2018 was a year of bucket list accomplishment for me, what with driving a Porsche on the Autobahn and flying Lufthansa First Class long-haul from Frankfurt to Chicago.
It was only fitting that in the last month of the year, I was able to cross another item off my list – traveling to Hawaii, specifically Maui. My wife and I got married in November and thanks to the generosity of our family and friends, we were able to spend eight days in Maui for our honeymoon.
Getting there (RDU-EWR-SFO-OGG in United Premium Transcontinental Business & Domestic First)
I’ll be honest – getting to Maui from Raleigh was a long day. But since we had plenty of time and ample resources from wedding gifts, we were able to craft an itinerary that was quite appealing. Raleigh to Newark in first class, Newark to San Francisco in premium transcon first class, and San Francisco to Maui in first class. We booked our flights using American Express Platinum to get 5x MR points. In between flights, we’d relax at the United Club in Newark (thanks to our premium transcon tickets) and the American Express Centurion Lounge (thanks to our AMEX Platinum Business card).
The flight to Newark was unremarkable, as domestic first class is these days, arriving roughly on time and with no bumps or bruises along the way. We had about an hour to kill before boarding, so we headed to the United Club location near Gate 74. Being a Saturday morning in December, it’s not surprising that we virtually had the club to ourselves. There were maybe 10-15 other people in the space. A far cry from the overcrowded mess we encountered last New Years Eve when it was standing room only. Food selection was on the thin side, but well-stocked, organized, and clean.
We hung out for about 45 minutes – lightly snacking since we’d have full meal service on our flight to SFO. Our gate was about six gates from the Club, which was convenient and allowed us to linger a bit longer. As usual, I got to the gate and assumed an early place in line (Amanda likes to tease that I take off like a racehorse just to get in line and wait – which is absolutely true).
Our flight was a 757-200 with the international configuration, so we entered at the front of the aircraft, turned right, and quickly settled into seats 2A and 2B. Within five minutes of getting settled in, we were stowed and ready for our flight – drinks in hand and menus offered so we could choose our lunch. I slipped on my headphones and disappeared into a movie on my iPad while waiting for takeoff.
The first class cabin was full – so we had two flight attendants which made for very expedient service for 16 passengers. Prior to taking off, our lunch orders were taken – I picked the short rib and Amanda opted for the grilled chicken breast. We pushed back one minute early and, surprisingly for Newark, had a relatively short taxi and no wait to takeoff.
As we climbed westward, I used one of the Gogo internet passes from my American Express Business Platinum to secure internet for the entire flight. The connection was on the slow side, but reliable. Since I intended to use it for instant messaging, email, and Twitter – it was perfectly suited to my needs.
Lunch service started about 30 minutes into the flight – our flight attendant passing out hot towels and setting tray tables with a practiced flourish that I appreciated.
While certainly not gourmet fare, lunch was rather well executed for being served seven miles in the sky. The (lone) shrimp appetizer was tiny, but tasty. The salad greens were crisp and the fruit/dressing pairing worked well. Finally, the short rib tasted delicious and was cooked exactly as ordered. The polenta cake was overdone, but I considered that a wash since I actually enjoyed the kale salad. I skipped dessert as sundaes aren’t my thing.
After lunch, I thought about trying to take advantage of the lie flat bed to sleep, but wasn’t drowsy. Instead, I half reclined and watched a movie on the IFE screen. And then another, when the first was done. Both must have been pretty unremarkable, since I can’t remember either one as I write this. And, just like that, we started our descent into SFO (one of the great things about SFO is landing alongside another plane in sync while seeming to float over the bay, but we had no such luck on this trip).
With about two hours until we boarded our final flight of the day, we set out in search of the American Express Centurion Lounge.
I’ve read a lot about the overcrowding problems at Centurion Lounges, and American Express’ myriad efforts to combat the issue by restricting access. Our personal experience was that the lounge was crowded, but we were able to immediately find whatever seating we preferred. We opted for a comfy couch and decamped.
I grabbed some snacks (free food – why not), ordered a tropical drink for Amanda, and set about people watching. We were seated next to a table reserved specifically for Centurion (black card) members – it was never occupied while we were there. I wasn’t blown away by the lounge as I expected given the hype (it was fairly loud and the interior was drab), BUT the service was fast and it was a great alternative to waiting at an airport restaurant or the gate.
Like the first flight of the day, our overwater flight was not memorable or worthy of commentary – save for the building excitement of arriving in Maui.
We landed at 9:30pm – far too late to be able to make out any of the island’s features as we descended (except for a Costco I spotted next to the airport). After a 30-minute wait for luggage (be prepared: the concept of island time is a thing), we made our way to the National Car shuttle and, thanks to Emerald Club benefits from Amex, were able to proceed straight to our Jeep. As it turned out, we were the first customers for that Wrangler which exactly 12 miles on it (but no USB!). Though it probably wasn’t necessary in this case, I still took a quick walkaround video to document the condition prior to leaving the lot.
Our hotel was 14 miles away which, with Maui’s absurdly low speed limits, took just under 40 minutes. When we turned off the highway into Wailea, Amanda spotted a grove of trees with beautiful Christmas decorations in front of a giant hotel. She asked if that was our hotel, and as we continued driving past it, verbalized her disappointment that we wouldn’t be staying there. Her disappointment may have lasted another two minutes until we pulled into the…
Four Seasons Maui
Let me preface this part of the trip report by saying I absolutely love this hotel and would be hard pressed to find anything negative about it. From the minute we set foot on the property until we had to leave – everything was perfect. Even before our stay, I was delighted that the hotel repriced our reservation when the price dropped $80 per night after our cancellation deadline.
Parking is valet-only (pricey at $34 per night, but – and I said this a lot – its Maui!), so we pulled into the portico where two gentlemen were waiting to assist. They took our information, gave us a valet tag to use for the week, and one of them led us into the “interior” of the hotel. Quotes are added because the entire main floor is open air – complete with birds flying around (and in an incredible feat – not a single speck of bird poop). He welcomed us to the island by placing leis around our neck, gave us a quick rundown of the property, and escorted us to the front desk.
We’d booked the hotel through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, which meant we got an upgraded room (ocean view with a lanai), a $60 credit for breakfast every morning, a $100 credit for the spa, and late checkout that we couldn’t take advantage of.
A member of the bell staff escorted us to our little slice of paradise on the 5th floor (it was a seven minute trip as we literally had the last room at the far edge of the ocean-side wing). The room was huge, well furnished, had a great bathroom, and (this threw us for a moment) also had two queen beds. We laughed for a minute, and then each claimed a bed for ourselves.
We lounged for a few moments before retiring for the evening. Though it was only 11 in Hawaii, it was 4am according to our body clocks. We awoke the next morning at 5:30 HST, and watched the glow of day slowly overtake the resort. Our room had a view that pretty much captured everything – the resort, lush landscaping, the ocean, and even the West Maui volcano across the water.
Duo, the much raved about breakfast buffet, opened at 6:30, and we just about door-busted to get in the next morning. We were seated on the covered patio with a view of the pool and ocean beyond, and had the place virtually to ourselves while we ate (save for dozens of birds that staff did an admirable job keeping at bay).
The food was sublime – so sublime in fact that we were happy to pay $120 including gratuity that it cost for six of the seven mornings we were on the island (again – it’s Maui). We both raved about the made-to-order pancakes – and the rest of the spread was so well stocked and prepared that you would have never guessed it was buffet food on your plate.
One of the best things about the Four Seasons is that an awful lot is included in the room rate – there’s no resort fee, (most) cabanas are free, and there’s always activities going on.
On the first day, we headed straight to the serenity pool – an adults only enclave with a swim-up bar, infinity edge pool, and (mostly) enforced quiet policy.
It was such a delightful spot and had such wonderful service that we spent about six hours there on the first day made use of it several times during our trip.
The one downside of the serenity pool is that it has no wind break, so when the afternoon trade winds kick up, it can get very windy. Around 2pm a gale showed up, so we left the pool and got dressed to go do a little shopping. At Costco for those who are interested, but that’s another story.
That afternoon we ate at a fast casual restaurant near the airport in Kahului called Zippy’s, and that night we ended up having dinner at a local joint in Kihei called Nalu’s South Shore Grill. Zippy’s was nothing special, but Nalu’s was a great little spot tucked away in a strip mall with live music and a very down to earth vibe. As a bonus, it was our least expensive meal during the entire trip – $30 for Amanda’s salad and my burger.
The Road to Hana
Day Two on the island was to be the highlight of our trip. We got up at 5am again (making the time difference work for us – we never adjusted our schedule much during the trip), had another lovely breakfast, and summoned the Jeep for a full day of driving ahead. We used the GyPSy app for a virtual tour guide – which proved to be an indispensable tool for hands-free navigation and helpful commentary.
For the uninitiated, the Road to Hana is a legendary drive from Kahului to Hana (or beyond, as in our case). It’s about 60 miles of curves (620 in total), one-way bridges (59), and incredible views (too many to count). We drove all the way to Ohe’o Gulch (also called the Seven Sacred Pools at Ohe’o) – stopping more than a dozen times along the way. All told, we spent more than 10 hours on the Road to Hana. In addition to five or six stops for photos at scenic vistas, we also checked out:
- Twin Falls Farm Stand
- Ka’Anae Arboretum
- Auntie Sandy’s Banana Bread
- Coconut Glen’s Ice Cream Stand
- Nahiku Marketplace
- Waianapanapa State Park
- Ohe’o Gulch at Haleakala National Park
I’d recommend each of these stops to the first time visitor. Yes, they’re all oriented to tourists, but you get the local flavor and support the local economy rather than a mega-corporation or concessionaire. Here’s some of my favorite photos from that day:
The drive back from Hana was a little rough – without stops to break it up, I got a bit nauseated. Next time we do the drive, I’ll break it up on the way back too.
In a bit of poor planning, we had an 8:30 dinner reservation that evening in Paia, so we drove all the way back to the hotel, got ready, and then drove back to the restaurant – adding about an hour of driving I could have done without at that point.
Mama’s Fish House
The extra driving wasn’t ideal – but the meal was worth it. Mama’s Fish House consistently ranks at the top of Maui’s restaurants, and we weren’t disappointed. A valet took our Jeep, offered us an umbrella for the walk inside, and we were pleased to be seated right away. The restaurant was still quite busy, with every table occupied, despite being 90 minutes before closing during the island’s slowest period of the year. I took it as a sign we were about to have a great meal.
Our server enthusiastically explained Mama’s approach to fine dining – pointing to the ocean and emphasizing that each dish “was swimming out there this morning.” I ordered the bouillabaisse, and Amanda opted for the stuffed mahi mahi after her first choice was sold out for the day.
The bouillabaisse was fragrant, well-portioned, and best of all, delicious. I definitely got my hands dirty savoring all the mussels, shrimp, mahi mahi, and crab packed into the bowl. We finished off with a pineapple upside down cake that was equally wonderful.
The next two days, we did a whole lot of nothing. We split time between the serenity pool and the main pool (the draw of the main pool being cabanas that guaranteed shade and a measure of privacy). Because it was in the dead period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there weren’t a lot of families or children at the main pool and we found it almost as quiet as the serenity pool.
We capped our fourth day in Heaven with dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s famous Spago. I managed to snag a sunset reservation, and we were given prime seats against the glass partition for our meal.
The setting was magical – even if the service wasn’t. Our waitress was a bit on the odd side, and had an unpleasant reaction to the bottle of wine I ordered for us – as if it wasn’t up to her standards. I must have made a face in response to her attitude – for the rest of the meal she tried to talk up the wine choice to the point of being awkward.
All was forgiven when our food arrived. My steak was amazing and practically melted in my mouth – and Amanda loved her salad. The wine was an excellent pairing for the meal, and we were too stuffed to contemplate dessert.
The High Seas with Alii Nui
For the evening of our fifth full day on Maui and the morning of our sixth day, we hung out with the fine folks of Alii Nui – a luxury sailing catamaran that hosts dinner cruises, snorkeling tours, whale watching tours, and private parties.
For the first evening, we boarded for the Royal Feast Dinner Sail – a two and half hour adults-only trip with prime rib, fish, seafood, and unlimited booze. The best part was that they picked us up and dropped us off at the hotel. At $189 per person, it was expensive – but they truly did make us feel like royalty and, with transportation included, we didn’t have to worry about a thing.
The next morning, we were back at it – headed out for snorkeling. Like the previous day, we were picked up by shuttle and taken right to the boat. A different crew greeted us, served a light breakfast, and we headed out to Molokini – a crater reef with exceptional clarity and biodiversity. We hooked up to a mooring buoy (to both limit the amount of boats present in the crater at one time and to prevent damage from anchors) and snorkeled for about 90 minutes. The ride back to harbor was very windy, which meant we could use the sails instead of engine power. There’s definitely a romance to truly sailing the ocean, rather than “cheating” with motorized power.
Our last night in Maui – taking in a luau
What’s a trip to Hawaii without a luau? For the last night on the island, we reserved VIP tickets for The Grand Luau at Honua’ula – which happened to be right next door to the Four Seasons at the Grand Wailea resort. We checked in for our wristbands, and then came back at the appointed time to get front row center seats. Our waiter introduced himself, explained how dinner service worked, and brought pre-dinner drinks.
We got to see the pig pulled from the ground (though in a little bit of false advertising, we were eating pig cooked the day before) and then queued for a buffet-style feast. With the exception of poi, it was a great meal. We saw several hulas performed – telling the Polynesian legends of Tahitians, their journey across the sea, and their Hawaiian decedents. It was a colorful, fire-filled, and thoroughly entertaining way to cap off our stay in Maui.
The next morning we ate at Duo one last time, regretfully packed up, and checked out. We braved a 15 minute line at Costco to fill up the rental car, and Amanda wanted to further check out the town of Paia we had driven through several time. We lucked into a parking spot in the midst of otherwise packed streets, and set off exploring for a bit. Paia is 100% dedicated to the tourist trade – with trinket shops, surf shops, rental outfits, and plenty of places to eat.
We stayed for about an hour, drove to the airport, returned the rental car, and headed inside to wait for our flight (which turned out to be an adventure in and of itself). Sad it was over, but happy it happened.
An exciting footnote – we had such a great time I’ve already booked our return for our anniversary next year!