Trip Dispatch: Kauai, Hawaii's Garden Isle, offers an intimate, stunning golf vacation

LIHUE, Hawaii -- There are just eight golf courses on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which doesn't sound like many until you put it in perspective.

The Garden Isle, as it's known, is only 33 miles long and 25 miles wide, which means nothing is very far. You can stay at one place and easily play all of the courses in a week, or do like my better half Nancy and I did and stay at three of Kauai's best resorts for two nights each. Either way, golf on the Island of Discovery, as it's AKA, is a relaxing, rewarding experience -- as long as the rain holds off, which it did for us last week.

Kauai's airport golf options

Upon arrival at Kauai's Lihue Airport, you have several golf options just minutes away and a must-do dining experience just as close. Having arrived in the late afternoon, we choose the latter before heading to the Kauai Lagoons Golf Course at the Kauai Marriott the next morning.

The "dining experience" came at Hamura's Saimin -- a small, steam-filled, no-frills diner that's barely changed over the decades. If it's your first time, just order the "special," a deluxe bowl of Saimin, a Hawaiian noodle soup that includes pork, fish cakes, Asian vegetables and a boiled egg in a perfectly balanced broth for about $8. For dessert, we split the Lemon Chiffon pie.

There are three golf courses within 15 minutes or so of the airport. The closest and most spectacular is Kauai Lagoons, which was renovated four years ago and has one of the most best ocean nines you'll find anywhere. Our front nine on this Jack Nicklaus Signature Course -- the inland Kiele Moana was a great warm-up to the Kiele Moana nine, which has the longest stretch of ocean holes -- 3 through 7 -- of any golf course in Hawaii. Kauai Lagoons' par-3 fifth is among the best holes in Hawaii, which has more than its share of them.

Kauai Lagoons is an amenity of the Kauai Marriott Resort at Kalapaki Beach, once the crown jewel of the island that's lost some of its former glory. After a recent $50 million renovation of its 345 rooms, however, it is still perhaps the busiest resort on the island. Featuring one of Kauai's best resort pools, a private beach on Kalapaki Bay and five restaurants, there's never a shortage of things to do or places to dine and relax.

The other two courses close to the airport are Puakea Golf Club and Wailua Golf Course. I didn't get to play Wailua this time around, but have before and highly recommend this municipal gem, which features several ocean holes and better than average conditions. And it's still only $45 for visitors (significantly less for locals).

Puakea is a daily fee and local favorite, too, perfect off the plane or your last round before leaving. This Robin Nelson design that plays nearly 7,000 yards has plenty of mountain scenery and a great variety of holes. Two par 3s, one with a drop of nearly 100 feet and another that plays well over 200 yards through a chute of trees over water, are very strong. And the restaurant, the Hookipa Cafe is way better than its appearance, drawing as many or more nongolfers as golfers. The grilled ono fish sandwich was exceptional.

Just 14 miles southwest of the Marriott is the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa and Poipu Bay Golf Course, former home of the PGA's Grand Slam of Golf.

The Hyatt makes a great first impression with its open air lobby and panoramic views of the ocean. Its signature restaurant, Tidepools, also impresses. Thatched-roof bungalows laid out over koi-filled ponds create a romantic setting. Fresh fish and steaks and an extensive wine list complete the experience.

Poipu Bay G.C. is an exceptional resort course with wide fairways and perfect conditions following a recent full-course facelift that included all new bunkers and a switch to Seashore paspalum grass. With mountains and the ocean as its backdrop, the scenery never stops, especially on the last few holes set on the cliffs above the Pacific. The finishing hole, which isn't on the ocean, is one of the better risk-reward par 5s on the island.

Now to the North Shore

It's just 42 miles to the St. Regis Princeville Resort on the North Shore, but it does take around 1:15 minutes. After all, there are no freeways on Kauai.

Still, it's a quick trip and a can't miss for anyone visiting Kauai as arguably the best two golf courses on Kauai are located there.

Unfortunately, one of them will no longer be open to the public. The Prince Course, a difficult Robert Trent Jones II design ranked 22nd on Golf Digest's 100 best courses you can play list, is scheduled to close at the end of 2014. When it reopens, it will be private and no longer open to unaccompanied guests. Speculation is that the course, which features one of the most difficult opening holes in golf, will be softened for the members and residents of a proposed high-end development surrounding the course. Stay tuned.

Fortunately, my favorite course on the island and one of the best courses in Hawaii -- the Makai Course at Princeville -- is still open and better than ever. Renovated four years ago by Jones Jr. (who is also the original designer more than 40 years ago), the new Seashore paspalum greens and fairways have matured nicely, the white bunkers still gleam and the views are better than ever. With ocean vistas on more than half the holes, this walkable, 7,223-yard layout doesn't have a boring hole.

My favorite spots might actually be a couple of the inland holes. The par-3 downhill third reflects the ocean and mountains in its design, one that RTJ II says might be his favorite hole of all time.

Accommodations at the St. Regis are no less stunning. We were fortunate enough to land a junior suite with a telescopic flatscreen TV in front of its kingsize bed (in addition to a 60-inch screen in the living area), the hotel's signature butler service and spectacular views overlooking Hanalei Bay and Makana Mountain. In the bathroom is a large Jacuzzi tub set above a one-way window with the same view. Talk about relaxing.

And during a week of great meals, we might have saved the best for last at the St. Regis' Kauai Grill. Shaped like a nautilus shell overlooking the bay, the restaurant features mostly farm-to-table ingredients for dishes created by Michelin awarded Jean-Georges Vongerichten. On this night, we didn't do seafood, having done that all week, but instead had the lamb chops and short rib, which ranked among the best we've ever had. Salads and desserts didn't disappoint either.

More Kauai activities

Though we didn't have time to hike, Kauai is known for having some of the world's best hiking trails. Helicopter tours, local shopping and a lack of franchise restaurants (we only saw McDonald's a couple of times) help complete the off-course experience on what is ultimately one of Hawaii's slower-paced islands.

What we didn't pass up was a trip to the Kauai Coffee Co., Hawaii's largest coffee estate with more than 4 million coffee trees, located just a few miles from the Grand Hyatt on the way to Waimea Canyon on the west side of the island. I've always been impressed with Kona coffee on the Big Island, but have a newfound respect for Kauai Coffee with its wide variety of beans and blends. Particularly impressive is the Peaberry variety with its unique robust flavor. A small museum and self-guided tours (both free) as well an extensive gift shop make this a must for any coffee lover.

Finally on our way out toward the airport, we stopped at a course most outsiders haven't heard of -- the Kukuiolono Park and Golf Course. The nine-hole course, with ocean views beyond the driving range and towering mountain beyond the fairways, costs only $1 a hole to play and the rates aren't going up anytime soon. That's because it was donated to the people of Kauai in the early 1900′s by sugar plantation owner Walter McBryde with the stipulation that prices never get out of hand. Don't expect resort-type treatment here -- they don't take tee times and course conditions are average at best -- but it's a great place to warm up your game before you battle those tough ocean holes at Kauai Lagoons or elsewhere. Or an emergency nine afterwards. Either way, it's a bargain.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Trip Dispatch: Kauai, Hawaii's Garden Isle, offers an intimate, stunning golf vacation