Guests take an active roll at Paradise Cove Luau on leeward Oahu. // © 2012 Paradise Cove Luau
When The Walt Disney Company selected leeward Oahu as the site of its first-ever Hawaii resort, some folks wondered why Disney chose to build it on the island’s western shores, a 30- to 45-minute drive from Waikiki. But the decision made good sense to tourism insiders like Elliot Mills, general manager of the property now known as Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa.
“Leeward Oahu holds some of the greatest natural beauty on the island,” said Mills. “Aulani’s location provides a tropical family experience away from the hustle and bustle of the urban core, but it’s an easy drive to all of the adventures of the island, including Honolulu and Waikiki.”
Wide-open spaces and warm, dry weather make the leeward side an alluring destination for clients looking for laid-back, natural beauty. With its uncrowded beaches, fine snorkeling spots, and unobstructed views of the Waianae Mountains, it provides the ambience of a lesser-visited island. At the same time, leeward Oahu features top-notch accommodations, splashy adventures and cultural attractions.
At Home in Ko Olina
The August 2011 opening of Aulani was the biggest tourism news to come out of the leeward side as of late. The resort is set on 21 oceanfront acres within the 642-acre masterplanned Ko Olina Resort, and its two towers feature 359 guestrooms and 481 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas.
Another Ko Olina standout is JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa, an elegant hotel perched on a white-sand beach. Views of the Pacific Ocean and saltwater Hawaiian ponds are highlights of the recently-renovated 387-room property, which also features two pools, five restaurants and lounges, a 24-hour business center, meeting facilities, a full-service health spa, a tennis club and a year-round children’s program.
Clients who want to stay on leeward Oahu can also book high-end residential accommodations at the oceanfront Ko Olina Beach Villas Resort and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club. Along with accommodations, Ko Olina aims to satisfy clients with a Ted Robinson-designed golf course, oceanside wedding chapels, a retail and business center and a marina.
The leeward side stays drier than most of Oahu, and its ocean water is much calmer and clearer, with coral heads dating back 1,000 years. That makes it an ideal locale for spotting marine life on snorkeling trips with Wild Side Specialty Tours, during which owners Tori and Armin Cullins share their passion for and knowledge of the ocean and island history. Departing from Waianae Boat Harbor near Ko Olina, their intimate half- and full-day tours bring clients face-to-face with dolphins, sea turtles and other creatures of the deep.
A water adventure of the manmade kind awaits at the state’s only water park, Wet ‘N’ Wild Hawaii, located in Oahu’s burgeoning second city of Kapolei. Clients can immerse themselves in 25 rides and attractions like the Tornado, where riders rush through a 130-foot tunnel and land in a splash-down pool; a 400,000-gallon wave pool; and an interactive children’s area with fountains and mini-slides.
Culture by Day and Night
Between 1852 and the end of World War II, sugar plantations around the islands drew hundreds of thousands of workers from around the world. Today, Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu showcases the lifestyles and experiences of those workers through a collection of 32 original and authentically replicated plantation buildings. Visitors can get a real feel for Hawaii’s multi-ethnic heritage while attending its special events, like the Japanese Obon celebration on June 2 and the Portuguese Festival on June 16.
Paradise Cove Luau continues the cultural fun on a 12-acre stretch of leeward coastline. During the first two hours of the experience, clients go hands-on with Hawaiiana by paddling outrigger canoes, playing ancient games, learning traditional crafts and watching the unearthing of the traditional underground-roasted pig. The buffet includes luau fare such as poi, lomi lomi salmon, island fish and kalua pig, followed by a lively show blending song, dance, comedy, audience participation and a fire knife dance.
Add to these assets the continued growth of Kapolei, the soon-to-open University of Hawaii west Oahu campus and a major shopping center in the works, and you have got a destination with plenty going for it.
“We are really pleased to be in this location,” said Aulani’s Mills. “Leeward Oahu will continue to be a significant part of the island’s future.”