Life is Luxe at Hawaii’s Golf Resorts

Four Seasons Manele Golf Course Hawaii (Image: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts)

Jack Nicklaus-designed Manele Golf Course rambles along red lava cliffs at Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay. (Image: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts)

Hawaii’s hibiscus-scented jungles and oceanfront cliff-tops are home to some of the world’s most luxurious golf resorts. A timely survey of five paradise retreats guaranteed to put the swing back into winter-weary golfers.

(Last updated February 2020.)

What’s a vacation in Hawaii without at least a few rounds of golf in the mix?

Famously alluring and welcoming, the Hawaiian Islands are home to some of the world’s most luxurious golf resorts and artfully designed tropical courses.

All five of the beachfront properties featured here offer the irresistible activities that have always drawn vacationers to the islands—from surfing, kayaking and other water sports to sightseeing tours and children’s programs, as well as the time to do nothing more strenuous than lounge by the pool.

But for many winter-weary travellers, an even bigger draw is the opportunity to play courses carved by top golf architects through craggy lava outcroppings, hibiscus-scented jungles and along the towering oceanfront cliff-tops of a destination that often seems closer to heaven than earth. 

Four Seasons Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay (Image: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts)Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay (Lana’i)

Though just a 14.5-kilometre ferryboat ride off the coast of Maui, the small and sparsely populated island of Lana’i feels oceans away. The 220-room resort is an exotic fusion of traditional Hawaiian, Mediterranean and Asian architectural styles terraced down a hillside overlooking the blue crescent of Hulopoe Bay.

Adding to the relaxed aloha vibe are lavish theme gardens filled with waterfalls, koi-stocked lotus ponds and aromatic flowers. Still haven’t unwound? Then head to the pool, where an attendant will treat your text-weary fingers to a soothing hand massage.

But best to hold off on the traditional full-body lomi massage at the spa until after you’ve tackled Manele Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus-designed beast that rambles along red lava cliffs high above the surf. The roaring ocean comes into play on several holes, including the signature 12th, demanding a 200-yard carry from the back tees.

Princeville Resort (Kauai)

St. Regis Princeville Resort Kauai (Image: St. Regis Princeville Resort)Elegantly occupying a cliff-top site the first Polynesians to reach the Kauai shore called the most beautiful in all the islands, Princeville Resort has been massively renovated in recent years. So spell-binding are the views of Hanalei Bay and Mount Namolokama that even the shower windows in the spacious suites are made of liquid-crystal to allow guests to constantly admire the scenery.

Highlights include a lavish infinity pool overlooking Hanalei Bay named one of the 10 best in the world by Golf Digest. And the resort’s Halele’a Spa ranks among the premier wellness facilities in Hawaii.

Nor was the property’s famous Makai Golf Course overlooked. Extensively renovated by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the course offers sweeping views of the ocean and mountains as it twists around lakes, through native woodlands and along the coastline.

Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua (Maui)

Ritz-Carlton Kapalua in Maui (Image: The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua)Every January the Ritz-Carlton’s Plantation Course becomes the focus of the golf world during the playing of the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the course, flanked by the Pacific Ocean and the West Maui Mountains, dips and rolls across jagged ridges and plunging jungle ravines before ending with a wallop on the 18th, a downhill-downwind par five stretching a herculean 663 yards from the back tee. A nine-month, US$12.5-million “refinement” of the course was completed by Coore and Crenshaw in time for the 2020 tournament. Changes included the recontouring of greens to allow for more pin positions, and the complete returfing of the course with a durable strain of Bermuda grass called Celebration.

Kapalua’s most luxurious resort sits in elegant isolation atop a knoll overlooking five bays. Highlights include a massive three-tiered swimming pool connected by waterfalls, six restaurants, a fitness centre offering sweeping ocean views, and a 14,000-square-foot spa with private garden showers and volcanic stone grottos.

Especially fascinating is a sacred burial site containing the remains of more than 900 ancient Hawaiians. Its discovery during the resort’s original construction in 1991 forced the entire hotel to be redesigned and moved uphill. Fortunately, there was plenty of room; the Ritz-Carlton is set within a 22,000-acre working pineapple plantation.

Also found on property is a second excellent golf course. Co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane, the beautifully renovated Bay Course offers ocean views from no fewer than 16 of its 18 holes.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel Big Island Hawaii (Image: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel)Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (Big Island)

Opened in grand style by golf’s “Big Three” of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in 1964, this iconic resort’s Mauna Kea Golf Course remains the gold standard by which all others in Hawaii are judged.

Legendary architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. astonished the golf world by developing a way to create a soil base from ancient lava rock, a technique copied to this day. His brilliant layout (since updated by his son, Rees Jones) features steep greens, uphill climbs, nearly twice as many bunkers as most courses, and views of lovely Kaunaoa Bay and the looming Mauna Kea volcano with almost every swing.

The resort itself, the first luxury property on the Big Island’s Kohala Coast, was built by Laurance S. Rockefeller, who fell in the love with the site after stopping to swim in the bay. Opened in 1965, the 252-room modernist-style hotel includes a museum-quality collection of over 1,600 pieces of Pacific and Asian art. A $150-million renovation was completed in time for the property’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.

Fairmont Kea Lai Nightly Torch Lighting Ceremony (Image: Fairmont Hotels and Resorts)Fairmont Kea Lani (Maui)

Nowhere in Maui—and perhaps throughout the Hawaiian islands—has local culture been so thoroughly embraced. Hawaii’s only luxury all-suite-and-villa oceanfront resort employs a fulltime cultural coach to oversee guest experiences ranging from Hawaiian language and music classes to off-site excursions to restore ancient fishponds or plant native flowers.

Set on picturesque Polo Beach, the Fairmont Kea Lani’s orchid-filled lobby sets a serene tone at a property ideal for families and golf groups. Each unit in the hotel includes a kitchenette, living room, a marble-tiled bathroom and a spacious lanai offering views of the pools, lawns and the Pacific Ocean. Larger and even more sumptuous are the beachfront villas, each with a private plunge pool.

Wailea Golf Club’s three outstanding courses are found adjacent to the resort. Most challenging is the Gold Course, a robust beauty that architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. routed around lava outcroppings and past rock walls (called papohaku) built by early Hawaiians.

Rounding out the roster are the Blue Course, a classically designed layout that has hosted the LPGA Tour’s Kemper Open, and the Emerald Course, a slightly more forgiving track where bird of paradise, bougainvillea and other flowers bloom in tropical abundance.