a mill and up, you can expect a lot of amenities like pocketed sliding glass doors that open fully to the lanai and lei-making classes with a former Miss Hawaii. (You can also rent out villas; rack rates start at $695/night.)
If your taste runs a little more family-friendly, there’s always the tropical water park-like Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club timeshares, with a relatively hopping bar area, a pitch black water tube slide, and plenty of kids running around. And coming in 2011 is Aulani, Disney’s first resort outside of its theme parks.
Of course, there are plenty of restaurants, from the island’s only other Roy’s at the 18-hole championship Ko Olina Golf Club to the Ihilani’s culinary adventure that is Azul to the more casual live-music venue Kolohe’s at the Marriott Beach Club. There’s even the Ko Olina Station with Mexican fast food, ice cream and other retail outlets And don’t worry about getting around. All the lagoons and different properties are connected via a very pleasant oceanfront path, so getting from hotel to lagoon to restaurant is not a problem. If you have to get to places more inland, like the Golf Club or the Station, just hop on the old-fashioned red trolley that circles the resort. It comes around every half hour.
But by far my favorite part of Ko Olina is the natural lagoon nestled against Lanikuhonua, the private estate of the Campbell Estate Family Trust (James Campbell settled in Hawaii in the 1800s). The lagoon served as the original inspiration for the four other man-made lagoons of Ko Olina. Indeed, it’s what people think Old Hawaii would look like, says Mike Nelson, executive vice president of the resort.
And it is heavenly. Go early in the day, when the tide is low and the waves less boisterous. Hop from boulder to boulder, scouring the glass-like tide pools along the way for curious black jumping crabs or yellow and black striped fish. Take in the stunning view of the Waianae mountain range. Relax in the shade on one of the flatter boulders, the soothing melody of traditional Hawaiian songs drifting from Lanikuhonua (Auntie Nettie teaches folk music there to locals on occasion), the thunder of crashing waves safely set back 100 feet or so by the intimidating boulder wall. Most likely, you’ll be the only human being on the rocks.
If you’re lucky, you may be able to get a glimpse of the private grounds of Lanikuhonua. Auntie Nettie is the official caretaker of the land and is a “kahu,” or spiritual advisor, a title she inherited from her mother, the original kahu. (She goes to every groundbreaking at Ko Olina, including the most recent one for the Aulani, the first Disney resort outside of its theme parks.) Lost shot many a scene on the sacred property, which is dedicated to preserving, displaying and promoting the cultural traditions of Hawaii. Legends and history abound on the grounds, as evidenced by the smattering of sacred boulders and rocks carried in from other parts of the island.
One thing you have to do before you leave is take advantage of Ko Olina’s location on the leeward side of the island. Unlike Waikiki, this side of the island gets one helluva sunset every evening.
You can enjoy it from your hotel lanai, but the best way to enjoy it is via catamaran (sign up at the Marina Shop.) Enjoy appetizers and an all-you-can-drink bar (their specialty is the Cata-tonic), and then kick back on deck as you sail to what seems like the end of the earth, chasing the sun as it lazes lower and lower, leaving an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and color in the clear backdrop of sky.
Photos by Anna M. Park.