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Back in the day, Hawaii bookings followed predictable patterns. Clients usually headed to Waikiki or Maui to swim at sunny beaches, sip rum drinks and catch a hotel luau. But now, your grandmother’s Hawaii itinerary doesn’t cut it anymore. Contemporary globetrotters want a home base away from the crowds where they can dip their toes in uncharted waters, savor rare experiences and unearth hidden gems.
Some clients are avoiding the tourist track and taking their cues from locals, while others are favoring exclusive digs they can brag about when they get back home. Once-overlooked regions around the islands are gaining traction with visitors by offering the new, the unexpected and even the unheard of.
Keeping up with the trends can seem daunting, so we’ve asked a few travel agents and wholesalers to discuss the Hawaii destinations currently commanding the most attention among their clients.
KauaiSeveral sources rank Kauai as today’s “it” island for clients — with statistics to back up the claim. For the first five months of 2018, the island led the state in revenue per available room growth despite record-setting rainfall and flooding on the north shore in mid-April, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority data.
“In many cases, repeat Hawaii vacationers have already explored Oahu and Maui and are looking for a new experience that still offers a unique spirit of aloha that no other destination can provide,” said Mark Klaschka, vice president and managing director of Hawaii for Pleasant Holidays. “Kauai offers a quieter, gentler experience closer to what Hawaii’s culture and natural wonders were like in its earlier years."
Younger, more active clients are choosing Kauai, which presents untold opportunities for outdoor pastimes, Klaschka adds. Although the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon continue to top visitors’ wish lists, Kauai Backcountry Adventures’ mountain tubing expedition has emerged as Pleasant’s hottest tour, he says. Additionally, ziplining and stand-up paddleboarding are resonating with clients.
“We’ve found that travelers are willing to explore off-the-beaten-path locations in order to experience eco-excursions,” Klaschka said. Tim Mullen, president of Apple Vacations, is seeing a surge in demand for the Princeville area on Kauai’s north shore. “It’s a great location for golf, plus you’ve got Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge practically in your backyard,” Mullen said. “Bookings for St. Regis Princeville Resort and Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas have performed extremely well for us."
Kauai’s numbers for 2018 have also gotten a boost from increased airlift from the U.S. mainland. United Airlines now runs daily, year-round service from Denver, a route previously operated seasonally. And on July 16, Hawaiian Airlines added daily nonstop flights between Oakland, Calif., and Kauai.
LanaiIn 2012, Oracle founder Larry Ellison bought 97 percent of the island of Lanai, and in 2016, Four Seasons Resort Lanai finished a multimillion-dollar renovation. Today, Hawaii’s smallest island has become a huge seller for agents such as Brian Payntar Harris of Aspen Travel Advisors in Aspen, Colo.
“The Four Seasons on Lanai is on any true devotee’s bucket list,” Harris said. “Add to that Lanai’s multitude of activities, its eco-wellness vibe and the fact that it’s basically a self-sustaining private island, and the destination’s popularity is no surprise. As far as single-owner island resorts go, it’s the easiest one to reach from the U.S. mainland.”
Marilyn Clark of Lighthouse Travel in Huntington Beach, Calif., believes that Lanai’s high marks stem in part from positive press coverage as well as accolades from agents catering to upscale clients. In both instances, the island is billed as a prime destination for relaxation and rejuvenation.
“When my clients go to Maui, I recommend a snorkeling day trip to Lanai that includes a visit to Lanai City and swimming with spinner dolphins,” Clark said. “If they don’t snorkel, I recommend a day trip by ferry from Maui to Lanai, especially in the winter months when they can see the whales.”
Clark estimates that 75 percent of her clients have followed her suggestions. Of those, several have requested subsequent vacations on Lanai.
“Recently, some well-traveled clients returned from a stay at Four Seasons Resort Lanai,” Clark said. “They said it was one of their top three resorts of all time.”
It’s likely that Lanai won’t fall out of favor any time soon. Four Seasons plans to reopen the island’s second resort, Lodge at Koele, by the end of 2018. Currently closed for a major refurbishment, the elegant upcountry lodge will re-enter the market with a focus on spa and wellness vacations.
The east side of Hawaii Island is growing in popularity, and zipline tours with KapohoKine Adventures are adding to Hilo’s appeal.Credit: 2018 Zipline Through Paradise
Molokai is gaining popularity with clients seeking authentic Hawaiian cultural pastimes.Credit: 2018 HTA/Blake Bronstad
As more clients look for a rural vacation spot, Oahu’s North Shore has become a top pick.Credit: 2018 HTA/Tor Johnson
A tubing excursion is one of Kauai’s top-selling tours.Credit: 2018 Kauai Backcountry Adventures
Princeville, on Kauai’s north shore, is seeing a surge in demand.Credit: 2018 Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
Hilo’s homespun, old-Hawaii vibe has piqued the interest of travelers.Credit: 2018 HTA/Daeja Fallas
With updated resorts, fine dining and top golf courses, Wailea is surging among high-end Maui visitors.Credit: 2018 Wailea Beach Resort-Marriott, Maui
Hawaii Island’s East SideLegions of visitors are learning that there’s more to Hawaii Island than the resorts along the Kona-Kohala Coast to the west. As recently as April of this year, agents reported increasing interest in accommodations on the east side of the island, in or near Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) as well as in Hilo, a 45-minute drive from the park.
“Predominantly, my clients want luxury, but they enjoy communing with nature just like everyone else, and in some respects, more so because of their stressful jobs and hectic lives,” Clark said.
Hilo has an old-fashioned downtown; easy access to waterfalls, gardens and rainforests; and fun activities such as ziplining. Additionally, the 2016 debut of the renovated Grand Naniloa Hotel made Hilo a more viable vacation spot than in years past.
Of course, Hawaii Island as a whole is dealing with a downturn in tourism since the dramatic volcanic activity that started May 3. At press time, Kilauea volcano has continued to shake the ground and blast ash, causing major portions of HVNP to close for the time being.
As long as Kilauea keeps spewing lava, there’s no predicting what the future will bring to HVNP, which is the island’s top attraction. That said, clients can still get their volcano fix by attending free, ranger-led programs in Kau, 50 minutes south of the park’s main entrance; Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani Campus; and Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo. Visitors also can view the volcano during permitted boat and air tours.
“The initial fear of Kilauea’s power is turning to fascination, with travelers wanting to witness this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity firsthand, albeit from a safe distance,” Klaschka said. “Helicopter tours are selling out days in advance."
Bookings are slowly starting to pick up again at Hilo-based KapohoKine Adventures, adds Gary Marrow, the company’s co-owner.
“Nothing has changed in Hilo, which is all about adventure and local culture,” Marrow said. “Only 1 percent of the island is affected by the volcano, and except for the national park closures, it’s business as usual.”
Oahu Beyond WaikikiThe long-established tourist hub of Waikiki regularly upgrades its existing offerings and devises new draws. But certain present-day travelers — most notably, repeat visitors — are electing to stay in the island’s rural regions, says Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions.
“Clients are seeking an immersive experience such as horseback riding and proximity to attractions and iconic surfing beaches,” Wiseman said. “The six-bedroom Sullivan Estate in Haleiwa on the North Shore is consistently among the most in-demand rentals offered through our Villa Experience collection. I expect to see a lot of development in this arena as travelers gravitate toward villas and condo properties in Hawaii."
Regina Tait of Travelcom in Huntington Beach, Calif., also notices building enthusiasm for what locals call “the country.”
“Clients who have seen the North Shore during a one-day drive from Waikiki are asking for more time there,” she said. “By staying at Turtle Bay Resort or Courtyard Oahu North Shore, they can explore highlights such as Waimea Valley, the Polynesian Cultural Center, food trucks and small shops at a leisurely pace.”
According to John Diorio, regional director of sales for The Mark Travel Corporation, Lanikai, on the windward side of Oahu, is catching on with visitors as well.
“Most people who travel to Oahu know about Waikiki and the North Shore,” Diorio said. “But Lanikai, which is a 40-minute drive from Waikiki, is an up-and-coming spot with amazing views and a chill atmosphere. The waters are very calm and there are good local restaurants nearby.”
Lanikai’s profile rose when former U.S. president Barack Obama and his family rented a vacation home there several times during his presidency.
High-End MauiOn Maui, luxury is driving demand. At Pleasant Holidays, for instance, more clients are opting for the upscale, southwest destination of Wailea for this year and next.
“We’re seeing increased bookings at Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, Grand Wailea and Wailea Beach Resort-Marriott, Maui,” Klaschka said. “Along with beautiful beaches, stellar golf courses and superb dining, Wailea offers a sense of tranquility and privacy. It’s a place to get away from all things frenetic and embrace the fabulous."
David Bistrin, Hawaii product development manager for Classic Vacations, attributes the uptick in Wailea reservations to the completion of Wailea Beach Resort in late 2016 and the recent renovation of Grand Wailea’s rooms and pool.
“It helps that the resorts in Wailea are very diverse in their appeal, from the luxury of Four Seasons and Fairmont Kea Lani to the family friendliness of Grand Wailea and Wailea Beach Resort and the multi-bedroom options at Destination Resorts,” Bistrin said.
At the same time, the trend toward indulgence on Maui has led to more curiosity about Kapalua Resort, on the northwest side of the island.
“Kapalua has always been on the radar, but more clients are interested in it now as word spreads about Montage Kapalua Bay, which opened in 2014,” Tait said.
Multiple sources also credit the newly renovated The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua for sparking bookings to that area.
MolokaiHistorically, Molokai — with its relatively small inventory of visitor accommodations and activities — has stayed several steps removed from the industry spotlight. Of late, however, Harris of Aspen Travel Advisors has seen a bump in requests for the island as interest grows in cultural island experiences.
“Clients are discovering Molokai as the last place in the state for authentic Hawaiian culture and flavor, with very little effect from tourism,” Harris said. “It has a completely different character from the other islands."
Molokai has no luxury product. Instead, Harris views it as perfect for adventure and history junkies.
“It’s a time capsule, going back 100 years to the days before Hawaii tourism really took off and changed the landscape of the neighboring islands,” Harris said.
Some of Harris’ clients are hearing about Molokai from television shows featuring celebrity chefs and food writers, such as Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain, who ran episodes showcasing local cuisine and culture on the island. This exposure has created new fans for Molokai.
“Those shows have elicited inquiries from our millennial foodie travelers,” Harris said. “The clients who have mentioned Molokai to me have been to Hawaii before. They are looking for something different.”