The biggest travel publications and outlets all agree: The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, is one of the very best resorts on the planet. But it’s when you realize that each visitor draws a conclusion from totally different elements, that you understand just how special the place is for literally anyone.
Landing on Maui you see the surf and sand beneath your wings and think, “Wow.” For a second you’re Maitland and Hegenberger on the first Hawaiian flight back in 1927, in pure awe. “Maui Wowi,” you think, but hope you didn’t say aloud. There’s nothing like that setting in Minnesota. Nothing like it in at least forty other states for that matter. Tropical warmth, Caribbean blues. I got on the plane shivering in a jacket and got off the plane sweating… in a t-shirt and shorts.
“Sir, you forgot your jacket,” the flight attendant waved. “No,” I shook my head, disagreeing on semantics. I didn’t “forget” it.
“I’m retiring,” my wife said. “I’m not going back,” my son piled on. “Is this Africa,” my youngest asked, joking but making a solid point. It sure didn’t feel like the rest of the United States, certainly not in winter. It felt like paradise.
You land on the northeast coast of Maui, in Kahului, just inland from some of the island’s most famous and expansive beaches. Helicopters spin up and set down on an airfield next to you, carrying dozens of visitors on adventures over the Road to Hana, the Pacific coastline, and other quests seeking whales, volcanoes, and waterfalls. I looped the island that way on my last visit with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, and loved it, but it’s not for everyone. My pilot was a little crazy, wanting us to get the best possible views of things I was content to see from “a bit further away.” It’s certainly the most efficient way to experience the Road to Hana, but helicopter rides are no substitute for the fun you can have on Maui on the ground.
There’s also no substitute for putting your toes in the sand and feeling the bathtub-warm water circle your ankles. Whales are a whole lot bigger from boats at sea level, turtles a lot more realistic swimming around you, and golf holes a lot more difficult when you have to actually hit shots on the courses you see. I’ve watched the Sentry Tournament of Champions annually—held at Kapalua—and always thought it looked pretty easy, especially with those scores.
Let’s just say things are definitely deceiving from a distance—and my scorecard looked a lot different.
Leaving the airport most people head to the west coast—south to most of the resorts in Kihei and Wailea, or northwest to Kaanapali and Kapalua. That drive is a beautiful one, with mountains and fields around you splitting wide open to a panoramic ocean view. These are volcanic islands, so the elevation changes are no surprise. What is a surprise is how many people on a daily average have the same genius idea we did—to go to Hawaii in the winter.
We took a shuttle because there was a shortage of rental cars. Seems every one of those rental cars was at the beach the day we arrived. That said, the further north we went the less traffic there was, and by the time we passed the hotels and golf courses at Kaanapali, it started to feel less touristy and more luxurious.
The beaches were as plentiful but less crowded, traffic nonexistent, there were more rainforest settings and less desert. It was already feeling quite special by the time we turned left and entered the paradise that is The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua.
Welcome to the Ritz
Upon arrival, you’re greeted like you’re the president, or someone of importance. They thank you for being there, which just seems completely backwards. (No, mahalo to you!) Steps into their newly renovated and expanded lobby and Alaloa Lounge, you are longing to go into a dead sprint to the edge of the glass-walled balcony in front of you because you want to see it—you want to see it all. And when you do, what you see just blows your mind. Beneath you there’s a literal cascade of swimming pools—too many different bodies of water to count—and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean, far as the eye can see.
“Maui Wowi, indeed,” I think. Though my son’s eye roll tells me I actually said that one. Oops.
“The work is never done here,” explains Rebecca Pang, the resort’s Director of Public relations, as she gestures toward the new oceanfront suites going in with firepits and private pools. “If you’d have come a year from now,” she smiles and laughs, as if I wouldn’t read into that as an invitation. “What this place is today is more amazing than it was 10 years ago. And what it will be 10 years from now…” Her sentence trails off but doesn’t need to be finished.
That’s the beauty of Hawaii, though. It doesn’t matter when you come, it’s always special. Doesn’t matter what amenities your hotels have, it’s always amazing. If you go to Hawaii and go home disappointed, I can’t relate to you. Every day on any and every island on four separate trips I’ve found something special I haven’t found anywhere else.
On Maui, specifically at this Ritz, I found a hotel full of big rooms and bigger suites with incredible views on any/every side. Our adjacent rooms connected perfectly into a 2BR Suite—more than big enough for six people—with multiple balconies and ocean views. “This is the perfect family setup,” my wife said. “You need to put that in your story.” As hotel suite arrangements go—in my experience at least—this was definitely Top 5.
A short stroll down the hill, there’s a cove with rock walls on both sides and a beautiful stretch of beach in between. The evening we arrived it was empty, save for some crabs and waves. “Don’t say it, Dad,” my son threatened, standing in the soft sand beside me. “Wasn’t even thinking it,” I replied.
Okay, so maybe I was. Maui has that effect on me. When we returned to the beach to watch the sunrise the next morning, we found the cove even glassier, the waves even bigger, a rainbow-filled sky and turtles in the water. We caught a setting so pristine that one of my pictures was requested by multiple magazines.
“Amazing picture,” I heard time and time again. “Had nothing to do with the photographer,” I’ve maintained, because it’s true. “That’s all Hawaii.”
Favorite of the Pros
The Ritz-Carlton’s beach is tucked below a 54-acre Pacific perch with a plethora of pools, surrounded by one golf course—Arnold Palmer’s Bay Course—and just down the street from another, Coore and Crenshaw’s Plantation Course.
Every year the PGA Tour kicks off the new season from Hawaii, bringing all the winners from the past year to Maui to celebrate victories past and victories still to come. The biggest names in the game have played and won there—from Justin Thomas to Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm this year—and the course features some of the most spectacular views on earth, with the Pacific and/or the island of Molokai visible from every single hole on the course.
You hear player after player talk about what a treat it is to be there, to stay and play there—these guys who can stay and play anywhere—and it brings to mind how Pro Bowlers always felt in the NFL back when the Pro Bowl was held in Hawaii. There’s just something special about Hawaii. There’s just something special about playing in Hawaii.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw built the Plantation Course out of former pineapple fields, their first of many collaborations since. They tried hard to bring their shared love of classic architecture from the mainland to Hawaii and did their best to work with elements not found on many classic courses—like lava rocks and rain forests. It’s been ranked in America’s Public Top 100 since the first list came out in 2003 and currently sits in Golf Digest’s Top 25, fresh off a massive renovation in 2019.
At $350 for 18 holes with cart, this isn’t an everyday round for most, but neither is it an everyday experience. The course is as challenging as it is scenic, with massive elevation changes affected by both wind and warmth, plenty of blind shots, and Tour-level playing conditions and speeds most seldom get to play with. Every trusted source considers it a Top 5 Public Play in Hawaii and if all of those factors sound “worth it” to you, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
Lacking in Nothing
The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, has 466 rooms and suites nice enough for the pickiest person and big enough for the biggest family. Its six restaurants range in offerings from the best breakfast any of my family has had in America—at Ulana Terrace—to a tasty dinner menu at The Banyan Tree with a variety of indoor/outdoor seating settings (including fire pits), sprawling ocean views and one of the nicest managers I’ve ever met.
There are trails, basketball and tennis courts, water sports of every sort, a grocery and gift shop and a spa, plus more restaurants on-site and even more—like the Sea House Restaurant—just a quick and complimentary shuttle ride away.
“Let me know if you need anything else,” Rebecca told us, the smile never leaving her face, knowing full well that we’d be stupid to ask for anything more. “Thank you for coming to visit us,” she said. She, too, had it all backwards, and this time I couldn’t let it go.
“Thank you for letting us BE here.”
Mahalo, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. Mahalo, Maui. I can’t mahalo you enough.