It didn’t take long for me to decide what article I would open the year 2013 with. After surviving another Christmas season, I decided what better way to begin the New Year in the middle of winter than talk about the most magical vacation spot in the tropics! And yes Disney fans, I’m talking about Disney’s Aulani resort and spa located on the Leeward Coast of Oahu, about 18 miles west of Honolulu. This resort is totally different that any Disney resort you might have been to. Disney turned to veteran Imagineer Joe Rhode to help design the new resort, because Joe was raised in Hawaii and has intimate knowledge of its culture, people, traditions and history. Unlike typical Disney resorts, you’ll find few references to the Disney Company, or even few signs sans the gift shops that advertised the Disney moniker. Even Mickey and Minnie and the rest of the characters keep a low profile. The idea was to showcase Hawaii’s culture, its people, the land and its history. And Joe Rhode and company have done an amazing job.
The resort is built in the Ko-Olina resort area of Oahu, along with the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and spa and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club. In addition, there is the Ko Olina Golf Club and Ko Olina Marina, as well as shopping and dining at Ko Olina Station and Ko Olina Center across the street. Also the Watabe Wedding manages four wedding chapels on the resort property. This beautiful resort is located within minutes of major shopping areas, restaurants, gas stations and more. Disney opened its doors on August 29, 2011.
Before I go on, let me say this about Oahu. Known as the gathering place, 0ahu is one of the most developed and populous of the island chain. With Honolulu as the state capital, its population is about 953,207 (2010 census) and it is host to some of Hawaii’s most popular tourist attractions. Because of this, much of the pristine and wild natural Hawaii has given way to strip malls, traffic jams, and many resort areas.
In fact, Oahu has some of the nation’s largest rush-hour traffic jams. My wife and I are veteran visitors to the islands, having visited all the islands (Except Ni’ihau) and have seen the changes over the years. Many first-time visitors have a James a Michener perception of the island, and our friends included, have expressed a bit of disappointment upon first seeing the island. You would be hard-pressed to travel any roads on the island, with the exception of several stretches in the central Oahu plain, without running into a traffic light, or traffic itself. For many, it’s almost like they never left home; and even the locals (The Island’s residents) acknowledge this fact.
In order to see the Hawaii most of us envision, a visit to Kaua’i, the Garden Island or Moloka’i, where you won’t even find a traffic light or a building taller than two stories is in order. Maui, with its famous and scenic “Road to Hana” and the big Island of Hawaii, where you can observe the world’s longest erupting volcano Kilauea are also amazing destinations.
But this is by no means to say Oahu is not a beautiful tropical island. You just have to search little extra to find it. There is so much to do and see here, it would probably take years to take it all in. With that said, let’s talk about Aulani.
Aulani has to be the most beautiful resorts we have ever seen in our travels. It is constructed in a U-shaped configuration, with the main lobby bracketed on the right side by the Wai’anae tower (East side) and the Ewa tower on the left (West side). You are immediately immersed into the Hawaii culture upon entry; everywhere you turn there is some artifact, mural or picture that tells something of Hawaiian life. For example, when you enter the lobby you’ll see two pools of water on either side. The right side pool has cascading water with large rock formations, whereas the pool on the left is shallow and has quiet water flowing. This represents the Hawaiian masculine and feminine. Overhead you’ll see a beautiful strip mural, which depicts Hawaiian life and the discovery of the islands.
Throughout the small rooms in the lobby, you’ll see numerous artifacts and pictures, depicting the Hawaiian culture. From the lobby take the stairway down and you’ll be immersed in a beautiful Hawaiian tropical garden. This garden is surrounded by both towers and is filled with native plants, rocks, and many artifacts from the Islands. This is the centerpiece of the resort. Stepping outside you will see one most beautiful Koi ponds anywhere. Disney has crafted this pond with waterfalls, lava rock formations and is stocked with beautiful, amazing fish. In the distance you’ll see a large” volcano”.
This beautiful garden extends all the way to the saltwater lagoon. In addition to the beautiful flora and footpath bridges over the waterways, the garden boasts a guest favorite attraction; “The lazy River”. Just grab a tube and let the slow-moving river transport you past the beautiful scenery in the garden. Inside that volcano I mentioned, is a dark, enclosed waterslide. Climb to the top of the mountain and ride back down into the river, it’s a blast. The garden is also host to the Menehune Bridge, a water filled play area for the kids.
And speaking of Menehune, keep an eye peeled out for these little Hawaiian leprechauns. They are scattered all over the garden. The resort caters to kids, where next to the Ama Ama restaurant is the kids place Aunty’s Beach Club. Here, parents can leave the little ones for secure supervised activities while they go enjoy the beach, hot tub or a quiet dinner alone. For the teen set, there is Opio, or youth. Here activities are available for teen’s ages 14 to 17 years old. For the family, there are tons of activities.
Fitness walks, Hawaiian crafts, storytelling, canoe racing fish feeding and much more. One more thing; you’ll find all the furniture, staircases, flooring and more are all crafted from native Hawaiian materials, again showcasing the rich Hawaiian heritage. Even the quick-service outlets, like the Lava shack or Mama’s Snack Stop are pure Hawaiian in deco with Hawaiian words along with English to enhance the experience.
As of this writing, the resort boasts four hot tubs, and the 8,200-square-foot, zero-entry pool with a tunnel body slide, called the Waikolohe Pool. Let’s not forget the beautiful crescent shaped saltwater lagoon. This protected lagoon tames the rough Hawaiian waves, providing a beautiful, tranquil beach experience. In addition, at sunset some of the most beautiful pictures can be taken at this lagoon. Beach chairs and umbrellas are complementary, but a visit to Makiki Joe’s rental hut you can rent kayaks, snorkels and more.
Aulani offers four room options:
1- Standard Room 2- Parlor Suite 3- Lei Hulu Suite and the ‘Ahu ‘Ula Suite. For Disney Vacation Club members, the Villas offered are… 1– Deluxe Studio 2- 1 Bedroom Villa 3- 2 Bedroom Villa and the Grand Villa. The rooms are priced, in addition to size and amenities, according to views. You may choose Ocean view, Poolside, Island Gardens or Standard.
We stayed in the 2 Bedroom Villa with a standard View. Our room was comfortable, beautiful and had every amenity for our 10 day stay. All the rooms are decorated to reflect Hawaiian traditions. Native materials are used throughout, and warm earth tone paints are used. In keeping the Hawaiian society in the forefront, the only reference to Disney is a hand carved wooden Mickey Mouse lamp. Beautiful Hawaiian paintings adorn the walls and beautiful teak wood is used throughout. All the rooms, even the standard and deluxe studio accommodations, have everything you need for a comfortable stay.
You could spend your entire vacation and never leave the resort here in the Aulani. In addition to childcare services, pristine beach,pool, hot tubs, restaurants, and all the activities offered, including some amazing Hawaiian shows, Aulani is also home to the Laniwai Spa. This amazing 23,000 ft.² spa is one of the most beautiful facilities in any resort. Full arrays of spa services are available… i.e. Traditional Thai Massage, Hana Pōhaku Lomilomi (Heated stone massage), sports massage, Reflexology, (therapeutic method of relieving pain) spa offers facial treatments, couples packages and more. (A total of over 150 spa treatments) But the highlight of the spa is a beautiful Hawaiian garden outside the main facility. Here you’ll find showers; hot tubs massage tables and a place to sit and unwind after your treatment. It is truly a paradise.
My family purchased a spa package for me for my birthday, and it was the experience of a lifetime! The spa also offers a steam room and a Swedish sauna. Don’t forget to check out the amazing decor, like the rest of the resort, it reflects the Hawaiian culture and people. Another wonderful activity which is fun for all members of the family is the Rainbow Reef. This saltwater snorkeling lagoon gives guests a chance to see beautiful native fish in their natural habitat. Located in the middle of the garden, it’s an remarkable chance to see fish without worrying about waves or other distractions. This activity incurs an additional cost as follow: Admission includes a life vest and a mask and snorkel set. One-Day Rental (unlimited entry for one day) $20 per adult; $15 per child. Length-of-Stay rental is good for your entire stay, $39 per adult; $29 per child.
Vacationers, like an army runs on its stomach. For us, one of the most important aspects of a good trip is the food. Price, availability, and of course quality, all factor into the equation. Before our trip my wife and I perused the many blogs and forums just to get an idea of what guests thought of the new resort. One glaring consistency seemed to pop up – A majority of the reviews complained about the price of food, and the fact that many thought it was so so, and that the portions were not that big. Let me say this, HAWAII is expensive! No matter where you go, you will find prices here very expensive. Any veteran vacation traveler knows that any high end resort no matter where in the world, you will pay top dollar to enjoy the amenities there. But Aulani’s prices are in line with any other resort we have stayed at over the years. Note…If you want sticker shock, vacation in Bermuda. You’ll come back thinking Hawaii’s is bargain-basement.
Aulani has two table service restaurants: ”AMA’AMA” and Makahiki-The bounty of the islands.
AMA’AMA offers casual dining with beautiful ocean views. Entrées include today’s fresh catch, Angus beef, rack of lamb, roasted chicken breast and more. Makahiki is the resort’s buffet featuring carved prime rib, all you care to eat crab legs and steak and they also offer a wonderful à la cart menu. I had my birthday dinner at AMA’AMA, including appetizer, Entrée and desserts, and our entire traveling party was well satisfied and had no complaints. We sampled all the eateries at Aulani, and yes the prices are a little high, but that’s the price to pay when visiting paradise. And my Wife Donna is a very picky and choosey eater and she totally enjoyed everything offered. Oahu is the complete Island…With Honolulu and the many small towns and strip malls; you will find dozens of places to eat off resort, including many name brand chains.
In addition to the two main eateries, Aulani has several quick-service restaurants to stave off starvation…One Paddle; Two Paddle has sandwiches, wraps and burgers. Off the Hook by poolside have tasty appetizers, platters, sliders and more. And Mama’s Snack Stop, great for the kids, has hot dogs, sausages chicken tenders and desserts. Our favorite spot for a relaxing drink and down time was the ‘Olelo room, right next to Makahiki. This beautiful lounge is a tribute to the Hawaiian language. The lounge’s décor features wooden depictions of common objects and they are translated into their Hawaiian names. The bartenders (Who are native to the island and are experts in the language) will be glad to help you understand this unique language.
As stated before, the sights and activities here on Oahu are almost limitless. You could just stay and Aulani your entire stay and not be disappointed, but take time to embrace all the island has to offer. I will not even attempt to try to list everything, but will touch on some of our favorites.
No visit to Oahu is complete without a tour of Pearl Harbor. The sneak attack on our Pacific Fleet on December 7th, 1941 by Japanese forces still echoes today as the “Day of Infamy” This solemn tribute is not to be missed, alone with the museums and other artifacts at the site. Climb Diamond Head. This remnant of Oahu’s last volcanic eruption is approximately 150,000 years old and is one of Hawaii’s most iconic landmarks. This challenging trail up the crater includes two sets of stairs, totaling 175 steps, as well as dark, underground tunnels and old military bunkers that require a flashlight. You gotta to be in shape for this one!
In addition, there are luaus, midnight dinner cruises, and a complete nightlife in Honolulu, with restaurants, nightclubs, and more. One of our favorite destinations is the Kualoa ranch on the Windward side of the island. This 19th-century sugar plantation is a popular destination for horseback riding, sightseeing tours of the rugged ranch itself and beach excursions. It is one of Hawaii’s most famous Auhpua’a (traditional land division). It is well worth the trip and the scenery is stunning.
And let’s not forget a visit to those beautiful white Hawaiian beaches. All beaches in Hawaii are free, and with a little searching, you can find some nice secluded ones. And if you’re into surfing, a trip to the famed North Shore in the town of Haleiwa should be on the agenda. This iconic surfer’s mecca draws the best surfers from all over the world. November and February are the best time to view the big waves, and right nearby is the famed Waimea bay. From the North Shore, you can also book a swim with the sharks, excursion fishing and much more. One last suggestion… Plan to visit the amazing Waimea Falls Park. This beautiful valley was part of the ancient Hawaiian religion and was a sacred place for the Hawaiian Kings. It is now a historical nature park and botanical garden. You can walk or take a golf-cart ride up to the centerpiece of the park, the 45-foot Waimea Falls. You can even swim in the cool, refreshing pool at the bottom. An admission is required for the park, but well worth it.
HINTS AND TIPS
Here are a couple of tips to make your trip more memorable.
1- Rent a car. There is no better way to see the Island, both in cost and convenience. Main public transportation in Oahu is the bus, but believe me, a car is the best way to go. Bargains can found; we got a mini-van for 10 days for only $189.00. A quick note-If you are not Disney Vacation Club members, there is a charge a day to park at the resort.
2- If you have a room with a kitchen, use it. Eating in Hawaii whether at the resort or out, can put a serious dent in the wallet. There is a huge Costco and other food chains just a mile and half from Aulani. We brought enough provisions for breakfast and lunch in our suite, and we saved a ton.
3- Avoid HI and H2 (Oahu’s two main interstate roadways) at all costs during morning and evening rush hour. Aulani is only 18 miles from Honolulu, but it will take more than an hour if you get caught in the traffic.
4- Purchase the Entertainment book for Hawaii. We have always done this and the savings on dinners, excursions and tours more than pay for itself.
5- Purchase the “Hawaii for Dummies” book. This humorous book is a bible for novices and veteran travelers alike. Literally all your questions about the Islands can be found with additional tips and tricks, it’s one of the best aids you can purchase.
We have only a few grumbles. First, Aulani is still in a “Soft Opening Mode” and they are still ironing out some wrinkles. One complaint we had and shared with other guests we met was there is really no “Adult” areas at the resort. You will find no “Quiet Cove” pool or hot tubes here, at least not at this writing. The kids were literally jumping in the hot tubes, swimming underwater, making a quiet spa experience quite impossible. Same with the pool. There was a pool and spa next to the Wai’anae tower side, but now it’s under construction. We were told it used to be basically for adults, but no one could give an answer to what it will be after construction. The front desk said they had similar complaints, but again, no firm answers. I hope Disney does provide a few adult areas. There is plenty of room, and with thousands of couples, partners and even singles coming, they certainly deserve an adult place of their own.
The only other thing I would personally like to see is maybe another table-service restaurant, other than that, we are already planning our next trip.
Well, that seems to be it. Again, this article barely scratches the surface, but hopefully, will give a bit of insight and information we have gleaned from our trips and experiences here. This beautiful resort is an amazing combination of Disney Magic and Hawaiian beauty. You’ll be glad you came.