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Maui's Kaanapali Kai golf course: A train runs through it

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Kaanapali Kai golf course - Maui
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The Sugar Cane Train gets up close and personal at Kaanapali Kai. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

Maui's Kaanapali Kai golf course is in a good location - a walk from the resorts - and while the course isn't the best on the island, the golf scene is, with help from friendly staff and a sugar cane train.

LAHANIA, Maui - It's not often that your playing partner suddenly starts sprinting down the hill as you're putting on the green.

Unless you're Ben Crane playing with Rory Sabbatini.

Don't worry when it happens at Kaanapali Kai though. You're not playing offensively slow (in Hawaii, the land of the veeerrrrrry leisurely round that's nearly impossible). Nor do you reek like a fish that's washed up on the beach. At least, that's not why your playing partner is mimicking Ben Johnson at his steroids best.

No, fool. The Sugar Cane Train is coming. Souvenir picture takers rejoice!

The Sugar Cane Train is a colorful tour train with an authentic steam engine that runs the six miles between Lahania and Kaanapali. Its tracks go right by several holes on the back nine of Kaanapali Kai - one of two golf courses at Kaanapali Golf Resort.

It makes for one of the more unique golfing sights on the whole island of Maui. You'll hear of plenty of courses where you're supposed to play to see the ocean. But how many golf courses do you play to see the train?

"I got a perfect shot," vacationer Roy Kawamura said, beaming and winded after one of the Kaanapali Sugar Cane Train sprints. His camera dangling on one arm and his putter in the other, Kawamura triumphantly stepped back into the cart.

Sure, it sounds cheesy. But it's mostly good fun. Especially if you happen across a train with some golf-knowledgeable tourists on it. Then, you sometimes get a "Good putt!" yelled out as the train rumbles by. Don't worry. This isn't the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale Stadium. They don't boo.

Kaanapali Kai is a course that can surprise you in more ways than just the train. It's located smack dab in the middle of Kaanapali, Maui's most cookie-cutter resort and shopping area. Yet the course itself is a largely unique play.

The fairways can be so tight that at times you think you'd have better luck aiming down a sidewalk. If you watched "Seinfeld," you're familiar with shrinkage. Well, you might get one look at Kai's fairways and think they've suffered shrinkage.

There are only two par 5s (No. 8 and 12) on this par 70, and you're much more likely to do a double take at one of the big palm trees near the greens than you are any distance you're faced with.

Long the forgotten second course at Kaanapali to the Robert Trent Jones Sr. design Royal Kaanapali, Kai underwent a major renovation by Robin Nelson in 2005. The goal was to make Kai more of a worthy sidekick, and it succeeded.

The greens rolled true on this early-winter visit, and you wouldn't have anyone griping about paying the $140 greens fee because of course conditions (which a few returnees said was often the case in years past).

It's still something of a helter skelter setting. You have to cross a highway (though the term highway is relative in Hawaii, this isn't L.A.'s 405) to get to from No. 1 to No. 2 and then back from No. 15 to No. 16. A few holes play close to this artery, and you'll never feel like you're in the middle of a Hawaii nature wonderland on Kaanapali Kai.

Of course, the other side of that is how easy it is to get from your room to the course if you're staying in one of Kaanapali's resorts. Have a late night? Want to spend some extra time on the beach? Just book Kai and linger in the bed or on the sand.

"We've heard there might be a few better courses, but we'd have to drive and get some clubs there," said Oregon visitor Sarah Jefferson, who planned to play Kai with her boyfriend. "This just seems to be more fun.

"And now we can drink while we play, because we don't have to worry about driving. That's a bonus."

You get a good share of bonuses at Kaanapali Kai. There are ocean views on a few holes, and on others, you can look right up to the lush, green mountains. One of the oldest boarding schools in Hawaii sits up those mountains, and it's neat to crane your neck and imagine what studying up there in relative isolation would be like.

The best hole may be back down near the resorts, though. No. 18 brings the drama with a 348-yard par 4 that doglegs at a lake with a waterfall and looks out onto the ocean beyond. Might as well go for it while screaming, "Choo! Choo!"

Hey, you're at Kaanapali Kai. Why stand on ceremony?

The Verdict on Kaanapali Kai

Kaanapali Kai isn't the best of the golf courses on Maui. It is one of the better golf scenes. From the Sugar Cane Train to a staff that actually seems to appreciate the fact you're there - really almost the antithesis of the usual Kaanapali experience at the shops and mammoth resorts - this is a round you'll remember with good cheer.

It's the golf equivalent of a carefree pop song with a catchy beat. Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" anyone?

Kai's gone through a number of metamorphoses over the years, originally starting out as an executive course, getting full life from architect Arthur Jack Snyder in 1976 and then the Nelson treatment a few years ago. There's little doubt this is the best Kai's ever been, though.

The bunkers on this 6,388-yard course are much more of an obstacle now, putting even more premium on shotmaking on a course that always scared wild John Daly want-to-bes. You don't overpower Kaanapali Kai.

Instead, you go along for the ride and pick your spots - steam engine picture stalking included.

Kaanapali hotels

If you're looking for a big brand name resort, you'll find it in Kaanapali - from a spread out Sheraton to a mammoth Westin and many more, one right after the other. This is the part of Maui you stay in if you want to feel like you're at home - or on the road in Cleveland, only with beaches.

For a more secluded, Hawaii escape, drive about another 15 minutes up the road to Kapalua. Besides the best golf course on Maui - Plantation Course - you'll find very quiet nights and stunning beaches.

Fast Facts

In all, $13 million worth of improvements were done at Kaanapali Golf Resort's revamp - from work on both courses to the clubhouse.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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