Jim Byers photo
The third hole at the Princeville Makai course on Kauai. Golfing magic.
KAUAI, HAWAII – I have a new favourite golf course.
I had a chance to play Princeville’s Makai course on the heavenly north shore of this Hawaiian island the other day. And fell in love.
I’ve played some great resort courses in the Caribbean and around the U.S., and a few courses in the British Isles you wouldn’t call a resort course necessarily, but this one is probably the best.
The sister course, called the Prince course, gets higher ratings from the golf geeks. It might be better in terms of a golf challenge. But as a travel writer, I’ve always thought my main worry was to look at playable resort courses that the average person would be more likely to play. And I admit to a bias to scenic courses over tough challenges.
I was told the Makai course had better ocean views and had several holes on the Pacific. And that it was more playable. So that’s where I went.
And I loved every second of it. The conditions are utterly magnificent; pure greens and thick, luscious fairways and views of the jungle-clad mountains towering above the town of Hanalei and a big whack of holes with ocean views or playing right alongside massive cliffs that plunge into startlingly blue water. Even the sand traps are special. Some were designed to resemble the mountain ranges in the distance, not unlike some of them at Jasper in Alberta, a design by famous Canadian/Scotsman Stanley Thompson. Not only are the shapes cool and wavy and eye-catching, but they have brilliant white sand imported from Vietnam and Cambodia and a crew that trims the edges by hand with little scissors/trimmers.
It’s not a tough course in terms of length; 7,200 from the back tees and 6,131 from the whites. But the wind can play utter havoc with your game, especially this week when the north shore breezes were gusting to about 25 mph. It felt a bit like Scotland, with drives that would carry 285 one minute and then, into the wind, give up halfway and plop down less than 190 yards away.
There’s a great mix of short and longer par four’s and a couple of sensational par three’s over the water. The best hole, and the signature hole, is the par-three third; a beauty with a huge drop down to a green protected by a couple of traps on the left and a pond on the right, which is now two golf balls richer than it was before I showed up. There’s an open area behind the green and you can see down to stunning Hanalei Bay and then see those impossibly green, rugged mountains rising up behind the bay. All surrounded by blue skies and white, puffy clouds and pink plumeria blossoms and endangered Hawaiian birds.
A definite must-play for anyone heading to Kauai. Which is never a bad idea. I hadn’t been for about seven years. And I won’t let that happen again if I can help it.
THE CLIFFS AT PRINCEVILLE
The Kauai tourism folks were kind enough to put me up at a condo unit a mere two-minute drive from the Makai course, a place called The Cliffs at Princeville. They have great condo units with lots of space and kitchens, plus a nice pool and hot tub with a basketball court and kids’ play area and lots of grass for kite flying or playing football or Frisbee or what have you.
The units aren’t posh but they’re very, very nice and large and perfect for families. They also have barbeques and a hammock near the cliffs overlooking the ocean and a lovely gazebo. You get sensational sunset views, too. And you’re only two minutes from the shops at Princeville and less than from the shops and restaurants – and the fabulous beach – at Hanalei.
I stopped briefly for a Mai Tai at Tahiti Nui, a bar made famous for a scene with George Clooney and Beau Bridges in The Descendants. The Mai Tai was good but not quite awesome. The bar is fine but nothing terribly memorable.
Ditto for Bubba’s Burgers, a popular chain that has tons of celebrity photos on the wall but makes a pretty overrated burger in my opinion. And mediocre fries. It’s kinda like Weber’s near Orillia. The food isn’t awesome but they have picnic tables and it’s kinda THE spot to go, for whatever reason. For the record, Weber’s makes a slightly better burger. And WAY better fries.
Folks looking for a local treat should instead hit the Chicken in a Barrel restaurant, either in Kapaa or in Hanalei, both on Kauai. Best. Chicken. On. The. Planet. Bar none. It’s smoky and sweet and delicious and smoky some more, owing to the giant cooking barrels they use. The smoked pork and ribs and beef also are tremendous and for about $15 you get a platter with a pound of meat on it, plus chili. Awesome spot.
A GREAT NATURE TOUR
I also had time to talk with Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, who runs tours of the taro fields in Hanalei that her family have farmed for six generations.
Taro is immensely important to the Hawaiian culture. Most of us know it as the base for a fermented, purplish paste called poi that we try at luau’s, usually with upturned noses or a look of bemusement. In fact, however, you can stop at the Taro Truck and Juice Bar in Hanalei town and taste lovely taro smoothies, taro burgers, taro cake and taro hummus. It’s all quite good. And, as Lyndsey points out, it’s good for folks who are lactose intolerant but want the good nutrients in a taro root, including riboflavin.
“It’s kind of like a healthier potato,” she tells me.
Lyndsey showed me around the taro fields, explaining the 16-month period it takes for them to mature and talking about the various uses for the plants, including use the leaves to wrap around meat dishes such as pork or chicken.
The tours last several hours and you also get to look at Hawaii’s only and last remaining rice mill. Not to mention soak up the incredible, lush and picturesque scenery in the Hanalei Valley. The taro leaves wave in the wind and are a beautiful shade of lime green when the light is right; a great contrast with the blue skies and dark green hills of Kauai.
You’ll also learn about the fight to stop invasive species, such as the apple snail with its pink eggs that foul things up, and the fight to preserve local species that make their homes in the taro fields, including Hawaiian stilts and bright red-billed Hawaiian moorhens.
Lyndsey’s grandparents are in their 90s but you’ll often find them out in the fields, doing what Hawaiians have done for generations. And how cool is that?
Up the road is the crazy beautiful Ke’e Beach and the world-renowned Kalalau trail along the cliffs that run on Kauai’s north side. I’ve always wanted to hike to the first beach on the trail but I never have had time. This trip, alas, was no exception. But I managed a mile in each direction, trekking up and down the pathway through pandanus trees and skirting high sea cliffs with absolutely magnificent views. Highly recommended.
I also checked out, briefly, the Limahuli Gardens. Not only do they teach you about qualities of various plants and give you a riot of colourful flowers to check out, they also explain the Hawaiian way of life. And the views of the north shore mountains, all spiky and jungly and looking very much like Tahiti, are to die for.