Kapalua Beach is a gem of golden sand bounded by swaying palm trees and the rolling lawns of Maui's most exclusive resorts. Long peninsulas of black lava shelter the beach from the strong wind and waves that scour Maui's rugged northwest shore. As a result, swimming is safe year-round and the snorkeling is some of the finest in the state, not to mention the view ... the beach faces Molokai Island, where whales are visible cavorting offshore in the winter.
Kapalua's resorts capture the luxury and glamour of Maui's great estates. Spas, fine dining and championship golf cater to Kapalua's prosperous guests. But you don't have to pay premium resort prices to enjoy Kapalua Beach. There is a small parking lot and paved walkways onto the public beaches where a patch of sand is available to everyone. Napili Beach, which is right next door, provides a wider range of accommodations and has a more casual, residential feel. The town of Lahaina is only a short ride away with inns, hotels and restaurants galore.
This classy B & B is worth the 20-minute commute from Kapalua. Set in a small residential neighborhood up the hill from Lahaina, Guest House is airy and cool with parquet floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and colorful panels of stained glass. Each of the four guestrooms has a private terrace, queen-size bed (some also have a twin bed), air conditioning, TV, VCR, refrigerator, bathroom and either a hot tub or Jacuzzi. Guests can enjoy the pool or nap in lounge chairs on the front deck where views of the ocean and neighbor islands abound. Breakfast, served 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., includes Hawaiian coffee, juices, fruit and freshly baked bread. Hosts will prepare French toast and banana pancakes upon request. For other meals, guests can barbecue on the front deck or use the fully equipped kitchen.
Best Luxurious Hotel
The Ritz Carlton, Kapalua
Kapalua's most exclusive resort sits in splendid isolation at the top of a cliff with commanding views of Molokai Island. The resort is shaped like a horseshoe wrapped around manicured grounds and a tiered swimming pool connected by waterfalls. Sweeping walkways lead to D.T. Fleming Beach Park, 10 beachfront tennis courts and a casual beach bar that serves umbrella drinks. The rooms are large and impeccably furnished in floral patterns reminiscent of the grand old plantation days. Dining options range from fine cuisine to poolside snacks. A children's program, full-service spa and putting green are all on site, and the resort is surrounded by world-class golf. Families may prefer the affiliated Kapalua Villas, where a 2-bedroom/3-bath apartment will sleep up to 6. The best deals are the Fairway View Villas. They feel pleasantly removed from the rest of the resort and have an excellent view of Molokai.
Best Family Hotel
The Napili Kai Beach Resort
Steps away from Kapalua Beach, the Napili Kai Beach Resort borders Napili Bay, which has a delightful beach of its own. The atmosphere is more casual here than in Kapalua, and parents of active children will feel more comfortable. This low-rise resort sprawls over 10 acres and has four swimming pools and a whirlpool. The rooms are tastefully furnished in shades of sand and bamboo and all the lanais have ocean views. Studios and suites have full kitchens and grills are available outside. Families can also dine on the beach at the Sea House Restaurant, which features nightly entertainment and a special children's menu. Return guests praise the unhurried atmosphere and the Mai Tai mixers.
Best Budget Accommodation
The Napili Bay
If the Napili Bay condominiums were built any closer to the shore they would fall into the ocean. These studios front a beautiful stretch of Napili Beach and look out to Molokai Island. All have full kitchens and sizable lanais and some sleep as many as 4. Restaurants and a convenience store are within walking distance, world-class tennis and golf are down the street and the Lahaina nightlife is only a 15-minute drive away. Book early, bring beach toys and enjoy feeling smug about the great deal you found.
Best Aloha Spirit Hotel
The Mauian Hotel on Napili Beach
Upon entering the Mauian Hotel, the first thing you'll see is a list of incoming guests scrawled on a whiteboard, along with Lahaina happenings and the Hawaiian word of the day. The Hawaiian family that built this hotel in the early 1960s (and owns it today) brings to it the spirit of aloha from an older, more gracious time. Studio apartments have kitchens with large lanais (with great views of the ocean) and are gaily appointed with old-style Hawaiian quilts. The management is proud that rooms have neither telephones nor TVs, but the media-deprived can always use the TV and VCR in the large ohana (family) room. A tiny pool is in the garden and shuffleboard courts are near the beach, but don't be fooled by the relaxed atmosphere - shuffleboard is a serious sport at the Mauian and the competition is fierce.
Food & Drink
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
The Bay Club
The Bay Club is an upscale, open-air dining room built on a rocky promontory that overlooks Kapalua Bay with excellent views of Molokai and Lanai. A classy place to dine, the Bay Club features waiters in bow ties and live piano music nightly. Enjoy fanciful rum drinks at the bar or dine on fresh seafood, such as macadamia nut-crusted mahi-mahi or the sauteed snapper and prawns. Come before sunset and ask for a front row table, because the best things on the menu are the ocean and the sky.
Best Local Seafood
Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar has quickly become Maui's hottest eatery ... possibly because of its wide range of deals offered throughout the week. Dishes range from traditional Japanese sushi to wild fusion concoctions. Shrimp cakes arrive in a bird's nest of crispy Chinese noodles with contrasting swirls of cilantro pesto and chili lime butter sauce; sweet and hot calamari salad is served in a giant wonton; and the mango crab salad handroll comes in a coral-colored wrapper. Entrees include chili porcini crusted filet of beef and roasted Peking duck breast along with daily fresh fish specials.
The Gazebo Restaurant
Surfers tipped me off to the "killer breakfasts"at the Gazebo Restaurant - a tiny, open-air dining room perched at the southern tip of Napili Bay. Cheesy maritime decor adds to the charm of this seaside Mecca. An oceanfront table is worth the wait - the Gazebo is located in a prime spot for whale watching. Servings are generous, prices are good and the staff is cheerful even when the place is packed. There is nothing short about the short-stack combo - two huge pancakes (one pineapple and one banana) smothered with whipped cream. Omelets are enormous and come with toast and home fries. The Popeye Omelet, with spinach, onions, mushrooms, garlic, cheese and hollandaise sauce, should power you up for a full day in the water. The Gazebo is open from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., daily and also serves lunch, but with breakfasts like these you won't be hungry until dinner. Note: No credit cards.
The Plantation House
The Plantation House is built on the hills above Kapalua Bay with a dazzling view of neighboring islands and the vast Pacific Ocean. Fireplaces and teak add ambiance to the unfailingly romantic dining room. Lunch offerings include salads and sandwiches, while dinner focuses on fresh fish cooked Mediterranean-style with accents borrowed from the Pacific Rim. The best meal at the Plantation House is breakfast (served 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.), which features eggs Benedict five different ways and exquisite French toast with fruit.
Best Kid Stuff
Kapalua Beach is the perfect place to bring the kids. Two long, rocky promontories keep it sheltered from currents and strong winds, and offshore reefs keep big waves away. Swimming is safe year-round and the clear water and gently sloping floor make this a comfortable spot for beach rookies. A concession stand rents beach toys, such as snorkel gear and seaboards that have Plexiglas windows for viewing what lives underwater from a safe distance. A lifeguard and bathrooms round out the facilities, but the one thing missing is an ice cream stand.
Best Day Trip
Haleakala National Park
A trip to Maui is not complete without the obligatory pilgrimage to Haleakala, the legendary Hawaiian "House of the Sun." This volcanic summit stands more than 10,000 feet above sea level with a crater that could swallow Manhattan. Allow yourself three hours to drive here from Kapalua. Roads wind through quaint towns and cow pastures, in and out of several climate zones and, finally, above the clouds, with the entire island of Maui spread out below. The roadside overlooks and the Haleakala Visitors Center are well worth brief travel stops. A glassed-in viewing room at the very top of the summit shelters you from frigid winds as you stare down into the bizarre and beautiful moonscape of Haleakala's crater floor. It is a sight you will remember forever.
The Plantation Course
The Plantation Course is home to the PGA Kapalua Mercedes Championship held each January. This windswept golf course offers sensational views of Maui's rugged northwest shore. The Plantation Course is a 6,547-yard, par-73 course designed by Ben Cranshaw and Bill Coore. The resort keeps it in excellent shape and serious golfers travel a long way to play this green. But caddies warn that the course is for hard hitters and one golfer called it "wicked, mean and hard." The more forgiving Bay Course is an excellent alternative for non-professionals - some of the holes are right on the water, so during the winter you can whale watch between strokes.
South End of Kapalua Bay
The snorkeling in Kapalua Bay is simply superb. The fish are abundant and friendly and the sheltered bay is ideal for beginners. The most fish are along the rocky shoreline, where they congregate to feed and hide from the bigger fish that feed on them. During the summer, it is safe enough to venture beyond Kapalua Bay, through coral gardens and into Napili Bay. In the winter, however, waves and currents are a bit strong, so it may not be wise to leave Kapalua Bay. But the chance to see a whale may be a worthwhile trade-off. You'll appreciate a light wetsuit year-round.
Best Whale Watching
Scotch Mist Sailing Charters
Each November, humpback whales swim 3,000 miles from Alaska to breed, breach, sing and cavort in the warm waters of Hawaii. Just a 20-minute drive from Kapalua, Lahaina was once a major whaling port and now becomes a whale watching Mecca every year until the whales head home in April. You can whale watch from most any place with views of the ocean, but hop on a sailboat to see them up close. Scotch Mist II is a world-class, 50-foot yacht that won the Victoria to Maui race in 1982 and has been in charter service ever since. Her knowledgeable crew offers personalized service for small groups, and whales and whale watchers alike appreciate the lack of engine noise. Note: Private charters are available.