LIHUE, Hawaii -- Spend a week on the Garden Isle, as Hawaii's oldest island is also known, and you'll understand how just a half dozen unique golf courses open to the public make Kauai a great stand-alone golf destination.
Add in a couple of posh resorts, outstanding dining, stunning sunsets and plenty of ocean views, and you've got my most recent trip to Hawaii in a nutshell.
Yes, it takes a while to get there. I had to fly from Houston to Seattle to Lihue, Kauai, on United Airlines, but it's so worth it. And, actually, when you go west (there was a four-hour time change), it's sort of easy to adjust. You just have to try to stay up later. Even then, there's really no need to set an alarm. There wasn't a day that I didn't wake up before 6 a.m. on my own, which was beneficial since most of our tee times came early in the morning.
Makai Course ranks among the best
The first stop on this tropical press trip (there were four other journalists as well) was one of my favorites -- the North Shore's St. Regis Princeville Resort and the Makai Course, a wonderful Robert Trent Jones Jr. design with plenty of ocean holes as part of a solid layout from the first hole to the 18th.
This was my third time to play this top-100 course, and I remembered every hole, but some make a bigger splash than others, of course. That might have something to do with the Pacific Ocean, which you can see from more than half the holes, starting with the second, third and fourth holes. There are also five oceanfront holes, starting with the par-4 sixth and par-3 seventh, which is arguably the course's signature hole, playing from a cliff over water.
You return to the ocean on the back nine for a few holes, and the course ends with two of my favorite finishing holes in golf -- the difficult par-4 17th, which features a four-club green over water and a dynamite, risk-reward, par-5 18th.
The scenery at Makai is so beautiful that Troon Golf and Princeville have been marketing sunset golf cart tours, sunrise yoga and GolfBoards as means to get around the course. (Famed surfer Laird Hamilton, who inspired the GolfBoards, lives here and can often be seen boarding.) And there's also another nine holes, the Woods Course, which wasn't renovated but still provides a good test of golf. All three nines are very walkable as well. And as an added bonus, the area is home to several albatrosses.
The rest isn't far behind the best
I almost don't like starting a Kauai golf trip with the Makai Course, because it would seem the rest of the trip might be anticlimactic. (You can find out more about golf on Kauai at www.golfkauaihawaii.com.)
But in truth, I anxiously looked forward to the rest of the golf. The reason is because the other courses are outstanding, and they're much different from the Makai. That's one of the aspects of Kauai golf I like best -- none of these courses seem very similar to one another, including the second course we played on this journey -- Wailua Golf Course, which is pretty close to the airport in Lihue.
Wailua costs the locals next to nothing to play, and while the green fees for outsiders has gone up over the past few years, it's still a steal for us, too. With the back nine originally opening in 1938, this classic layout begins and ends with ocean views, all for $48 during the week, $60 on the weekend for visitors. The signature, par-3 17th matches up with almost any course in Hawaii, and conditioning is far better than you find at most munis. The greens were as good as anything we played that week. And with a full-service shop and restaurant, it's a great place to hang out. I was even able to get my driver re-gripped for less than $10.
Also close to the airport is Hokuala (formerly Kauai Lagoons), the back nine that was renovated six years ago. Once 27 holes, it's down to 18 now as the property was bought by Timbers Resort, which plans to renovate the front nine, develop a luxury resort community and build a boutique hotel and large clubhouse. The Ocean Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, has one of the most spectacular ocean nines you'll find anywhere with the longest stretch of ocean holes -- 12 through 16 -- of any course in Hawaii. The par-3 14th, with the Ninini Point lighthouse behind the tee, is arguably one of the most scenic and best par 3s in Hawaii, which has more than its share of them.
The understated Puakea Golf Club was our next stop. Also close to the airport, Puakea makes for a great starting or ending point on any golf trip to Kauai, but this Robin Nelson design does well just by itself. There aren't any ocean views, but there are plenty of great views, including the signature par-3 sixth with a drop of nearly 100 feet over a pond. No two holes are alike, and Nelson carefully designed each one of them (albeit seven holes a few years after it opened as an 11-hole course) to play with the prevailing tradewinds.
And, finally, staying at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, we played my second favorite course on the island, and one of the most enjoyable layouts in Hawaii, Poipu Bay Golf Course, which is also an RTJ Jr. design. This former home of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf (won by Tiger Woods seven times), has it all -- ocean views, variety of holes and huge fairways, which makes it a great resort course. If the wind is down, you can really score out there. If it's blowing 30 mph, like it was for us, well, anything is tough in those conditions.
Wonderfully conditioned as you would expect from a tour-quality course, there are also no homes or development on the course, which makes it unique. Poipu Bay has the best practice facilities on the island. I know, because I spent two hours there at the end of my trip, working on my game, using everything from the course's perfect grass range to its practice bunker and pitching green.
Two premium resorts, memorable experiences
Three days at the St. Regis Princeville and three days at the Grand Hyatt Kauai is a week on Kauai in style, comfort and luxury.
A short shuttle ride from Makai Golf Club, the St. Regis was everything you would expect: heavenly beds, butler service, spectacular views overlooking Hanalei Bay and great meals. The St. Regis Kauai Grill, which is shaped like a nautilus shell with panoramic views of the bay, features farm-to-table beef, lamb, local fish dishes and delectable desserts. It's one of four distinctive dining venues to go with the resort's 10,000-square-foot Halele'a Spa and infinity pool among other outstanding amenities.
The larger Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa has its version of luxury, too. With 602 recently renovated guest rooms, and improvements at the rest of this large resort, the Grand Hyatt Kauai is a great honeymoon spot as well as a perfect base for golf, snorkeling, hiking and an array of other island activities.
The restaurant scene at Grand Hyatt Kauai is highlighted by Tidepools, which is built over koi-filled ponds for a truly romantic setting. Fresh fish and steaks and an extensive wine list complete the experience. But I was also impressed with Stevenson's Library, which offers great sushi, sports on TV, ocean views and a pool table. (I had the Rock 'N Roll eel roll twice.)
The Grand Hyatt Kauai is also where I had one of the best spa experiences in recent memory. You could spend a whole day at the award-winning, 45,000-square-foot Anara Spa, but I had golf to play. Still, the expertly performed Lomi-Lomi outdoor massage made me forget about the big number I made on the 18th hole earlier in the day. A walk along the Poipu Beach had a calming effect as well.
And while you could certainly spend your whole time at the resorts, we didn't. There were other restaurants, such as Tahiti Nui (featured in the movie "The Descendants," which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012). Located on the North Shore, "da Nui" is known for its live entertainment, Hawaiian pizzas and specialized drinks.
Another great dining experience was had at Plantation Gardens at Poipu Beach. Not that any of the local fish we had wasn't terrific, but Plantation Gardens was exceptional. From the crab rangoons to the Seafood Lau Lau (which I had) to the restaurant's famous pot roast, it's all outstanding and must-visit for anyone coming to Kauai.
And, finally, before I go, there was another competition besides golf on this trip, perhaps a game for which I am more suited. Courtesy of the folks at Princeville Resort, our group played in a bean bag tossing competition at Hanalei Pier on the North Shore.
There were eight teams of two, and I got paired with veteran golf author and writer Tony Dear. Significantly trailing in all of our matches, Dear and I mounted furious comebacks to finish the event undefeated to win the media crown. Our golf scores -- well, we'll save those reports for another time.