If you were Mickey Mouse, where would you go on vacation?
With some of the world's top theme-parks, cruise ships and hotels to choose from, the decision could be difficult. But perhaps, if you were Mickey, you might want to go somewhere different. Somewhere more laid-back. Somewhere really special.
Enter Aulani: A Disney Resort and Spa on the Hawaiian island of Oahu -- the only planet in the Disney universe where the Disney name takes second billing -- by design. And that says a lot about the 8.5-hectare beach resort.
At Aulani, Hawaiian culture, history and traditions are the stars. These are on show -- in myriad ways big and small -- throughout the property.
"Aulani is about Hawaii first and Disney second," says Manako Tanaka, one of three "cultural greeters" who provide guests with "a window onto Hawaiian culture."
Sure there are photo ops and breakfasts with Disney characters, Mickey-shaped waffles and hidden Mickeys, but there are also hidden Menehunes (mischievous little island people), wandering local artisans, shave-ice stands, a Starlit Hui, fireside storytelling, a kids' club called Aunty's Beach House and Hawaii-themed spas for grown-ups and teens.
Opened in 2011 -- and recently expanded -- the centre of the resort (called the Waikolohe Valley) is essentially a lushly landscaped water- play zone with a couple of kick-butt water-slides -- the Volcanic Vertical and the Tubestone Curl -- a winding lazy river, the new Keiki Cove splash-pad for little guests, the Menehune Bridge interactive play area, and swimming pools, including a tranquil new adults-only pool.
At the ocean's edge, is a beautiful protected beach, a new infinity pool with underwater sound effects (dolphin and whale calls), and the North Shore Beach Zone, which evokes the spirit of Oahu's fabled surf mecca.
And at every opportunity, whether paddleboarding, surfing or snorkelling amid hundreds of colourful fish in the man-made Rainbow Reef, kids -- and their parents -- have fun and learn something real about the destination.
Like every Disney destination, Aulani is infused with the company's trademark attention to detail, top-notch service and enough things to do to make your head spin. And while it is not a budget resort, many activities -- more than any other resort I know of -- are complimentary for guests, including the kids' club which only charges a small fee for food. Here are a few examples of things that exceeded my expectations during a visit earlier this year:
The Disney Imagineers -- the creative geniuses who make the magic happen -- worked with Hawaiians to tell the story of island culture.
The tale starts at check-in at the beautiful open air Maka'ala lobby -- a soaring great hall that looks out to the mountains and the sea, and is decorated with a 60-metre-long mural on Hawaiian life painted by a local artist.
"We didn't come in to create new fantasies about Disney," Todd Apo, the company's public affairs director says. "We took what existed and found new ways to tell the story through architecture, programs and activities."
The resort also showcases the world's largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art and there is a free art tour for adult guests.
With family entertainment being Disney's forte, it's hardly surprising that there is a fabulous family show. Several nights each week, the whole ohana (family) is invited to gather on the Halawai Lawn for the Starlit Hui -- an extravaganza of major proportions with storytelling, plus song and dance under the stars. Go early to suss out a good spot near the stage to spread a lauhala (a woven mat provided to guests) and take in some lessons in modern hula, local games and artisans who demonstrate crafts such as lei-making and weaving. If the kids can keep their eyes open, stay afterward for a high-energy dance party with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the gang.
A visit to Laniwai Spa is a nod to its name, which means "freshwater heaven."
Upon arrival, patrons select a smooth stone with a word printed on it that becomes their "word for the day," says Lucia Amasio, the spa director. Then to the sound of raindrops, you traverse a softly lit "hall of transformation" to a beautiful reflecting pool, where you are asked to contemplate the stone's message before "releasing" it into the water.
"In Hawaiian, there are 50 different words for rain," Amasio says. "Rain is celebrated ... like a gift."
The fish tacos at the Ama Ama restaurant at Disney's Aulani resort taste as good as they look. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency
Further relaxation comes in the outdoor Kula Wai hydrotherapy garden. Guests select a scent, then stop at the mixology station and blend a personalized scrub to use in the shower before soaking in mineral pools and under jetted rain-showers.
Nearly 150 treatments are on offer, including treatments for the whole family and some designed for men. I chose Laniwai's signature treatment -- a traditional Hawaiian massage called Lomilomi with a "sticks and stones" option. (I was a little apprehensive about what "sticks and stones" might entail but my concerns were unfounded. It was so relaxing I almost fell asleep.)
Afterward -- there is more relaxation -- in one of several beautiful lounges, where you can sip flavoured tea or cool water infused with pineapple and lemongrass, and nibble on delicate zuchini-carrot muffins.
Adjacent to Laniwai is Painted Sky, a spa and social space for teens (13-17) with age-appropriate treatments (massages, facials, manicures and pedicures), a yogurt bar, computers, a mixology station for making DIY body polishes and face masks, and teen-only events.
GROWN UP FUN
While Aulani is primarily a family resort, I did meet lots of couples who were there without children. Some were Disney Vacation Club Members who joined when their kids were young and continue to visit Disney resorts now that the kids have grown up. Others just appreciate the Disney treatment.
Gordon Chow, guest services manager for the Olele Room and other restaurants, says he is also seeing an increased number of Canadians from as far away as Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
Chow -- who weathered his share of Canadian winters while growing up in Scarborough -- can understand the attraction. While he has the Toronto Sun app on his cell phone and "still bleeds blue and white," he doesn't really miss winter, although he does still play hockey.
And while he's not Hawaiian, like other Olele Room staff, he can speak the language.
The bar-lounge is decorated with Hawaiian words, and staffers are more than happy to help guests learn a few sayings or work on their pronunciation of tricky words, Chow says. They will also explain about Hawaiian accents, including the 'Okina, which looks like a backwards apostrophe but signifies a glottal stop.
In addition to the language-coaching, the Olele Room serves island-inspired appetizers -- ahi poke, kalua pork nachos with taro chips, kobe sliders and the like -- Hawaiian beers and cocktails with a twist. These include the bar's signature Mai Tai, made from white and dark rum, orange curacao, orgeat, pineapple and citrus juices, and topped with an ultra-thin slice of pineapple and liliko'i (passionfruit) foam.
After a few of these, Chow guarantees guests will be able to say "humuhumunukunukuapua'a" like a native Hawaiian speaker.
A DAY IN PARADISE
Chow tipped me off to Paradise Cove -- a shallow lagoon a short walk north of the resort. Go in the mid to late morning and you might be lucky enough to see green sea turtles swimming around in the crystal clear waters.
While photographing the turtles -- including Lucky, a regular lagoon visitor who is missing one flipper -- I heard people behind me oohing and ahhing. Looking up and out to sea, I saw a group of whales putting on a dramatic show -- breaching over and over again -- to the delight of spectators on the beach.
NEED TO KNOW
Aulani has both hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club condo "villas." I stayed in a beautifully furnished one-bedroom with a spacious living-dining area with sleeper sofa, fully equipped kitchen, lux bathroom, laundry facilities and balcony. The development is part of Oahu's Ko Olina resort area about 24 km from Honolulu. For information, including details on current offers, see disneyaulani.com.
WestJet flies nonstop to Honolulu from Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria with connections from many Canadian cities. See westjet.com.
A small mall across the street has an Island Country Market that sells wine, beer, groceries, Hawaiian specialities such as gourmet Spam and other essentials, plus a handful of shops and restaurants, including the popular MonkeyPod Kitchen.