Kauai: Hawaii's "Garden Isle" is an Eden of island golf and resorts

Kauai may only have nine golf courses, but with layouts like the Prince Course at Princeville Resort and Poipu Bay, this little island can compete with anything on Hawaii.

KAUAI, HAWAII - Visit the second most westerly Hawaiian island of Kauai and it's easy to discover why this remote island known as the "Garden Isle" is one of a kind.

Its towering green mountainsides and small, picturesque beaches make for an idyllic setting for Hollywood films. It's home to one of the wettest spots on Earth, Mount Wai'ale'ale - yet just miles away its coastlines are sunny and temperate all year long. The island sees a fraction of the traffic and build up of Oahu and Maui - allowing guests and locals alike to find their own ray of paradise.

One of Hawaii's smallest islands has a sterling reputation.

"Kauai has always been the special island," says Matt Torry, head professional at the island's Kiahuna Golf Course. He's spent 16 of his 22 years in Hawaii on Kauai. "It's the oldest of the islands and has the most unique indigenous plants."

Torry smiles. "And there's no mongoose."

Who could forget the mongoose? The pests that inhabit Oahu and the Big Island won't be found on Kauai. But no mongoose also means wild roosters and chicken, whose forbearers were freed from their coups after Hurricane Iniki in 1992, go largely unchecked. One thing's for sure: You're not going to sleep through your morning tee time.

But you won't curse the roosters for their morning wake-up call, because an hour in bed feels like time wasted. Kauai is a "do" - not "see" - island, where the assistant pro who just checked you in at the Prince Course has snuck out on a long lunch to check the surf at nearby Hanalai beach. Locals and visitors alike head into the mountains for hiking, zip-lining and kayaking beneath waterfalls.

The island's natural wonder was revealed to the masses in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," though Hollywood has been a regular since Elvis Presley's day, when he shot three films here, including "Blue Hawaii."

So chances are you've probably seen plenty of Kauai, even if you didn't know it.

"My biggest mistake was waiting 25 years to go there," said Bob McIntosh, who celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary in Kauai and Maui. "Maui was also great, but for a genuine 'aloha' experience, include Kauai."

Golf on Kauai

For having only nine golf courses, Kauai greatly overachieves in quality; its top courses can hold their own with any on the Hawaiian Islands. A bonus: it's so small you can see each of Kauai's courses on one trip.

And that's a good thing, because no single course is a supreme favorite here. Each member of your group may come home with his or her own darling.

On the North Shore, the Prince Course at the Princeville Resort is often the highest rated by many publications, thanks to a stern Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout set high above the coastline through lush mountainsides. The Prince is undisputedly the most challenging on Kauai, though six sets of tees let players select their preferred mix of pain and pleasure.

Most mid-to-high handicappers are likely to favor Princeville's next door 27-hole Makai Course. It's a more user-friendly design and features more holes along the coastline, including the oft-photographed par-3 seventh.

To the island's South Shore lies Poipu Bay Golf Course, which served as the face of Kauai golf as host of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from 1994-2006, when Tiger Woods never skipped out on the event.

Like the Prince, it's a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design but an entirely different animal. It features more forgiving fairways and greens along with coastal views at every turn. The final stretch of holes plays right along the coast, giving you the added advantage of having the often fierce trade winds at your back.

Next door's Pacific-themed Grand Hyatt Resort lives up to the course's lofty standard and is ideal for stay-and-play. Its 50 acres are full of tropical vegetation, lagoon-style pools and restaurants that soak in the island vibe.

Nearby Kiahuna Golf Club is worth a look while in Poipu Bay, offering a links-style course just off the ocean that plays firm and fast thanks to new Seashore paspalum grass.

Just up the road from Poipu Bay is Lihue on the East Shore, Kauai's largest town at about 10,000 residents. Here, the Marriott Kauai Lagoons Resort & Spa is overseeing a massive renovation project that will include a brand new Ritz-Carlton Resort to compliment the existing property. The Kiele course's back nine, which features some of the island's most dramatic coastal holes, will reopen in 2009.

Golfers can also head just up the road from Kauai Lagoons to Puakea Golf Course. It's designed by Hawaii native Robin Nelson and features two generations of holes: the original 10, built prior to Hurricane Iniki, and the more recent holes that make up most of the front side. The back nine is a real treat, with Mount Wai'ale'ale looming behind.

Kauai is only going to get better. Along with Kauai Lagoons' current renovations, the Princeville Resort is set to close later this year for massive renovations and reopen as a St. Regis Resort; its Makai course will be upgraded. A new Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course is also in development.

So the island beauty of Kauai is a secret that's certainly getting out - though the mongoose are still in the dark.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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Kauai: Hawaii's "Garden Isle" is an Eden of island golf and resorts