IHUE, Hawaii — The truth is, Leilani, I came to check out the new Kauai and wound up rediscovering old Kauai.
The reason I spun off in search of old Kauai is that after strolling through developer Chris Hemmeter's new $350-million Westin Kauai, I was confused. I couldn't figure out whether this was Lihue or Las Vegas. Placed alongside Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip, the Westin Kauai would fit like a croupier's glove.
The Porte Cochere would do justice to a maharajah's palace.
Entering the lobby, guests descend three flights by escalator to the resort's immense reflecting pool with its seven life-size marble horses rising in the spray of a 60-foot geyser of water. Westin compares the lighted 2.1-acre pond to the fountains of Versailles. (I'm still under the Las Vegas spell.)
This isn't to say that the Westin isn't a magnificent resort. But once inside the lobby, I expected plumeria and potted plants rather than Georgian columns. By my count, more columns support the Westin Kauai than shore up the Acropolis in Athens.
In place of Hawaiian artifacts, Westin's grounds feature a $2.5-million collection of Oriental and Pacific art that's all part of Chris Hemmeter's version of "Fantasy Island."
Employees with walkie-talkies signal room porters, and a dozen stretch limousines deliver new arrivals from the airport by private road. Dozens of carriages drawn by Clydesdales rattle along eight miles of garden paths. Or one can sail down a man-made lagoon in a $250,000 Venetian launch, passing man-made islands populated by exotic birds. Other islands are being stocked with kangaroos, wallabies, gemsbok, zebras, monkeys and llamas.
Somebody in the crowd wondered where the circus wagons were. Had Ringling Bros. gotten sidetracked? Macaws fluttered their wings. Flamingos preened.
Peering from the manicured grounds is a Buddha, not to mention marble dragons, marble turtles and swarms of live swans.
The enormous 800-acre Westin Kauai lagoons occupy the site of the old Kauai Surf at Kalapaki Beach, which Kauai visitors recall with a touch of nostalgia. They argue that Kauai, the Garden Island, got along nicely without Westin's touch of fantasy. Managing director James Treadway told one writer: "The idea is to have people feel like they're in heaven."
To which Kauai's residents respond that they figured they were in heaven long before Westin invaded their island.
Acquaintances of an island-born resident checked out after one night, trading Westin's fantasy island for a condo on a peaceful, uncrowded beach.
Charles Cassetty, a 68-year-old insurance executive from Gainsboro, Tenn., confessed he was impressed by the service but found the 847-room hotel "not much different from one I stayed in in Los Angeles." Still, the grounds with the lush foliage, the man-made waterfalls and a couple of 18-hole golf courses are imposing.
Eileen Deardorf of Los Altos dropped by after her youngsters told her, "Mom, that place will blow your socks off."
Said Deardorf: "The kids were right. It did blow my socks off!"
At noon, a pair of Dalmatians parade by the hotel in a dray wagon drawn by eight Clydesdales in a scene reminiscent of a Budweiser commercial.
On the limousine trip from the airport, guests freshen up with chilled towels. They are showered with leis and led to their rooms--not by Ricardo Montalban, but by employees acting out their role of fantasy islanders.
Nothing at Westin's world comes cheap. I passed one shop displaying a $40,311 emerald-diamond sparkler. Another store displayed a gown with a five-figure price tag.
Westin's accommodations start at $175 a day, and the best suite (baby grand piano, sauna, wet bar, spiral staircase and a lanai overlooking Nawiliwili Harbor) figures out to $1,500 a day.
Guests paddle about in Hawaii's biggest swimming pool (complete with waterfalls, its own island and a marble eagle perched topside on a marble mountain); they dine and imbibe in 16 restaurants and lounges, including the romantic Inn On the Cliffs; they wind surf at Kalapaki Beach, play Westin's 36-hole golf course, soak in five Jacuzzis and steam away the aches in a European-style health spa.
Opening soon will be an artisan village with gift shops one can reach by horse carriage or launch.
Like everything else, weddings in the Chapel by the Sea are pricey. The top of the line is a $1,788 package that includes an ocean-view suite (one night), flowers, champagne, photos and gifts. Meanwhile, the bride and groom are delivered in a white carriage drawn by a couple of pure white nags.
Or for $500, Westin will provide the clergy, chapel, a witness, a bouquet for the bride and a lei for the groom. Everything else is extra: the musicians, flowers, carriage, wedding cake, ad infinitum.