Hawaii Four-Oh!

April 2, 2018

Torch ceremony at Four Seasons Resort Maui.

Roy Sakuma placed the tips of my fingers on the strings of his ukulele. My only lesson from the master of the instrument on my first day in the Hawaiian Islands. He taught me a simple Hawaiian tune, as we sat together in the soaring, sun-drenched lobby of the Four Seasons Resort in Ko Olina, Oahu.

I had flown across the Pacific the day before to begin my 12-day Extraordinary Experience stay at a quartet of Four Seasons Resorts on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (Big Island) and Lanai. Sakuma seemed to be the perfect person to initiate my foray into their rich cultural life. He told me that in 1879 immigrants from Portugal arrived with a small guitarlike instrument. Because the fingers flitted from fret to fret it was named ukulele, which means "jumping flea" in Hawaiian. Even though I instinctively knew that I was not destined for Carnegie Hall, it was heartening to learn that the celebrated teacher might encourage young visitors of the Four Seasons Resort to aspire to that hallowed stage, where Sakuma performed a few years ago, or just enjoy the musical moment as I did. Sakuma’s class is one of the Four Seasons #FSWAYFINDERS weekly series of workshops in the Hawaiian art, culture and history.

I bid Sakuma "Mahalo" (thank you) and returned to my suite with its two spacious balconies perched on the 14th floor high above the glistening Pacific. It was so comfortable that I was reluctant to leave, but the adult-only 37.5-meter long infinity pool was beckoning. The heated water encouraged long swims and lingering looks at the breaching whales, and from my private poolside cabana a perfect view of the seemingly digitally enhanced sunset.

Unlike the bustle of the Waikiki side of the island, the 2-year-old Four Seasons resides on the west coast of Oahu, the choice retreat for the former Hawaiian royalty who christened it Ko Olina meaning "Place of Joy." Three hundred seventy rooms and suites showcase a sophisticated use of traditional Hawaiian woods and fabrics, including the outstanding Penthouse and President’s Suite. All are well served by the 750 staff who graciously attend to the quests at three main restaurants, three pools, a sprawling spa with its rooftop tennis courts and a myriad of marine activities. Long racing canoes whizz by, forever a tribute to the Polynesians, the first inhabitants of these islands, who braved the journey from the South Pacific guided only by the stars. The centerpiece of the lobby is an impressive specimen (41 feet by 4 feet) hewed from one Koa tree and that belonged to Prince Kuhio at the dawn of the 20th century.

My 21st century appetite was well served by the inventive chefs who created original dishes including multiple riffs on poke, the raw fish salad that has become a Hawaiian trademark. The Sunday brunch was an eye-popping affair with mounds of fresh shellfish just plucked from the sea as a sushi chef sliced into fresh Japanese tuna wielding his knife as expertly as a Samurai warrior; smooth as silk papayas and King pineapples; a mixture of Asian food and American, low fat and high.

But I must admit that my culinary experience soared with the new chef of La Hiki Kitchen, Simeon Hall, who hails from the Bahamas. He is, without a doubt, an artist. For my last dinner at Four Seasons Ko Olina he presented me with a four-course sampling of a future menu he was planning. Lucky future quests!

The next morning, with my lei made from 41 white orchids draped around my neck, I bid "Mahalo" and headed to the airport for my half-hour flight to the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea where I was greeted with "Aloha’ and pale pink lei.

It was mating season in Maui. The humpback whales were investing in their future. The surf was up and I was in my kayak, paddling out to sea. Well, with less bravado on my part, as I and three others, were guided by a veteran kayaker associated with the resort’s Undersea Adventure Tours. We were hoping to get up close to the mothers and their calves but that was not to be. We did however witness the tail-slapping behavior of a few magnificent mammals and that was thrilling enough. Our "bravery" was rewarded by another Hawaiian specialty — shaved ice treats from the resort’s kiosk near the beach.

The resort reminded me of drawings of vast estates of Roman senators — imposing, grand, multiple pillars and sculpted garden atriums and lawns. A thousand employees and 383 guestrooms and suites. At 28 years, it is Hawaii’s oldest Four Seasons property with a recent multimillion dollar facelift by its owner Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Computer Corp.

Great attention has been paid to children-friendly activities, including their own pool area and a center for arts and crafts. Many of the parents were seeking refuge in the adult Serenity Pool with swim-up-to-the-bar drinks. After a lunch of fresh fish tacos and a sip of the signature Hawaiian drink, Mai Tai, in my spacious private cabana, I strolled down to the golf-green lawn, hoisted myself into a lone hammock and snoozed.

That evening just before the sun retired for the night, I watched four young male surfers with their spirits and shouts of joy higher than the waves, ride them to the beach. Hotel guests and locals cheered them on and perhaps like me, wished they could have joined them in this quintessential Hawaiian sport, which was once that of the Hawaiian royals.

As I returned to prepare for dinner I walked past local artists selling their wares, young adults challenging each other in the game room, and several tony boutiques. Then I heard a haunting sound of a conch shell being blown followed by a man dressed in a traditional Hawaiian skirt running throughout the property lighting poles with his torch. The ancient ceremony of signaling the end of day had begun. Children followed him like a benign Pied Piper, against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago was a bittersweet affair: food was fine, but the atmosphere a bit too frenetic for my taste. It felt rather like being at the end of an assembly line with the waiters alighting and leaving almost as quickly as the little birds pecking for food. I had more leisurely meals at both Ferraro’s and Duo Steak and Seafood. Spoiler alert, Duo presented its guests with a post dessert, dessert — a cloud of pink cotton candy presented on a platter.


Day 2, 6:30 a.m.: A limousine, a driver, a photographer and a picnic basket greeted me at the front entrance of the resort. A full day was to unfurl along the spectacular drive toward the town of Hana on Maui’s east coast. This adventure is part of Four Seasons Maui’s "Unforgettable Experiences" series. We drove along signature hairpin turns and single-lane bridges, ascending into the bamboo forest, passing stands of fresh fruit and shaved ice stands. Daniel Sullivan, Maui’s nationally acclaimed fine art photographer, knew all of nature’s secrets in the area: waterfalls, taro fields, vegetation indigenous to the island. He demonstrated how to best capture all of this on my camera (iPhones will do as well). For the past several years Daniel has been on a quest to explore the King’s Highway, which the ancient Hawaiians built using ocean stones and which his stunning book of photographs "The Maui Coast" reveals. It was truly an exceptional journey.

On my final morning in Maui I was treated to a hot stone massage laced with liquid lavender in a cozy thatched hut by the sea. Wrenching myself from such total relaxation was difficult. But "Aloha" was calling from Hawai’i and one should never refuse a warm welcome.

The island, Hawai’i, nicknamed the Big Island, is almost twice as large as all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, and is the youngest as well. This volcanic island showcases micro-climates from tropical to polar. When I arrived at the Kona airport I saw a man with a snowboard. Thinking at first that it must be a unique surfboard, he explained, to my surprise, that he was heading up to ski the snow-capped dormant volcano, Mauna Kea. I, on the other hand, was heading to the sunny, warm, resort near the active volcano Hualalai. As I drove toward the resort, I felt I had landed on another planet. Acres of gigantic black lava rocks, as if thrown by disgruntled ancient gods, bracketed the modern highway. This scene soon turned into a lush, gentle tropical vegetation as we passed the Jack Nicklaus 18-hole golf course and arrived at Michael Dell’s Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai.

As I strolled around the vast property I came upon the general store with rocking chairs on the veranda and inside everything a guest would need, from toothpaste to gelati, Kona coffee to T-shirts, sandwiches to gifts. At the unique Ka’upulele Center, manned by the knowledgeable Uncle Earl and his full-time staff, guests were making leis and learning about the history and culture of the Hawaiian Islands. (Daily classes include the ukulele, hula dancing, traditional crafts). I counted seven pools from fresh water, to heated, to children-only. All of the 125 guest rooms and 51 suites and villas were within 200 feet of the Pacific Ocean and each with its private outdoor lava-stone shower. It seemed like an authentic Hawaiian village with more modern amenities. I will say, though, that my room was in need of a bit of a fresh facelift.

On the other hand, I did not have a bad meal. My favorite of several restaurants was "Ulu," where the young and passionate Chef Chad suggested the charred local octopus as a starter. It was like slicing through butter. For the main course, Misoyaki Kampachi, a mushroom dish that made truffles seem ordinary. The dessert specialty was a toffee souffle, need I say more?

The spa is world class, hands down. An oasis of tranquility nestled outdoors surrounded by lava stone walls, flowering trees, plunge pools and steam rooms. My treatment at night in a room with its own private garden was one of a handful of my most memorable spa experiences ever.

The following morning after devouring a hearty Asian breakfast, I wandered down to King’s Pond where I met up with David Chai. He’s the resort’s natural resources director who oversees the preservation of a group of unique ecosystems in the area. King’s Pond is a 1.5 million-gallon natural pool carved out of lava harboring 100 different species. David pointed out the 22-year-old spotted eagle ray, the oldest in captivity; a 20-pound porcupine puffer and a young grouper with deformed jaw being hand fed. In the nearby wetland habitat, an ancient fishing area, endangered birds have found refuge. According to David, there is no other department of stewardship like this in any resort worldwide. A true discovery for me and an inspiring way to end my stay.

Four Seasons Resort Lana’i was the last of my one-of-a-kind "Extraordinary Experiences" signature tours of the four Four Seasons Resorts. I’ve nicknamed the island the Oracle of Lana’i, as Larry Ellison, head of Oracle Corp. owns not only the resort but 98 percent of this 90,000-acre island. It’s no surprise that Conde Nast Traveller magazine has named it to its 2018 Gold List. The resort is outstanding.

Ellison’s legendary hands-on attention to detail is evident throughout. The 213 guestrooms, housed on two levels, were inspired by Hawai’i’s Polynesian ancestry; walls of teak and zebra wood, mahogany floors, handwoven area rugs, leather-trimmed custom beds and a mixture of natural fabrics creating a rich and relaxed atmosphere. The technology used in the lighting and window blind systems were, to use an overused, but in this case, appropriate description, state of the art. The Japanese toilet went beyond the call of duty — a miracle of efficiency. The irritating telephone system in the room, however, needed an overhaul.

The landscape artist created a little Eden (with no apple trees) — a place to sequester yourself from the rest of the world … to dream. I followed the meandering stream as it wended its way from one end of the property to the other. Waterfalls enriched it and colorful koi chased one another through the water lilies. Palm, bamboo trees and an abundance of flowers provided a quiet sanctuary feeling that you had the entire resort to yourself. That is luxury!

The food was no less exceptional. Excellent breakfast and dinner at One Forty was enhanced by the panoramic view of the ocean and framed by a terrace of pink bougainvillea. Make sure you try the chocolate and coconut macaroons! At Nobu, Chef Matsuhisa produced a seven-course dining event with melt-in-your mouth sashimi, Kobe beef sizzling on its own hot stone, and a sinfully delicious molten chocolate dessert. Malibu Farms, perched above Hulopo’e Bay, is an open-air lunch hub with its own small vegetable garden, and whether or not you play golf, the nearby 18-hole Jack Nicklaus designed golf course serves light lunches in a restaurant appropriately named View.

For those who can bear to leave the property, there are lots of activities. How about a horseback ride, or a Polaris off-roading experience, or catamaran whale watching? Or just wander into the town of Lanai (population: 3,100) and visit its art gallery, shops, bistros and the wonderfully restored theater.

Back at the resort, Bruno Amby provided a bit of theater of his own. He is not only a marathon swimmer and a world-class croquet player, but his talents extend to master basket weaving and big bird guarding. He seems to be the resort’s mascot and he usually can be found creating his baskets down by Malibu Farms. He sits surrounded by parakeets and parrots perched on poles. They shamelessly mimic guests and preen to be petted. Kids and adults (I for one) loved it all.

In December 2018 a completely redesigned Four Seasons in the Koele area of Lanai’i will open as a resort/spa destination.

So, I guess my next trip to Hawai’i will turn into a quintet of Four Seasons Resorts. Hawai’i Five-Oh.








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