|Rather than a Disney resort in Hawaii, Aulani is a Hawaiian resort with some distinct Disney touches.|
It is fairly safe to say that the travel world arched its collective eyebrows a few years back when Disney announced that it would be opening a resort (as opposed to a theme park) on Oahu. But those eyebrows were also raised in 1998 when Disney announced that it would be entering the cruise market—and look how well Disney cruises are doing now.
In spite of all the skepticism, Disney’s Aulani (http://resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort) resort opened in September in Ko Olina, a community about half-an-hour from Honolulu. Travel Agent was there to see the grand opening ceremony, and we can assure fans of all things Hawaiian and all things Disney—that it strikes the perfect balance between the two worlds.
Rather than a Disney resort in Hawaii, Aulani is a Hawaiian resort with some distinct Disney touches: a wooden table lamp might have a subtly shaded Mickey in the base, or you might walk past a small statue of Stitch from the movie Lilo and Stitch (which, of course, was set in Hawaii). But on the whole, the resort has a very grown-up feel, with natural products in the design and subdued color schemes. There’s plenty that would appeal to the younger crowd, but it doesn’t feel specifically designed for children.
It is also a decidedly five-star resort experience, with natural materials used everywhere and the handiwork of local artisans featured prominently throughout.
Aulani has several room types, from simple studio rooms with two queen beds to spacious interconnecting suites for large families. We stayed on the 14th floor (great views), in a one-bedroom suite that had a massive king-size bed (elevated for storing luggage underneath), a nice living room with a small kitchenette setup (a small sink, refrigerator and countertop that would make cereal breakfasts and quick sandwich lunches a snap) and both a small guest bathroom and a huge master bath. The master bathroom came complete with soaking Jacuzzi; a shower with a rain head and spa bench; and an electrically heated toilet with built-in bidet. (Some may find this a marvel to behold, others may think it a bit too over-the-top.)
|Among Aulani’s Disney touches is a statue of Stitch from the movie Lilo and Stitch, which is set in Hawaii.|
The Parlor Suite is best for families, and can sleep up to five comfortably on a king-sized bed in the master bedroom, a queen-sized sleeper sofa and a bunk-sized pull-down bed. (It also has one full bathroom and a half-bath off the parlor.) The Lei Hulu and ‘Ahu ‘Ula suites can sleep up to five and six, respectively—the latter has a second bedroom with a queen-size bed and a large sleeper sofa as well as three full bathrooms.
The absolute top accommodation, though, has to be the Grand Villa, which can sleep up to nine. The master bedroom has a king-size bed, while two other bedrooms have two queen-size beds each, and the living room has a queen-size sleeper sofa and a sleeper chair for one.
Patrick Callarec, Aulani’s executive chef, said that his cuisine will appeal to parents (nothing is fried, everything is made from scratch, plenty of local ingredients, etc.) as well as kids. Even better, to introduce younger guests to the world of fine dining, family meals are presented in a proper three-course format—even when the main course is pizza. (Hey, they’re kids. Pizza is its own food group to a 10-year-old.)
In the bars, the cocktails are also made with fresh ingredients—the pineapple juice is fresh-squeezed, for example, and nothing comes from cans.
|The massive king-size bed in this one-bedroom suite is elevated to facilitate the storing of luggage.|
‘Ama ‘Ama is Aulani’s fine dining restaurant, and is ideal for parents who want a swank meal. (The views over the ocean are absolutely killer.) Families will want to hit Off the Hook for less formal waterfront dining, or the massive buffet at Makahiki. The ‘Olelo Room is great for cocktails and tapas (we mean the snack, not the Polynesian print), and kids will get a kick out of the Disney character breakfasts. (Tell your clients to try the French toast, especially with the coconut syrup. Its nutritional value is debatable, but it is absolutely delicious.)
Note: While the food at Aulani is top-notch, it is also on the pricy side. A buffet dinner for one adult at Makahiki ran to approximately $50 (without alcohol, but including tip), while à la carte service at ‘Ama ‘Ama is comparable in price. (To be fair, there is an enormous amount of food available, and it is top-tier, but a family of four would have to spend approximately $200 for each dinner.) Casual dining at the ‘Olelo Room and at Off the Hook is much more budget-friendly, although the menus are more limited. (If nothing else, tell your clients to try the taro chips and homemade salsa—it’s not spicy, but somewhat sweet and very tasty. Also, the mai tais are excellent.)
The Laniwai Spa (meaning “freshwater heaven”—water is a dominant theme) has just about everything you’d expect from a five-star resort spa (15 treatment rooms, salon, all the usual treatments), with some notable perks.
|Waikolohe Valley is a small water park with attractions for all ages.|
Upon check-in, guests get a small stone with a word carved into it (“Balance,” for example), and they are asked to meditate on that word during their stay. In the middle of the spa is a small pool, and guests can put their stones in the pool before heading off to their therapies. Design-wise, the real novelty at Laniwai is the co-ed hydrotherapy garden, Kula Wai, which is included in all treatments but can be booked independently. The garden has six distinct motion-activated showers guests can wander through before jumping into either a warm Jacuzzi or a cold-water plunge pool (depending on preference), and several herbal soaking tubs. It’s a really lovely way to spend an hour or so before or after spa treatments, and guests should budget extra time to unwind outside. Nice touch: Guests also get a custom-made scrub when they check in. The maile sugar scrub smells a little sweet, but not cloying.
Inside, the sauna and steam room areas have little refrigerators filled with towels, making the heat much more bearable. And the main lounge has a full range of lotions and hairsprays and whatnot, so guests don’t have to leave the spa looking like they’ve just…well, left a spa.
There’s a dedicated spa at Laniwai for teenagers. Painted Sky has special treatments for younger guests, and kids can try their hand at making their own perfumes. (Be afraid. Be very afraid.)
Aunty and Uncle—common terms of endearment used not just for ohana (family) but for friends in Hawaii—are two new Disney characters created exclusively for Aulani. The two can be seen at various events, leading impromptu parades through the grounds and telling stories to younger guests. Aunty’s Beach House is a dedicated children’s space at the resort. The house has many rooms with different kinds of activities for different ages and interests—board games, computer games, videos, toys, sports equipment…just about anything a kid could need to stay entertained while mom and dad unwind on the beach or in the spa. Coolest part: There’s even a tool shed for arts and crafts—we get the feeling that projects at Aunty’s are much more inventive and exciting than macaroni pictures.
|Aunty’s Beach House has just about anything a kid could need to stay entertained at the resort.|
Between the two towers of Aulani is Waikolohe Valley, a small water park with different attractions for all ages. The pools are largely shallow, and the zero-entry Waikolohe Pool is great for beginning swimmers or wheelchair-users—and yes, Aulani has a water-accessible wheelchair. The Waikolohe Stream, meanwhile, is a gentle water route that’s ideal for riding in a tube. The Menehune Bridge is designed for very young guests to explore, and the Wailana Pool is a quiet retreat for grown-ups, away from the main action. (Eight poolside cabanas are available, and include TV and Wi-Fi, though we have to wonder who would want to watch TV or go online when there’s a water park right outside.)
Arguably coolest of all is the Rainbow Reef and the Makai Preserve—the former a small enclosed saltwater pool filled with numerous species of tropical fish, and the latter a conservation pool where guests can learn about stingrays, starfish, anemones, and morea. Guests can book day passes to Rainbow Reef and go snorkeling without worrying about currents or very deep water, and the small size helps ensure that beginning swimmers feel safe.
A note about safety: Lifeguards are stationed throughout Waikolohe Valley, maintaining constant surveillance on the water. They are frequently only yards apart from one another, and maintain their posts even when there’s no one in the pools. This means that if (hypothetically) a toddler managed to sneak away from mommy and jump into the water, the odds are good that someone would notice before anything terrible happened.
Disney has also partnered with local tour operators to take guests around Oahu (and other islands) as part of Disney Excursions. While there, we went kayaking along Kailua Beach to Popoi’a, also known as Flat Island, a bird sanctuary. The waters are gentle and shallow, making it an ideal activity for younger guests, and the guides are all highly trained specialists (several had majored in marine biology, and knew the local flora and fauna cold). Other activities include hiking up Diamond Head, touring the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, and hiking along the volcanoes of Hawaii Island. Activities can range from a few hours to a few days and cater to just about every interest.