By David Armstrong
Eighteen years somehow managed to slip by since the last time I visited the gorgeous Hawaiian island of Kauai. That was too long. I needed to get back there. In mid-May, I finally did, alighting in Kauai with my wife and hunkering down in Princeville, on the North Shore.
We stayed at the same beach-side luxury resort I visited on my own back in 1994, when I was on Kauai for a business conference. This time, I was there to chill out.
With no agenda, we were free to explore our hotel – renovated, renamed and reopened in October 2009 as the St. Regis Princeville Resort – and its lush surrounds. Operated by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc, it is the first St. Regis in Hawaii.
As Starwood Preferred Guests, we booked our ocean-view standard room for eight nights using Starpoints. (The listed rack rate is from $650 per night.) The landward side of the hotel, which overlooks an emerald golf course, doesn’t hurt the eyes, either. All told, there are 252 guest rooms and suites.
We loved our view of the water, framed on the far shore by rugged mountains that served as Hollywood’s stand-in for Bali Hai when the movie version of ‘South Pacific’ was shot on Kauai in 1958.
More recent movies such as ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Descendants’ have also been filmed on Kauai. In fact, parts of the 2011 Oscar-winning ‘The Descendants’ were shot in the hotel.
The St. Regis Princeville is distinctive in several respects. Prominent among them: The wings of guest rooms that artfully cascade down a terraced cliff side to the hotel’s white-sand beach on Hanalei Bay.
Some of the more expensive guest-room wings are entirely enclosed and air-conditioned. Our room was in a wing with long hallways deliberately left open on one side.
That was fine with us; it allowed us to feel Hawaii’s caressing breezes and feel closer to the resort’s flowery tropical landscaping when we walked to and from our room.
Our room on the seventh floor had a cushioned window-side seat, complete with sliding windows overlooking the expansive swimming pool far below.
Overnight, we took to switching off the air-conditioning, opening the windows and, through closed screens, letting the trade winds cool the room.
We could hear the surf and see the glimmering streaks of dawn every morning. This made up for the absence of a lanai – outdoor sitting area – usually included in 5-star Hawaii resort hotels.
The St. Regis has kept one of the winning features from its pre-renovation days: With the push of a button, the transparent glass wall between bathroom and bedroom goes translucent for privacy, or transparent for views of the water and mountains beyond.
Not everything clicked. Perhaps due to the humid tropical climate, we saw dark splotches of mold on the outer walls of the hotel. Near the front door of our room, a dark smear marred the carpet.
Otherwise, our 547-square-foot room was well-appointed and smoothly functional. It included complimentary high-speed Internet service.
The bathroom was nice-sized, with a marble vanity with his and hers washbasins, and a combined bathtub and shower. Closet space was fine, with an in-room safe and a nearby mini-bar. The bed, piled high with pillows, was blissful.
Furnishings included a comfortable couch, chairs and a desk with high-tech bells and whistles, plus a flat-screen TV.
The St. Regis’s setting and public spaces are dazzling. The two-mile drive from Princeville Center – the major shopping mall – winds through 18-hole golf courses, past condos and time-shares and flashing turquoise water views.
The hotel has a sleek, drive-through portico unchanged from my first visit and an expansive lobby bedecked with a chandelier made from 4,000 pieces of Murano glass. The open-walled lobby of yore has been glassed-in to incorporate an 11,000 square-foot Halelea Spa into the main building.
Outdoor terraces with cushy chairs and couches flank the ocean-side part of the main building. Just off the front entrance are the concierge desk, check-in desks and shops, as well as a bakery-cafe where we bought buttery morning croissants and the best coffee we found on Kauai, not forgetting the inevitable Hawaii real estate office.
A cozy business center with two PCs and a printer – accessible at all hours with a guest-room key – is tucked away just off the lobby. The hotels also boasts 19,000 square feet of meeting space in 12 indoor meeting rooms, plus manicured outdoor venues for business events, receptions and weddings.
Down one level from the lobby are the fine-dining Kauai Grill and the Makana Terrace restaurant. Lovely meals are served at breakfast, lunch and dinner indoors and out at the Makana Terrace.
Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has made the Kauai Grill an evening destination restaurant, featuring savory dishes such as hapuupuu (Hawaiian sea bass) with Malaysian chili sauce and Thai basil ($38).
Rounding out the food and beverage offerings are the poolside Nalu Kai Grill and Bar, where I had a perfectly grilled ahi tuna taco, and the St. Regis Bar.
Located just off the lobby, the St. Regis Bar is where guests gather to watch the sunset, hear live pop music and jazz, sip cocktails and munch edibles such as Kobe-style beef sliders. We relaxed there over vodka martinis.
That sounds like a lot of F&B options. However, several times during our stay one or more of the restaurants were closed or booked for private functions. We didn’t always fancy calling for our valet-parked rental car ($30 per day) and motoring to Hanalei, a 10-minute drive away.
When we did, we had good meals there, too. Our Hanalei favorite, Postcards Cafe, ensconced in a modest former private home, serves fresh, local seafood prepared with flair. (For more information, visit www.postcardscafe.com.)
When it comes to the St. Regis Princeville, though, we seldom wanted to leave. We passed magnificently idle afternoons perfumed by blossoms and serenaded by the sound of breakers, reading, dozing, snacking and just looking at ocean waters speckled with wind-surfers, paddle-boarders and sailboats.
Sometimes we settled into beach lounge chairs, shielded from the sun by big beach umbrellas. Sometimes we lingered in pretty wooden gazebos. Always we thought to ourselves: Life is good.
The St. Regis Princeville Resort is located at 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville, Kauai, HA 96722. For more information and booking, call 808.826.9644 or visit www.stregisprinceville.com. The hotel is 45 to 60 minutes’ drive from Lihue Airport. Taxis run about $100 one-way. The best way to get around is by rental car.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.