MAUI — I didn't know what to expect from the locals in Hawaii when I landed in February as Covid-related travel restrictions were easing. Would they be happy to be around tourists again? Did they miss tourism? In short, was the aloha spirit still alive?
I can happily report that the Hawaiians were spouting, leaping out of the sea, and flipping their tails to welcome us back.
I'm talking about humpback whales, the beloved residents within the deep blue bays of Maui. In Hawaii, the under-the-sea locals matter just as much as those on land. And joking aside, the two-legged mammals who live on the island were just as welcoming.
For seven months, the Hawaiian islands were shut down. Hotels and resorts were completely shuttered, non-Hawaiians were not allowed entry, and locals who did leave had to undergo strict fourteen-day quarantines upon return. In October, the state announced a Safe Travels program that allowed incoming U.S. travelers to test out of quarantine by presenting a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to arrival. Hotels reopened at limited capacity in time for the holidays. And since then, the beach chairs have slowly begun to fill up and the torches of socially-distanced luaus have been re-lit.
At the end of a two-month escape from a New York winter in Southern California, my boyfriend and I chose to delay our inevitable return by going even father west to Maui. I had heard from friends that Hawaii was great — the protocols were strictly kept, the case count was low, and well-behaved, mask-wearing tourists were respecting the locals. Even my doctor reported seeing beautifully uncrowded beaches and great safety practices. I was also reassured to know that the plane would be filled with pre-approved, COVID-negative travelers.
The Ground Rules for Entry
While coronavirus testing has become increasingly available throughout the United States, with drive-thrus and at-home kits, entry into Hawaii requires a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) such as a PCR test, which are available only through the state's approved testing partners, which include major chain pharmacies and participating airlines. It sounds daunting, but in most departures cities, access is relatively widespread. It's important to note that there are no rapid or pre-flight testing options. Travelers cannot test upon arrival in Hawaii or wait for results at the airport when they land.
I flew from LAX on a near-full Delta flight (all seats except for the middles were occupied) with vacation-ready passengers — all traveling for different reasons; all desperate for a sun-kissed escape. I heard stories of the lengths some went to travel to the far-flung state, the extended work-from-vacation stays, and homeschooling from the islands. As expected, when we landed and deplaned, we were ushered into a line and asked for hard copies of our negative tests and QR entry codes. (Travelers should print their results. One traveler who flew from Miami with results on his phone was sent back home.) Maui also requires visitors to download the Aloha Safe contact tracing app to their phones before entry. Kauai is the only Hawaiian island that requires a second test after arrival. In Maui and the other six islands, you're free to roam as you please once you're clear past the airport.
Getting My Happy Back
When we arrived at Grand Wailea on Maui's south shore, I was ecstatic. We were just in time for sunset and the humpback whales were showing off a particularly lively parade. But I had an even more personal reason to feel emotional about being here. Grand Wailea is a Chaney family favorite. The first time I came, I was two years old and we have returned several times since. I have happy memories of slurping peanut butter milkshakes followed by torturous, digestive time-outs before being allowed to slip down the 200-foot slide or leap onto the Tarzan swing into the lazy river pool for the hundredth time that day.
Happiness is built into the sprawling, 40-acre beachside resort — into its nine pools, seven waterslides, the world's only under-the-water elevator, the largest spa in all of Hawaii, and the infamous Friday night Luaus. Grand Wailea is where families, honeymooners, and friends return year after year to be embraced by the expansive hospitality, the surrounding nature, and the warm Hawaiian culture.
Built in 1991 between Haleakalā volcano and beautiful Wailea Beach, the hotel has 776 guest rooms, including 56 suites and 100 villas, all with private outdoor patios and subtle, elevated Hawaiian decor. The three-bedroom Ho'olei Villas offer private chef experiences, outdoor dining with gas grills, spa bathrooms with marble tubs, and access to a relaxation pool with a 19-foot waterfall and swim-in grotto. The open-air hallways, lobby, and guest lounges allow for plenty of space to roam without being too close for comfort. Activities also abound: beachfront paddle board and kayak rentals, golf courses, tennis clubs, luxury shopping centers, and boat excursions.
In February, the hotel was at twenty percent capacity and only two of the five on-site restaurants and the Botero lobby lounge were open. We enjoyed our sunset aperitifs of mai-tais and pineapple old fashions surrounded by the hotel's impressive collection of voluminous sculptures by Columbian artist Fernando Botero. The bountiful breakfast spread typically served in the Grand Dining Room was replaced by grab-and-go options at Cafe Kula; casual, locally-sourced lunch and dinner were available poolside at Bistro Molokini. The fresh catch of the day with a simple tomato and fennel salad became a welcome routine.
Did it feel like we were the only couple dancing in a big ballroom? Not at all. The hotel and staff had clearly put extra care and attention into maximizing their guests' well-being, comfort, relaxation, and connection to nature. It felt extra luxurious to experience the amenities of a large resort with the guest count of a boutique one. Upon arrival, each guest is paired with a wellness ambassador who assists with pre-travel testing arrangements, answers questions about the island's restrictions, and arranges private airport transfers. Mask wearing was well-abided and check-in was nearly contactless, except for a second check of our negative tests. A self-serve aloha station of fresh leis was a really nice touch. A Waldorf-Astoria Resort within the Hilton hotels portfolio, Grand Wailea has implemented Hilton's CleanStay program with Lysol: Every room is rigorously sanitized and sealed before guest arrivals. High-use, in-room amenities like magazines, books, and mini bar snacks were absent. (I get it with the magazines and books, but don't understand why I'm denied my midnight Kit-Kat.)
Intimate, socially-distanced beach yoga classes were scheduled each morning, along with outdoor cycling classes. I worked out in the new Gym Pod, a converted guest room turned workout studio, with a private Peloton, a rower, and, best of all, an interactive Tonal virtual trainer that was loaded up with my favorite NYC-based, high-intensity dance class (305 Fitness). I appreciated the privacy to shake it out alone. The adjacent, massive fitness center is equally equipped with smart bikes and training equipment; hourly reservations are required.
At Spa Grande, they are prepared for the pent-up anxiety, trauma, grief, and uncertainty that guests are processing. The spa's signature treatments have been enhanced with transformative healing inside and out. This includes energy treatments of reiki and chakra balancing, reflexology and cupping, craniosacral therapy, nutrition workshops, and metaphysical sessions with on-site astrologer Juliet Doty of UnWind the Soul.
Because my trip overlapped with the full moon, of course I had to book an evolutionary astrology natal chart reading. My 90-minute session was incredibly in-depth, as Juliet guided me through which planets galvanize around me, the attributes I was born to develop, and negative tendencies I really should leave behind. Buzzing with energy and emotion afterwards, I processed the session with an energy bodywork massage by the spa's healer, Carol. As she began to realign my crippled, work-from-couch spine, she noted areas of extra trauma and tension and where I might be storing negative energies. I could feel my entire body take a deep breath.
Revived — and astrologically and physically re-centered — I was looking forward to the Friday night Luau on the hotel's main lawn overlooking Wailea Beach. The pre-COVID, communal-style service was replaced with socially-distanced private tables and a three-course menu of traditional Kalua pig, poi, and tuna poke. The open bar mai-tais flowed as before. Fire dancers, hula girls, and the exuberant host shared stories of Honua’ula (the local name for Maui translates as "red earth"), and the Polynesian explorers who embraced the sacred Hawaiian islands. The entertainers were exhibiting an honest joy to be performing again; the guests were clearly relieved to be in an audience once again.
There were several silver linings of the hotel's temporary shutdown. "We were able to take a step back and reinvent ourselves, invest in technology, enhance what our guests know and love, and re-engage the staff," Managing Director JP Oliver told me. "That's the best part of my job: to find ways to do things better and constantly evolve, rather than get stuck in old ways."
Sustainability was first and foremost as the staff worked on ways to improve the hotel. To start, they cancelled their single-use water bottle delivery and stocked guest rooms with reusable bottles — an excellent savings of one million disposable bottles per year. While much of Maui's landscape is lush, the south side of the island is arid and desert-like, forcing resorts to waste water to maintain their tropical displays. During lockdown, the hotel re-landscaped the property's several gardens, integrating low-water plants and irrigation systems. They also integrated a water-recycling program for the property's pools, limiting water usage from 30,000 gallons a day to two. (Not a typo.) As for the sacrificed pig on display at the Luau, he was fed by feed grown from regenerative soil from the hotel's composted food waste.
We're nearing the end of the lockdown life as we know it and are about to re-emerge into a new world. One where we are hopeful that travelers will think carefully about their impact on the environment, the oceans, and be conscious and respectful of locals and one another. As destinations and resorts reopen, Grand Wailea is leading by example — keeping guest well-being at the forefront, and welcoming tourists back with a sustainable, low-impact mission, sharing the best of Hawaii and the aloha spirit with future generations. I can't wait to come back with my kids.