TRAVELSCRIBBLES is a blog featuring travel reports, advice, and idea sharing for those interested in both domestic and international exploration.

Roger Sauer and his wife Donna have spent years traveling the world but have many places yet to see. You can follow their past and current travels here as well as post comments and questions about places they have visited.

Roger and Donna travelled to New Zealand and Australia in September, 2013. They will be in Paris in September 2015 with a train trip to Nice and Barcelona. They will then be aboard the Disney Magic (again) for a transatlantic cruise to Miami. Follow their travels on Twitter @rsauer3473.

Donna and Roger own Disney Vacation Club memberships at Old Key West and Beach Cub resorts in Walt Disney World. They also have other timeshare interests in Maui, Cancun, Orlando, and Palm Springs.
Feel free to contact them at 503-585-3473 if you would like rent one of these properties.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Disney's Hawaiian Resort and Spa, AULANI

Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, in Ko Olina, Oahu, Hawaii, represents Disney's first major resort not affiliated with a theme park. (Its Disney Vacation Club has timeshare resorts in Vero Beach FL and Hilton Head SC.)

Set on a man-made lagoon about a half hour west of Honolulu, the resort is comprised of a central lobby area and two 14 and 16 floor towers featuring both Vacation Club studio, one, two, and three bedroom units and hotel rooms.

As this is written in January 2012, many rooms in the east Ewa tower are still undergoing interior construction though there appeared to be no exterior cranes or site work underway. For all practical purposes the resort is complete for the average guest.

When complete, the resort will include 360 hotel rooms and 481 Disney Vacation Club two-bedroom equivalent timeshare villas.

Our room was a deluxe studio on the third floor, the lobby level, which made access to most public areas very easy. The room had a queen bed and a sleeper sofa, flat screen TV and full bath. The WIFI was excellent both in the room and in public areas, even by the pool near the beach.

The decor aims at authentic Hawaiian style and the use of native woods, rock, and artwork throughout set this resort apart from the gleaming white (and sterile) look of the J. W. Marriott resort next door. Lush landscaping and use of water in ponds, fountains, and streams belie the fact that this resort has been open only five months.

We are DVC members and had an eight night reservation following a three day stay in Waikiki. Ko Olina is an exclusive tourist area much like Kaanapali in Maui and there is a security gate needed just to enter. A common complaint of some reviewers has been that there is not much to do here unlike busy Waikiki or a Disney theme park. We didn't find this a problem; while a concierge and tour desk can arrange trips around the island, we enjoyed lounging by the pool and making use of the resort's own amenities.

Chief among these is the Waikolohe Valley pool area. This is called a valley as it resides between the two massive resort towers, Ewa and Wai'anae, akin to a tropical space between two Hawaiian mountain ranges. Within this valley is children's water play area where staying dry would be a great challenge. Two infinity spas overlook the lagoon and there are two other spas in the valley, one almost invisible from nearby trails.

For security hotel guests are issued different colored wrist bands each day when they use the pools. This is to dissuade non-Disney folks from using the pool. And, thank goodness, there is a policy against "towel on the lounge chair" saving of pool chairs. Items are removed after an hour of non-use. The message: use the chair or use it. This will be even more important once the resort is fully finished. And with fewer nearby attractions available, there will be more people staying in the pool areas.

A lazy river, Waikolohe Stream, surrounds a huge mountain that includes both an inner tube slide and a standard water slide (though this second slide is totally dark as it winds through the mountain.) Occasionally the mountain erupts with some mild fire effects and there is a small cave where one can see some lave and fire effects close up. Like the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom, the mountain and rock work around it feature well concealed carved sea life much of which I did not see until I had taken a few trips around the river. There is even a chicken, a reference to the wild birds that roam neighboring Kawai.

Some of these carvings include whales that "blow" occasionally as a result of guests playing the Menehune Adventure Trail, a KimPossible type activity involving a smart phone device which leads guests around the Valley to activate fires, rocks, music, and even whales carved in rocks. The host is a pleasant Hawaiian woman known only as Auntie. This is same character in Auntie's Beach House, the children's child care and activity center. Guests may use these facilities including the child care free (for children 3+ years and potty trained) just like on Disney Cruise ships.

One activity that is fun (and free) is locating the little Menehune statues throughout the resort. These mythical Hawaiian sprites can found lounging around the gardens in Waikolohe Valley, asleep atop a moulding in an elevator, or riding a decorative outrigger near the water slide. Hidden Mickey's? I haven't seen many, though the Disney characters are available for photos during the day and there is a musical revue with them and native musicians three nights a week in a lawn area near the quiet pool.

Two admission fee based activities are the Rainbow Reef and the Makai Reserve adjacent to the pool area. Rainbow reef is akin to the salt water snorkeling area of Typhoon Lagoon. For $20 guests can swim with multicolored tropical fish ($39 for a length of stay pass.) Two aquarium type windows are available for landlubbers to view the many small multicolored species that inhabit the pool. This may be to your liking if swimming in the lagoon a few hundred feet away does not appeal to you. But the lagoon is free and, while cloudy due to guest activity in the near shore, there are plenty of fish out by the rocky areas that mark the mouth of the lagoon. My advice is to walk to either side of the mouth and swim toward the middle. I saw lots of fish and even a three-legged turtle that I discovered goes by the name of Lucky. The Makai Reserve is an area where for $50 one can interact with sting rays in a pool.

On a couple of evenings each week a musical show, "Starlight Hui," is presented on a stage by a grassy area on the west side of the property. This mix of Hawaiian storytelling, hula, ukulele playing, and audience participation was a pleasant way to spend an evening. Of course, Mickey and friends came to the stage at the end of the program.

If the costs of some activities seem high, well, welcome to Hawaii. Though even for Hawaii, local prices are higher due to the fact that this area is tourist oriented and, at least for the near future, is in a place that is away from much of the commercial activity. As we were staying in a DVC unit, we had a modest kitchen area with microwave and refrigerator. About four miles away are a number of shopping sites such as Costco, Safeway, and Target as well as nationally recognized fast food places. An ABC store is across the street north of the resort. A small gift shop is near the main lobby .

The resort also features a full service spa called Laniwai (varied treatments for a fee) and an exercise area (free.) Near the spa is a pleasant teen lounge, Painted Sky, with computers, games, and a frozen yogurt bar.

We only tried one of the restaurants at Aulani. As frequent visitors to both Maui and Disney World where prices can be high, we were taken aback by the cost of onsite dining here. The Makahiki dinner buffet is $43 and the beachfront Ama AMA restaurant has entrees in the $30-80 range.

We had a dinner at the Makahiki buffet on the lower level near the lobby. This is an Asian/Pacific/Japanese buffet in a restaurant partially inside and partially on the patio adjacent to the Waikolohe Stream and koi ponds. The menu featured sushi, sashimi, a variety of fish plates, fish and pork lau lau (wrapped and steamed in leaves), beef, vegetables, and a good array of desserts. We initially were seated inside it the area was quite loud due to the hard surfaces and busy clientele; we asked to be seated on the patio. Once on the patio our dinner was accompanied by a phalanx of pre-schoolers running around and, by all appearances, were intent on re-enacting the Battle of Midway. (Think Chef Mickey's without the peace and quiet.) Parents, part of a wedding party, were oblivious to their activities. A manager we contacted seemed distressed to have to deal with the issue, but things seemed to calm down a bit.

The big problem here is that around Ko Olina, there are not many child-friendly restaurants and hotel restaurants are expensive. Our advice is to observe a dinner here when you are not dining and see if this is your cup of tea. If it looks okay to you, try it. If you are looking for a quiet dinner, go elsewhere. Plans are now underway to install another quick service station near the pool deeck and I received a note the other day that Makahiki is now offering an ala carte menu.

Menus can be viewed online at a number of websites.  I was told by a DVC staffer that the resort will install electric barbecues when the Ewa Tower DVC room are completed.

If Aulani is your sole target for a Hawaiian vacation, a car is a must. Shuttles from the airport run about $70 each way. Parking at the resort is $35 per day (free for DVC members using points for their stay.) An Alamo car rental is onsite. Some people rent a car on a daily basis on the resort and avoid the parking charge. A day long shopping tour into Honolulu is a featured activity that the resort offers. The bus travels to a few big malls including the Ala Moana Mall near Waikiki; the cost is $30 per person for a day of shopping. There is a strong draw here for tourists from Japan, a demographic to which Disney is aiming a great deal of marketing. Signage around the resort is in both English and Japanese.

Staying at Aulani is not cheap. Rates for standard rooms, ocean view, is about $400 per night that adds up to about $3,500 a week with taxes. A studio like ours runs about $600 per night. We were lucky; we used points for a pool view room and, while we are on the lobby or 3rd floor, we still see the ocean as well as parts of the Waikolohe stream and children's water play area.

Having stayed at many Disney resorts in the US, Asia, and Europe, this resort ranks in the top tier. And in Aulani Disney has found a surefire ticket to providing a quality vacation experience that does not require a theme park.

Hits and Misses at Aulani
Overall environment and theming
Room quality and comfort
Pool area with easy beach access
Staff service and hospitality

Lack of nearby activities
Restaurant prices
Need for a car

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