Reporting from Ko Olina, Hawaii - The new Aulani hotel on Oahu sets out to replace the clichés of tiki torches, totem poles, bamboo furniture and tacky luaus with a resort that celebrates Hawaii's history, traditions and cultures sprinkled with just a small dose of Disney's trademark pixie dust.
Although this premise seems more than just a bit ironic for a company that has built its brand on fairytale fantasy, Disney manages to pull it off with style, grace and beauty, resulting in a modern Hawaiian resort that delivers on its promise and its considerable marquee name.
A modern take on a Hawaiian resort that puts a premium on tradition, the $800-million Aulani in Ko Olina on leeward Oahu opened in late August with 359 hotel rooms, 460 time-share units, two restaurants, two bars, a spa and a conference center. An official grand opening is scheduled for Sept. 22.
The 21-acre resort, about 30 minutes from Waikiki, is worlds apart in look, feel and spirit from that tourist mecca of high-rise cement monoliths.
I’ve been staying at the Aulani the last few days with my wife, Nancy, and our 11-year-old daughter, Hannah. The resort is still in the soft opening test-and-adjust phase, but we found the resort and the staff to be operating at full speed despite the paucity of crowds.
As we approached the Aulani, the rock and timber porte-cochere extended from the tallest of three A-framed thatch huts that serve as the hotel lobby.
Above, a pair of towers rose like modern interpretations of a Hawaiian fishing village – if fishermen could build a 15-story hotel.
Just inside, telephone pole-sized timbers supported the cathedral-like vaulted ceiling that arches to a point. Geometric-patterned mats filled in the gaps between the spines to maintain the thatched roof feel. Lights dangled from above in clusters of fishing nets like luminescent jellyfish. A verdant ribbon mural depicting island life wrapped the perimeter.
We were greeted at our rental car by an Aulani hostess who presented Nancy and Hannah with flower leis and me with a kukui nut one before explaining the symbolic elements of the open-air lobby.
Outside the lobby, a balcony overlooked the lush grounds with the water park-like pool and the Pacific just beyond. Twin towers, laid out in the now familiar Las Vegas three-wing design, flanked either side.
You pay according to the view – standard, island, poolside, partial ocean or ocean. The island view rooms offer rolling green panoramas of Oahu's undisturbed countryside, save the mid-rise hotels to either side of the Aulani.
All the resort’s hotel rooms measure in at a comfortable 382 square feet, with 16 suites ranging from 764 to 1,910 square feet.
Whimsical touches could be found throughout the room, from the pineapple-patterned quilt woven with hidden Mickeys to an outrigger canoe motif in the headboard to giant hand-carved fish hooks framing the wall mirror.
A flat-screen TV with a Blu-ray player (loaner DVDs were available in the community room) and hook-ups for video games (brought from home) sat atop a six-drawer dresser with a hidden mini-fridge.
A table for two featured the only overt Disney reference in the room: a lamp with a ukulele-playing Mickey Mouse.
A small side table with compartments below for a coffee maker and an ice bucket stood nearby.
Beneath the bed there was space for stowing suitcases - a smart touch. On the nightstand sat a gourd lamp and an alarm clock with an iPod dock.
In the bathroom, a mirror with a wave-motif frame flanked by seashell sconces stood above a single sink vanity with six cubbies to store a hairdryer, extra toilet paper and our toiletries. A pair of plush robes (available for sale in the gift shop) hung nearby.
Throughout the room, the hardwood doors featured random inlaid bow-tie joints used in Hawaiian woodworking.
Island art on the walls and floral print throw pillows added just enough aloha flavor. Up on the ceiling, a four-finned wooden fan added to the tropical feel.
A full-size ironing board (and iron), a compact collapsible crib as well as an extra pillow and blanket could be found inside the closet.
Hannah's least favorite amenity: the free Wi-Fi that allowed us to download her classwork and homework while she was away from school. Nancy’s favorite touch: the swing-out vanity mirror in the bathroom for putting on makeup.
Just as promised, we found the Aulani surprisingly light on Disney and refreshingly heavy on Hawaii.