Aulani Trip Report – Part 5
BY MARY WARING – JANUARY 2012
Day 5 (Saturday)
North Shore; Killer Tacos; Matsumoto Shave Ice; Ko Olina Lagoons; JW Marriott Ihilani; Makahiki Buffet
We left for the North Shore at 11:00 am. The drive was pleasant and easy: H1 East to H2 North, then Kamahameha Highway (Hwy 80/99), following the signs to Hale’iwa, the historic surf town. By the time we got there, we were quite hungry, so we stopped at Killer Tacos and had – you guessed it. Actually, Mike had tacos and I had a fish burrito. Everything was good. In fact, Mike said his fish tacos might be the best he’s ever eaten.
After lunch we stopped by the famous Matsumoto Shave Ice, where there is always a line, though it moves very fast. I had a “small” shave ice (which was huge) with ice cream (vanilla is the only option), beans (sweetened azuki beans) and three flavors. Mike had a small one-flavor shave ice. Total cost: $6. Honestly I didn’t think it was worlds better than the shave ice available at Aulani, though Matsumoto has more flavors.
We enjoyed a leisurely drive along scenic Kamahameha Highway (Hwy 83), which parallels the coast. We stopped here and there to watch the surfers taking on big waves and to check out the fruit stands and the shrimp trucks. The scenery is beautiful and the water is amazingly clear. Along the way, we passed the Dole Plantation, the Polynesian Cultural Center and Kualoa Ranch, all of which are major tourist attractions. Eventually we met up with H3, which connects with H1 West going back to Aulani. Basically we made a huge loop around the northeastern half of the island.
If you want to visit some of the tourist attractions along the loop, I recommend taking off very early, because it will be a long day. Just driving the loop and making a few brief stops took over 4 hours. (We did hit traffic several times, due to the general popularity of the North Shore on Saturday as well as a surf competition that was taking place at Waimea Bay.) Believe me, even with traffic, it’s worth it!
After we returned to the resort, Mike and I decided to take a walk along the lagoons. Aulani and the JW Marriott Ihilani share one lagoon, but there are actually a series of lagoons along the Ko Olina coast. We started with a walk north, toward the Ihilani. As soon as you pass the Ihilani, you are off Ko Olina property, and you’ll find yourself on a rugged beach with lots of lava rock. We were there just after high tide, so there were numerous tidepools in the rock, and it was fun to watch the little crabs and fish in the pools. However, the rocks soon became impassable, so we turned around.
We decided to go into the Ihilani and see what it was like. From the lagoon, we went up some stairs to the pool. There was a medium-sized round zero-entry pool surrounded by tables, chairs and loungers. It was a nice enough pool area, but compared with Aulani, it was not even in the same league.
We took a look at the Ihilani’s all-day (breakfast/lunch/dinner) poolside/ocean view restaurant, Naupaka Terrace, which had a pleasant ambiance. Prices were substantially lower than ‘Ama ‘Ama, starting at about $8 for soup or salad, and most appetizers in the $10-$12 range. Sandwiches were around $15 and entrees were mostly in the $22-$25 range, with a few steaks and chops in the $31-$39 range.
Next we visited the Ihilani Spa, which is in a separate building, directly across the street from Aulani. I asked if I could take a quick look at the spa facility. No problem! In fact, a very pleasant attendant introduced herself, asked my name, and escorted me around personally.
The Ihilani Spa is lovely, though a tiny bit dated when compared with Aulani’s Laniwai. (The Ihilani was built in 1993.) Mens’ and women’s facilities are completely separate. The women’s spa offers an indoor/outdoor relaxation lounge, locker room, showers, Roman whirlpool tub, 60 degree plunge pool, eucalyptus-scented steam room, sauna and needle shower. I asked if the men’s spa had the same features as the women’s and was told it was the same, except for no plunge pool. The women’s spa is also equipped with specialized equipment for unique treatments: a Vichy shower, which they use for body scrubs, and a jetted Thalasso tub that is supposedly one of only two in the US. (Thelasso therapy is seawater-based.)
On my way out of the Ihilani Spa, I grabbed a price list and asked what treatments qualify for access to the spa facility. I was told all 50-minute spa treatments qualify. Manicures, pedicures and hair services don’t give you access to the spa, “but if the spa isn’t busy, we might make an exception.” I also asked about spa passes for those who are not having a treatment. I was told the cost is $35 for Ihilani guests, $45 for outside guests. I took a look at the price list, and 50-minute treatments start at $65, with massages priced at $130 and up.
We left the Ihilani and walked in the opposite direction. South of Aulani are several more lagoons, each associated with a different development. Next to Aulani is a wedding chapel, one of three in Ko Olina. Beyond that is a luxury condo resort, Beach Villas at Ko Olina, and further down is Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, a timeshare resort. All of these resorts are joined by a wide, paved oceanfront walkway. It’s a lovely place to walk or run.
When we came back into the Aulani property after our explorations, it was clear to me that while the other resorts in the area are attractive enough, Disney has blown them all away with Aulani’s architecture and its amazing pool complex. The other Ko Olina resorts are so generic in their design that they’d fit in anywhere, but Aulani is clearly Hawaiian. Disney’s respect for Hawaiian culture permeates every aspect of its design.
We had about 45 minutes until our dinner reservation, so we decided to stop at the pool bar, Off the Hook, and have a quick drink. We sat at a table right near the bar, in the path of the servers. And sat. And sat. At least three servers were on duty, not counting the many poolside servers who were coming and going. Servers passed us repeatedly and would not make eye contact. One server was cleaning tables and studiously ignoring the guests. We saw guests at another table, who were obviously fed up with waiting, practically tackle a server to get her to take their payment so they could leave. After ten minutes without even being acknowledged, much less served, we gave up and went to our villa to change for dinner.
Soon it was time for our 6:30 dinner reservation at Aulani’s Makahiki buffet restaurant. My expectations were quite low at this point, because clearly there are big problems with Aulani’s food and beverage department. We arrived and checked in a few minutes before our reservation time. The waiting area was extremely full. My heart sank, because I thought we’d be waiting forever. But it turned out most of those who were waiting were all in one huge group of 30 or 40 people. Once they were seated, a few minutes later, the hostess desk area was nearly empty. Well, empty except for the poor souls who were walking up without reservations, and being told they couldn’t be seated until 8:00.
There just aren’t enough places to eat at the resort. At dinner your choices are ‘Ama ‘Ama and Makahiki. If you show up at Makahiki without a reservation, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, you will be in trouble. One man asked the Makahiki hostess, “what am I supposed to do? I have to feed my kids now.” He was directed to the bar menu in the Olelo Room.
As it worked out, we were seated about five minutes after we arrived. The hostess was super friendly. Our pleasant, attentive server came over right away, brought us taro bread and butter, and took our beverage order. Soft drinks, three types of iced tea, three different juices, milk, hot tea and coffee are all included in the price of the meal. (You can also order cocktails, beer and wine for an extra cost.) I had the pineapple iced tea, which was very good. Mike liked his lemonade iced tea.
Then it was off to the buffet. I don’t usually like buffets much, but Mike enjoys them. We both went away from the Makahiki buffet feeling full and happy. There is a lot to choose from: a soup of the day (it was Chinese-style hot and sour soup the night we went); cold items including salads, sashimi, sushi, fresh oysters, cold peel-and-eat shrimp, poke and charcuterie (cold cuts); and many hot dishes, including two kinds of ribs, fish, carved meat, assorted tempura, dim sum, vegetarian and pork lau lau (steamed and taro-leaf-wrapped items), Filipino lumpia (fried spring rolls), curried mussels and lots more. You could go through that buffet and eat a totally Midwestern type of meal (green salad, carved beef and mashed potatoes) or go crazy with the Asian specialties, like we did. As we ate, our server offered us drink refills and removed plates regularly.
The buffet includes an assortment of desserts, including quite a few mini-desserts, which I enjoyed because I could try a bite of this and a bit of that. All of the desserts were quite good. As soon as we brought our dessert plates to the table, our server was right there offering us hot tea or coffee. Really, the service was excellent — 180 degrees from what we’d experienced at ‘Ama ‘Ama!
Is the Makahiki buffet worth $43 per adult, $21 per child? I’d have to say yes, given that Hawaiian resort restaurant prices are inflated. There really are a lot of high-end choices on the menu, it’s all you can eat, and while we didn’t like everything we tried, we found plenty that we did enjoy. We would go back, though I doubt we’d eat there more than once or twice during a 1-week stay.
As I wrote previously, there aren’t enough dining options at the resort. At lunch your only choices are the wildly overpriced, terrible ‘Ama ‘Ama, and an extremely limited menu of counter-service food from One Paddle, Two Paddle. People who are staying in the standard hotel rooms at Aulani are going to be very unhappy unless they leave the resort, since they don’t have the option of cooking. (Although the DVC studios don’t have kitchens, they do have a microwave and a little fridge, at least. I met one woman who was cooking salmon in her studio microwave, to avoid eating in the resort restaurants!)
I saw people bringing in take-out food constantly. One night I got on the elevator with a group of guests who had a box of take-out containers exuding a delicious aroma. I asked where they had gotten the food. They looked a little sheepish. “The barbecue place across the street. It’s a lot cheaper than eating at the hotel.” Smelled better than most of the hotel food, too.
Frankly I think Disney should close ‘Ama ‘Ama, which appears to be an utter failure (in addition to our own bad experience there, we heard scathing comments from other guests), and rework it into a mid-priced all-day restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Something equivalent to the Kona Café at Disney’s Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World would be perfect. Meanwhile, if you’ll be visiting Aulani and would like to eat in one of the hotel restaurants some night, make a reservation at Makahiki.