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Hawaii's Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course: The rare airport course worth playing

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Okay, The Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course is an airport course. And it's not as great of a find as some of its press might indicate. But it does offer a good round of golf and some very affordable green fees.

Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course - No. 11
Dunes at Maui Lani's 11th hole leaves golfers staring down.
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KAHULUI, Hawaii - A golf course by the airport conjures up similar feelings to an '80s cover band performing "Man in the Mirror."

Surely, nothing good can come of this.

Golf courses by airports tend to be shoe-horned in, downtrodden and best played as desperate last escapes. They are like motels on the side of the interstate and juke boxes in theme bars.

Only - on Maui, the Hawaii island that's carrying more buzz than "The Sopranos" in its prime - the golf course by the airport turns out to be a track you might go out of your way to play. It's The Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course, and if you're driving to popular vacation spots Kaanapali or Kapalua after picking up a rental car, you'll pass it on the side of road.

Think about stopping. Or a few days later, you could be circling back, having decided to get in a round at one of the better reasonably priced golf courses on the island. The Dunes doesn't do ocean holes. From the looks of this early winter play, it doesn't do great conditioning either. But it sure does unique.

It takes you up and down (especially on the superior back nine) and just might twist your golf mind all around. How about four par 3s on the front nine and only one on the back? The Dunes measures in as a 6,423-yard course, but that doesn't take into account the fact that the front nine (a mere 2,722 yards) can play like a near mini course, while the back nine (a whopping 3,701 yards) can play like a monster.

This isn't all by course architect Robin Nelson's design. When Nelson laid it out and Dunes first opened, the ninth was a 547-yard par 5. For the want of more home lots, the hole's been butchered and reduced to a 150-yard par 3. In all, Dunes lost more than 400 yards from its original length in community redos.

The golf course makes a big deal about the sand dunes, of course (reportedly one of only a few true dunes in all the Hawaii islands). But you're really not going to notice them much when you play. Dunes at Maui Lani doesn't have you shooting over and around big hunking sand dunes.

They are just on the far, far sides of a few holes. The actual dunes' biggest impact on Dunes at Maui Lani comes in the drops to fairways and the uphill climbs to greens. The whole setup tends to bring out a little Hawaiian pride.

"You tourists don't know anything about golf," a local hacker told me, shaking his head. "You all want to see the ocean when you're golfing. If you want the ocean, go to the beach.

"If you want to golf, play a course like this where it's about the golf, guy."

Whether locals play Dunes at Maui Lani because it's good or because it's the rare reasonable Maui course is open to debate. Greens fees max out at $99 for tourists - a deal for Hawaii, no doubt - and are much lower than that for those touting a driver's license from the 50th state.

Heck, in some ways, it's just a thrill to find a golf course that's not affiliated with a plush $300 per night resort in Hawaii. Most courses here are as tied to hotels as Sylvester Stallone is to Rocky.

Dunes at Maui Lani doesn't favor one hotel's guest over the other. No matter where you're staying, you're welcome.

When you're standing on the 11th tee staring down at a severe drop to a twisting, blind fairway with trees sneaking in on the sides, you'll definitely be glad you came. Playing this 474-yard par 4 is like trying to hit a golf shot up your kid's Matchbox car race track. It's all rises, falls, twists and turns.

The only thing missing is the loop-de-loop.

Starting with No. 11, the holes are mostly intact from Nelson's original vision. Here, things really begin to takeoff with the round's most memorable moments coming right after the other. On No. 15 - a short, 340-yard par 4 - you cannot see the flag until you're almost right on top of the green. No. 16 throws a big, forced shallow canyon clear at golfers playing from the back two tees.

It's no marketing mumbo jumbo to say that you can really get lost in the course on The Dunes at Maui Lani. Once you tee off, you're on your own. Dunes just keeps going farther and farther out, with no sight of the clubhouse again until you're on 18.

The Verdict on The Dunes at Maui Lani

The Dunes at Maui Lani is a course worth working into any Maui trip. It's not one of the best golf courses in all of Hawaii as some of its old press clippings suggest, though.

Dunes' literature includes quotes calling it, "One of the five best kept secret golf courses in America" (Golf Digest), and, "Among The Top 10 Courses in all of Hawaii" (GolfWeek). To think either now, you'd have to be smoking more pot than Snoop Dogg while playing.

It's not the golf magazines' fault though. It's a tired, outdated magazine publication system that doesn't come close to frequently updating course reviews. Dunes at Maui Lani might have been that great when it first opened in 1999. Eight years later, with the course having lost plenty of ground to the community around it and arguably its second best hole (the old No. 9), that's no longer the case.

It's still a fun play, though; it's still something worth pulling over for on the way from the airport. You'll never forget you are in the middle of a community with houses all around and a gate between the ninth and 10th holes that you must drive the golf cart by.

Look up, and you'll get good views of mountains on several sides in the distance too, something different from the usual ocean obsession.

The course by the airport - who knew?

Maui hotels

Dunes at Maui Lani is almost equally distant from a number of the island's top tourist resort zones. If you want white sand beaches and an area of excess that's best described as Maui's 90210, take the road to South Maui and stay in one of Fairmont Kea Lani's supersized rooms.

Looking for a more secluded, natural retreat? Head for Kapalua, and book one of its villas, or get a room at the just-made-over Ritz Carlton.

Fast Facts

Now that nine's been truncated to a short par 3, Dunes at Mai Lani throws the rare back-to-back par 3s at golfers. No. 8 is a 198-yard par 3.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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Dates: November 18, 2013 - December 31, 2014
Enjoy spacious accommodations at your choice of 6 Aston Kaanapali condominium resorts, along with 2 rounds of golf with cart at your choice of Kaanapali Royal or Kai Courses.
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