TRAVEL: Pools in paradiseA great swimming pool in Hawaii is something of a sin with all the amazing beaches often just inches away. Sometimes a necessary sin when a resort fronts a rocky or turbulent stretch of beach unfit for people to go into the ocean. But even when there are fantastic sand strands just outside the front door, visitors to the islands’ big resorts tend to congregate at the swimming pools.
By: Gary A. Warner, The Orange County Register
Let’s start by agreeing to the obvious — a great swimming pool in Hawaii is something of a sin with all the amazing beaches often just inches away. Sometimes a necessary sin when a resort fronts a rocky or turbulent stretch of beach unfit for people to go into the ocean.
But even when there are fantastic sand strands just outside the front door, visitors to the islands’ big resorts tend to congregate at the swimming pools. The most over-the-top swimming pool in the islands, at the Grand Wailea on Maui, sits a few yards from one of the better beaches in all of Hawaii. The new pool at the Sheraton Waikiki overlooks one of the classic crescents of sand in the world. And why is any pool needed, really, along nearly any part of Kaanapali on Maui?
But there are people who prefer pools. As my 9-year-old daughter put it, “There’s stuff in the ocean.” Well, there’s sometimes stuff in the pool too, but let’s not go there.
The pools are a reality. They are there. And so are we. I’ve been chronicling the pool wars competition among Hawaiian resorts for more than a decade. Here’s my latest roundup of the best pools in the islands, all of which I’ve swam, splashed, dived and lolled around in.
Maui is the most commercialized and expensive of the Hawaiian islands. It also has the best beaches, the best resorts and the best swimming pools. If you are a swimming pool aficionado, The Valley Isle is your splashdown point. Culling the many great pools to a short list is tough, but somebody has to do it:
• Grand Wailea: This is the legendary resort pool of all the islands, which is appropriately over-the-top for the most over-the-top hotel on the island. Everything here is epically sized. From the lobby, you can look out — that’s the main point — at the Hibiscus Pool, the 4,850-square-foot liquid artwork stretching from lobby to sea. The huge mosaic of a hibiscus flower is created by a quarter of the 2.2 million tiles making up the pool. Kids, avert your eyes. It’s adults only. Who cares when the real deal is The Wailea Canyon Activity Pool. It’s really nine pools spread across six levels, descending 40 feet. Slides, ropes, swim-up bars and a water-powered elevator to take you back to the top to start over. Only drawback: It’s sharp elbows time for the prime poolside spots when the place is crowded.
• Grand Hyatt Maui: The Hyatt is one of the oldest and biggest hotels in Kaanapali and its pool is the same. Unlike later pools, the Hyatt’s was built with a few deep-end spots, where the water is up to 9 feet deep. As an adult, this is a great spot to jump into the water and for older kids to go diving down for sticks. But parents need to remember that this isn’t one of those modern no-point-less-than-three-feet-deep pools now so popular at resorts. Officially, there are two pools separated by the caves, waterfalls and grotto — but you can swim from one to the other (and stop for a drink along the way). The Lahaina Pool, with the deep end, is where most of the adults hang out. But the action is on the far side of the falls in the Napili Pool, with its 150-foot Lava Tube waterslide. The slide is a wild ride, but like some of the older models, it is all enclosed – though there are some psychedelic lights on the way through. It’s a lot of flopping around in a tube before being unceremoniously dumped into the pool just under a swinging bridge where onlookers can see if you get water up your nose. Parents with very little ones can hang out in the Keiki Lagoon, with a sand-covered bottom. For adults, the best attraction is the Grotto Bar, where you swim through a waterfall to get to a Flintstone-like setting with a small counter of seats with a full range of beers, wines and hard stuff for tropical concoctions.
The oldest and most northern of the Hawaiian islands, Kauai also has a great collection of beaches that should dissuade anyone from spending too much time at the pool. But the two resorts that top our list both have questionable ocean frontages — one too used, the other too rough.
• Grand Hyatt Kauai: This is one of the few places in the islands where a great pool area is forgivable. The resort fronts Shipwreck Beach and unless you have come to Hawaii to break an arm or be pulled from strong currents by a lifeguard, it is for looking only. Guests can get a sense of salt water in the 5-acre lagoon. The big draw is the meandering four-foot deep channel that runs down the hillside to a small waterslide. Along the way are hidden grottos and bends in the course flanking thick gardens. It all makes you feel like you are in a swimming version of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. There’s a large, more traditional pool at the bottom for hanging out or playing a little pool volleyball. My only caveat: The river pool might be a bit much for the youngest swimmers to handle alone — it’s 4 feet deep in parts, the current is gentle but consistent and your kids will soon be out of sight around the next bend.
• Kauai Marriott: This is the greatest of the pre-watermark style pools in all the islands. A huge flower-shaped extravaganza is the largest single-level pool in the state. The numbers are staggering: 26,000 square feet with 300,000 gallons of water. Statues of animals double as fountains, spouting powerful plumes of water into the pool. One of my favorite stress-busters after an hour of traffic in nearby Kapaa is to stand under the plume and let it pummel my tense shoulders. The Marriott’s location was picked out early in the tourism boom, and it’s been hurt and helped by its proximity to the airport and port (I stay here my first night on the island before venturing farther afield). Marriott has decided to enter the water park wars with a new kids-oriented pool, complete with slides, slated to open early this summer. But for me, the appeal is swimming a very long circular lap around the main pool, then slipping into one of the hot tubs constructed underneath the columns supporting balconies overlooking the pool. Oh yeah, there’s Kalapaki Beach a few feet away.
With the worst beaches of the most popular islands and vast distances to get to the few good ones, it’s no wonder that the Big Island has a pretty good collection of pools. Most of the resorts on the Kona side have a nice, big adult-friendly pool of the classic sit, sun and swim category. It took controversial hotel guy Chris Hemmeter to up the ante with what is today the Hilton Waikoloa Village. The Big Island is also home to the best pool at a medium-price hotel on the island — a rare budget hotel with an interesting pool.
• Hilton Waikoloa Village: This overblown 1980s resort on the rocky west coast of the Big Island is everything I dislike about mondo-resorts. You need a monorail to get to your spot among the 1,240 rooms and in pre-cell phone days, it took forever to track down your family amid 62 acres of aging gauche. But let’s give kudos where they are due and that comes to the pool. Built originally as one of the developer Chris Hemmeter’s overblown Hyatts, it’s Disneyland in a tropical setting. The 4-acre swim park includes a lagoon with waterfalls that cascade into the pool from overhead, giving a feeling of being inside a water-cloaked cavern. There’s a sand beach for hanging out — a must on this rocky stretch of coast. Because the Hilton is so big and shows its age, it’s usually the most reasonably priced of the top-tier water park hotels in Hawaii. Just be ready for endless walks (or grab a mahogany hulled boat) to get around “Hawaiiland.”
• Sheraton Keauhou: A surprisingly cool pool in an unexpected place. Investors over the past decade have resurrected a sagging property — and are renovating yet again. Though the 1960s style hotel design leaves little room for style, the Sheraton brilliantly added the best swimming pool at a moderately priced hotel on the island. The Manta Ray Super Pool & Slide is now a genuine attraction for those who get nosebleeds at the rates of the Kona and Kohala coast resorts. The 200-foot waterslide, a sand-bottom pool, nearby whirlpools and lots of lush foliage and waterfalls make for a great stay. I usually stop or start my Big Island trip here, having a great splash before moving on to either the pricier resorts to the north or down to the volcano country to the south.
Maybe it’s because there is so much to do in “the gathering place,” or maybe all the hotels were developed too early, before the heyday of the big resort swimming pool. But despite having more than half of the state’s population, it has a tiny fraction of its best hotel swimming pools. Until recently, there was no aquatic-playground style pool anywhere on the island. The list today remains short.
• Sheraton Waikiki-Royal Hawaiian: One of the best things to come out of Sheraton’s renovation of its four Waikiki properties was the construction of Waikiki’s first real resort-style pool, wedged between the towering Sheraton and the venerable Royal Hawaiian. The Helumoa Playground has two pools, a 70-foot-long waterslide and two whirlpools. Best of all, the Infinity Edge pool blends nicely right into the famed beach at Waikiki, with the classic crescent of sand stretching away. A guest at any of the four Sheratons (the other two are the Westin Moana Surfrider and Sheraton Princess Kaiulani) can use the facilities.
If you go
With the exception of the Sheratons, all the hotels at the top of the pools list are expensive. Even the Sheratons will run above what it costs to stay at a condo off the beach. If sun and fun on the beach is what you crave, a resort isn’t necessary. But for families looking for fresh and saltwater experiences, it’s not going to come cheap. Rates start just under $200 at some of the Sheraton properties and can top $800 at the Grand Wailea and Four Seasons — though in this economy deals are available (usually extra nights free, but not deeply reduced rates). Here’s where to go for more information: