- January 21, 2023
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The view from the firepit in the completely redone lobby out to the all-new stunning free form pool … [+]
Covering the hotel and travel industry, I get a lot of news and releases about hotel and resort renovations, upgrades and expansions. A couple of million dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to, and new beds and carpeting in all the guest rooms is not exactly game changing news for travelers. Upgrades in the $20 million-plus range start to grab attention as offering potential for noticeable improvements, and the rarer $50-plus million investments by owners signifies that they are serious about presenting customers with a new, better and markedly improved property.
So, what does a $100 million upgrade look like?
To anyone who loves Hawaii, it looks like a big win at the venerable Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua. Since 1991 this stalwart has been a top luxury island choice, but it emerged from the pandemic as a tropical superstar. What’s even more impressive than the vast amount spent was that the Ritz was already one of Hawaii’s best hotels, hardly threadbare or tired. Many hotels struggled during COVID lockdowns, and many have yet to recover, often seemingly using the pandemic as an excuse to continue scaled down services, from housekeeping to food, despite once again charging full price for less service. I’ve already seen this kind of self-induced faded glory at several once prestigious properties in the past year. But not the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, which used an 8-month closure to reinvent itself as a resort for the future, aimed at the traveler of today and tomorrow. All the things travelers have recently come to want that look to be here to stay, such as more outdoor living, more privacy, and more luxury, have been added in spades. While much of the heavy lifting, such as rebuilding the pool complex, was done during the pandemic closure, the final phase was completed between June and December 2022, so the fully finished reborn resort just debuted in time for peak winter season – though increasingly all year long has become peak season on Maui.
The Ritz-Carlton Maui has a spectacular 54-acre oceanfront property with vast beach, championship … [+]
A lot of money was spent, and one of the more obvious changes was the creation of an all new room category, the Fire Lanai Collection. These took existing ground level rooms and suites, removed the balconies – every room at the large resort has a private outdoor patio or balcony – reworked the exterior wall, and added a huge outdoor private garden-style living area with shaded trellis, hammock, seating and a push-button gas fire pit. In every case, the outdoor space more than doubled the overall square footage, and the larger suites on the end all have these private gardens with direct oceanfront views. You can walk out of your suite with a drink in hand, sit by your firepit and watch everything from the famously prolific whales breaching just offshore to the epic Hawaiian sunsets. The Fire Lanai rooms are just one dramatic example of the upgrades, and they have proven enormously popular, almost continuously sold out since debuting. In fact, they have been so well-received that the hotel decided to add more, and those conversions should be done by April.
The hotel is built in a U-Shape, with the lobby, shops, fitness center, spa and new Club Lounge in the middle, flanked by two wings of guest rooms, with one side featuring the larger and even more luxurious residences, all but one of which is in the rental program. There are 466 renovated guestrooms, including 107 residential suites.
The entire multi-pool swimming complex was redbuilt, and these luxury cabanas were one nice … [+]
In the center is the heart of the resort’s outdoor “play” space, which saw a disproportionate investment in the recent project. The swimming complex was completely redone, with three large free form pools, including one for adults-only, now all zero-entry styles, linked by tumbling waterfalls over black rock, evoking the natural wonder and lava of Hawaii in a way that is not only gorgeous, but spreads seating out over a very large area. Each is surrounded with meticulously landscaped tropical flora, and another new addition was Vegas-style private luxury cabanas. These feature a personal cabana attendant and amenities including a tropical fruit plate, house-made banana bread, sunscreen, unlimited water and soft drinks, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth speaker, large flat screen TV, refrigerator, ceiling fan, and robes.
Dining was also markedly upgraded, again with a focus on maximizing outdoor space. Near the pool is the flagship Banyan Tree fine dining restaurant, with large open-air bar and plenty of outdoor seating and firepits, and the extensively redesigned Ulana Terrace, the breakfast restaurant overlooking the gardens, pool and ocean. The ‘Olu Café is all new, a poolside alfresco lunch destination, featuring handcrafted cocktails, pūpū, salads, and sandwiches. Other dining options run the gamut from fresh sushi to the simple pleasures of the beach hut restaurant, focused on gourmet burgers, milkshakes and adult shakes, and this comfort food spot has become extremely popular.
Maui is famous for its whale watching, and throughout winter you can see this frequently from almost … [+]
The resort is one of only six Ritz-Carlton hotels in the world to offer Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program. This includes eco-tours for all ages, from snorkeling to coastal walks to electric bicycle tours, to learn about the environment and leave with an appreciation and respect for nature. A weekly Mālama volunteer project (mālama means “to care for”) offers guests the opportunity to leave Maui a better place by participating in a beach cleanup or invasive species plant removal.
In addition to the Kapalua resort’s famous golf courses (more below), the central outdoor area of the sprawling 54-acre Ritz-Carlton property includes its own diversions, from cornhole and bocce courts to pickleball and tennis, along with multiple outdoor luau areas. Another big addition was a large and ornate open-sided covered venue that handles everything from weddings to concerts, protected from rain but open to tropical breezes. As part of its devotion to wowing guests, about once a month, the resort puts on a concert with a notable performer brought in.
The Club Lounge is all new and already considered the best in North America.
One other highly visible upgrade was the Club Lounge. I have long bemoaned the absence of these in North America, while they are an almost mandatory fixture at luxury hotels in Asia. While Club floor or Club access rooms (here you can upgrade any room type to Club Lounge) cost more, they are often good values in addition to an enjoyable luxury (especially for families), when you figure in things such as the impressive free breakfast versus the bills you can run up buying this meal at pricey hotels. Club Lounges typically feature lunch or extensive snacks, evening hors d’oeuvres, and usually complementary wine and cocktails, as well as a respite of peace and quiet, often with a more personally accessible concierge. The quality of Club lounges varies greatly, but in the U.S., Ritz-Carlton has done the best job of any brand at bringing the Asian model here, with standouts such as the Lake Tahoe ski hotel at Northstar.
But the GM who was brought in to relaunch this hotel and oversee the massive renovations, Andrew Rogers, came straight from a stint with Ritz-Carlton in China, and the result of his efforts is already being widely considered the best in the West by travel agents who have visited. I spent a fair amount of time in the Lounge during my recent stay, and was extremely impressed, from the cooked to order breakfasts to high quality wines (Decoy, Justin, actual French champagnes) and serious spirts like Japan’s coveted Yamazaki, which you often can’t even find at retail – all free. In comparison, I just visited a recently relaunched “signature” Club Lounge at another North American luxury hotel brand and its full but less impressive bar was not included in the lounge amenities and priced the same as the hotel’s lobby bar. At the Ritz the varied offerings are deep, from fresh pressed juices to a list of signature tropical cocktails to fresh baked cookies to a live chef station. The Club Lounge also offers kid-friendly amenities such as a variety of board games, puzzles, and jars of classic candies. There is a smaller extension with 24-hour coffee, soft drinks and snacks for late night or early morning needs, a really nice touch.
In keeping with the renewed emphasis on outdoor space, the Club lounge includes a large outdoor patio overlooking the 15th hole of the Bay golf course, where guests can enjoy al fresco breakfasts or cocktail with waiter service.
Every year the PGA Tour opens its season here with the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the … [+]
As is often the case, it’s the little things that make the difference between great hotels and not so great, and these days there are plenty of fancy buildings clad in marble and steam showers that fail to deliver the experience they should. The theme of my visit to Kapalua quickly became that this property does the little things right, over and over, and the level of attention to detail is stunning. A lot of this starts with Rogers himself, who is an omnipresent personality, greeting guests in the lobby, seeing them off, making rounds, shaking hands, stopping to pick up a discarded wrapper, and basically functioning like the GMs of the great old European grand hotels, a trait that has sadly mostly disappeared from the hospitality industry. It used to be that travelers followed the GMs as much or more than the brands and loyalty programs, and from the number of regulars and repeat visitors he has quickly cultivated, Rogers appears to be a throwback to these “Golden Days” of luxury travel. His dynamic force of presence and personality is a refreshing change, and his style trickles down – throughout my stay there was a lot of “welcome back Mr. Olmsted,” from front door staff, lounge staff, all staff, despite it being a big hotel that could have a thousand guests.
Other details? The Ritz-Carlton Spa Maui features treatment rooms framed by private garden showers, volcanic stone grottos, steam, sauna and whirlpool therapies, and an outdoor couple’s hale (cabana). The large fitness center showcases spectacular ocean views is essentially brand new, with top-of-the-line name brand equipment, and a large number of the uber-popular Peloton bikes. This is great, especially since there is often wait for these bikes at other fitness centers that have not bought enough, but while I have seen an increasing number of hotel gyms equipped with Peloton, which has almost become standard at top tier luxury properties, this was the first time I’ve ever seen Tonal, another popular virtually supported equipment category. Details.
Every guest room got a new oversized 65-inch TV, has a high-end Nespresso machine, features Italian-made bath amenities, and has a five-piece bath with separate walk-in shower, full tub and dual vanities. Suites – which are very large by any hotel standards – add automated Japanese toilets. Especially notable is the vast number of power and USB outlets all over the rooms, by the beds, by the desk, anywhere you could want one, still unusual and I am astonished to see new build hotels that are lacking in this increasingly vital feature.
Some of the most important improvements are ones you cannot even see, such as the quarter million spent just to improve the Wi-Fi. “Today we’ve got these digital nomads, and we didn’t just need more bandwidth, we needed faster download and upload speeds, so we invested in that,” Rogers told me. There is also adequate staffing in seemingly every department, another contemporary anomaly, and one that translates to better service.
Today there are countless “luxury” hotels, many more than ever before, and more opening all the time. When I travel, I am fixated on the details that separate one hotel from another, it’s something I have personally always paid a lot of attention to, and when it comes to details, the “new” Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua hits it out of the ballpark.
The hotel does not own or operate the golf courses its guest have access to in the Kapalua community, but these are a big reason why many come, and the famous Plantation Course here, one of the first big successes that put the now renowned design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on the map, is consistently the Number One or Number Two ranked courses in a state full of stunners. It overlooks the Pacific with amazing views of Lanai across the channel and offers frequent whale sightings from its many elevated spots. Like the Ritz, the Plantation course got an extensive renovation since the last time I had the pleasure of playing it, with all new greens and extensively restored bunkers. If the name of the course sounds familiar, it may be because it has the privilege of being the very first stop on the PGA Tour calendar every year, the season opening Sentry Tournament of Champions, held just this past weekend and won by Jon Rahm. Kapalua also has a second standout course, the Bay, which immediately abuts the Ritz and was designed by another legend, Arnold Palmer. Both are well managed by white glove golf course operator Troon Golf.
The 22,000-acre Kapalua Resort includes the golf courses, the Ritz-Carlton, other hotels and condos, and a number of shops and restaurants, many within walking distance of the lobby, so in addition to all the hotel offerings, there are endless additional choices – all without a car or taxi. From location to amenities to the stunningly good service, the reborn Ritz-Carlton Kapalua is hard to beat.