Within the relatively small land masses of the Hawaiian Islands, there are probably as many quality golf courses per square mile as almost anywhere on earth.
All the major cruise lines offer golfing shore excursions on their Hawaii cruises, but on this trip we chose to do some research beforehand and decide which golf courses to play, rather than leaving the selection to the cruise line.
Of course, booking these golf outings as cruise line shore excursions offers some comfort level. The line provides ground transportation to and from the golf courses, and the excursions are escorted by a golf professional.
Our itinerary aboard Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas included Honolulu, Kauai, Maui (with an overnight and 2 days), Hilo, Kona, and then on to Vancouver.
We decided to spend a few days in Honolulu pre-cruise, considering the long flying time to get there. After a day to recover from the long flight, we booked our first round of golf at the Ko'olau Golf Club (www.koolaugolfclub.com; rates including cart are $130 per person, though discounts may be available).
I had played this course four years earlier, and was very interested in revisiting what bills itself as "the most challenging golf course in the world." This golf course is built into a mountainside near the north shore of Oahu, about a 30-minute drive from Waikiki Beach.
The last time I played this course it was in pristine condition, and even though it lived up to its billing of being a mighty challenge, it was fun to play, even if just for the scenery and its high degree of difficulty. Unfortunately, on this visit we found the course to be less well maintained, almost to a point of neglect. The golf course may be suffering from lack of financial support from its current owners. Too bad, because we had enjoyed our previous experience here so much.
Fortunately, the next day we found a golf course gem: Turtle Bay Golf Club, also on the north shore, about an hour's drive from Waikiki Beach. This is a part of the Turtle Bay Resort, and has two 18-hole championship courses to pick from. We played the Palmer Course, designed by Arnold Palmer (www.turtlebayresort.com/palmercourse.cfm; rates including cart are $160 per person).
In sharp contrast to Ko'olau, the Palmer course at Turtle Bay was a golfer's joy. The lush green fairways welcomed us from the road as we approached. On most golf courses, one might find one or two "signature holes" whose layout and design will awe and inspire avid golfers. On the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay, at least half the 18 holes would qualify as "signature holes" anywhere. The fairways were like plush carpet, manicured to perfection, and most of the greens were large and inviting. The course features wide fairways, and if you can avoid the many sand traps, even the casual golfer can enjoy the challenge and the magnificent scenery.
In Kauai we pre-booked to play the Kauai Lagoons Kiele Course at the Marriott Resort (rates including cart are $170 per person). The ship docks in Kauai, and Marriott offers a free shuttle to the resort, which is only a few minutes from the pier. Here I recommend trying to book an early tee time; you can finish before lunch, and spend the rest of the day visiting more of the sights or finding a beautiful beach to relax on. One of the men in our foursome still had time to do a helicopter excursion in the afternoon.
The Kiele Course at the Marriott presents a picture post card image of what one would dream of when thinking about golfing in Paradise. Everything here is impeccable, from the service at the bag drop, to greens that looked like they had been hand-cut with scissors.
The ocean is in view from most of the holes, and on several you'll get the feeling you have hit the ball over it to reach the green. This is another truly enjoyable course to play, and you can use the majestic ocean views as an excuse if you're not playing well.
The ship is at anchor off of Maui, and it's necessary to tender passengers in, so if you're golfing here you have to allow some extra time to deal with that. There is also a 15-minute shuttle ride to get to the all car rental locations. The ship overnights in Maui, and tenders run on a fairly continuous schedule. As a result, it's easier to plan your golf for Day Two in Maui.
For Day One, we booked to play at Wailea Golf Club (rates including cart are $175 per person). Wailea Golf Club is home to the Wendy's Seniors Skin Game. There are three 18-hole courses here. We played the Blue Course, and though it didn't have the majestic scenery of the Kauai Lagoons, it was fun to play. The course maintenance is excellent, and the surroundings tropical.
This is a true "resort course" -- challenging, but forgiving enough to allow one to relax and enjoy a leisurely round of golf.
The only drawback to playing Wailea while on a cruise is the travel time. We left the ship at 8 a.m. and didn't get back to the pier until 4 p.m., leaving no time to do anything but return to the ship.
In Lahaina there are several parking lots within a block or two of the tender pier where you can leave your rental car overnight for $15.
On Day Two in Maui we had the pleasure of playing at the Kaanapali Golf Club (www.kaanapali-golf.com; rates including cart are $130 per person). The Kaanapali Golf Club is about a 10-minute drive from Lahaina; after picking up our rental car at the nearby parking lot, we were able to tee off at 8:30 a.m.
There are two courses at Kaanapali -- the Tournament North Course and the Resort South Course. We played the Resort South Course, and enjoyed each of many swings. The course is beautifully maintained, with a layout forgiving enough to enjoy, yet challenging enough for every level of golfer. The course is lined with a wide variety of native flowers and tall Norfolk Pines, which come into play on several holes. The golf carts here have GPS systems that provide data on yardage to the hole, which we found very helpful.
Our round went smoothly, and we were able to finish in three and a half hours. Then we drove across the road and met our wives and friends at Whaler's Village for lunch, followed by an afternoon on the beach. This was probably a golfer's idea of a perfect day -- a round of golf on a great course, food and drink, and an afternoon on the beach.
We tendered from the ship at anchor in Kona, and all the major car rental companies had shuttles available to their airport locations. For our golf day in Kona, we chose the Waikola Golf Club's Kings' Course. Waikola also offers the championship Beach Course (www.waikoloagolf.com; rates including cart are $165-$175 per person).
The Kings' Course is quite different from any other course in the world. The fairways on almost every hole are lined on each side with mounds and mounds of black lava rock, making for beautiful visual contrasts to the brilliant green fairways and rolling putting greens. The day we played, the course was in almost perfect condition; it provided one of our most enjoyable rounds of the cruise, until the trade wind picked up a bit and drove our scores up with it.
Once again our round went quickly, and we had time to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the comfortable club house before heading back to return our rental car, and shuttle back to the ship.
Of the six courses we played, I would love to play all of them, except Ko'olau, again! Ko'olau would be on my list because it is so difficult and so different, if only they would improve its condition. My personal favorites, which I highly recommend to any avid golfer, are Kauai Lagoons on Kauai, Kaanapali on Maui, and Turtle Bay on Oahu.
And by the way, on the sea days after you leave the islands, there's always the mini-golf onboard the ship.