Sunday, October 23, 2011

Disney's Aulani is a Hawaiian fantasyland.

Bird's-eye view
Disney's 21-acre Aulani Resort & Spa, about 30 minutes from Waikiki in Ko Olina, Hawaii on the island of Oahu, opened in late August. (Paul Hiffmeyer)

The pricey new $800-million resort on Oahu manages to celebrate island magic and culture without the corporate-branded mouse prints becoming too heavy-handed.

On leeward Oahu, it is 85 degrees and the trade winds are blowing. Beyond a towering volcanic outcropping, the Pacific Ocean, at a steady 70 degrees, beckons. Honeymooners sip tropical drinks under a thatched-roof hut as the afternoon sun begins its lazy descent.
This is Hawaii. Do you really need Disney?
My wife, Nancy, and I and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, journeyed last month to Disney's new Hawaii resort to see whether Mickey Mouse & Co. could improve on near perfection. Aulani sets out to replace the clich├ęs of tiki torches, totem poles, bamboo furniture and tacky luaus with a resort that celebrates Hawaii's history, legends and cultures with just a sprinkling of Disney's trademark pixie dust.
And, for the most part, it succeeds — not only as a vacation resort but also as an entity that capitalizes on rather than marginalizes its destination, ironic for a company that built its brand on fairy-tale fantasy. Disney pulls it off with style, grace and beauty, and this $800-million resort delivers on its promise and its considerable marquee name.
Aulani opened in late August with 359 pricey hotel rooms and 460 time-share units. The 21-acre resort, about 30 minutes from Waikiki in Ko' Olina, is worlds apart in look, feel and spirit from that tourist mecca of high-rise monoliths.
"It feels like we're on a different island even though we're still on Oahu," said Michelle Blake, visiting Aulani with her family from nearby Waipahu.
And perhaps that is its magic, one or two missteps aside. Oahu — at least this part of Oahu — becomes the Hawaii we're all hoping to find.

Three A-frame thatch huts greet you when you arrive at Aulani, along with a pair of towers that rise like modern interpretations of a Hawaiian fishing village — if fishermen could build a 15-story hotel. An Aulani hostess greeted us, presenting Nancy and Hannah with flower leis and me with a kukui nut version. Telephone pole-sized timbers support the lobby's cathedral-like vaulted interior. From the ceiling, lights dangle like luminescent jellyfish caught in clusters of fishing nets. A verdant ribbon mural depicting island life wraps the lobby's perimeter.
Once in our room (about 382 square feet), we found whimsical touches throughout, including the pineapple-patterned quilt woven with hidden Mickeys, an outrigger canoe motif in the headboard and giant hand-carved fishhooks framing the wall mirror.
A flat-screen TV with a Blu-ray player (loaner DVDs were available in the community room for a fee) and hookups for video games (brought from home) sat atop a six-drawer dresser with a hidden mini-fridge. A table for two featured the only overt Disney reference in the room: a lamp with a ukulele-playing Mickey Mouse.
A small side table with compartments below for a coffee maker and an ice bucket stood nearby. Beneath the bed was space for stowing suitcases, a smart touch. On the nightstand sat a gourd lamp and an alarm clock with an iPod dock.
In the bath, a mirror with a wave-motif frame flanked by seashell sconces stood above a single sink vanity with six cubbies for storage. Island art on the walls and floral print throw pillows added just enough aloha flavor.
Once we had settled in, it was time to start exploring.
Just as it does in Hawaiian life, water plays a central role at Aulani, in such features as the water-park-like pool, sunset-facing hot tubs, saltwater snorkeling pool and the adult and youth spas.
The centerpiece of Aulani's pool is a man-made volcanic outcropping where hidden stingrays, squid and crabs are carved into lava-like rock. Two water slides — one a zippy body slide through the dark and the other an inner-tube slide with plenty of airtime — start at the top of the peak.
Hannah loved riding down the slide with me on the two-person inner tube that starts at the volcanic peak.
"The extra weight makes it go faster," Hannah said, clearly unaware I'd lost 10 pounds in preparation for the trip.
At the bottom of the slide, Hannah rocketed forward like a human cannonball as we hit the pool, the inner tube bonking her on the head and dunking her.
"Let's do it again," she said as she surfaced, unscathed and undeterred.
Hannah's favorite part of the Aulani pool complex was the 900-foot-long lazy river that wound through misty caverns, under footbridges and around the resort's tropical grounds.
But she had one complaint: "This lazy river is too lazy," said Hannah who didn't realize the meaning of island time. Life slows down a bit here.
The saltwater snorkeling lagoon, an 8-foot-deep pool filled with 1,000 angelfish, tangs and butterflyfish, was the most interesting part of the pool area. Hannah held tightly to my arm as we explored the man-made volcanic caverns and coral reefs as fish swam up to and around us.
It was a fine introduction for a first-time snorkeler like Hannah and a second-time amateur like myself. An all-day fee ($20 for adults, $10 for kids) included use of the snorkel equipment in the protected cove just beyond the Aulani's beach.
Nancy, meanwhile, had been looking forward to the resort's Laniwai Spa, choosing the $45 day pass. Her first stop was a fragrant steam room, which proved a bit too steamy. She jumped out within moments, grabbing a chilled towel from a refrigerator. Out in the garden, she tried the seaweed and eucalyptus vitality pools, where an attendant quietly brought her a selection of three hot teas. Next she sampled the six "rain" showers, each with varying flow levels. Her favorite: the mist shower with upward-spraying water jets.
Nancy said the spa would indeed have been a "freshwater heaven," as Laniwai translates from Hawaiian, if not for the guy conducting business on his cellphone while lounging near the vitality pool and the trash truck loading a Dumpster just beyond the wall of the outdoor garden.
Next door to Laniwai, Hannah got her first massage at the Painted Sky teen spa, choosing the 25-minute chair massage ($50) that included her choice of lotions (she went with mango) as well as hot towels for her face and neck.
"She massaged my face, my arms, my legs, my feet and even my toes," Hannah said. "It was awesome."
What wasn't quite as awesome for Hannah was not fitting in with either the teens or the younger kids, both of which had their own hangouts.
The age at Aunty's Beach House, a kids' club featuring a host of activities such as hula lessons and island crafts, topped out at 10, and at 11, she felt a little old for that crowd. She preferred the Painted Sky Spa, which doubled as a teen hangout and offered movie nights, pool parties, beach bashes, stargazing tours, lei making, dessert decorating, scavenger hunts and fitness challenges. Disney counselors welcomed her warmly at both locations.
The Pau Hana community hall near the pool was a family room with tables for crafts and shelves filled with games. The three of us made bracelets with our favorite Hawaiian words. Hannah's bracelet said powawae, or soccer, surrounded by kukui nuts and turtle-shaped beads. Nancy went withmakuahine, for "mother." I made things difficult, searching for a definition for avocadoville, our name for our backyard "tavern." I settled on hale pae, "house of avocado."
Here we checked out a modified cellphone that doubled as a GPS for the Menehune Adventure Trail, a treasure hunt game in which hotel guests search for menehune, as Hawaii's mischievous little people are called.
About 300 menehune statues were scattered throughout the resort, and spotting them quickly became Hannah's favorite pursuit. The Hawaiian leprechauns could be found under footbridges, inside the shave-ice stand and atop bookcases. Hannah's favorite menehune was sleeping in the upper reaches of one of the elevators. More than once we waited in the lobby for the menehune elevator.
On the menehune trail, we used the way finder to track clues leading to madcap menehune mischief. By speaking into the phone, we caused the menehune to pop out of the rocks, blow conch shells and even start fires with the help of Disney magic. The finale sent us into a dark cavern where volcanic lava began to flow (on a cleverly disguised LCD TV screen).
"Daddy, look at the walls," Hannah said, gripping my hand tightly. "They're glowing."
For all that was good about Aulani, there were a couple of things that didn't work quite as we thought they should.
Disney generally went pretty light on theatrics, but an afternoon poolside party was an exception. Aulani's contrived character poolside party featured a Disney employee, using a public address system, extolling swimmers to scream, splash and hop up on deck for a hula contest. The pump-up-the-energy vibe disrupted the tranquil mood poolside. I cringed.
I would have dismissed the overexuberance as grand-opening jitters if not for the Starlight Hui, the resort's marquee event. In an effort to avoid the pan-Polynesian luau common at many resorts, Disney produced a tradition-rich show that paid tribute to Hawaii, its people and customs.
As the stirring show drew to a close, a youth counselor jumped up onstage in a but-wait-there's-more moment and called all the Disney characters one by one. The folklore-rich show quickly devolved into a disco with the characters leading the crowd in the "Electric Slide." I was dumbstruck but decided to jump up and boogie with Hannah, who could have cared less about thematic inconsistencies.
The other issue was the restaurants. They were expensive and somewhat limited, unless you like fine-dining food and prices at every meal.
On our first night, we tried 'Ama 'Ama, Aulani's signature beachside restaurant. Dinner for three with cocktails came to $200, before tip, for what was pretty standard hotel fare. The restaurant, designed to look like a fisherman's waterfront home from the 1890s, featured an international menu. I ordered the goat cheese ravioli ($31) and asked for the recommended Sauvignon Blanc (although the wine never arrived and I wasn't charged for it). Nancy got the Chinatown duck breast ($40) and Hannah, who will never be a cheap date, went with the New York strip ($41). The food, we agreed, was good but not great.
For lunch, our choices were either high-end 'Ama 'Ama or poolside service, with $19 sandwiches and $21 burgers.
On our second night we had reservations at the Makahiki buffet, which was most in keeping with the resort's Hawaiian theme and was our favorite meal at Aulani.
At $43 a person, the Makahiki was more expensive than any buffet we had ever tried. (Hannah paid the full adult rate because the $21 kids' price was only for those 9 and younger.) Among the Hawaiian dishes: octopus poke, lomi lomi salmon and, of course, the omnipresent poi. The best of the entrees: the guava barbecued ribs.
On our last night at the Aulani, Hannah watched "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" under the stars while Nancy and I went for pub grub at the 'Olelo Room, the resort's etymological-themed bar.
At the 'Olelo (Hawaiian for "word") bartenders provided pointers on Hawaiian pronunciation in a cocktail lounge covered floor to ceiling in the local Hawaiian dialect. Surprisingly, the most Hawaiian room in the resort offered the least Hawaiian fare. Nancy went for the Kobe sliders ($15), and I got the cheese plate ($17).
What Aulani lacked was a fast, casual sit-down restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here's hoping that's on the horizon.
In the end, the Aulani was not unlike going to Disneyland: It's a fun-filled fantasyland that ends up being far more expensive than you expected. At least you go home with memories that can last a lifetime.