Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Aulani - “the place that speaks for the great ones"

The lobby of Aulani whisks you away on vacation.

For my first trip to Hawaii, I researched as if  I
were preparing my PHD dissertation. I read every book I could get my hands on, and tripadvisor became my new best friend.The chosen hotel, Aulani, Disney’s first venture into Hawaii, which opened in August 2011, exceeded my expectations threefold.

Leaving snowy Boston in the middle of February was a welcome departure,  especially since it was my 30th birthday – what better place to forget about turning “old?” After one layover and 11.5 hours of flying, I was in Honolulu with my boyfriend – who had orchestrated the trip – what a guy!

From the Honolulu airport we had arranged to take a shuttle called Speedi Shuttle. You  also can arrange to have a lei greeting with your pickup. For two passengers for a round-trip ride to Ko Olina – where Aulani is located - in a Mercedes van, is about $120. The ride was comfortable and took about 30 minutes with one stop to drop off other passengers. Our shuttle driver was knowledgeable about the area, offering suggestions for sightseeing and restaurants – and above all made us feel welcome in Hawaii.

Aulani has many water features and incredible architecture
The ride to Aulani isn’t all that scenic, until you get past Kapoeli – the next town over; which by the way is being built up as a result of Disney, with Costco, Target, and other shopping areas. Once you turn into Ko Olina – a somewhat gated area, the first thing you see are the canoe shaped towers of Aulani, along with dense Hawaiian foliage and tranquil waterfall formations. For us, we were also greeted by tiki torches everywhere, creating a warm inviting glow. As soon as we arrived to the entrance, I knew that we made the right choice

Greeted with Koa Nut necklaces and lemon water, we walked through the open air lobby – which in itself was a site to behold. Flanked with indigenous colorful paintings, local wood carved meticulously, and the sounds of original recordings by Hawaiian artist Keali’I Reichel, I immediately felt like I was on a Hawaiian vacation that I would never forget.

Check in was painless and quick – we stayed for 5 days, 4 nights. They do have charging privileges that you can put on your room key – very similar to your Key to the World Card at Disneyworld. We were also handed a copy of the day’s EWA – which is a listing of all the activities they have for the day. Let me tell you – you could spend weeks here and not be able to participate in all the activities, which are conveniently broken down in terms of audience – i.e. adults, ohana (family), teens, or keiki (kids).
The view from our standard view room was incredible.

Our room was a standard view room on the 10th floor, which came with a price tag of $459 a night before taxes, a bit steep. It was clean, spacious and had all the touches you would expect of a Disney five star resort. The bed was comfortable, the shower had a rain head and a deep enough tub for soaking, and the room comes equip with a coffee maker and fridge. The view of the mountains was fabulous, and every room does come with a balcony – a wonderful place to sit in your Aulani robe and have coffee every   morning. 

Jetlagged and weary, we headed for my birthday dinner at AMA AMA – one of the two restaurants on the property. Please note that this reservation was made MONTHS in advance. As any frequent Disney visitor will tell you, the 180 day reservation policy is there for a reason – you can easily make reservations on Aulani’s web site, where there is also a place to enter if you are celebrating anything on the trip – code word: FREE DESSERT! We saw countless people get turned away and become quite angry when told that there were no reservations available during their stay – and the resort was only about 30% full!!! Imagine this resort when the second phase is open in 2013.  Anyhow, on your reservation you can request to sit in table with a view – which is precisely what we did – however most of the open air restaurant does have a view of the Ko Olina lagoon.

Pineapple cosmo at AMA AMA - great view!
With drink prices topping in at about $14 for a pineapple cosmo, we each had one delicious drink before ordering. I ordered a selection of appetizers – Hawaiian Apple Banana and Maui Onion Soup Au Gratin $12– EXCELLENT, Kalua Pig Rillettes with Manchego Cheese Croquettes, Serrano Ham, and Romesco Sauce EXCELLENT – but tiny tiny for $16, and Hamakua Mushroom Tart with Baby Arugula, Coriander Crème Fraîche, and Parmesan, $16 – Good. My boyfriend ordered the Salt Crusted Fish of the Day – very good, but for the price, you could have a filet of beef and be much more satisfied. The service was quick, but lacked personality. Although they did send me a small birthday dessert, a cake that was ordered for the occasion was not delivered – we did receive it on check out upon asking – but this was a small upset on the trip. Above all – this restaurant is ok, the atmosphere trumps anything else, however, for the price, the food was not anything that special. We did go back for breakfast – which was a much better idea.
Minnie Mouse making the rounds at Makahiki.

Every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, Makahiki – Aulani’s other restaurant – holds a Character Buffet Breakfast. Again, book this way in advance – we saw parents fighting the hostess for a seat – no lie. For $32 an adult or $18 for kids 9 and under, you are treated to bountiful buffet – you need to try the guava fan pastries and the POG (passion, orange, guava) juice – and familiar Disney friends Goofy, Mickey and Minnie. Auntie, who is a Hawaiian Grandmother figure, is also prominent at the breakfast, playing songs with her ukulele and encouraging young ones to participate in games and dances. I must say, that the entire resort evokes a curiosity of learning more about Hawaiian language and culture. This breakfast teaches patrons Hawaiian words, and the servers are more than happy to explain local birds and foliage that you see.  The buffet was great and we even returned for a buffet dinner on  Valentine’s Day - outstanding. Also a bonus - Photo Pass is available all throughout the resort - capturing those magic moments with Disney characters.

Daily fish feedings at the Rainbow Reef are colorful and exciting.
Our first full day we spent by Aulani’s  “waterpark” Waikolohe Valley, which overlooks the ocean. With our refillable mugs in hand – yes get them; they are $18.99 and well worth it as you can fill them up countless times by the pool and in the gift shop – we secured comfy lounge chairs near the Rainbow Reef. The Rainbow Reef is Aulani’s on-site snorkeling reef. You don’t have to snorkel to see the fish as there are viewing windows with seating available. Fish are fed twice a day – another activity that can be found in the EWA.

Aulani's double decker infinity hot tub - who couldn't relax here?

The pool area was top notch – a lazy river with surprises along the way, two water slides, a volcano in the middle with subtly carved Hawaiian animal life and smoke eruptions, two infinity hot tubs, two regular hot tubs, a zero entry pool, and a Menehue water activity area for kids. Even with so much going on around us, the pool area still proved to be tranquil. Hawaiian music piped through the area, and watching the lagoon area from the pool deck was especially nice. While the pool wasn’t too crazy with noise or children, there is a quiet adult pool option as well. However, there is not a quiet adult hot tub – something that could be used seeing as though we saw many three year olds in floaties using the hot tub as their own personal bathtub – something common in Disneyworld as well. One time it was so overcrowded with toddlers that I shouted that I saw Mickey Mouse to weed them out!! I love kids, but sometimes I need to relax in the hot tub!

Looking upon Ko Olina Lagoon from the pool area.
Out around the pool area there are a few dining and drink options that help you stay hydrated and well fed: One Paddle Two Paddle, The Shaved Ice Cart (only $3.75 and well worth it), the Lava Shack (where you can get sundries, such as the infamous Mickey Dove Bar,  apparently plate lunches – I didn’t see this at all - and beach merchandise – and fill your mug), Off the Hook, and Rip Swirl – a yogurt shop that is located in the Teen Spa Area Painted Sky – can be tough to find! The food was ok – typical Disney park style food with a Hawaiian spin. The lettuce wraps were really great as were the fish tacos. The pork sandwich was a big disappointment. Rip Swirl did have pineapple yogurt, however, Pineapple Dole Whip would be key here – they have it at the Polynesian, why not at Aulani which is mere miles away from the actual Dole Plantation?? This is one area that Disney could improve, along with making the yogurt shop more prevalent on the property. 

This secluded beach has a big payoff - a quiet view.
Now, to get onto the beach area and back in, you will need your room key. However, since the beach is public as is mostly every beach in Hawaii, you might find it a little crowded. Do take the time to swim in the lagoon – we snorkeled in there and since the area is protected, it was a nice and calm swim. There weren’t too many fish, but it was still worth it. We brought our own snorkel gear and water shoes, which came in handy since the area is a bit rocky. You can also rent snorkel sets for the day from the beach side stand. There is also no barrier in place to prevent non guests from coming into the resort if the gate is left open or if someone follows in a guest. This could be an area of improvement for Aulani. Do take a walk around the area though – especially past the JW Marriott and onto the beach path.  Also – beware, there is a timeshare person in front of the JW Marriott that will rope you in with his promise of coupons for dinner – keep on walking. You’ll see lava rock and some pretty incredible vistas. Guests that we saw said that a turtle had been coming to that beach area to lay her eggs – we did not see her, but it felt about right. 

There are a few other eatery choices at the surrounding hotels, however we did not go to any of them. We decided to take a walk down to the Ko Olina center in the afternoon – about a 10 minute walk from Aulani. While there are not many stores there now, I assume this will change soon. There was a Hawaiian BBQ place, Mexican restaurant, ABC Store (convenience, grocery, souvenir, liquor store) and an ice cream shop. We had dinner at the BBQ place; it was plate lunch style and about $15 a person – a nice change from the markups at Aulani. They also have a full breakfast menu. Additionally, if you call the concierge, they will tell you that Papa Johns and Pizza Hut deliver to Aulani – good option for a low cost dinner one of the days that you are there.

More views of the pool area - zero entry!
The view of Aulani from the beach area.
Upon the advice of previous visitors on blog sites, we went to the ABC store for our liquor, breakfast items for the room and snacks – remember – you do have a fridge in your room and housekeeping will bring you bowls and silverware. A bottle of Mai Tai mix with alcohol in it already was about $11 – less than the price of one drink by the pool.  Be prepared for a little sticker shock – a box of cereal was about $7, a half gallon of milk $5, and Triscuits for about $5. Carrying this stuff back up the hill was a little bit of a challenge.  Since there is a free intra resort shuttle in Ko Olina, I was hoping that they had a pick up at the store – no such luck. This would be a great service for Aulani to provide if they do not carry a full grocery outfit on property – especially with over half of the resort pegged for DVC members. We did not rent a car, and did not find ourselves needing it at any point since there was so much to do at the resort. Disney is beginning to add excursions in the area, one of which is a shuttle to Waikiki – but if you do need a rental car, you can rent one at the resort itself for the day. Local attractions, such as the Paradise Cove Luau, will provide free transport from the hotel.

Beautiful view of the resort at sunrise.
We were lucky enough to visit Aulani’s Laniwai spa while visiting. At first we were just going to get a day pass for $45 to enjoy the outdoor aromatherapy gardens and relaxation rooms. However, in the spirit of we’re on vacation, we were able to book a Honi Honi couples massage the day prior. For $300, it was probably the best money we spent on the vacation. The relaxation area was one of the best I have ever seen. You start off your journey with a custom made scrub, which you can use after your treatment, or even later in your room. Once you are situated in your bathing suit and robe, you head out to a co-ed soaking tub, experience shower, reflexology stone path and relaxation area outside. The baths, which are said to detoxify and ease aches and pains, are nestled in between tall shaded trees and luxurious landscaping – something Aulani has done well throughout the entire resort.  The experience showers were amazing – very warm water and different variations of pressure and shower heads. There is also a cold dip pool – FREEZING and a regular hot tub. The lounge chairs are comfortable and the attendants are frequently bringing cold towels and cucumber water for guests. The massage was the best massage that I have ever had. A combination of a deep tissue massage and what seemed like a Thai Massage with some light stretching, it was excellent. They also used all organic products, such as the Hawaiian flower flavored body butter the therapists used for our massage instead of oils. 

We were allowed to stay and relax for hours after the treatment, and had full use of their showers and amenities before it was time to leave. One thing I would highly recommend for the spa that was lacking – however small – was a hook on the inside of the shower to hang your robe and towel. I had to place mine outside the door on the floor – opening up to the entire restroom. 

The Starlit Hui was great fun. Get there early!
Even if you do not wish to use the spa, there are still a ton of activities to take part in during the day and evening. There is an interactive Menehue trail  (mysterious creatures that cause mischief), a stingray activity center, guided walking tours of the art and architecture of the resort, nature walks, fitness classes, fire pit storytelling and plenty for kids to do at Aunty’s Beach house. One of my favorite activities was the Starlit Hui. It’s a free show, that showcases Hawaiian culture – including hula, as well as Disney characters. It is only held on select nights, so you’ll want to find out what night they are performing it when you check in. You’ll want to get to this show at least a half an hour before it begins to get a good seat – they are on mats on the floor, so dress appropriately.

Breakfast at AMA AMA did not disappoint.
Currently, there is only one full souvenir store at the resort They have a lot of products from Disneyland along with some Aulani themed merchandise. In my opinion, there needs to be a lot more selection. As any Disney enthusiast will tell you, buying Disney merchandise is one of the highlights of the trip. Buying stuff that fits in the suitcase is also imperative! We made sure to visit the store the day we left (after 5 days of stalking the store and scouting out what we might want to buy), after a having wonderful breakfast at AMA AMA. It was practically empty and the food was wonderful!! We shared a Hawaiian pastry basket – with those lovely Guava Fans - $8, a 100% Kona coffee press pot - $9.50, POG juice, Chocolate Milk-dipped Haupia Bread French Toast - stuffed with Bananas and Peanut Butter- $15.00, and Belgian Waffle with Pineapple Chutney and Coconut Syrup - $13. It was wonderful- however, our server lacked that certain “Aloha” that we had become accustomed to during our stay. Maybe it was because she was from the Mainland?

Although check out was at 11, and we weren’t leaving until 12:30 with our trusty Speedi Shuttle, we were able to check our bags with the bell desk and lounge around in the spacious areas of the resort, enjoying ice cream and one last look upon the vista.
A nice place to sit and reflect - the lanai.

As I was sitting there, a woman who had just arrived and was taking in the view, stopped me to ask a simple question. “Do you have kids?” she asked. “Do you need to have kids to be here or is this a great place for adults?”

A taste of Disney on the lanai.
I immediately replied that no we did not have kids, and frankly that this was the best resort and resort experience we have ever had with Disney or with any other brand. It is definitely upscale and built with adults and families in mind.

One last piece of advice – if you are visiting other islands or hotels, go to Aulani last. We continued our stay at two more luxurious upscale resorts, that are toted worldwide….nothing compared – leaving us to miss the magic of Aulani before ever returning to the mainland.