Princeville on Kauai's north shore: Tough golf, stunning layout

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

KAUAI, Hawaii - When architect Stuart Shakespeare began his work at the Princeville Resort, his goal was to "frame nature in all its magnificence." The awards that the resort has won each year since would indicate that he succeeded, turning Princeville into a five-star destination.

At Princeville, the real star is the view. Kauai zoning laws prohibit any building from being taller than the tallest coconut tree, so the designers solved the issue of how to command the most dramatic views by situating the hotel directly on a tiered cliff. You enter the hotel on the ninth floor, gazing through the seamless glass walls of the lobby straight out at the mist-capped Na Molokama mountains across Hanalei Bay.

The best views aren't reserved for the top floor. Stair-stepping up Pu'u Po'a point, the hotel's 252 rooms are perched to maximize those awe-inspiring views of the bay and beyond it, the Pacific. There's a reason why humorist Dave Barry quipped, after staying here, that Princeville "is where people in heaven want to go when they die."

But enough about the hotel. Let's talk about the golf.

Princeville's Makai course

Named for 19th century Hawaiian Prince Albert, Princeville was originally conceived as Hawaii's first golf resort community and offers two courses: Makai and the better known Prince.

Princeville's Makai course opened in 1972 and actually comprises three nines - Ocean, Lakes and Woods - played in whatever combination you like. It's gotten numerous accolades, but for the most part they're unwarranted.

This is one of Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s more vanilla efforts. On many holes, the best views are blocked by the townhomes and condos that line the fairways and for the moment the conditions are scrubby, more like Caribbean golf than Hawaiian, complete with roaming chickens. At the $125 standard rate, it's over-priced.

Mike Castillo, the resort's new director of golf, agrees that Makai has issues.

"The golf course, unfortunately, is suffering as a result of 10 to 15 years of deferred maintenance," Castillo said. "The golf course lacks a lot of the polish it should have."

However, Castillo said things are about to change. The two courses, as well as the hotel itself, were purchased just a few months ago by Princeville Associates LLC, a joint-venture company led by Oahu resort developer Jeffrey Stone.

The new ownership has a multimillion-dollar renovation in the works and is committed to getting the course up to speed, Castillo said. Their first step was hiring Castillo away from Poipu Bay, the world-class course located in south Kauai, home of the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

If you decide to play Makai anyway, be sure to play the Ocean nine - appropriate since the word "makai" means "toward the sea." It has the best views and most interesting layout of the three.

Princeville's Prince course

But people don't travel halfway around the world to play Makai. They come for the star of the Princeville show: the Prince course. Opened in 1990, it has consistently been named the No. 1 golf course in Hawaii by Golf Digest - mainly because of its spectacular layout and its location along the rugged coastline of the North shore, which offers views of Hanalei Bay that will absolutely take your breath away.

Also a Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design, the Prince reflects a drastic improvement over his first Princeville effort. Here Jones maximized the natural elements of the area, running his holes along deep ravines, streams, waterfalls and jungle. The result is a course he calls "one of the top five courses I've ever designed," a course that offers the ultimate test of golf.

The most dramatic example is the par-4 12th. You tee off from a cliff that's 10 stories up. Hit and hope, as they say. A straight tee shot ends up nicely in the middle of the narrow fairway 100 feet below. But be off by the narrowest of margins and your ball will be hopelessly lost in dense jungle foliage.

Prince's signature hole, the par-3 seventh, has you hitting onto a tiny green perched on a narrow peninsula of land, surrounded by deep gorge on two sides and ocean on the third. It's a challenging 171 from the blues, a more reasonable 153 from the whites and, if you're accurate with a short iron, a birdieable 98 from the reds.

So what are the keys to playing well on the Prince course? Castillo said that shot-making and strategy are the keys.

"You've got to get comfortable with placing the ball in the right spots," he said. "There are a lot of undulations out here, you need to be very keen to elevation changes, as far as controlling your distance. There are so many unlevel lies out here, you've got to really get the ball going in the right direction."

Honeymooner Ken Strachan of Boston arranged an oceanside massage for his new bride and headed out for an early-morning 18 on Prince. He gave a mixed review.

"The layout and the views warranted all the hype, but the conditions were a little disappointing," Strachan said. "The grass was patchy around the greens and the greens were relatively inconsistent. But overall the course was well worth it and I would go back. For $130, it's a great deal."

Castillo agrees that the course isn't up to standard at the moment.

"According to Golf Digest we're No. 1 in the state and we're not there," Castillo said. "Turf conditions are the biggest problem."

Castillo said the previous owners were too busy selling real estate and put little money into maintenance.

"But I think the good story is the fact that it's a great place," Castillo said. "You've now got appropriate stewards to maintain the place."

Like Makai, Prince is looking at extensive renovations.

"We're doing a lot more now than this place has ever seen, so it's only going to get better," Castillo said, adding that the renovations should be complete in about 18 months.

The verdict on golf at Princeville

By "No. 1 course in the state," I suspect they really meant the most difficult course in the state. The Prince course is hard.

From the back tees it's rated 75.3, with a slope of 145, and plays 7,309 yards. From the blues it's rated 74.1, with a slope of 137, and plays 6,960 yards. From the whites, 72.1/133, 6,521 yards. And from the "princess tees," it rates 71.4/124, and plays a longer-than-average 5,346 yards.

Frankly I think those ratings are too conservative, especially from the reds. I lost count of the number of ravines I had to carry, the number of greens I missed and the number of balls I lost. If you're looking for a "resort-friendly" course, this isn't it. This is quintessential target golf - miss your target and you're out of luck.

That's not to say the Prince isn't a great experience. It's just a humbling one. It's a true test of golf on an unparalleled backdrop. I'm looking forward to returning after renovations are complete, to see both courses in prime condition.

A word of warning: Princeville is only 12 miles (as the crow flies) from Mount Waialeale, literally the wettest spot on earth. Expect to get some rain. Don't freak out, the showers pass quickly; take cover under one of the numerous shelters around the course and you'll be back to your round within minutes.

Green fees for the Makai course run $105 for hotel guests and $125 standard. On the Prince, it's $130 for hotel guests and $175 standard. Both offer multi-round and same-day re-round discounts.

Room rates run from $465 for a basic room to $695 for a deluxe and more for suites. Package deals are available that include room and golf, which will lower the bottom line considerably.

And here's a tip: join the "Starwood Preferred Guests" program (for free) before you make your reservation and you'll receive a 35 percent - yes, 35 percent! - discount on your room.

How does Princeville compare with its main competitor, the Hyatt Regency down south? It's a trade-off: the Hyatt has a far better pool complex and larger, nicer grounds. But Princeville has a better beach, better rooms, and incomparable views.

Dining out

The hotel offers two main restaurants, La Cascata and Café Hanalei. Both are excellent, but I'd have to lean toward Café Hanalei, mainly because you can dine on the terrace and watch the sun set over the bay while surfers roll in.

Ask for a table on the lanai, or you won't be getting your money's worth. If you're looking for something casual (translation: cheaper), try Hanalei Mixed Plate, just around the corner. Try the kalua pork, an island staple.

Fast fact

The Garden Isle has served as a backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters including "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." And Princeville directly overlooks Mt. Makana, the peak that with some trick photography became Bali Hai, the mystical island in "South Pacific."

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • 7-13-2010 Review

    Ben Heller wrote on: Jul 27, 2010

    Played the course 3 days in a row in July 2010. The conditions are great. The greens are a little slow, but they are being ripped up soon and replaced with a faster green style. The course itself is the most beautiful course i have ever played on. Each hole is memorable. The design itself is worthy of a visit. The views alone are worthy of a visit. It is a masterpiece of integrating a course into the environment. You cannot see other holes from 90% of the course. Simply an amazing experience but prepared to be humbled. I shoot a 90 on most golf courses, and didn't break 100 on any of my 3 outings. Lost ball penalties add up.