When friends find out that I’ve been to the Hawaiian Islands around 15 times, they often ask which island is the best. That’s a difficult question since all the islands are so different and it depends on what you’re looking for. Personally, I almost always visit the island of Oahu and then mix it up by adding a few days on either Kauai, Maui, Lanai, or the Big Island for a side trip. People might think I’m crazy because I like Oahu so much but there’s something about its attractions, restaurants, landscape, and hustle-and-bustle that draws me in. I love it all…all but its notoriously terrible rush hour traffic, that is.
I love to visit tourist-filled Waikiki and stare out at Diamond Head, surrounded by the crystal blue waters of the Pacific, but I wouldn’t want to spend all of my time there. In fact, if I had kids, I probably wouldn’t even stay in Waikiki. Instead, I’d head out to Ko Olina.
Ko Olina is located on the western shores of Oahu, about 30 minutes from HNL (17 miles) and 40 minutes from Waikiki. It was created to be a family-friendly, gated resort community with an 18-hole Ted Robinson-designed golf course, several resort condominiums, villa homes and three hotels and vacation-club resorts: Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa; the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa, and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club. There are 642 acres and two miles of coastline, which include three natural and four man-made lagoons, all with white sand beaches.
My wife Natalie and I were fortunate enough to spend this past New Year’s Eve at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa in Ko Olina, and here are the 9 things we loved most about the property:
1. It’s secluded
You know the hotel has to be secluded if the NFL rents the whole thing out during the Pro Bowl, which took place this past weekend. All of the players and their families stay there so they won’t be disturbed or get into trouble as they might if they were in Waikiki. The Ihilani is far from the craziness in Waikiki, making it a more serene, secluded escape.
2. Safe swimming and snorkeling
There’s a shallow man-made lagoon surrounded by a white sand beach, so families can enjoy the water without worrying that their children—or even they themselves—will be confronted by huge waves.
3. Ihilani Spa
Let’s cut to the chase: There’s a reason the hotel adds the word spa to the end of their official name; JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & SPA. Understandable since there’s an exceptional, full-service, European-designed health spa that’s 35,000 square-feet! They have everything you would expect and it’s going to get even better still as they’re currently in the final stages of a redesign. The fitness center will soon be open 24 hours and will boast state-of-the-art equipment.
4. Comfortable rooms and beds
The JW is one of Marriott’s luxury brands so they all come with incredibly comfortable beds and soft sheets. And at this JW, the rooms are spacious, averaging 640 square feet. Not only that, the bathrooms are all made out of marble and have dual vanities so there’s no fighting over the sink. Right, @NatalieDiScala?
My favorite part about the rooms, besides the cozy beds, is the fact that they all have balconies with sweeping views that take your breath away. I’ve heard from countless locals that this side of the island has the best sunsets and I can’t argue with them. The balconies have screen doors so you can hear the waves crashing outside and not worry about bugs or birds flying in.
6. Thick walls
Another thing that’s nice about this 17-story, 387-room JW Marriott is that the walls are thick. At many newer hotels you can often hear your neighbors walking by or talking in the room next door but not at the JW Marriott Ihilani. I’m not sure when this hotel was built but in the thick walls sense, they built it the old-fashioned way.
7. Dining options
The JW Marriott Ihilani has six dining options—and that doesn’t include room service or the Starbucks in the lobby. Their three main restaurants dish up Italian, Japanese and Hawaiian foods. They also have a killer breakfast buffet where you can make your own fresh juice. If you don’t feel like eating a big breakfast or spending mucho moola, then you can grab oatmeal or a breakfast sandwich from the on-site Starbucks. The line was long both mornings I went, but I was impressed at how fast the baristas helped everyone.
8. Nearby restaurants
On our first visit here, seven years ago, my wife and I didn’t have a lot of dining options so we ate all of our meals in the hotel. Since then, the area has expanded and there are a variety of places to eat, all just a few blocks away. In fact, one afternoon we ate at the Monkeypod Kitchen, which is near the hotel and open seven days a week (from 11 am to 11 pm). Their food was not only fresh but reasonably priced (here’s their menu). And next door to Monkeypod is an ice cream shop that sells shave ice for $4 or $5 with ice cream.
9. You earn Marriott Rewards Points
Although Marriott has recently seriously devalued their rewards programs, it’s still nice to know you will earn points towards future stays.
There’s no doubt that the Ihilani is a beautiful, well-run property. It has everything the discerning traveler needs and is still within reach of Honolulu’s most sought-after activities and dining choices. It’s perfect if you’ve got children and/or want to get away from the crowds in Waikiki. The one thing to be aware of is that they charge a daily resort fee of $25, like most Hawaiian hotels, so be aware of that when setting your budget. One good thing is that the resort fee includes Wi-Fi for an unlimited number of devices. Rack rates begin at $322.