Aulani Trip Report – Part 2

BY MARY WARING – JANUARY 2012

Day 2 (Wednesday)

Holoholo Desk; Touring the Resort; One Paddle, Two Paddle; Laniwai Spa; Genki Sushi; Grocery Shopping

I was up at 6:00 am, due to the time zone change. At least I got a lot of work done before Mike woke up at 9:00! The blackout curtains in the bedroom are very effective at keeping the room dark.

We ate a simple breakfast in our villa, interrupted by a call from the Holoholo Desk, which organizes tours and excursions from the resort. The young woman calling said our Adventures by Disney excursion, the “Hawaiian Cooking Class with Local Celebrity Chef Sam Choy,” which we were supposed to take Thursday afternoon, had been cancelled because we were the only two people who had signed up. No apology was offered, nor was another excursion suggested. She simply told me to come to the Holoholo Desk and collect a receipt for the $448 refund. (I had paid for the excursion months earlier.)

I asked if we could be added to the morning cooking class excursion. (The same class is supposed to be offered on Thursday mornings as part of Disney’s 3-Day Adventures by Disney Explorer Package.) The woman from the Holoholo desk seemed confused. After some discussion, she claimed the Explorer Package is not being offered. I couldn’t pin her down on whether that meant “anymore, ever,” or “right now.” Either way, she was not offering any options.

I believe the tours and excursions desk may be operated by a third party, not Disney. I noticed when I booked the cooking class excursion that I started out on the Aulani web site, but ended up being charged by Pleasant Holidays, a major Hawaii tour operator. I believe the “Adventures by Disney” tours are only “Disney” in the sense that some or all of the itineraries are exclusive to Aulani, and a Disney representative comes along on the excursion with the guests. But I strongly suspect that an outside company actually operates the excursion.

In any case, we went down to the Holoholo Desk. There are actually four desks, and something about the layout is remarkably unwelcoming. They need a greeter or at least a reception desk. One desk was marked Alamo, so I knew that was not the one I wanted, but the other three were not marked and it was not clear who to approach. Finally I just picked one at random and the woman was somewhat pleasant but not very “Disney” or particularly helpful. She gave me my refund receipt without comment. I was still pretty surprised that I was not being offered any alternative excursions. I asked if there were other Adventures by Disney excursions operating this week. “Oh, sure,” she said, and mentioned one on Saturday, but she didn’t offer me a brochure or make any real effort to explain.

Actually I had already scanned through the excursion options and we were not very interested in any of the others. They are either too much like excursions we’ve taken in Hawaii previously or experiences we can easily have on our own, much less expensively and without being dragged around in a group. We decided we’d just use our rental car and go it alone.

After our visit to the Holoholo Desk, we walked around the grounds to see everything we missed yesterday. Immediately I noticed something that had also struck me the first night: the paths seemed crowded. I was being jostled or having to dodge around someone fairly constantly. I felt like I was visiting one of the Disney theme parks on a busy day. Yet I knew the resort was not at capacity.

Eventually I realized what’s causing this: one heck of a lot of stuff is crammed into a relatively small space. Between the lazy river (which is really impressive), the volcano pool slide, the pools and spas, the various seating and lounging areas, the shave ice stand, outdoor seating for the bars and restaurants, the Lava Shack store (overpriced grab-and-go food, sunscreen, etc.), Rainbow Reef, Makai Preserve, the kids’ water play area and everything else, the whole central courtyard between the buildings is just jam-packed. From the ground level, Disney has done a great job of obscuring how crowded the resort really is. The landscaping and rock work do a good job of concealing things, much like in the theme parks. But take a look from overhead, and it’s readily apparent.

We took a quick look at Rainbow Reef. It’s like a very tiny version of The Living Seas at Epcot. Fake rocks and coral, lots of colorful fish. You can pay to snorkel in there ($20 adult, $15 child; or length-of-stay $39 adult, $29 child) but I don’t understand the appeal of it, unless you are absolutely terrified of the water or something. You can snorkel in the lagoon here at the resort for free (if you have a snorkel, or rent one), and the water is extremely calm.

We walked by the Makai Preserve, where you can feed the stingrays for $50 adult/$45 child. The pool holding the rays is surprisingly small. I feel sorry for the stingrays, and I think the price is kind of crazy.

The signage at the resort is really poor, and during our walk we frequently became frustrated with trying to find things. For example, we had a terrible time getting to One Paddle, Two Paddle, the counter-service food location. There is no sign visible from the main path and the location is down a dead-end side path, hidden behind Ama Ama. There was no one in line at noon. As we were looking over the menu, a couple wandered up and the woman said, “Well, this is just the same stuff we ordered by the pool.”

I had a spa appointment later that day, so we decided to locate the Laniwai Spa. There were a few directional signs along the paths as we skirted around the lagoon side of the main Waikolohe pool. Then we got to the Wailana pool area with a pool bar, and the signs suddenly petered out completely. There was nothing indicating the spa was nearby. We asked a Cast Member and she pointed us in the right direction: along the path and through an unmarked double door. Seriously, there are absolutely no signs within 500 feet of the building entrance when you are coming from the pool area. Once inside those doors, however, the Laniwai entrance is pretty obvious.

We walked in and I asked if we could take a quick look at the spa facilities. I was hoping to wow Mike with the spa, because he refuses to get spa treatments, but he does like saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs. I’d heard the Laniwai facility was pretty fantastic and might be worth the $45 fee you have to pay if you’re not having spa treatments. I knew I’d enjoy hanging out in the spa with Mike, if I could sell him on the idea. There were three staff members standing around in the spa lobby; it was an off-hour, between standard appointment times, and we were the only guests there. But they wouldn’t show us the spa, even though we were prepared to pay the $45 fee if we liked it. We were told “there are spa tours at 8:00 am and 7:00 pm.” That’s it, no exceptions.

We were also told the $45 spa pass is for one-time use only (no coming and going, even on the same day – once you leave, you’re done) and is subject to availability. While I understand that they don’t want the spa facility to be overrun, the tone was pretty much that they don’t want to sell the passes. “Call us in advance and we’ll tell you if we have room at that time.”

I asked what treatments qualify for spa access. I had gotten the idea it was not all treatments, and I was correct. Only specific spa treatments (facials, massages and body treatments) of 50 minutes or longer qualify, so the minimum you’ll pay for a treatment that gives you spa admission is $150. They do have a number of 25-minute spa treatments, and I don’t understand how you would get one of those treatments without using a locker. Assuming you’d have access to the locker room, I don’t know how (or why) they would keep you from using the showers, etc. afterward. It seems odd. Hair and nail services, including pedicures, are performed in a salon area at the front, outside of the spa facilities, and do not qualify you for entry to the inner sanctum.

We departed Laniwai and popped into the fitness center next door. It is free to use and adequately equipped, with basic cardio equipment, a few strength-training machines and free weights, but it’s also surprisingly small. It has no lockers or showers – just restrooms. If you want to take a steam or get in a whirlpool after your workout, you’ll have to pay $45 for the use of those facilities in the spa.

At this point I was starting to feel a sort of general annoyance with the resort. So far we’d been hearing the word “no” a lot. No, you can’t have a better table in the restaurant, even though there are plenty of better tables. No, you can’t go on the excursion you were really looking forward to, and we don’t have another option for you. No, you can’t look at the spa, even though we have staff members standing here twiddling their thumbs.

I didn’t like this feeling. I decided to put it aside, and start fresh with a new attitude.

I was not particularly hungry yet, but Mike was, so we went back to One Paddle, Two Paddle and he got an order of fish tacos ($14). It came with a choice of sides: taro chips, fries or salad. He chose the salad. I decided to try one of the frozen nonalcoholic drinks ($6). Three flavors were listed on the board: only one of them (orange) was actually available, as well as banana, which wasn’t listed. I ordered a mixture of orange and banana. It was tasty and a large serving (approx 20 oz cup).

I tasted Mike’s tacos. We both thought they were fairly good – remarkably so since they appeared to be coming out of the ‘Ama ‘Ama kitchen – though the salsa had no heat at all. We wished they’d offer the option of a spicy salsa. The salad was a little overdressed, but not bad, and had sea asparagus on it, which was a nice touch.

After lunch I did a little work, then headed off to the spa for my Kilikili treatment ($220). It’s a unique, 80-minute signature spa service: the entire thing takes place under multiple shower sprays of body-temperature water. You are scrubbed all over, massaged using the lomilomi technique, and then rubbed with body butter, all the while lying on a special table under the soothing water spray. Similar treatments are popular in France (the water spray device originated there, and is called a Vichy shower) but most US spas I’ve visited, even in high-end locations, have not had the specialized equipment to offer this treatment. It sounded unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and I was eager to try it.

I got to Laniwai almost an hour early, as instructed, so that I could enjoy the top-secret facilities. In the lobby I was offered pineapple- and lemongrass-infused water, which was very refreshing. Then I was asked to choose a smooth stone from a basket. The stones have a Hawaiian word or phrase engraved into one side, and the English equivalent on the other. My word was Dream. I was invited to ponder that word during my spa experience. Then I was walked down a lovely hallway to an indoor pond, where I was asked to return the stone to the water.

Next was a quick tour of the facilities. Laniwai may not be the nicest spa I’ve experienced (that would probably be the Bellagio Spa in Las Vegas), but it’s certainly up there, and it has some unique features. The design is lovely and since it’s been open for less than 5 months, of course everything is new, clean and fresh. It’s kind of weird that the spa management is so protective of it – they should be eagerly showing it off.

The facilities are pretty extensive: first, there are separate men’s and women’s sides, each with a locker room, relaxation lounge with light snacks and fruit-infused water, showers, steam room and sauna. The women’s side is, like the better spas, well-equipped with everything you need to put yourself back together after your spa time: hair dryers, deodorant, lotions, cotton swabs, razors, hair gel, and lots more. I was told the men’s side has a television. One of the attendants said “it’s always on, and it’s always tuned to sports.”

In addition, there is a larger co-ed relaxation lounge, which offers loungers and opens onto Kula Wai. Kula Wai is the element that makes this spa unique. Basically it’s an outdoor water relaxation garden – or, as I came to think of it, a water play area for adults.

When you are first taken out into Kula Wai, you’re invited to choose a body scrub from one of several scents, and you’re given a little plastic tub of it, which you can use there or take back to your room. Since I was about to have a treatment that involved being scrubbed, I opted to put my little container in my locker and keep it for later.

Kula Wai includes two soaking tubs (102 degrees) without any bubbles or agitation, which are supposedly scented and infused with essential oils. The spa attendant who toured me around immediately noticed the water in them was clear: apparently it’s supposed to be colored, to show that the oils are present. She said this was a common occurrence because the chlorine that keeps the water disinfected also bleaches out the color and the scent. I did soak in the tubs later and while the water temperature was pleasant, it had no aroma other than a mild chlorine scent.

In addition, there is a good-sized hot tub spa (104 degrees, with bubbles) in a back corner. It has a waterfall, which provides a soothing sound. There’s a cold plunge pool – I was too wimpy to try it, so I’m not sure how cold – and the main attraction: the rain shower circuit. Arranged in a circle are six outdoor showers, each offering a different set of sprays. Some dump tons of water on you; one mists you on top while your bottom half is sprayed from below. It’s fun and the water is body temperature, so there are no unpleasant cold surprises. I enjoyed walking around the circuit and trying them all.

The water features are located in a lovely garden setting, with clusters of loungers arranged here and there. There’s plenty of shade and a reflexology path, which is smooth stones set into the pavement, to walk along in your bare feet. All in all, Kula Wai is a quiet, pleasant place to spend an hour or two relaxing. You can even order food from a spa menu – I saw one group of women, who had apparently spent the whole morning at the spa, enjoying a late lunch and glasses of wine delivered to their lounge chairs in Kula Wai.

Kula Wai was not busy while I was there. In fact, the spa in general was not busy during my visit. At one point I was the only person in the women’s relaxation lounge, and I poked my head into the co-ed lounge, which was less than one-third full. Again I was puzzled by the spa management’s decision to be so discouraging about spa passes.

About ten minutes before my treatment, someone came to me in the garden and let me know the time. I took a quick shower and then went for my Kilikili treatment. I won’t describe it in any further detail than I already have, but it was truly a heavenly 80 minutes. The water spray is incredibly relaxing and I nearly fell asleep during the treatment. It is a messy procedure that produces lots of wet towels, and while you are draped all through the treatment, if you’re super-shy about nudity this one might not be for you.

After I dressed, I was walked out to the lobby by one of the spa attendants, who were, by the way, all extremely nice and friendly. I signed my bill and they presented me with a small bag of bath salts themed to my “Dream” stone.

After my spa treatment, I was in a much better mood. We got our car out of the garage and headed for Kapolei – which is an easy drive, less than 10 minutes from Aulani – to do some shopping. On our way over, we realized we were quite hungry, so when we exited the highway and saw a sign for Genki Sushi, we decided to give it a try.

Genki is a chain, with locations throughout the Hawaiian islands and Washington state, that offers inexpensive “conveyor belt” sushi. You can order off a menu, but the fun thing to do is to sit at the counter and grab plates off the conveyor belt. Each plate is color-coded, to indicate the cost of the items on it. Plates start at $1.20 each. When you’ve eaten your fill, someone counts your plates and gives you your bill.

The nice thing about conveyor belt sushi places, in addition to the price, is that they provide instant gratification. If you’re hungry, you can walk in and start eating in 15 seconds! Is it the best sushi ever? Definitely not. But it’s cheap and enjoyable, the fish seems fresh, and unlike fast food, it is not totally unhealthy. We ate a lot of sushi, hand rolls and some spicy edamame (boiled soy beans in a hot pepper paste). We had hot tea and ice water to drink, at no extra charge. Our bill was $16.

Full and happy, we headed over to Costco. It is always interesting to see what regional foods are offered at the Hawaii Costco stores. We grabbed some 100% Kona coffee and selected from 5 kinds of poke (marinated raw fish). We also picked up a few old reliables that can be found on the mainland, such as a rotisserie chicken and La Brea Bakery baguettes. (If you’re interested, you can see more details and prices here.) After checking out, we used the coffee grinder at the front of the store, since the coffee they sell is all whole-bean.

Next we found our way to Safeway, about 5 minutes further down the road in Kapolei. We bought some necessities like coffee filters, rice, a small bottle of olive oil, half a dozen eggs, and other odds and ends. Now we were well-stocked for a week of easy and delicious meals. Total cost for food and wine from ABC Island Market, Costco and Safeway: $230.46. Not much more than we spent for one dinner at Ama Ama!

Before leaving home, I had gone to Walgreens and bought an inexpensive pill organizer, the kind with a day of the week printed on each compartment, to use as a travel spice rack. I got a “locking” version, which helps prevent it from popping open easily, and picked one with the largest compartments I could find. It cost $3.49. Mike filled each compartment with an herb or spice that we use a lot, like garlic powder, steak seasoning and thyme, and used a label maker to mark the compartments. We also have a set of inexpensive, pre-filled salt and pepper shakers that are sold for picnics, which we take on trips like this. We put the pill holder and shakers in a zip-top bag, just in case they pop open or leak in the checked luggage.

I can’t take credit for the pill organizer idea – I found it on a blog about cooking while traveling – but it’s a huge money-saver, because otherwise you have to buy full-sized jars of every herb and spice you need, and you’ll probably end up throwing the rest away, rather than taking it home in your luggage. I recommend putting the “spice rack” in checked luggage to avoid hassles with the TSA screeners at the security checkpoint, though there’s no rule against taking dry spices through security.

When we got back to Aulani, I had Mike drop me off in front, and asked bell services to help me take up the groceries. This is obviously a common request: the bellman radioed his supervisor that he was “doing a grocery run.” He put all of our groceries on a luggage cart and took them up for me. It was well worth tipping the bellman to avoid carrying all of that heavy stuff from the parking garage on the opposite side of the resort.

Dinner that night was rotisserie chicken, steamed rice and veggies, accompanied by a nice glass of wine. Simple, but delicious. In all honesty, it was much better than our meal at Ama Ama, and it took only a few minutes to prepare.

We discussed what to do the next day, since our excursion was cancelled, and decided to drive into Honolulu to check out Waikiki and Chinatown. This was my first visit to Oahu (we’ve previously visited Kauai, Maui and the Big Island), so I had never seen Honolulu or Waikiki. One part of the Sam Choy excursion was a supposed to be a tour of the Chinatown markets. We figured we could manage that on our own.

CONTINUE TO PART 3