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Tip: This snorkeling spot is a former volcanic crater that became a protected marine life conservation.
Strolling the Sands of Kaanapali
Kaʻanapali at dawn is a watercolor painting: the sky brushed with the entire pastel palette from salmon to azure, tiny well-mannered waves breaking like champagne on the beach, the sand properly golden and riddled with charming little pukas left by crabs scurrying to hide before the humans wake up.
This is the Hawaii that visitors pay money to see and residents wish they had more time to enjoy.
As I tie my shoelaces and stretch out the night’s kinks in readiness for a walk along the three-mile path that links the resort’s beach-front properties, the beach is still cool and shadowy. In the distance, a rain cloud marches in a straight line across Kahoʻolawe, but here there is the promise of another sunny day. Within half an hour, the colors of dawn will wash away and the streak of cloud resting near the horizon will glow white. By 8 a.m., the first beach-goers will be arranging their towels, readying for kayak and parasailing excursions, boarding boats for whale-watching tours or snorkel sails.
This year, the longest-running of Kaʻanapali’s properties, the Sheraton Maui, turns 40, making this resort one of the Islands’ oldest, its name familiar around the world. This anniversary seemed a good time to return to Kaʻanapali.
Much has changed in the world and on Maui in the 40 years, but Kaʻanapali has managed to keep a freshly scrubbed face. Almost all the properties have undergone renovation, and some bear little resemblance to their first incarnations.
An hour’s walk along the shoreline with pauses for trading “good mornings” with other early risers, poking around on the various properties, reading the menus of beachside restaurants, picking the odd flower and trudging through the sand on the far side of hotel row offers a glimpse of the widely divergent accommodations and activities offered here.
At the southern end is the Hyatt Regency Maui’s lavish network of ponds, swimming pools, statuary gardens and even a fenced preserve for flamingos and penguins, plus the luxurious Spa Moana, the area’s only oceanfront spa facility.
Square in the middle of the resort, the grounds of the local-friendly Kaʻanapali Beach Hotel resemble a tutu garden kalo, ʻulu, niu, ki, hau, lauʻae, shell ginger, plumeria, banana and the comfortably worn buildings blend into the greens and browns. At the far end, Aston’s affordable Maui Kaʻanapali Villas offers a choice of modest hotel rooms with good views or pleasant beachside condominiums.
Offshore, there is everything to do: swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, sailing, snorkeling, parasailing, charter fishing, whale watching (in season) and dolphin sighting year-round. And though this all takes place within a fairly compact area, the beach and the sea beyond manage to retain an uncrowded look and feel, at least compared to Waikiki.
A stroll along the Beach Walk touches on both Kaʻanapali’s past a long history of use by Hawaiians as a fishing place, the site of a village called Kekaʻa, and the subject of many moʻolelo (stories) and its present as a still-growing resort.
You circle the backside of the landmark we call Black Rock, known to Hawaiians as Puʻu Kekaʻa. Here, a diver nightly re-creates an incident during which Maui chief Kahekili plunged into the sea to prove his bravery; others feared to dive there because it was a sacred spot, where the souls of newly dead leapt off into the spirit world. The area is home to honu and rays and offers great snorkeling.
And, as you pass Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club on the return leg, you are approached by low-key salesmen who want to tell you about the timeshare units they have created from the venerable Maui Marriott Hotel. In the distance, you can hear construction work on a Starwood timeshare development on a once-deserted stretch of beach to the north.
Ask old-timers about Kaʻanapali and two words recur: kiawe and fishing. Before Amfac’s big idea to create a resort on this stretch of coastline, it was best known as a place where kids made a few bucks gathering kiawe beans for animal feed, and fishermen found rich pickings, from shellfish and mollusks to reef fish and, offshore, even bigger game.
Lori Sablas of the Kaʻanapali Beach Hotel grew up in Kahana Camp some miles down the road, then a curving, rutted two-lane that traced the coastline. She remembers her family setting lobster traps near Pu’u Kekaʻa. Her mother would be careful to put back whatever they didn’t need. The cement pier that once supplied a nearby plantation camp was known to everyone as the Landing and was and continues to be a popular fishing spot.
Sablas recalls a story she was told by a longtime area resident: During a plantation strike in the ’30s or ’40s, people were struggling to get by without jobs when there was an almost miraculous “red sea.” So many menpachi crowded the inshore waters that the sea turned red.
“It was like the gods provided,” she said. Her informant said that such a red sea happened only twice during his memory.
Forty years after the first maile lei was untwined at the Sheraton Maui (Jan. 26, 1963), local folks still come to Kaʻanapali to fish or play on the beach. But they’re just as likely to visit the area to golf on the Robert Trent Jones-designed Tournament North course or the designated “woman-friendly” Resort South course, to load up on the local-friendly buffets at the Kaʻanapali Beach Hotel or to attend the Maui Onion Festival in August at the Whalers’ Village or the Na Mele O Maui Song Festival in December at the Hyatt Regency.
Check out your spot and then check in:
Over the past 40 years, I’ve spent many hours in Kaʻanapali: enjoying the people-watching from the courtyard of Leilani’s, judging the Maui Onion Festival cooking contest at Whalers Village, celebrating my 25th-year class reunion at the Kaʻanapali Beach Hotel.
During recent stays, my husband and I found that Kaʻanapali, so familiar to us from our school days, has lost none of its allure.
Like many locals, we love the Friday Hawaiian plate lunch special at KBH (as the Kaʻanapali Beach Hotel is called by resort insiders) as well as the “eat till you sleep” Sunday brunch with live Hawaiian music.
On two separate stays in the beautifully appointed condominiums at Kaʻanapali Aliʻi, we luxuriated in the quiet and privacy, the feeling of actually living right there on one of our favorite beaches. Our pace slowed and we found the view mesmerizing; we did a lot of just sitting, watching the play of light on the water.
The Hyatt Regency, where we stayed on another occasion, offers the most pampered Kaʻanapali experience; very much the “how can we serve you?” sort of resort hotel, with well-chosen amenities, turn-down service, a fully appointed spa and a really fun pool (they do swim-up movies some evenings).
My mother and I found the Sheraton Maui, beautifully renovated in a gracious retro Hawaiian style in 1997, a sophisticated, all-activity retreat, with seamless check-in (no standing in line at the desk), nightly torch-lighting and cliff diving, and lagoon pools.