A world under water at Hawaii's Kapalua 

There are many reasons to visit Kapalua, a golf-and-tennis resort community located on the western shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui. The obvious: golf and tennis. The even more obvious: relaxing at a pool, strolling along the beach, enjoying a Maui sunset.

But how about the not-so-obvious: exploring the Kapalua coastline with a professional naturalist.

Getting to know Maui’s coral reef

I had gone snorkeling several times in the past, but never with an expert. I usually relied on an inexpensive flipper-mask-and-snorkel package and a waterproof map of brightly colored tropical fish from Snorkel Bob’s.

But on a recent visit to Kapalua last month, I signed up for “Cities Under the Sea” underwater photography, an offering at Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

I entered the program’s environmental and cultural education center with little background aside from the fact that it started out as a kid’s program, but became so widely popular among adults that it is offered to all ages.

Also, the program — whose mantra is to help participants gain a greater understanding of the relationships between land to sea, humans to nature, people to people and present to future — launched in Kapalua on the success of the program at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.

Located near the tennis courts of the AAA five-diamond resort just a short walk to the beach, the center’s eco-friendly building also features a large, outdoor, floor mosaic that depicts the ocean — a creation by the program’s younger participants.

I walked into the center — wearing a bathing suit, Crocs and a rash-guard shirt — and signed in.

Next, my assigned naturalist, Kevin, met me and my snorkeling partner with his white Macbook laptop at a comfy, eco-friendly couch near a large flat-screen monitor. He plugged in his 20-minute presentation, and described to us not only what we were going to do that day, but also many things I never knew about the area’s coral reef and ecosystem. 

After answering our questions, Kevin took us to the center’s gear area and outfitted us with new flippers, masks and snorkels. He also gave us the option of wearing a float belt, which wraps around your waist and keeps your middle up — thus allowing you to snorkel farther and for longer than you might plan. We were also each given easy-to-use, waterproof, digital, point-and-shoot cameras to use during our dive.

Off to the dive site, a five-minute van ride to Kapalua Bay Beach, which the Travel Channel awarded “Best Beach in America” in 2000.

We parked near the public beach access, which is between the Napili Kai and Kapalua resorts. We dropped our towels on a rock near the soft, white-sand beach — which extends about five feet into the ocean — and entered the shallow bay that extends to the ocean.

Filled with coral reef, the bay  is an excellent sight for snorkeling and taking photos. With the help of our float belts, we stayed out much longer than I had planned — at least an hour — and checked out lots of marine life. With the help of Kevin’s expert experience, we even found a napping sea turtle under the reef.

After our dive, we returned to shore — with a snack cooler of granola bars, Sun Chips and water — dried off and returned to the center.



TRANSPORTATION: In June, Hawaiian Airlines launched a direct flight from Oakland International Airport to Kahului Airport on Maui. Flight No. 23 departs Oakland at 12:20 p.m. and arrives in Maui at 2:20 p.m. At the airport, rent a car for the 50-minute drive to Kapalua. Visit www.hawaiianair.com.

Having recently completed a $180 million transformation, the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, offers 463 fully renovated guestrooms, including 107 residential suites that feature dark wood floors, new marble bathrooms, flat-screen LCD televisions and Hawaiian inspired artwork (Note: Many residential suites have full, gourmet kitchens and are especially geared toward groups and families.) The resort also features six restaurants — including the AAA Four-Diamond Banyan Tree; a new Ritz-Carlton Spa with 15 treatment rooms; a new 24/7 fitness center and yoga/movement studio with ocean views; and a new children’s pool that includes a waterfall and an adjacent play area. Room rates start at $299 a night. For more information, visit www.ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/kapaluamaui.

PROGRAM: Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, offers a variety of activities, such as Maunalei Magic (guided hikes in the Kapalua Resort’s Arboretum); Cities Under The Sea (underwater photography snorkeling sessions); Whale Wonders (seasonal whale-watching excursions); Adventures in Nature; Lights, Camera, Take Action; Life at the Edge of the Sea; and Marine Debris to Artistry. Cities Under The Sea is $89 per adult guest and $69 per child under 15. For more information, visit www.ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/kapaluamaui.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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