By Robert Kaufman
“Good evening Mr. Kaufman, can I get you a cocktail?” Faster than I could have said humuhumunukunukuapuaia, I was decorated with a distinctively sweet fragrant Hawaiian lei and being served the customary Mai Tai to officially welcome me to Kukui’ula, on the South Shore of Kauai. My arrival could not have been timed more perfect. The fiery orange ball was about to vanish into the blue horizon and, as is the tradition every Wednesday, members of this private resort community gather at the 20,000 square foot Plantation House overlooking Kukui’ula Bay and celebrate the close of day with drinks and pupus. As an invited outsider, I was more than happy to indulge.
To tell the truth, during the weeks leading up to this visit to the Garden Island, my appetite was whet already from constantly checking the webcam at kukuiula.com. The anticipation from viewing these images led to my expectations running pretty high before even setting foot on the 1,010-acre property located near historic Old Koloa Town and only minutes from Poi’pu Beach, Kauai’s premiere resort destination I’d come to many times before and always threatening never to leave.
That decision on this visit proved to be especially difficult. When I wasn’t laying my head every night at the boutique oceanfront Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, I was taking full advantage of the newest luxury residential playground in more than a 20 years on the geologically oldest island of the Hawaiian chain.
Taking front and center stage on the laid-back paradise in the Pacific, Kukui’ula is a marquee development deserving of star billing on a landscape that has provided backdrops for numerous movies (South Pacific, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and most recently, The Descendants). The ticket price may be considered a bit pricey but when you get behind the scenes and discover all the snacks and amenities that go along with the attraction, it’s one of the best seats on Kauai.
Thankfully, on the property’s website, a button is provided to hear the correct pronunciation of Kukui’ula (koo-koo-ee-oo-la) because once I finally figured that out, it was then a lot easier to comprehend the historic nature of the location from which the property was named. The actual translation refers to “guiding light.” Kukui refers to the nut oil that is found throughout the island, and ula means red light.
“In ancient times, the lava urn formations on the island would be filled with kukui nut oil and lit to provide a way for Hawaiians to navigate to Tahiti and for fisherman to find their way back home,” says General Manager, Kurt Matsumoto. “The name is especially fitting considering that Kukui`ula serves as a beacon to enlighten guests to the charms of old Hawaii and the simplicity it promotes.”
In more recent times, during the entire 20th century, this land served as the McBride Sugar Plantation. Now, with all the sugar cane having vanished from the land, Kukui’ula opened in 2011 after five years of development that, currently, comprises a collection of custom ocean view home sites starting at $1 million, Hawaiian plantation-style cottages priced between $2.2 million and $3.6 million, a $100 million clubhouse encompassing The Plantation House, golf clubhouse, and a massive garden spa with indoor and outdoor treatment rooms, inside one of which I offered one of the greatest compliments to Mandy, my masseuse, by dozing off halfway through my massage. Also on-site are swimming pools, a community farm where fruits, vegetables, herbs and tropical flowers are grown for the Chefs, as well as for the residents to gather. Oh, yes, there’s also a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course.
“Whereas other high-end developments throughout Hawaii seem to be specifically designed for adults, this place is all about family and golf is just a part of what we do here,” says Kukui’ula’s head golf professional Brian Paul. “For me, maybe the biggest factor that separates us is where we are. Kauai is the best. It’s unspoiled and exceptionally beautiful and still feels very small. When I visit the other islands, I feel like I’m on vacation. When I’m here, I feel like I’m home.”
The decision for Paul to leave his previous home in Northern California, where he had also been overseeing an exclusive private club, was made pretty simple, not just by the seduction of Hawaii but also by one of Kukui’ula’s co-developers, Scottsdale, Arizona-based DMB Associates.
“Our developers are the best at what they do,” said Paul. ”DMB has a true passion for building these communities and they get better at it with each one. They seek creative and passionate people to operate their clubs and then let us do our work. I knew coming into this project that I would have the tools to do the job here but what I didn’t realize until I arrived and met my teammates was the fact that I work with the very best people in every department. There are no amateurs here.”
While most golf course construction throughout the United States has virtually dried up, activity on Kauai has turned out to be an anomaly with the recent opening of the renovated Prince Course on the North Shore along with the appearance of 18 ocean-viewing holes at Kukui’ula.
“I think it’s even better than I thought it was going to be,” said Weiskopf, the 1973 British Open champion, during one of his many visits to see how his baby is growing in. “I’ve done 67 of these openings all over the world with golf courses we’ve been involved with, and this is the finest conditioned course I’ve ever been on. It’s like a course that’s already two years mature – it’s just perfect.”
The championship 7,028-yard emerald jewel, featuring paspalum-turf and sand-plated fairways in immaculate condition, follows the natural roller coaster flow of 216 acres through the coffee fields, meadows and hillsides of Kukui’ula that will bring into play a variety of shot options.
It is also designed to bring plenty of food options into play – all for consumption as you work up an appetite around the course! The second fairway is lined with Kukui and Macadamia nut trees. Dwarf citrus trees like limes, lemons, and oranges can be found along #10. The coffee plantation at #13 is out of this world. But probably nothing beats picking your own pineapple on the 14th tee. Who needs the beverage cart? Adding an extra touch of flavor, holes #5 and #6 are lined with crown flower trees for making leis.
If these treats don’t help to curb the hunger, there is absolutely no shortage of eye candy to feast on during your round. I know I had as tough of time focusing on my game as I ever would on a golf course, especially at the postcard 14th hole, a deliberately designed drivable par 4 (maybe for Weiskopf) where I stood frozen in the fairway fixated on several humpback whales flopping around in their open aquarium. When I wasn’t on the look-out for the large sea creatures, my typical routine consisted of hitting a golf ball, shoot pictures, hit another ball, shoot more pictures and so on. Fortunately, during the entire two rounds I played over consecutive days, the first by myself and second with a partner, I only came in contact with a foursome and two twosomes. Being used to playing at somewhat more crowded courses, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder to see if I was holding up play. Oh, the sweet pace of Kauai!
Taking all the scenic distractions out of the playing equation, Weiskopf’s main challenge was to make sure he designed a course that was fun and played fair. The resulting reward is wide fairways and spacious green fronts allowing for a comfortable playing experience but once all the planted trees and vegetation starts maturing that will change. Even though it will always be a factor, right now, the primary defense at Kukui’ula are the infamous Hawaii trade winds that can either turn hitting a 6-iron into playing a 3-iron or a pitching wedge. “You’ll never have the same experience twice,” said Paul.
So far, the majority of the golf-playing members are happy with their new club amenity. “I’m not sure any of us expected the course to feel and play this mature and look so exceptional this early on,” said Paul. “It’s a real credit to Danny Sapp, Golf Course Superintendent and his team. He has created a turf management program that is unique to our property and our turf types. Him team of guys (and girl) have really had to experiment here and it’s paid off.”
Over the next 15- 20 years, as homes slowly begin to take root, not only will members will be privileged to enjoy Kukui’ula. Thanks to a relationship with the Parrish Collection Kauai, which represents the island’s finest selection of luxury vacation rentals, non-member guests will have the opportunity to stay at the two-bedroom Club Cottages and have access to all the five-star services and amenities afforded members. With nightly fees ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 for up to six guests, Veronica Lovesy, Senior Marketing Manager, says, “Kukui’ula winds up being like a high-end resort property.”
Member or not, the Aloha spirit and hospitality is part of the Kukui’ula fabric and was evident with everyone from the President, Brent Harrington to the Island Pursuits team members, who can custom-design any adventure to fit your energy and age, to employees like Willie, a native Hawaiian who magically appeared everywhere ready to assist my every need while repeating “I’m so blessed to be here.” In fact, the only time Willie’s ear-to-ear smile left his face occurred when he became teary-eyed saying good-bye.
As sentimental as I felt, as well, the only thing holding back my tears was having already come to grips I didn’t have the $1 million in my pocket for a home site. In the end, however, Kukui’ula was pure heaven to visit but it hurt like hell to leave!
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