If you visit Maui, don’t miss a chance to play The Challenge at Manele, on the neighboring island of Lana’i. Depending on where you stay you’ll have to go out of your way to get there, but trust me – it’s worth it.
I capped off a week in the Ka’anapali area of West Maui by catching the 6:45am ferry out of Lahaina for Lanai’i. (And we departed at 6:45, to the second, prompting one of the passengers to quip, “if only the airlines operated like this.”) The 50-minute ferry ride, plus 10-minute shuttle from the harbor to the course in Lanai got me there in plenty of time for an 8:00am tee time. I was first off the tee, played 27 holes, and had a leisurely lunch (more on that later) in plenty of time to catch the 2:00pm ferry back.
It didn’t take more than one hole to realize that the Jack Nicklaus signature course has been built on one of the most unique locations in the world. (The only course I’ve every played that rivals it’s location for eye candy is the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland.) The relatively open layout starts with an easy par 4, which is good because it’s hard to contain the excitement of knowing what’s in store. The second hole is much harder, with an elevated second shot requiring a solid mid iron or even hybrid depending on which tees you’re playing, or how solid you hit your drive.
There are three par 5s and three par 3s (two of them, Nos. 7 and 8 are back-to-back) on the front. Driver off the tee works well everywhere except on the downhill 5th hole. Longer hitters, as the voice instructions on the cart’s GPS warned me, will run out of fairway with a driver and run through the plateau fairway. A big drop to the green, with beautiful rock formations and the Holopo’e bay in view make this one of the most fun and scenic approach shots on the course.
The back nine starts with the scariest tee shot on the course, but there truly is plenty of room on No. 10 as the cart told me. I took a fairway wood off the tee for safety but if I had a better idea of where I was going I could have easily hit driver. After the downhill par-5 11th, the drama built as I drove back to the 12th tee, where I already knew I was in for a treat after hearing that it has been the site of a famous wedding (Bill and Melinda Gates) and at least one proposal (Ka’anapali professional David Havens to his wife Susan, Director of Sales at the Sheraton Maui).
Regardless of the tees you are playing, and with all due respect to the PGA’s “Play it Forward” initiative, this hole should be played from the black tees. Because from there you are literally in line with the green, cliff-to-cliff, as opposed to coming in sideways. The drop of 200 feet would probably be better measured in building stories because it looks daunting. In fact, there is room long of the green and the hole is very fair. (Easy for me to say, I made par.)
Behind the 12th tee, heading in the opposite direction, is the other signature hole on the back nine, No. 17. Once I took a glance at it I couldn’t wait to play it.
Bending around the natural terrain from left to right, No. 17 is a Nicklaus dream. A well-placed aiming pole in the fairway is there for a reason. It seems too far left as a target, but in fact balls follow the curve of the fairway and wind up further right then they seem. The approach isn’t as scary as the tee shot on No. 12, but it’s no bargain. With the flag located on the extreme right, where it was when I played, there isn’t much room for error.
No. 18 returns to the clubhouse in much the same fashion that the first hole started out, straight, not overly difficult off the tee, not too much trouble. Behind the green is the inviting clubhouse deck where I enjoyed one of the tastiest (and scenic) lunches I had in Hawaii, giving me just enough time to rest, play another nine, and head back to spend the afternoon with my family. If you’re with your golf buddies however, you will likely want to play until the last ferry (the replay rate is only $50), or possibly try Lanai’s other course, The Experience at Koele.
NOTE: The Challenge at Manele is more than an excursion from Maui, on the ferry I met many people who stayed a week at the Four Seasons Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay and enjoyed the seclusion and tranquility of the island. Since I've returned home I've spoken to two friends who honeymooned there.