Ah, Hawaii. The gorgeous island chain out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away from everything, everyone, yet there it is. I recently headed over the Pacific to the crystalline waters of Hawaii for a little rest, relaxation and, of course, the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. While it takes well more than five days to really know a place (even if it is an island), it is a perfect bite-sized way to get acquainted with Kapalua, the gorgeous coastal resort on Maui’s northwest shore, and its closest neighboring towns. I guarantee it’s a place you won’t soon forget. Aloha!
Place is only one part of what makes a getaway great. The other part is people. Officially, Clifford Nae’ole is the Cultural Advisor for the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. Unofficially and unequivocally, he is among the most sincere and passionate ambassadors for the Hawaiian culture as a whole. For one, he knows everyone on Maui (or better stated, everyone knows who he is) and is committed to building relationships between tourists and locals to create authentic experiences and a deeper sense of appreciation. Secondly, his rich sense of history can’t be faked — I could listen to him all day telling the story of his ancestor, Nae’ole, a noble from Kohala, who had rescued a young King Kamehameha from certain death. And third, well … you just want to hang out with him because he truly embodies the Hawaiian spirit of aloha — a way of living and treating each other (and the environment) with love and respect.
Imagine the swirl of red earth rising to meet the mist of a soft island rain. That’s ulalena, a poetic moment of nature unique to Maui. Ulalena is also the island’s dreamy show that mixes traditional theatre, singing, live multi-instrumentalists, a little Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics and interpretative dance to tell the story of Hawaii. Four words: You must see it! The production is beautiful but be forewarned: You won’t be able to decide whether to keep your eyes on the dancers on stage or the musicians on the balcony. (You’ll swear it’s a soundtrack but that guy really is making those thunder sounds with a sheet of aluminum and yes, that other guy is playing the flute … with his nose!) The play is performed at the Maui Theatre in the town of Lahaina, just a 20-minute drive from Kapalua.
Ritz-Carlton Club & Residences Kapalua Bay
The friendliest service ever. Gorgeous grounds abounding with everything from kukui trees to fragrant freesia plants. Stunning views of the ocean with Molokai and Lanai gently sloping in the near distance. And golf carts! (Hands down much more fun than the shuttle bus.) Yep, the Ritz Carlton Residence & Club is five-star all the way, baby. Whether you’re doing the fractional or whole ownership thing, each condo-style home has more space than you know what to do with, which is crazy because you won’t even want to stay inside once you get a look at your huge lanai. If you do manage to tear yourself away, the peaceful property also has a lush pool area, enormous spa, free daily classes (ukuele!), tours and other amenities too numerous to recount here. Hey, membership does have its privileges.
Dear Napili Bay,
I just want to say thank you. It really doesn’t get better than a day at your delectable little beach. Almost everyone says Kapalua Bay is the best in the area (and yes, she’s certainly gorgeous), but I think you are the ultimate unhurried Hawaiian beach experience. Your clean, clear, calm water is heaven on a sunny (or even rainy) Maui day. Your sandy ocean bottom is such a nice reprieve from the rocky shores of other beaches, and your great-for-snorkeling reefs are far away enough from shore that I don’t have to worry about scraping against rocks if all I want to do is float or swim or boogie board. And let’s not forget your palm-lined beach surrounded by the utterly charming, unaffectedly old-school Napili Kai Beach Resort, flanked by two essential beachside eats, Gazebo and Sea House, no less! You are exactly what I imagined Maui to be … like in 1976. Yet it’s all so perfect for now. In other words, you’re timeless.
Considered one of the best beaches not only in Hawaii but in the world, Kapalua Bay is indeed a beautiful piece of nature’s art. The turquoise-colored bay fronts the Ritz-Carlton Club & Residences, but it’s open to anyone who wishes to visit thanks to Hawaii’s all-access beach policy. If you want to snorkel but don’t want to brave the extremely rocky hike of Honolua Bay up north, this is where you’ll find reef in fairly shallow waters close to the shore — perfect if you have kids or simply don’t want to swim out too far to see fish and sea turtles. Just watch out, especially when it’s wavy, or you could get scraped. There are lots of other activities available at the beach shack (think kayaking, boogie boarding, scuba diving) but it’s pricey — it cost me $7 an hour for a snorkel rental, compared to the much more common full-day rentals of $3-$5 elsewhere.
Who would’ve thought that a guy from Pittsburgh would end up being the pioneer of Hawaii Regional cuisine? Back in the 80s, long before “farm-to-table” was a household phrase and most of Hawaii’s restaurants were sourcing ingredients from large distributors, Merriman decided that he for one would say no to Spam and go directly to local farmers and ranchers to source his menu, even if it meant higher prices. Fast-forward to today and Merriman is still leading the pack with his growing empire of restaurants that all use at least 90% locally produced/caught and sustainable ingredients. (His casual-upscale Merriman’s Kapalua waterfront restaurant is a must for the views alone. And chef Neil Murphy’s food ain’t so bad, either. ) Take it from me — Peter is the kind of guy who offers you the shirt off his back (or the car from his garage*) if you need it. He may originally be from the mainland, but he embodies island hospitality at its best.
Upside Down Pineapple Cake @ Pineapple Grill
We all know that you haven’t had a pineapple unless you’ve had a pineapple in Hawaii. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: You haven’t had pineapple upside down cake until you’ve had the homemade version at Pineapple Grill. After hearing so many people gush about this life-changing little cake, I had to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did. From the rich pool of Hana Bay dark rum-caramel sauce and crispy sprinkles of toasted coconut to the locally made Roselani macadamia nut ice cream atop a sublimely not-too-sweet pineapple cake, this is no doubt the pinnacle of perfection. Pineapple upside down cake, you complete me.
Kapalua Wine & Food Festival
There’s a reason the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival is the longest running food and wine event in Hawaii. (Notice how “wine” comes first? Hmmm … that might have something to do with it.) Taking place every June, the festival celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a multi-day extravaganza filled with winemakers pouring vintages from all over the world, interactive tastings, classes going on during the day, parties happening at night and dozens of top chefs whipping up the most delicious and creative food from the island. It’s fan-freakin-tastic. (And no, that’s not the wine talking.)
Paniolo Wrap @ Sea House
Spinach tortilla wrapped around scrambled eggs with green chiles, onions, tomatoes, avocado, cheese, shredded cabbage and the creamiest, most robust, drip-all-over-your-fingers spicy red pepper aioli you’ve ever had. Need I say more? Okay, how about you get to enjoy this gastro treat while sitting in a tiki-fabulous, so-old-it’s-retro, open-air restaurant overlooking Napili Bay. The only way it could possibly be any better is if the Brady Bunch were sitting next to you.
Rounding out my list is none other than Silla Kaina, the Cultural Ambassador for Ritz-Carlton Club & Residences Kapalua Bay who, just like Clifford Nae’ole, is the real deal. (Not surprising that Clifford is the one who helped develop the role.) Having grown up in Kapalua, Miss Silla, as she likes to be called, is all about enriching the experience of both those who visit and those who live in the area with programs ranging from hula dance lessons and interpretation to lei making and nature walks detailing the history of the island’s flora and fauna. (Hello! Pineapple is not native to Hawaii.) My most memorable moment with Miss Silla was when she went on for 20 minutes about the real meaning of “aloha,” breaking down every syllable and tracing each breath back to its beautiful, mystical roots. If you get a chance to meet this woman, you’ll be better for it.
*: True story.
More info: www.kapaluaresort.com