KO OLINA, Hawaii — Hang around the fire-pit fire long enough, watching Uncle Ito breathe life into Hawaiian legend, and those rascally little menehune inevitably clamber into the conversation.
Uncle Ito, one of the resident storytellers at Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is blessed with an abundant sense of humor. In a recitation of the menehune people's favorite foods (banana, sweet potato, fish, poi), he's been known to insinuate a Disney reference to Mickey ice cream bars.
Similarly, the story of a new tourism boom on Oahu, Hawaii's most visited island, can't be told without bringing up Disney. Since opening in August 2011, Aulani has helped fuel visitorship and elevated its Ko Olina location on Oahu's west shore as an attractive alternative to Waikiki.
Once envisioned by developer Herbert K. Horita as Oahu's answer to the Kaanapali Beach Resort on Maui, Ko Olina and its four man-made lagoons remained all but unnoticed until a partnership headed by developer Jeff Stone took over the project in 1998. It had one full-scale resort (since rebranded as the J.W. Marriott Ihilani), a Ted Robinson-designed golf course and a whole lot of empty space fronting those scenic lagoons.
A luxury condo complex and two high-rise resorts have sprouted since then, the most recent being Aulani. The marina opened in 2000. Over the last decade, the golf course has welcomed a spate of new homes and a Roy's restaurant. Nearby, a modest commercial center is slowly filling with shops and casual eateries — notably a Monkeypod Kitchen from renowned Hawaii regional chef Peter Merriman.
Disney, which spared no expense in trying to create an "authentic" Hawaiian resort rather than the Polynesian playgrounds that typify the islands, has continued to keep construction crews busy.
In response to visitor comments, the resort has retooled its already-stunning Waikolohe Valley water-play area and added a new fast-food option. Ka Maka Grotto, which includes an infinity pool, a kiddie splash area and more poolside seating, debuted in October.
Ko Olina is no Kaanapali yet, but that's not a bad thing — especially with the high-rise jungle of Waikiki just 40 minutes down Interstate H-1. It's compact enough to offer a variety of on- and off-water activities and eateries within short walking distance, whether your goal is self-improvement or self-indulgence.
Aqua and other adventures
"I have a calling," fitness instructor Nita Ortiz told us. "It's to show life here the best it can be."
Four of us — two couples — had assembled on the golden sand of the lagoon fronting Aulani for an hour of aqua fitness with Ortiz.
We spent an hour traversing the lagoon using a mix of cross-country-skiing, running and swimming motions, pausing briefly for an errant couple on a standup paddle board and a turtle surfacing for air.
Aquatic life inside the lagoon proved relatively scarce on subsequent explorations, but a catamaran snorkeling sail from the Ko Olina marina to a spot nearby revealed reef life in all its glorious color: yellow milletseed butterflyfish nibbled food from our fingertips, Moorish idols and black durgon triggerfish jockeyed for scraps, and silver needlefish and broomfish shyly eyed the commotion.
Catamaran crew members with Ko Olina Ocean Adventures ( 396-2068, http://www.koolinaoceanadventures.com) were friendly and capable, keeping us hovering near — but not too near — a pod of spinner dolphins and, later, a migrating humpback whale pointed south toward Maui.
Both Aulani and the neighboring J.W. Marriott Ihilani bring the ocean — or a reasonable facsimile — right to their guests. Aulani is home to Rainbow Reef, a 3,800-foot snorkeling lagoon (basically a saltwater pool) inside the resort property itself, away from the beach. A one-day pass, including rental equipment, is $15 for adults and $10 for children 9 and younger.
Next door, the Ihilani's open-air lobby flows gracefully down to a series of ponds that are home to native fish, eagle and brown rays and scalloped hammerheads and sandbar sharks. The Reef and Ray Adventure costs $44.79 and allows guests to get up close and personal.
Aquarist Kim Fuller introduced us to the marine life. We also fed 5 pounds of clams, one by one, to the two eagle rays. Later, standing in the water behind a low portable fence, we tossed bloody mackerel chunks to the whirling, thrashing sharks.
Inspired by fitness instructor Ortiz, I resolved to continue my attempts at self-improvement.
Jerry Kraesig, an assistant tennis pro at the Ihilani, helped fine-tune my erratic forehand and wandering service toss. And Marcus Judge, director of player development at the Ko Olina Golf Club ( 676-5300, http://www.koolinagolf.com ), patiently diagnosed the shortcomings in my swing. Thankfully, the course manages to be both scenic and forgiving.
"If you're on vacation," Judge said, "you're not looking for a place that's going to beat you up."