What a pleasant surprise that golf, not surfing, has given me the greatest insight into the Hawaiian spirit. I discovered that the essense of aloha is never more obvious than on the outer islands, each resonating to its own tune. The further you venture from Honolulu, the more relaxed things are, including the golf. Hawaii has some of the best courses in America, (some rating high on the world's best lists) and every course I played had a vibe reflective of the state itself.
Ninety-eight per cent of Lanai, the smallest of the public islands, was bought by Oracle's Larry Ellison in 2012. Included in the approximately US$450 million deal was a promise to put a similar amount back in to the island to make it, among other ideals, a fully sustainable island. The island is mid spruce-up, so only one of its two courses (see side bar) is playable this year, but don't let that stop you. Manele Golf Course and its Four Seasons Resort has already been spruced, is setting new standards in luxury and is truly a hidden gem.
Nestled along the cliff side of the rugged but sheltered southern coastline and overlooking the Four Seasons' Hulopoe Bay beach, it is simply jaw-dropping. Open only to hotel guests, the course is pristine and the vibe is relaxed. Tee times are secure but with the following group deliberately spaced a few holes behind, they're flexible. I forget how many times I was assured to "take your time, its all about going slow".
A common element at all the courses on this visit were the player facilities. Cold handtowels at the end of each round, practice tees with perfectly arranged pyramids of balls and, here in Manele Bay, a glass of fresh pineapple lemonade to start your experience. Most had GPS in the carts telling all you need to know about each hole, right down to where the cart ahead of you was on the blind dog-legs. For a first-timer it took away the disadvantage of not knowing where to hit or what club to use. It was the rough equivalent of playing with a local (without the laughs) and you soon realise that the only excuse for not playing well is you.
What! You didn't play Kapalua?
Maui is a 35-minute ferry ride from Lanai and offers a faster way of life. The second busiest island in the Hawaiian group is not as big or populated as Honolulu, it still has a lovely small town atmosphere and as far as golf goes it's got one of the best, Kapalua.
Kapalua golfing consists of two courses, The Bay and The Plantation, the latter being home to the winners-only PGA Tour season opening event - and nothing beats playing on a course where the big boys play. Every golfer wants a glimpse of how they fare against the best and, believe me, it doesn't take long to realise how good they are and how long off the tee you're not. These courses are not impossible to play, with five tee boxes to choose from it's not hard to find the appropriate coloured tee/length to comfortably challenge yourself. Once you've accepted your limitations and embraced your surroundings, there's fun to be had. The fairways are wide and the roughs are, by typical New Zealand standards, not rough at all. The level of manicure for all the courses I played is extreme. Even off the fairway the ball sits up nicely, waiting to be hit. Not once did I have to clean and replace.
If you're a golfer on Maui, it would be a sin not to play at Kapalua. It's rare to find a PGA tournament course open to the public and the expansive practice facilities are like no other I have seen.
If you need help with your game this is the place to kill a few hours, if not days. The entire resort including hotels, tennis academy and golf covers more than 8900ha.
Surf the earth
The latest craze at many courses in Hawaii is the golfboard. Imagine an offroad-wheeled skateboard with a vertical stand that holds your clubs and acts as a handle and steering mechanism. It is very much a tool to attract the younger players. The first few times I ever played with a cart I rarely took the direct route to my next shot - wanting to experience the fun of driving. Riding the golfboard had me doing the same - seeking every mound to surf over grassy knolls and lean into berms. It added in-between shot action and an exhilarating edge to what can be a slow day out.
From Maui I flew to the Big Island and it is big, and slow and super-friendly and I was unprepared for how beautifully different it was from the other islands. This difference is also obvious in its golf courses. Of the two courses I played, one had ocean front cliffs, the other had lava. One had serious golfing history, the other a serene atmosphere that bordered on the spiritual. The former, Maunu Kea had me hooked from the start and the latter, Hualalai, had me in speechless awe. I left both places knowing I had experienced something special and I would rush back in a heartbeat.
Mauna Kea is similar in style, beauty and level of difficulty to Manele Bay. Both hug the coastline, have signature holes that require your best shot to survive, and are ridiculously gorgeous. To play this course is to play on perfectly prepared fairways and greens. Dreams are made of this and it's only the human element that sets the game off-script.
Halalai is unlike any other course I have played simply due to its location within a volcanic lava field. The contrasting colours of black lava, green fairways, white bunkers and the sparkling blue ocean make for a startling atmosphere. If you stray off course you can forget about trying to find your ball in the lava. The service is exceptional and they pride themselves on being a family-orientated course and resort. The clubhouse house is closed until late afternoon to encourage players to eat with their families in the relaxed, seaside restaurant at the end of the course. Children can also play with their parents free of charge after 3pm.
A common, yet surprising element I discovered playing all these top courses was the lack of stuffiness within the clubhouse. Golf shoes inside? No problem, wear them in the restaurant if you wish. Caps don't seem to come off anywhere and every clubhouse is perfectly located to capture the views and the players on the 18th. The resorts in particular pride themselves on their restaurants and see clubhouse as an integral part of the game. Well-stocked pro shops are a souvenir shopper's wildest dream.
The big smoke
If you don't have the time to visit the outer islands there is plenty of good golf on Oahu, including the North Shore's Turtle Bay, where you might also like to stay. It's an easy drive, just follow the motorway out of Honolulu past the North Shore beaches, where you can stop off at Pipeline or Waimea Bay for some world-class surf action.
The course is next to Turtle Bay Resort, which sits on a coastal peninsula overlooking the crashing waves. Definitely user-friendly, it was the only course that didn't have GPS systems in cart. Instead, each fairway had the 150 yard marker placed strategically on the fairway where you should be aiming your drive and its coloured cap denoted if the flag was at the front, middle or rear of the green. A simple and practical solution that was, for me, better than the latest electronic device.
The Hawaiian vibe that permeates through life on the islands seeps into your game and leaves you wanting more, so it's comforting to know it's just a 9-hour flight from New Zealand.
Hawaiian Airlines fly overnight and allow a massive 32kg baggage per person, so no extra charges for the golf clubs here. Arrive in Honolulu for breakfast and be on any of the outer islands for your first round by lunch.
Hawaii, I like your style of play.
Course by course
Manele Bay, Lanai
Designed by Jack Nicklaus
7039yd US$325 per round Four Seasons guests only
Ocean views from every hole with the par 3 12th playing over the waves 150ft below (Bill and Melissa Gates were married on this tee). Humpback whales and spinner dolphins are out to distract you - take your camera.
Designed by Arnold Palmer
6600yd US$219 per round
Often overlooked for the more famous Plantation. Big mistake. This is a wonderful course with greater variety and fewer people, for less dosh.
The Plantation Course
Designed by Ben Crenshawe
7411yd US$299 per round
Widely regarded as one of the state's best. It's a true challenge, thank goodness for the cool tradewind breezes. The 18th is a downhill 663yd par 5 - what a finish!
Mauna Kea Guests
Designed by Robert Trent Jones snr
7370yd US$235 per round for Four Seasons guests, US$275 public.
On the signature 3rd hole, look for the path to the original championship tee where legend has it Arnold Palmer didn't make the carry across the rocky shoreline. Neither did I, nor the club pro I played with.
Hualalai Golf Club, Hawaii
Designed by Jack Nicklaus
7117yd US$295 per round Four Seasons guests only
Take the non-golfer on this one, the cart ride offers a unique experience and they can carry your extra balls ... you'll need them!
Turtle Bay, Oahu
Designed by Arnold Palmer
7218yd US$155 per round Turtle Bay Resort Guests, $185 public.
More Miami than Hawaii, this course, played around a natural marsh, is full of inland water hazards. A great alternative to the typical coastline-hugging courses of Hawaii.
Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Honolulu. They have a special on until June 21, with Economy Class return fares starting from $999.