Originally created 03/12/06

Hawaii's Wailea is paradise - but paradise isn't cheap



WAILEA, Hawaii - If these islands are heaven, Wailea is paradise.

At the base of a dormant volcano, this extravagant and romantic resort town on the southwestern shores of Maui provides a perfect postcard view from every angle. If you're fortunate enough to stay here, it will be hard to leave.

But don't leave home without the essentials: swimsuit, golf clubs, a good book - and a lot of money. Paradise, after all, rarely comes at a discount, and Wailea has the highest hotel rates in Hawaii.

Framed between the unspoiled, rolling hillsides of Haleakala and the peaceful Pacific Ocean, Wailea is home to some of Hawaii's most luxurious hotels and spas where celebrities, honeymooners and the world's wealthy come to indulge and unwind.

Despite having three times the land of bustling Waikiki, Wailea has just five oceanside resorts. All of them - the Grand Wailea Resort, the Four Seasons Resort Maui, the Fairmont Kea Lani, the Renaissance Beach Resort and the Wailea Marriott Resort - feel private and peaceful.

The opulent and open-air properties all have lush tropical gardens, fountains and flaunt sweeping ocean views against a backdrop of spouting humpback whales and uninhabited Kahoolawe island. But they are each very distinct in their architecture and feel.

Perhaps the granddaddy of them all is the 780-room Grand Wailea Resort. Built in 1991 on 40 oceanfront acres, the sprawling resort features the largest spa in Hawaii - the 50,000-square-foot Spa Grande.

What's outside the hotel is just as impressive as what's inside. It's an oceanside oasis, featuring nine swimming pools, seven water slides that make it a favorite among visiting families, caves, bridges, waterfalls and a children's beach.

Next door to the Grand Wailea is the 380-room Four Seasons Resort Maui, where rooms run $365 for a mountainside room and can go up to a whopping $9,500 a night for the palatial 5,000-square-foot Maile Suite.

Taxes alone for the three-bedroom suite will set you back more than $1,000 a night. Spend a week here and the bill will end up being more than the average person's annual pay.

But not every room on Wailea will set you back that much. Rooms can be found at all five resorts for between $300 and $400 a night. Some guests do nothing on their vacations but relax at the resorts all day, which makes their stay relatively affordable because they have few other expenses for entertainment aside from food.

Farther along Wailea Alanui Drive is the Fairmont Kea Lani, which resembles a gleaming white Mediterranean castle. It is the only resort in Hawaii that has nothing but suites and villas. The one-bedroom suites start at $385 a night and the posh villas start at $1,600 a night.

"Within the Wailea area, they have the some of the finest golf courses and hotels in the world," said Rex Johnson, president and chief executive of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "A lot of that infrastructure is newer than we have in Waikiki and is therefore able to exact some of those higher rates they get."

Frequent visitors to Wailea say that the steep hotel prices are not just for the luxuries of a gentle bed, purple orchid petals scattered in the bathroom, priceless views and waking up to the sound of waves. It's also the exceptional service and the attention to detail.

Four Seasons claims it has an average ratio of 1.5 staff members for every guest room; you may want to bring a wad of cash in small bills for tipping housekeepers, valets, bellhops and wait staff.

Wailea is also a haven for tennis and golf.

With three scenic par-72 courses, the Wailea Golf Club is one of the largest golf facilities in Hawaii. Renowned golf instructor David Leadbetter, swing coach of Hawaii's own Michelle Wie, is opening an academy at the club this spring.

The Gold Course, featuring 93 bunkers, hosts the annual Champions Skins Game in February. A round here will cost about $190. Guests at Wailea's resorts get a $30 discount. Clubs can be rented at the club for $50.

Posh homes, some so exclusive that $1 million won't make the required 20-percent down payment, border the golf courses.

Besides the resorts, golden-sand beaches and golf, Wailea also has world-class restaurants. Or there's always room service, where you can order a burger for $20.

There's also the option of driving 10-15 minutes to dine in nearby Kihei where you'll find everything from Moons Over My Hammy at Denny's to roasted macadamia nut mahi mahi with lobster butter sauce at Roy's.

Unlike Waikiki, there's no traffic and cabs clogging the streets. A free shuttle service takes people from the resorts to the golf club to the outdoor mall, the Shops at Wailea, where you'll find outlets for upscale stores like Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, Coach, Fendi and Gucci.

Every June, Wailea hosts the Maui Film Festival where movie stars like Clint Eastwood, Mike Myers and Geena Davis take in movies under the glowing stars in the Maui sky.

There's lots to do on the island including helicopter tours, whale watching, wine tasting, biking down a volcano or taking the nauseating, windy drive to Hana.

That is, only if you can force yourself to leave Wailea.

If You Go...

HOTEL BOOKING TIPS: As with booking any hotel stay, availability at the five Wailea resorts varies, with higher rates and fewer rooms during peak vacation times. Book well in advance for maximum selection. Rates listed here are the lowest found on the hotels' Web sites; you may be able to find better deals on other Web sites like http://www.greathawaiivacations.com. Most hotels also have suite and other luxury options that are double or more than double their lowest prices.

GRAND WAILEA RESORT: http://www.grandwailea.com/ or (800) 888-6100. Rates begin at $350.

FOUR SEASONS RESORT WAILEA: http://www.fourseasons.com/maui/ or (808) 874-8000. Rates begin at $365.

FAIRMONT KEA LANI WAILEA: http://www.fairmont.com/kealani/ or (808) 875-4100. Rates begin at $385.

RENAISSANCE BEACH RESORT: http://marriott.com/property/propertypage/HNMRN or (808) 879-4900. Rates begin at $329.

WAILEA MARRIOTT RESORT: http://marriott.com/property/propertypage/HNMMC or (808) 879-1922. Rates begin at $309.

WAILEA GOLF CLUB: Blue, Emerald and Gold courses; http://www.golfbc.com/find-a-course/maui or (888) 328-6284.

SHOPS AT WAILEA: http://www.shopsatwailea.com/ or (808) 891-6770.

MAUI FILM FESTIVAL: June 14-18; http://www.mauifilmfestival.com/ or (808) 579-9244.