It is pretty much impossible to concentrate on tennis at the Hanalei Bay Resort on Kauai's North Shore. The view to the west takes in a sweeping panorama of haunting mountains, including part of a dragon-shaped headland that allegedly inspired Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff, the Magic Dragon." A winding path from the resort leads down to Hanalei Bay and a long crescent of beach that curls around the base of the dragon ending just before the head disappears into the Pacific.
The 2012 movie "The Descendants," starring George Clooney, was partly filmed at Hanalei—on the beach, in the Tahiti Nui tiki bar, which is virtually unchanged since it opened in 1963, and the St. Regis Princeville resort hotel on the bay's other headland. In fact dozens of films have been set on this lush, exotic island, among them "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Avatar," "Jurassic Park," and "South Pacific" (where Hanalei and the North Shore stood in for the iconic Bali Ha'i).
A vacation on Kauai is a decidedly different experience from one on Oahu, Maui, or the Big Island of Hawaii. There are no highrise hotels or towers of condominiums. Parts of the center of the 552-square-mile island remain impenetrable, including the often cloud-shrouded 5,142-foot Mount Waialeale crater—one of the wettest places on earth—near the core. So too the roadless Na Pali coast on the northwest, a haunting landscape of steep knife-edged ridges and deep canyons best viewed by boat. There is, however, a road and network of hiking trails in Waimea Canyon, a deep rift reminiscent of the Grand Canyon that cuts inland from the dry southern coast and is unlike the landscape you'll find anywhere else in Hawaii. Kauai also has Hawaii's only navigable rivers. It has alluring small towns, ancient temples called heiaus, accessible waterfalls, tropical gardens, bird sanctuaries, those great beaches, fabled surfing, and varied lodging—from luxury hotels with spas to multi-bedroom villas, all with accessible tennis.
I have visited the island many times, hiking Waimea Canyon and taking a helicopter up into Mt. Waialeale, where rivulets of water like so many silver necklaces stream down the interior of an ancient volcanic cone, now thick with jungle vegetation. But with each new visit come new opportunities, chances to explore places I'd yet to see. This time it all began with a cruise off the Na Pali Coast and continued with zipline tour on Kipu Ranch—notable as a setting for the movie "Jurassic Park,"—kayaking on the Wailua River, and a photo safari on the North Shore. For a small island, there is an astonishing number of things to do, and that includes tennis.
Which Kauai Tennis Resort Is Best For You?
For convenience, it makes sense to stay at a resort with tennis, but since even most resort courts are open to the general public, that is not strictly necessary. So what follows is a quick comparison of the features of the major tennis resorts to help you decide which might work best for you.
Hanalei Bay Resort. Situated on a bluff above Hanalei Bay on Kaua'i's verdant North Shore, Hanalei Bay Resort is fast becoming the most active resort facility on the island thanks to the efforts of Peter Burwash International's Corley Ward. He arrived at the 8-court facility in August 2012 and along with Mary Hannsz runs a mix of adult and junior programs focused on attracting local members while at the same time meeting the needs of resort guests. That stable of locals means superlative game matching supplemented by daily clinics, a weekly Cardio session, and Sunday round robin, the last typically sprawling over four or five courts. Hannsz, who ran her own kids' tennis school in Austin, Texas, has sessions for juniors from 4 to 13 appropriately divided by age. When they first arrived, they tapped into a hunger for tennis on the North Shore when they held a tennis carnival for kids expecting perhaps a dozen to show up and and got more than 100.
"We were flabbergasted," says Ward but followed up by offering five weeks of junior tennis camp in summer, geared to locals but welcoming to the children of guests.
The resort, meanwhile, has been undergoing a major upgrade. Fire destroyed much of the main clubhouse two years ago; however it is scheduled to reopen by January 2014 with new open air restaurant and lounge, both with sweeping views of the pool, bay, and mountains, as well as a new fitness center (also open to the outside), sundries shop, and hospitality room, where late departing guests can relax and shower. Adjacent to the clubhouse is a meandering pool accented by lushly landscaped lava outcrops and outdoor Jacuzzis. Accommodations consist of 134 one- and two-bedroom fully-equipped condos, both privately owned and timeshare units, many available for rent directly from owners or their agents but bookable from the resort's website. A long winding path leads down to the public beach at Hanalei, and the resort provides golf-cart transportation if you don't want to walk.
St. Regis Princeville Resort. It was here that the George Clooney character in the movie "The Descendants" stayed when he visited the island. The magnificent 252-room hotel begins at the top of a promontory with a sweeping panorama of Hanalei Bay and the mountains. From there, it cascades down the side of a cliff, ending at a sprawling swimming pool and the beach. Its vast lobby and most of its restaurants and lounges thus have to-die-for views of the fabled North Shore. The setting aside, the hotel stands out for the stellar staff, unfailingly pleasant and always eager to help. And staying here also affords access to Halele'a ("House of Joy") Spa, a tranquil retreat just off the main lobby, as well as to a modest fitness center, oceanside yoga and Pilates sessions, and two championship golf courses, the last part of the 9,000-acre Princeville development. Also part of the development is an small but attractive complex of four hard tennis courts, located about a mile and a half from the hotel at the Makai Golf Club. Eric Lutz, a Texas native who went on to play for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, manages the facility.
"Our program is small but we offer a little bit of everything," he told me. "We don't have a lot of round robins but they can always jump into one of our adult or junior clinics or we can try to match them up with somebody." The cost is $25/hour for court time, though short-term memberships are also available if you're planning to play a lot. Pro shop: 808-651-0638.
Poipu Beach Resort. Located on the southern—and generally drier—coast of Kauai, the Poipu Beach Resort comprises a number hotel and vacation rental homes and condos on or near any of several beaches, among them south shore standouts Brennecke and Shipwreck (to explore condominium lodging options, conduct an online search for "Poipu Kai Kauai"; for hotels, check out the Sheraton Kauai Resort or the Grand Hyatt Kaua'i Resort & Spa). Two golf courses wind through part of this elongated coastal development, its lowrise architecture accented everywhere by palm trees, torch ginger, ubiquitous bougainvillea, hibiscus, African tulip, and dozens of other colorful plants, many bearing vibrant flowers. A shopping village on the mauka (mountainward or inland) side of the main road makes it easy to buy whatever you need to eat in your condo, including, if you can't live without it, your favorite beverage from Starbuck's.
And though I may have buried the lede here, the reason as a tennis player to choose Poipu Kai is its 8-court complex of hard and artificial-grass courts run by the veteran team of John and Hattie Somerville. They have taught tennis and managed resorts and clubs in Hawaii for some 50 years, and created something of a Hawaiian tennis dynasty when their four children went on to play college tennis or more, including the youngest, Betsy, who competed in all four Grand Slam events. Hattie, then in her 60s, teamed with Betsy to win the Mother-Daughter National Grasscourt Championships at Newport, RI three times. She has been ranked No. 1 in Hawaii in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s and has been named to the USTA Hawaii Pacific Tennis Hall of Fame. She has seemingly spent her life on the tennis courts and at age 79 still plays every day—and looks forward to playing 80-and-over tournaments next year.
At the Poipu Kai Tennis Club, a very low-key operation that deserves to be better known, she and her husband offer clinics, private lessons, and occasionally fill in during the social round robins that take place three days a week. She laughs easily and often and reminisces about all the fun they've had over the years, including tournaments they ran on the Big Island.
"That was real Hawaiian tennis," Hattie she told me as we sat in the shade of a gazebo alongside the pro shop. "Our tournaments at Kona Surf drew all the island players. People brought ukuleles. We had so much fun."
Stories pour out of Hattie. Over the decades she has traveled in a limo with the King of Jordan, strung John McEnroe's racquet (at 48 pounds, she remembers), been the luncheon partner of Arthur Ashe, entertained the U.S. Davis Cup team, and met—and sometimes chauffeured—Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Pancho Gonzalez when they visited the Waikiki Tennis Club, a place that attracted celebrities, among them Ava Gardner, who, Hattie remembers, showed up with an entourage and "a blue and white umbrella." But there is one story that Hattie tells that reveals her genuine charm.
"My daughters and I decided to go to the French Open, the one Grand Slam tournament I'd never seen," she told me. "We were staying at the Park Hyatt and when I came down to breakfast, I saw Venus Williams sitting all alone. I walked over to her and asked, 'Since we are the only ones here, would you mind if I joined you?' She said yes, and we had the most wonderful conversation. She is such a charming woman."
In the hour or so we spoke, her face darkened only once, when she glanced nervously at one of the players competing in the Saturday morning round robin. She'd given him a serving lesson the day before, and his last attempt had ended in the net.
"You've got to hit up, Nick," she said to no one in particular, speaking aloud what she was thinking but not so he could hear it. The next serve went in, relieving her anxiety, and at the end of the round robin he proudly announced to her that he'd ended with an ace.
You get the feeling that she wants everyone to have as much fun playing tennis as she does, and that's not going to happen if your serve ends up in the net. Better to end with an ace.
The Poipu Kai Tennis Club does not have a website, but check out the Poipu Kai Tennis Club Facebook Page or phone the pro shop at 808-742-8706.
Grand Hyatt Kaua'i Resort & Spa. Another fabulous hotel, its lobby open to views of the sea from its perch on a knoll along the island's southern—and drier—coast. Its 602 rooms and suites—all with views from their private lanais of the gardens, pool, or ocean—cascade down the slope from both sides of the lobby. Although part of the property fronts Shipwreck Beach (the rest is rocky shoreline), I saw more guests in and around the saltwater lagoon and the two freshwater swimming pools (one with a waterslide) and their sundecks, set in a beautifully landscaped garden of tropical trees, flowers, and shrubs. There's also an adults-only pool at the Anara Spa, a 45,000-square-foot retreat notable for offering treatments in hales, or bungalows, open to the gardens and for its lava-rock showers. Poipu Kai Golf Course is immediately adjacent for those looking to get in 18 holes, and there are nearly a dozen options for food and drink, chief among them Tidepools, where modern Hawaiian cuisine is served in thatched roof bungalows set in a koi pond next to a waterfall.
The same tropical garden landscaping extends to the three hard tennis courts, which radiate from a pro shop and shaded pavilion to the east of the hotel entrance. Chris Webster, who played for Michigan State University and worked at Don Budge's summer juniors camps in Maryland, directs the programs with the help of Aaron Tada, who played for the University of Hawaii. They run a clinic daily each morning and assist the shop staff in finding guests games. Guests get an hour of free court time daily, more if no one is waiting. Oddly missing from the program is any sort of junior tennis, not even as part of the hotel's Camp Hyatt program for 3 to 12-year-olds, which focuses on nature, crafts, and water activities.
Kiahuna Swim & Tennis Club. Once one of the top tennis venues on the island, active and beautifully landscaped, this 10-court complex is now a run-down shell of its former glory and has closed—"temporarily," the sign reads, though to judge from the facility's condition I doubt it will reopen in the near future. A sad loss for the island.
The New Topnotch Resort & Spa
Nothing says "enhanced guest experience" quite so eloquently as obliterating an old structure and starting over. Particularly if that structure contains the lobby and attached public space. And that is precisely what Topnotch Resort & Spa in Stowe, VT did earlier this year as part of a $30 million makeover of the resort.
The inviting new lobby, with a slanted roof, clerestory windows, and cheerful wood paneling seamlessly flows left into the Roost, a lively new bar and popular gathering place with windows on the ski slopes of Mt. Mansfield, outdoor patios, and an eclectic menu long on sharable small plates like fried avocado with a cashew dipping sauce or shrimp dumplings in miso broth. A right turn takes you to three floors of pet-friendly rooms and suites, themselves newly renovated with marble baths and tasteful decor. While straight ahead double doors open to a path leading to two outdoor swimming pools framed in stone walls, the spa, and Flannel (formerly Norma's), a sunlit bar and restaurant with an outdoor patio and views of the mountains and notable for its seasonally inspired farm-to-table menu at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What has not changed at Topnotch is its dedication to tennis. It has 10 courts, four of them indoors, for just 68 rooms, and yet despite that impressively low ratio there are times in summer when so many tennis players show up that every court can be in use. Milan Kubala, who runs the tennis programs, has seen demand for his camp programs increase over the 10 years he's been on site. He keeps student:pro ratios low, never more than 4:1, even though that sometimes means limited enrollment to 16 players in order to ensure that there are also courts available for private lessons and casual play.
I caught up with him for a private lesson, during which he was remarkable for his ability to hone in on a single issue and by correcting that, correct the problems I was having with the stroke (my forehand, if you want to know). Afterwards he showed me around the renovated indoor courts and pro shop, and lamented that more skiers didn't take advantage of having indoor tennis so close to the slopes at Mt. Mansfield.
"The lifts open at 7:30 a.m. and with the high-speed quads lots of people have had enough by 1:30 and that leaves the whole afternoon for tennis," he told me. "Or on days when it's really cold or icy, you can do tennis instead. It's perfect, too, for families where some ski and others don't." They do have local members who utilize the facility in winter, which also means there's a stable of players to draw on for those guests who need opponents. He doesn't have enough courts to meet all the demand for tennis camps during the busiest part of the summer and he wishes people would realize that the same opportunity exists during the rest of the year.
The spa doesn't have those seasonal issues. At 35,000-square-feet with an indoor pool, daily roster of fitness classes, and a two-room fitness center to supplement its spa services, it functions independently of the weather outside its windows on the mountains. When it comes to those treatments, it has lately taken to blending its own oils, giving guests the option of choosing the one that suits them best (and allowing me to avoid anything too flowery). During my deep-tissue massage, Margo took on the rock-hard knots in my back from too many hours at the computer and after going at them from several directions, somehow managed to untie them.
"I consider it a personal challenge," she said when I remarked at how many different approaches she took to the task. I left the treatment room feeling looser than I had in months.
It is not only what Topnotch offers, but also what's available in this part of Vermont, and there is a concierge in the lobby to help you sort through the plethora of options. Foremost among these is the five-mile-long recreation path from the resort all the way into Stowe. It weaves in and out of the woods and back and forth on bridges across the West Branch River on its slightly undulating route into Stowe. Bike, hike, or rollerblade in summer and fall, stopping at one of the many microbreweries en route; snowshoe or cross-country ski in winter, stopping for something warmer and perhaps stronger.
Beyond that there is Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory in nearby Waterbury, and check out the entertainment at the 400-seat Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center at Stowe Mountain Resort, where I caught an Acadian music and dance performance by a group called Grand Derangement. Check with the concierge for more.
Drysdale Tennis At Omni Amelia Island
Cliff Drysdale Tennis took over the management of the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort's Racquet Park a year ago, leading to a greatly enhanced guest tennis experience. I wrote about my experience of the tennis school there at A Day In the Drysdale Tennis School. In the video below, Scott Colebourne, who formerly ran the Drysdale programs at Stratton Mountain in Vermont, interviews Sal Barbaro, a former co-director of the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch programs, who now co-directs the tennis school at Amelia.
Drysdale Tennis at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
Rancho Valencia Gets Even Better
I never quite understood why Rancho Valencia, which in my opinion had the most alluring accommodations of any tennis resort in the country, decided they needed to upgrade. Nevertheless, in 2012, the 49-room Relais & Chateaux resort in Southern California's Rancho Santa Fe closed to undergo a thorough makeover of its rooms and public spaces. You'll find details about the new Rancho Valencia by following the link above. And when it reopened last November, the resort also got back to tennis in a significant way by hiring former U.S. Open Women's and Mixed Doubles Champion Robin White. In the video below, I review the history of tennis at the resort and White discusses her return to the place she used to train.
U.S. Open Double Champion Robin White
Mark Stenning Leaving Tennis Hall of Fame
Mark L. Stenning, CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, will step down in 2014 after nearly 30 years of serving the organization. During his tenure, it has evolved into a multi-faceted facility and premier sports museum whose restoration to its original 19th-century grandeur earned it a National Historic Landmark designation. He has also served as the tournament director for the annual Hall of Fame Championships, the only men's pro tournament to take place in New England. After retiring he will remain on the Board of Directors and serve as an outside consultant. Full press release.
Need to find a game at home or on the road? Or tennis programs, lessons, and equipment. Playtennis.com can help. The brainchild of the Tennis Industry Association (TIA), this newly launched website lets you search for courts and players by city/state and zipcode, color-coding the results to indicate whether the facility is a public park, school/university, or private club. Signup is free and those who register have chances to win free merchandise in monthly drawings.
New Name for Racquet Sports Industry Magazine
Racquet Sports Industry, the world's largest tennis trade magazine, is reverting to its original name, Tennis Industry (TI), in 2014.
"Our name change back to Tennis Industry reflects the growing importance of tennis to this country's recreational choices," says co-publisher David Bone. It will continue to publish 10 issues a year, including both print and digital editions (www.tennisindustrymag.com).
Tennis Resorts Online values your opinion, so much so that we're giving you a chance to win one of three tennis vacations we're giving away. All you have to do is review your experience as a guest at any tennis resort or camp worldwide. Every review you file gives you one more chance at one of the following prizes:
Saddlebrook Tennis: A two-day, two-night stay, plus five hours of intensive tennis instruction daily, for two people at this world-renowned resort in Wesley Chapel, near Tampa, Florida.
TOPS'L Beach & Racquet Resort: Sugar-sand beached, turquoise waters, and stellar social tennis for two people for three nights in a two-bedroom courtside at this Destin, Florida tennis haven.
For details visit Rate a Resort or Camp or Rate a Junior Tennis Camp and fill out a form for each resort or camp you know firsthand. The next drawing will take place on May 1, 2014 once we tabulate your reviews to determine our rankings of the Top 100 Resorts & Camps for 2014.
Many of your hotel and resort, air, and car-rental reservations can now be booked directly from Tennis Resorts Online. Just look for the "Reserve" button at the top of the review for a direct link to the booking engine or use the link to Expedia.