When a billionaire developer named Takeshi Sekiguchi first set his sights on building a hotel along a deserted stretch of land on Maui’s southwestern coastline, his vision was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
It was 1985 and, as the story goes, after an adjustment of international exchange rates meant a more favorable yen-to-dollar ratio, Japanese real estate tycoons began snapping up and developing hotels across the Hawaiian Islands.
But Mr. Sekiguchi wanted to build more than just another hotel. His vision was to create an art- and nature-filled fantasyland capable of transporting anyone who crossed the threshold into the ballerina-pink, open-air foyer and into a world where art, grandiose gardens, and gushing waterfalls could coexist in perfect harmony.
“What he created was a 40-acre botanical garden that was enough for people to see and experience all of Hawaii over a four- or five-night stay,” Grand Wailea Maui‘s Head Landscaper Jim Heid told me on recent tour of the grounds. “It’s a family resort, and the mission was not just to make it an attractive place to stay, but to bring the island of Maui into the property as well.”
By the time the 776-room mega-resort finally opened as a Grand Hyatt Wailea in 1991, Mr. Sekiguchi spent an estimated $600 million on the project—over $1 billion today—in what was then reported as one of the most expensive hotel’s ever built in the U.S.
“Of the $600 million it took to create to create the property, $40 million went to his personal collection of treasured artwork,” Grand Wailea’s Cultural Programming Manager and Leadership Educator Kalei Uwēko’olani said, as we stood admiring one of the nine original bronze Fernando Botero statues just off the lobby. “There was no specific artistic direction when it came to picking the artwork, basically, if he liked it, he bought it.”
Along with a team of skilled architects, designers, and landscapers, ultimately, it was Mr. Sekiguchi’s cultural and spiritual advisors who were instrumental in helping bring his vision to life.
“What Mr. Sekiguchi and his advisors wanted to do was introduce the idea of Ku and Hina traditions, which is basically the Hawaiian version of yin and yang, and together they brought a sense of harmony and balance to the property,” Uwēko’olani explained. “They intentionally designed every inch of the hotel to represent both the male and female energy, and everything was coordinated to bring that sense of harmony and balance ever since.”
After changing hands and hotel brands a few times over the years, the property was finally converted to Grand Wailea Maui, A Waldorf Astoria Resort in 2006; however, Mr. Sekiguchi’s vision has persevered thanks in large part to a dedicated team of stewards like Uwēko’olani and Heid who continue to share the hotel’s fascinating history with guests via their free cultural and garden tours.
Growing up in Southern California, my introduction to the Grand Wailea was through my parents, who planned a family vacation here circa 1992 after my mom read an article calling it one of “best hotels in the world” that year. Beloved by families ever since thanks to the sprawling activity pool replete with a lazy river, waterslides, and even the world’s first and only water elevator, the real draw, my mother told me on our recent visit, was the promise of the fantasy that Mr. Sekiguchi had set out to create, that in her words were like “nothing she’d ever seen before.”
On a recent stay at Grand Wailea this past January, we found a hotel that has now entered the second phase of the largest renovation in its 30-year history. From updated dining outlets, an exclusive club level tower, and soon-to-come exceptional spa concept, here’s what you need to know before booking your next visit.
Something New in the Napua Tower
While the hotel is undergoing renovations across many of the rooms and suites this year, the highly desirable Chapel and Lagoon Wings are already completed, with the Wailea and Molokini Wings not far behind. Still, the experience remains flawless.
One of the biggest changes thus far is the opening of Napua Tower, which debuted in June. These club level rooms and suites are more modern, and guests have access to a private concierge along with daily tasting and happy hours are the exclusive to Napua Lounge guests.
While we didn’t get to stay in Napua Tower on this visit, I did get a chance to check it out on a tour of the hotel, and the rooms are downright beautiful. Just be prepared to pay up for the additional amenities that come with the club level access if you stay here.
The Gardens and Grounds Still Steal the Show
My mom and I signed up for both the free garden tour with head landscaper Jim Heid and an amazing cultural tour with Kalei Uwēko’olani, and while I was admittedly a bit reluctant to wake up at 8 am on vacation to take a landscaping tour, it ended up being one of the more entertaining mornings on our trip.
Heid has been with the property since 2008, and it was clear off the bat that he’s extremely passionate about what he does. As he walked us through the gardens, which are home to more than 600 species of plants, my mom continued pepper him with questions about how and what she could plant that would thrive in her Southern California garden.
We soon learned that the grounds were largely inspired by Mr. Sekiguchi’s native Japan. A symbol of longevity and serenity in Japanese culture, rocks were not only flown in from around the base of Mt. Fuji, but prior to shipping them over, Mr. Sekiguchi had them photographed and meticulously placed to mirror the exact replica of what they looked like on the mountain—if that’s not attention to detail I don’t know what is.
As we walked the grounds and sampled fresh pineapple plucked straight from the garden, sucked on sugar cane, and nibbled on starfruit, I had newfound appreciation for the work that continued to go in to this beautiful resort, and if you have even the slightest green thumb in you, take this tour. I’m sure you’ll come to appreciate it more, too.
Wellness will Play a Bigger Role
One of the biggest renovation overhauls happening on property right now is to the hotel’s spa, which will reopen as a new concept in a 50,000-sq. ft. space next year. This new “wellness sanctuary” will offer “elevated experiences that reflect a deep reverence for the island’s nature and authentic healing practices steeped in the soul and spirit of Maui.”
In the meantime, a temporary spa has been established in the hotel’s Lagoon Wing and continues to offer all the spa services and massages you could hope for. I had an exceptional Hawaiian LomiLomi massage with an angel of a masseuse named Laurie, and not that she needed it, but my mom loved her age-defying facial which left her skin looking brighter and better than ever.
New and Improved Dining
There are also new dining outlets on property, starting with Botero Lounge in the open-air atrium at the center of the hotel. The lounge’s namesake comes for the nine bronze Fernando Botero statues, all of which have lived on property from the beginning and are part of Mr. Sekiguchi’s private collection.
With nightly live music and a menu that’s brimming with fresh sushi and specialty cocktails, Botero is easily the most exciting place to post up and people-watch after the sun goes down.
In Hawaiian, ‘Ikena means view, and this gorgeous indoor-outdoor venue lives up to the name. With views over the Pacific, the buffet and a la carte options are a delight—whatever you do don’t miss the Maui Honey Fried Chicken and Waffles and purple uala latte for some real local flavor.
There’s also a new fast casual market on property called Loulu, which is the all-day cafe serving up everything from delicious breakfast sandwiches, acai bowls, and coffee to pizzas and salads.
HumuHumu, and Why You Should Request Table 70
By far the best meal we had during our stay was at Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa. Better known as HumuHumu, this Hawaiian fusion fine dining restaurant has been mainstay at Grand Wailea for almost 30 years. While not a bad seat in the house, word to the wise, Table 70 is one of the most coveted spots in town, and perfect for groups or special occasions. When it’s not reserved in advance (and if you ask nicely) it’s worth waiting for, especially at sunset.
Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa has been a fixture here since the hotel first opened and is beloved by guests who come year after year to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Renovations are starting this spring at Humu, so make sure you check with the hotel before booking so you can plan your visit accordingly.
A Living Legend
When all is said and done, Grand Wailea will always hold a special place in my family’s heart.
In a way, I’ve grown up with this hotel, and we’ve seen each other through various life stages over the last 30-years. Even with the current multi-year, multi-phase renovations, the vision and the magic that Takeshi Sekiguchi first set out to create are still alive and thriving, and I for one, can’t wait to see what the future holds on my next visit.