I knew this wasn't going be a typical stay at a five-star resort the minute I saw Sooriya Kumar barrelling barefoot down a dirt path, beaming with buck-tooth vitality and looking an awful lot like Mahatma Gandhi in round, wire-framed spectacles and an orange sarong.
"Welcome! Welcome! Blessings to all. So pleased to see you, my brother," the grey-haired elder exclaimed, embracing Sanjiv Hulugalle, general manager of the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina.
We had left the plush confines of the gated waterfront resort to visit Mouna Farm Arts and Cultural Village, an off-grid hippie commune of sorts, where our host, a Sri Lankan-born copper artist (who was last year named one of Hawaii's Living Treasures), offers free campsites to spiritual seekers in exchange for their help working the land and feeding the poor.
"Can you feel the mana?" Hulugalle marvelled, as we wandered around a wild maze of solar-powered outdoor kitchens, vine-draped studios, tents and temples (Buddhist, Hindu and Shinto), all tucked under a verdant canopy of fruit trees in the Waianae Valley.
Mana means spiritual energy or healing power. Hawaiians believe that there are opportunities to gain or lose mana in every action a person takes. And, as I was slowly discovering, it can also change the course of a leisurely luxury vacation.
Earlier at the hotel, Hulugalle had explained that he doesn't normally introduce guests to his "guru." But he had felt a "connection" with me (connections are a big deal in Hawaii) and he wanted me to better understand "the soul and spirit" of what he's trying to accomplish. "For me, this is not just about running a Four Seasons resort," he said, explaining how he has made it his mission to embed all aspects of the hotel – from artwork to excursions – in the culture of the place.
As we sat down to a rustic, candlelit dinner – various vegetarian curries (cooked by Kumar) washed down with French Sancerre and Italian Brunello (gifts from Hulugalle) – I had to confess that while honoured to visit the farm, it was pretty much the last place on earth I had imagined ending up when I touched down in Honolulu. Ko Olina, mind you, isn't like anyplace else on Oahu.
The master-planned vacation and residence community lies on the western (leeward) coast of Oahu, about 30 kilometres north of the Honolulu International Airport.
Never heard of it? You will. Besides the Four Seasons, the 642-acre property, which is larger than all of Waikiki, includes Disney's Aulani Resort, a golf club and a marina. Atlantis Resorts will soon be building a $2-billion (U.S.) megaresort (similar to its water park in Dubai), and there is also talk of a Shangri-La or Mandarin hotel opening in the near future.
Although the rapidly growing destination has a rich history as a former playground for the Hawaiian monarchy, the manicured oceanfront retreat – surrounded by industry, scrubby farmland, white beaches and the towering Waianae mountain range – has been relatively unknown to tourists until recently and is now going through a tricky transition as it strives to balance the needs of international guests with the larger community.
To the north of Ko Olina is the small town of Waianae, home to the densest population of native Hawaiians on all the islands, and also very economically depressed. To the west is Kapolei, a burgeoning business hub and middle-class suburb, the so-called second city of Oahu, the development of which has been stalled for more than 30 years.
"Waikiki has become so saturated," Hulugalle explains. "There's not enough room to expand any more. Hopefully, the mistakes made in Waikiki will not be made here, where you can still feel the real Hawaii."
The 371-room Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina, previously the JW Marriott Ihilani, opened last June after a $500-million renovation to the 17-storey terraced building, a timeless design by modernist architect Edward Killingsworth. A respectful refurbishment by de Reus Architects incorporated interior upgrades and lush landscaping with an expanded pool area (including a showcase adults-only infinity pool), a new spa, a tennis club and a wedding chapel.
You could book the expansive, two-bedroom presidential suite with its private rooftop lounge (starting at $15,000 a night), which is where Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer bedded down for a mother-daughter getaway – before being kidnapped – in Snatched, a new comedy film to be released in May.
But even commoners will feel like royalty with almost every room (starting at $489 a night) featuring panoramic ocean views, private lanais and sumptuous marble bathrooms with rainfall showers and soaker tubs. While lounging on your throne (the bidet toilet seats are heated), take time to notice all the elegant tropical finishings (custom tapa-patterned wall coverings in the bathrooms and banana bark behind the beds) by renowned interior designer Mary Philpotts, who is related to Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last ruling monarch.
EAT & DRINK
Food sustainability is a huge issue in Hawaii, where more than 90 per cent of foodstuff is imported and fertile farmland is largely underdeveloped, a legacy of the sugar-plantation era. For the hotel's three new restaurants, which are also open to outside guests, executive chef Martin Knaubert is working closely with local farmers and fishers to expand the homegrown offerings.
Noe, a splashy Southern Italian dinner spot where heaps of black truffle meet house-made pasta and plenty of seafood, boasts a resplendent outdoor terrazzo under twinkling lights alongside a waterfall, a wallet-stretching wine list (including a vertical of vintage Dom Pérignon going back to 1969) and acclaimed chef Ryo Takatsuka, who has a trio of Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy under his toque. La Hiki is a casual pan-Asian, street-food restaurant that reflects the diversity of Hawaii with its mix of sushi rolls, satay skewers, bao buns, pork adobe, bang bang salads and various curries.
But the best of the bunch is the poolside Fish House, a line-to-table seafood restaurant, where diners can dive into platters of local Kauai shrimp and wash down spicy poke with excellent cocktails and local craft beer.
While there aren't many other eating options within the larger resort, the Four Seasons does offer a worthwhile tour (costing $150 a person) of nearby Kahumana Organic Farm, one of its main suppliers, where hydroponically grown microgreens and a rustic café fund transitional housing for homeless families and retraining programs for people with mental disabilities.
Ko Olina is best known for its four man-made beach coves. The talcum-powder-soft sand lagoons, built in the 1970s by a Japanese investor (who later went bankrupt) are protected by rock levies that allow ocean water to enter, but keep the crashing waves at bay. The calm lagoons provide an ideal spot to try stand-up paddleboarding. Located right next door to the hotel is the secluded shore of the Lanikuhonua Cultural Institute. Although technically a private estate, guests can climb over a rocky outcrop, slip past the gates and bathe in the sacred ponds where the ocean mixes with natural spring water from the mountains. This was apparently a special retreat for King Kamehameha (1736 to 1819) and his favourite wife, Queen Ka'ahumanu.
In ancient times, Hawaii was divided into pie-shaped slices that stretched from the coastal shoreline to the mountain peaks. The Hawaiians believed that the land, the sea and the clouds all had interconnectedness, which is why the resources from each level had to be balanced and shared. One of the most thrilling ways to enjoy a chief's view from up high is to go on a chopper tour with Paradise Helicopters. The Magnum Experience ($319 a person) takes you all around the island in a retro brown-and-yellow-striped replica of the chopper from the television series Magnum, P.I. (Well, come on, Tom Selleck was kind of a king back in the day.)
For a more active pursuit, the Four Seasons offers a tour along the Palehua Ridge in the Waianae Mountains with a park ranger who will unveil the mysteries of a newly discovered archeological site, a stacked lava-stone enclosure that may have been a school or a training camp for warriors (pricing for guided tours provided on request).
Our hike, which took us to a truly stunning vantage point from the 3,000-foot summit of Palikea Mountain, was so moving for our limo driver (who came along for the hike), he burst into tears. I'm not sure how that experience translates into mana, but like so many other elements of this wonderfully unusual trip, it was spectacularly surreal.
The writer was a guest of the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. It did not review or approve this article.