Beaches, pools, palm trees add to luxury of Hawaii’s top resorts

A wider range of people probably stay at luxury resorts in Hawaii than just about anywhere in the world.

The islands have everything from inexpensive condos to B&Bs to business hotels. But the resorts draw not only the crowd with the bigger wallets, but also the couples on their honeymoon or anniversary who might never pay that kind of price again.

While there are dozens of resorts sprinkled throughout Hawaii, here are my favorites from each island:

Oahu: The Kahala Hotel and Resort

The competition in Waikiki is fierce, from the grand Halekulani to the famous Royal Hawaiian and the trendy new Waikiki Edition. The Trump Waikiki has added an urban high-rise experience.

But my choice for the top spot to stay in the most gathered of places in “the gathering place” of Oahu is almost out of town. The Kahala, slightly to the east of Waikiki on the other side of Diamond Head, can feel like an outer island resort even though it’s less than 15 minutes to the heart of the nighttime action.

The beach isn’t much, and you’ll need to rent a car to drive to the area around the Kahala Mall if you want to eat anywhere other than the hotel. But as an urban getaway, it can’t be beat.

Kauai: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa

The recently renovated St. Regis Princeville on the lovely north shore of the Garden Island is getting most of the buzz these days. Overall, I prefer that more lush side of the island, despite the extra chance of a wet day.

I also like the massive Marriott with the equally huge flower-shaped swimming pool just outside Lihue, even though you can hear the jets on approach to the airport. But overall, my pick is the Grand Hyatt, in the sunny Poipu district.

It has a calming, arts-and-crafts style design and lies low on the land, following a hillside to sweep down to the beach. Except it’s not a beach, it’s a rocky stretch with dangerous waves.

That’s why the Hyatt built one of the best series of pools on the island, including a meandering, river-like example that features hidden grottos perfect for a romantic kiss.

Maui: The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua

No island has more high-end resorts than Maui. Luxury hotels sit side by side in Kaanapali to the north and Wailea to the south.

All the high-end brands are here – Four Seasons, Fairmont, Westin, Hyatt, Waldorf Astoria – and the secluded Hotel Hana-Maui. Honeymooners are so numerous, there’s even a local pun: “recently Mauied.”

Pick one? OK, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. It’s just above one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii and a short walk from another. The hotel dropped the stuffy English country house look a few years ago and had a makeover in a tropical arts and crafts style.

It’s a little far, at the northern end of the island, but most of the time that is fine with me. The only drawbacks are when a golf tournament or big convention overwhelms the place.

I love it, though my kids would rather be at the Fairmont Kea Lani.

Lanai: Four Seasons Resort, Manele Bay

You have to really want to get way, way, way away from it all to pick Lanai as a major part of your vacation. The former Dole plantation island now harvests tourists at two Four Seasons resorts.

The luxurious Lodge at Koele just outside Lanai City, high up on the crest of the island, has never been much of an attraction to me. Pay $295 per night to sit up in pine trees next to a golf course?

But Manele Bay I could get used to. It’s snuggled against Hulopoe Beach, which has made many U.S. “best beach” lists over the years. The Manele Bay is where Bill and Melinda Gates were married, so it’s hard to beat the cachet for exclusivity and seclusion.

Do splurge for one of the $150-a-day Jeeps to see the island, at least for a day. The shuttle buses are tedious and tend to keep visitors anchored in a few spots.

Big Island: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

This would have been a hard choice before the tsunami waves from the Japanese earthquake this year closed down Kona Village. The make-believe Polynesian village with cottages tucked away near lagoons and palm groves was idyllic.

So I won’t have to choose between it and my other top pick, the Mauna Kea. The resort was built by millionaire Laurance Rockefeller, who brought in the New York firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, best known for skyscrapers like the Lever House in Manhattan.

The result was a white concrete hotel – sounds bad, I know. But the materials allowed for huge open spaces and internal atriums. When paired with the blue tile floors and signature orange doors, it’s magical. Great beach, too.

Compared to other Kona-side resorts, it can be a bit sedate.

Molokai: none

The Molokai Ranch resort tried several management companies before closing in 2008. The main lodge won design awards, and guests could split their time between the hotel and three tent camps spread around the 65,000-acre property. Then the camps were reduced to just one, near the beach.

If this great lodge had been built close to the ocean, it might have had a chance. But for now, it sits shuttered.

The only options on Molokai are the funky Hotel Molokai, some condo rentals and a scattering of house rentals elsewhere on the island.

For many fans of the low-key escape, it’s more than OK that “The Friendly Island” is the only major island in Hawaii to avoid the lure of luxury.

Orange County Register writer Sarah Santoyo contributed to this report.

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