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Find your Hawaiian "place of joy" at the JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa on Oahu

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa
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Gorgeous views can be seen from the balconies of the JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa. (Jason Scott Deegan/TravelGolf)

KO OLINA, Oahu, Hawaii -- The JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa holds surprises many guests never even discover.

Don't be that guest.

Whether you're combing the beach or lounging in the lobby, there's always something to see at this spectacular AAA Four Diamond resort on the island's sunny leeward coast.

It's easy to walk by the saltwater ponds just off the lobby without giving them a second look. Beautiful landscaping and flowers tend to distract the eye. A closer look will reveal the secret: Stingrays and three-foot reef sharks swimming in those ponds. Don't fall in!

Save the swimming for the last of the three secluded coves north of the main lagoon. A sign warns guests the resort isn't responsible for incidents on the small trail beyond the lush lawn. It's still worth exploring, though. After a tricky trek along the rocky seashore, my two children and I found the final lagoon, where we swam with a gigantic sea turtle all to ourselves. Unfortunately, I forgot the snorkeling gear back at the pool. Experiences like these make the Marriott so special.

"I thought it was one of the best golf resorts I've stayed at," said Ray Round, who visited from Montana with his wife in January. "The overall experience was exceptional. We spent four days at Waikiki first. That was three days too many. This was relaxing. It was quiet. You could get to your room or the pool in less than three minutes."

Ko Olina translates in Hawaiian to mean "place of joy." Recent developments -- the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, and the Marriott Vacation Club's Ko Olina Beach Club -- have brought additional restaurants and bars to complement the Ihilani, the flagship property that dates to 1993. The NFL's best players stay in Ko Olina annually during Pro Bowl week. If the resort can pamper pro football's most talented prima donnas, it's certainly good enough for you and me.

Recent renovations have the JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa sparkling. Golf Digest named it No. 57 on its 2011 list of the top 75 golf resorts in North America.

All 387 guest rooms and 36 suites were refreshed in 2011 with flat screen TVs and painted sea blue and sand colors to reflect its oceanfront setting. Our family suite felt palatial with a huge bathroom and a gorgeous outdoor balcony overlooking the main beach cove, which is protected by rocks.

I felt no guilt playing golf because I knew my family would be in good hands. My children rented a giant floating toy for the ocean and splashed away in the salt-water pool. One of my daughter's favorite memories from the trip involved feeding the sea creatures in the saltwater pools during an interactive program called the Reef and Ray Adventure. Stingrays would suck dead fish right from her hand.

My favorite memories were also made away from the golf course. The Ihilani Spa, refurbished in 2010, sits in a building adjacent to the hotel. Don't leave without trying either the traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage or the authentic Thalasso treatment in a jetted tub filled with seawater piped in from the ocean. I experienced both and have never felt better. The spa uses products harvested from the honua (earth) and the moana (ocean) in the islands. A separate rooftop pool and rooftop tennis courts complete this amazing 35,000-square-foot retreat.

A total of 77,694 square feet of outdoor and indoor meeting space includes the newly expanded 15,600-square-foot Hokulani Ballroom. The variety of restaurants showcases unique and distinctive island cuisine, especially at the AAA Four Diamond Azul restaurant.

Ko Olina Golf Club

Nebraska resident John Smigelsky spent three days playing the Ko Olina Golf Club, a regular LGPA Tour host. Beth Daniel won the Hawaiian Ladies Open there in 1990, the year the 6,815-yard course opened. Japanese golfer Ai Miyazato captured the 2012 LOTTE Championship, which returns in April for a second edition. Oahu native Michelle Wie considers the course like a second home.

Manmade waterfalls on three holes, the par 3s at No. 8 and No. 12 and the dramatic par-4 finishing hole, give it a tropical look. The women love its shot-making demands, which are enhanced when the trade winds blow. It's equally playable and dynamic for the rest of us.

"I like the course," Smigelsky said. "The greens were in excellent shape. That number 18 was a hard hole."

Those who flounder at the tough finish can brighten their day by dining at the fabulous Roy's Restaurant next to the clubhouse. It's also just a short walk to Paradise Cove for a Hawaiian luau. When the sun begins to set over the ocean, it's a spot as pretty as any in the islands.

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JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina resort - aerialKo Olina Golf Club - hole 8JW Marriott Ihilani Ko Olina Resort & Spa - spa building

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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

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