Friday, June 21, 2019

Hawaii 2019: Disney's Aulani Resort in Ko Olina

Oahu | Kauai | Maui Posts | Maui Oceanfront Marathon Report

This will be our final post in the Hawaii series.

We've mentioned many times that we are members of Disney Resorts Timeshare Program called Disney Vacation Club (DVC).   We typically only use our membership at the Florida resorts or a few times at Disneyland.   For this trip we had the opportunity to use our points (without the hassle of transferring between programs) for a one-bedroom suite at one of Disney's newest resorts: Aulani on Oahu.  This helped us use up some surplus points since we didn't have a long Florida trip and avoid spending more money (since the timeshare points are pre-paid for) on another hotel.  The real plus of the one-bedroom was having a washer/dryer in unit.

In our first Oahu post we mentioned that we were dreading the Aulani portion of the trip because of the invasion of American Idol filming.    Luckily all the events occurred the two days before our arrival.   When we checked-in the main restaurant was closed for the final celebratory dinner, the stage was being dismantled on the beach, and a bunch of "idols" were running around being teenagers.    Thankfully no impact to us.....

About the resort:   Ko Olina is about 40 minutes outside of Honolulu.   It contains several man-made bays and was originally going to be built up in the 80's.   Stuff happened and a lot of the land remained vacant for years.   Disney, the Four Seasons, and Marriott have built resorts here and have spurred growth in the area.  In another few years a massive Atlantis will be built next to Aulani - which will overcrowd the area (our opinion).  Aulani's buildings form a U-shape facing out to he ocean.   Inside the valley of the U are all the resort amenities including dining, two pools, lazy river, kid's club, splash zone, reef snorkeling experience, watersports, beach, adult pool and bar, etc.  The beach is public (all beaches in HI are) so anyone can come-and-go from the resort.   Design elements incorporate tropical patterns with themes of Hawaiian/Polynesian culture.   The Menehune (mythical magical people like Leprechauns) are hidden around the property and are incorporated into a tablet based game you can play around Aulani.

Pros of staying at Aulani:
- Gives guests that "Disney" fix with character visits, dining, and shopping.  Elevator music is Hawaiian versions of Disney tunes (CD available in the gift shop). 
- Beautiful rooms, restaurants, pools.
- Excellent food - we ate on-property more than we thought we would.
- Great customer-oriented staff members.
- Good amenities nearby for dining and shopping.
- Duffy the Disney Bear is here.
- Mix of American/International guests - good chance to meet someone from another country.
- Live music and storytellers nightly.
- As DVC Members we used points (a fixed cost item) instead of paying with cash.

Cons of staying at Aulani:
- Tiny beach.
- Adult pool is shoved into a dark corner of the resort that appears to get no sun and no ocean view.
- Children - they are everywhere!   Since the resort's U-shape forces everyone into one area all the guests are squished into a few acres of pool and beach.   Kids just take over the beach and you can not sit there for more than 2 seconds without hearing one screaming or crying.  

This is not the place for your peaceful Hawaiian getaway.  If you have kids and love Disney this is probably a good choice for at least a few days of your vacation.

Our first dining experience on property was a character breakfast at Makahiki.  How this works is select Disney characters stop by each table to say hi and take pictures.  Food is served buffet style which means you have to time your visits right or else a character could skip your table.  The food was hit-or-miss on this buffet and was not the best character dining experience.  Lighting in the restaurant is pretty low so photos don't turn out very well (as opposed to Chef Mickey's in the very well-lit Contemporary Resort).   This set dining here off on the wrong foot, but it fortunately got better.

Breakfast the rest of the trip was usually something simple from the quick serve from the Ulu Café.  Standouts were the acai bowl and breakfast flatbreads.   Tip: don't get a bagel here - nasty dry rocks.

Lunch:   When we stayed on property we had lunch at the Ulu café which usually consisted of a poke bowl or musubi (spam sushi).   One day we had chicken tenders from Mama's Snack Stop and another day sandwiches from Off the Hook bar.  Shave ice with optional Mickey ears is also available by the pool.

Dinner:  Our first night we went across the street to Monkeypod Kitchen.   They had a decent tap beer selection with upscale bar food.  This place was busy at 9pm on a Tuesday night.  We lucked into bar seats vs. having a long wait for a table.  Another night we walked over to the nearby country club for dinner at Roy’s.  The atmosphere was loud like a club house but the food was excellent and matched (or exceeded) other Roy’s locations we visited on the mainland. 

We had two dinners at the signature sit-down restaurant 'Ama 'Ama.  The restaurant is situated overlooking the beach and is very popular for sunset dining.    We show up about 3 hours later when the place is empty.   We pretty much ate the same meal both nights - poke (tuna) appetizer and fresh fis with sauce choice.  Both the food and atmospher here were perfect.  Another night we ate at the main bar - ‘Olelo Room.   It’s not huge but the seating flows to the patio.   This usually works well but one night it was cold with heavy winds.   Since everything is outdoors there was no place else for guests to go.   We had to sit on spare seats stacked in a corner.   What makes ‘Olelo great is the excellent staff, great food and drinks, plus live local music.

We did the inside Menehune hunt which is an iPad-based scavenger hunt around the lobby area.  It was fun!  We thought about renting paddle boards but 1/2 the time they were locked up due to winds.  We skipped the luau.  

We did do a few character meets including Minnie, Moana, Stitch, and Duffy! Thank goodness the Japanese love Duffy. Chip and Dale had fun stealing Dave's GoPro.  

We did the lazy river once and used the slides a few times.   We found moving up to the deck by ‘Ama ‘Ama was a perfect place for sunset.  The rest of our time was spent on the child infested beach.  

We skipped the snorkel reef since we had excellent snorkeling one cove away.  You can view the action in the tank through aquarium windows so we felt we had our experience. 

The last activity we did at the resort was a couple's massage.   The spa at Aulani has a pretty garden with different plunge pools, hot tubs, and showers.  The services were great (but pricey).   One thing Dave didn't like was the initial process of picking a rock with a spa word on it (peace, balance, hope...) out of a basket and throwing it into the pond (fountain).   Hokey City!

Overall Aulani is a great resort and a nice choice for a short visit as part of your total Hawaii vacation. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Hawaii 2019: Oahu - The Grand Circle Tour

The morning kicked off with a hike up Diamond Head, shower and hotel check-out, and a trip to the mall.   Our next hotel was only 40 minutes away but it took us 6 hours to get there.  That’s because we turned right instead of left from Honolulu to head east for a day of touring.  Our route would follow the highway to the North Shore then back down to the Ko’olina resort area. 

Of course we encountered a mostly overcast day with a few drizzles in between.  Not a good day for pictures along the coast.  GyPSy Guide told us about the areas we were driving through and gave us some good tips.   Our first pullover along the road was to get a view of Rabbit Island.   Not sure why it’s a thing, but it was.  

On Holly’s must-see List was the Byodo-In Japanese Temple.  The original Magnum P.I. show did some filming here and she always wanted to see it in-person.  The temple is on the grounds of a multi-national/multi-faith cemetary.  The building, built in the 1960’s to commemorate Japanese immigration to the island is very ornate and stands out from the sourrounding mountains with its red frame.  Inside is a pretty statue of Buddha.   In the moat are a gazillion koi.   For a few dollars you can buy a bag of koi food and feed them.  These guys are trained for feeding time.  The black swan was an added bonus.

Further up the road we passed through the beach town of Kanaha. It’s a place we only knew about because Kona Brewing named a beer after the area.   You should try it. 95 calories and full of craft beer flavor.  No reason to stop due to the rain. 

Somewhere along the way we caught a glimpse of a monk seal on the beach.  We pulled over for a closer look (not too close). A volunteer was present to be sure folks kept their distance and to inform visitors about the seals. This particular seal came here a lot. 

Also along the route we saw the Chinaman’s Hat island and the Kualoa Ranch made famous in many movies like Jurassic Park.  We also made a stop at the Turtle Bay Resort to take a look at the coastline and see the site of a tv show we used to like - The North Shore.

Finally time for lunch.  We stopped in Kahuka where a bunch of little cottages and food trucks gathered. We chose the popular Giovanni’s for their famous garlic shrimp.   Excellent choice! Your fingers will get greasy here but worth it.

We checked out a few more surf beaches including The Bonzai Pipeline. The horrible weather kept the crowds low but the extremely tight parking areas were full of cars.  We arrived right before a competition started. 

Our final stop before arriving at Aulani was for shave ice at Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa - the main town of the North Shore.   Besides shave ice the town has a lot of shops, galleries, and a few restaurants.  We don’t spend much time in town this visit since we plan to have an outing back to the area a few days later.  The ice below is fully loaded with ice cream, boba balls, bean sprouts, and creme topping.

The trip to our hotel from Haleiwa took about 40 minutes.  We had a great time exploring Oahu and we were looking forward to seeing what else the North Shore had to offer.  
A few days later we needed a break from all the children at Disney Aulani’s Resort (more on that in a future post).  Our first stop was the Dole Plantation for a tour of their pineapple fields.  The first thing you notice here is the massive souvenir / food shop.  Everything touristy Hawaii is here. We bought tickets for the Pineapple Express ~$11 each to take a 20 minute tour of the fields on a tiny train.   Of course they take your picture pre-boarding to sell to you later.    It’s obvious these aren’t the real production fields.  Everything looked kinda neglected.   The best part of the tour is the stupid theme song, available exclusively on CD for $5 in the store.   We didn’t buy one, but then regretted it upon returning home so we asked a friend to procure us a copy on their trip a few months later.  It’s actually a good album for the money.    The Plantation is as cheesy as you would expect it to be and we hesitate calling it a must-do.   If it fits in with your itinerary then make a stop, but don’t plan a trip around it.

We made a quick stop at the Green World Coffee Farms.  The line was too long to wait for a drink so we just browsed the shop quickly and Dave drank a few free samples.

Back in Haleiwa we spent some time browsing the shops and galleries.   We found we really liked the art of Nick Kuchar - some great retro style Hawaiian based art.  We made another stop for shave ice at Matsumoto’s before hitting more shops.  For lunch we stopped at Haleiwa’s Beach House and shared a beef stir fry and pork grilled cheese.   Excellent food and location across from the beach. 

That covers all of our outings outside the resort.  The next post in our Hawaii series will cover Disney’s Aulani Resort and the area of Ko Olina.