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With lots of Hawaiian beach resorts competing for your business, Maui's southwestern coast offers several luxury choices. So, in these tough economic times . . . Why Wailea?

BACKROADS & BEACHES / HAWAII '93: Second in an occasional series


WAILEA, Hawaii — Probably I was being misinformed, but I remember hearing in elementary school that the Eskimos of North America had 16 words for snow--one for icy snow, one for soft snow, one for crunchy snow, and so on. This was said to be evidence that we clever, restless humans will discern diversity in even the most bare, elemental environment. A fine idea.

Yet here I sit on yet another lazy afternoon in Wailea, along the southwest coast of Maui, sun-drunk, sea-soaked, frond-shaded and skeptical.

If ever there were an elemental landscape, this is one. Sun. Sea. Sand. Implements for enjoyment of the aforementioned. A winding path leads along a mile and a half of immaculately arranged shoreline. Logo-bearing towels are carefully draped on deck chairs. If we humans are so irrepressibly inventive in our vocabularies, then why don't Hawaii's dictionaries include seven words for sun block, nine words for golf , 11 words for lobby sculpture , 17 words for tiki torch, 23 words for reclining patio furniture ?

Because at this point in the 20th Century, when you find simplicity, the last thing you want to do is complicate it. And even if you have to cross a few thousand miles of Pacific Ocean to reach it, well, the hefty price still may seem worthwhile. So goes the strategy behind Wailea, which opened its first hotel 17 years ago.

Wailea's creators aimed to offer a more luxurious alternative to Kaanapali, the master-planned resort that opened in 1962 along the island's northwest coast and helped set off the first stampede of mainland visitors to Maui. Given the overbuilding of the Hawaiian hotel market over the last decade and the recent southerly drift of the U.S. economy, it's hard to guess who will succeed in the long haul. But after a flurry of construction in the last three years, Wailea has emerged as a formidable destination: 1,500 acres, 2,514 hotel rooms, 250 vacation condominiums, 36 golf holes (soon to be 54), 14 tennis courts. Island tourism experts agree that the place has become a force to be reckoned with.

The numbers are big, but the choices are simple. You rub in some sun block. You wander from hotel room to restaurant to beach and back, surrounded by winners of corporate incentive programs. You wonder why there are so few Japanese and other international travelers, and then you remember that ours isn't the only economy limping these days. You nudge the kids toward the various children's programs. You snorkel. You pay large bills by placing shiny credit cards in tiny trays. (The cheapest hotel room for two I could find in Wailea ran $169 a night. Those looking for less-costly lodgings in the area should forget the resort and head a few miles north to the main drag of Kihei, where dozens of hotel and condo possibilities can be found, unfortunately neighbored by strip malls and considerable street traffic.)

To be sure, the hoteliers and restaurateurs aren't out lazing by the tide. While the laborers rake the beach sand daily and trim the palm fronds, the higher-ups scheme over how to lure those vacationers still willing to spend Wailea prices. Last year's Hurricane Iniki actually brought a degree of relief to these shores; hundreds of redirected Kauai vacationers landed here. But the struggle to fill beds continues. Just May 31, Takashi Sekiguchi, owner of the Grand Wailea Resort, Hotel & Spa, the most expensive of the hotels here, ended a management contract with Hyatt and hired hoteliers Colgate Holmes and Henry Schielein, both veterans of the Ritz-Carlton chain, to take over operation of the massive property.

But all those competitive anxieties are backstage, and the shiny new poolsides and freshly raked beaches of Wailea seem calm and comfortable as any on the islands. Here's a guide to them.

From Maui's Kahului Airport, I steer my rental car 17 miles south until I am surrounded by manicured lawns and the discreet directional signs bearing orange and blue logos. It's late, about 10 p.m., but at the front desk of the Stouffer Wailea Beach Resort, the receptionist welcomes me with a smile, a lei, a room key.

The next morning, I pad down to breakfast with a 180-degree panorama of tropical paradise spread out before me--and find myself at a table neighboring the Hawaii tourist we all fear.

"Hey, Fred," the paunchy fellow says to his companion, "look at this nice lady." Then he turns to the waitress in question.

"Would you move with me to Cleveland, Ohio?"

The waitress endures this with grace and that much-advertised aloha spirit. Probably she has dealt with much worse. The buffet, meanwhile, is massive. On a Sunday morning at many hotel restaurants, this meal could pass for brunch and fetch $20 a head. Here, as hotels scramble to lure guests with added values, the feast comes free with my room every morning.

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