Cool pools: Finding Hawaii's best hotel swimming holes

Swoosh. Slam. Scream. Splash.

Three little splashes and one big drain-swamping, wave-churning splash.

All this aquatic mayhem in the name of science. Call me Professor Pool, the doctor of dunk. Specialist in waterparkology — the study of swimming spots in their native habitat: megaresort hotels in Hawaii.

I've traveled across the Pacific with my team of highly skilled researchers — all under age 10 — to answer one of mankind's burning questions: Who has the best swimming pool in Hawaii?

We're not talking about boring old chlorine-reeking standard-issue concrete-rimmed oval hotel pools.

We're in search of the cool pools. The ones with jumps, swings, slides, waterfalls, hidden grottos, secret Jacuzzis. Maybe a swim-up bar where Professor Pool can research the effect of consuming Mai Tais at sunset while semi-submerged.

Grueling task, but we're up to it. Ready to undergo the rigors of hours in five-star water worlds from Kauai down to the Big Island.

In the end, we settled on what we considered the best four. A quartet of pools worthy of pilgrimage. So enticing they make guests ignore the world-class beaches just beyond the hotel perimeter.

Water bugs

"I want to live here," said a soaked and sunburned Erin Goulding, 9, as she momentarily climbed out of the pool at the Grand Wailea resort on Maui, one of the finalists.

Erin's the only female among my crew of pool-raters. She's frequently flanked by her brother, Matthew, 6, who, like his sister, is a Southern California beach bum in the making.

That full-throated yell audible from hundreds of yards away comes from my water bug of a son, Thomas, 8. He'll do whatever it takes to get wet — whether it's ocean, pond, pool or just making trouble in the back yard with Mom's garden hose.

I'm the team captain, a mid-40s grizzled veteran of pools from dinky desert Motel 6 puddles to acres of blue at the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Fla.

I'm pretty jaded when it comes to claims of "spectacular water playgrounds" touted in tourist brochures. Bring it on, I say, bring it on. Give me your biggest slide, your most thundering waterfall. I'll take it and come paddling back for more.

At each stop of our tropical test-dive, we totaled up the good and the bad, then sat down under a palm tree with a sliced pineapple and compiled our totals.

Here's our countdown of the best of the best.


Kaanapali in West Maui is home to a string of rigidly manicured resorts that at first glance seem to be cookie-cutter copies of each other. But for the true aquanaut, the Westin is the destination. The pool is hard to miss — nearly all the rooms overlook the lush 85,000-square-foot water park. The big thrill is a 120-foot slide built into a man-made mountain that drops 23 feet while sloshing swimmers around two 270-degree turns.

"It's pretty good, but it needs more water so you can go faster," Thomas said.

In all, there are five pools spread about the grounds, with hidden grottos, two waterfalls and a Jacuzzi tucked in a rock-rimmed hideaway. Kids can buy bright green doughnut-like flotation rings, which they can decorate with their names and any other impromptu art using marker pens supplied by the pool shack.

There's an adults-only pool for those who want to get away from the raucous little ones.

Rankings: Second (Matthew), Third (me) Fourth (Erin, Thomas).

Best part: The monster slide, one of the two best we rode; the pen-your-own floaties.

Worst part: Jacuzzi water was barely tepid. Early closing time meant no nighttime fun.

Beach? Yes, beautiful Kaanapali Beach is just across the walkway, with its fine views out toward Lanai.

More information: 888-625-4949,

BRONZE MEDAL: Hilton Waikoloa Village

If a Hawaiian water park-style pool ever makes it to the National Register of Historic Places, it might be this one. The Hilton Waikoloa Village is the monster of megaresorts, an epic 62-acre playland where guests get to the 1,240 rooms via a monorail or mahogany canal boats.

Originally the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, it was one of a string of late-1980s super-resorts created by developer Chris Hemmeter (he's also responsible for the Westin Maui). Built at a cost of $350 million, the resort quickly became mired in environmental, native-rights and financial tangles and was eventually sold for a quarter of the price.

Love or loathe the place, the water park is pretty spectacular. The 4-acre swim park includes a lagoon and sand beach for lolling about on a sunny day. Follow your ears to the thundering collection of waterfalls around hidden grottos and a nifty, if unspectacular, water slide. Like much of the rest of the hotel, the Hilton's water park feels a little worn.

But the upside is that this is the least expensive of the four hotels, with rates sometimes dipping below $250 a night if rooms are purchased through Hilton's Web site or from some discounters. The Hilton is also home to a popular if somewhat controversial Dolphin Quest program. A lottery is held each day to allow a limited number of guests the chance to swim in a special pool with the sea creatures.

Best parts: The waterfalls framing the grotto. Most reasonably priced of the four big water-park resorts.

Worst part: Endless walk to get to swimming area from rooms.

Beach? Not really — the beach in front of the hotel is typical of the west side of the Big Island — very rocky and sometimes turbulent. Good beaches are a short drive away.

Rankings: Second (Erin, Thomas). Fourth (Matt, me)

More information: 800-445-8667,

SILVER MEDAL: Hyatt Regency Kauai

Hard against the sea on the far end of Poipu on the south end of the Garden Isle is my favorite of the water-park hotels. The rest of the team was also impressed, but ranked it second in the final poll.

The 600-room Hyatt shows that big can be beautiful. Unlike other large resorts, it's designed in a 1930s arts-and-crafts style that's rooted in traditional Hawaiian design. It also got points in my book for being the one hotel among our group where a water park made sense — the resort itself fronts the rocky, turbulent 500-yard-long Shipwreck Beach.

Guests instead can paddle around the 5-acre saltwater lagoon. The water slide is relatively short and sedate by the standards of the other hotels, and the two pools are beautiful but lacking in number and size compared with other spots on our list.

But the most striking feature — and the one that earned the Hyatt my top spot on this list — is the meandering man-made river that makes its way from the hotel through the terraced gardens down to a pool next to the lagoon. Full of grottos hidden behind waterfalls, the 4-foot-deep channel was like a swimmable version of Disneyland's Jungle Cruise. The kids made up adventure stories as we floated along in the slow current.

"It would be better if you could touch the bottom all the time," said Matthew. "The water is strong."

The Hyatt has a long list of kudos, most recently ranking sixth on Condé Nast Traveler magazine's list of the 10 best "tropical resorts" in the world. There's also a three-lane 25-yard lap pool in the hotel spa.

Best parts: The river and the beautiful design of the hotel and grounds.

Worst part: The swimming areas are so spread out and the grounds so tropically lush that it's easy to get separated or lost.


No. Shipwreck Beach is not for swimming most of the time. But it's a short drive to Poipu Beach, consistently rated one of the best in the nation. A sandbar that shelters a section of the beach from waves makes it a great choice for families.

Ranking: First (me), Second (Erin), Third (Matthew and Thomas)

More information: 800-633-7313,

GOLD MEDAL: Grand Wailea, Maui

For pure "wow" factor, this resort on Maui's sunny southwest coast is hard to beat.

I tried hard to dislike the Grand Wailea. Kitschy, overblown hotel design. Ostentatious art collection. Exorbitant prices. Grumpy, rich clientele arguing over pool chairs. Even the water park got on my wrong side — of all the top pools, this one fronted the best beach, yet guests overwhelmingly opted for the fake world of the pool.

Including me and my crew. It starts with the Hibiscus Pool, the 4,850-square-foot visual centerpiece of the resort that stretches from the lobby toward the sea. A giant mosaic of a hibiscus flower is created by 630,000 Mexican glass tiles — part of the 2.2 million tiles making up the pool.

It's just the beginning of the staggering numbers at the Grand Wailea — but be forewarned. There's another number connected to the Hibiscus Pool: 16. That's how old you have to be to go in it, so it was off-limits to most of our research crew.

No problem, because just down the path is the real star of the Grand Wailea's water world: The Wailea Canyon Activity Pool. Just follow your ears to the yelps of excitement from the children at the hotel. A total of nine pools are linked along six levels, from sea level to 40 feet high.

An artificial river carries swimmers from spot to spot. What's advertised as the world's only water-powered elevator takes guests back to the top of the sequence. In between are four jungle pools with an equal number of fiberglass slides, a Tarzan-like rope swing where the daring can fly off into the water, six waterfalls, a rope bridge, three Jacuzzis, an infant pool, a swim-up bar and a sand beach. The latter is not to be confused with the real beach just a few steps away.

Each of us found our own niche among the Wailea's wild offerings. Erin favored the Lava Slide, a 238-foot monster with a three-story drop. Matt enjoyed swinging from the vine, and Thomas staked out the water-rapids slide, which sent groups of kids head over heals down a padded incline. I liked the Ana Puka Slide featuring a water-up-the-nose 360-degree spin. And then there was that swim-up bar I'd been looking for.

Best part: Everything — but especially the slides and the rubber-bottom rapids.

Worst part: Big price tag, sometimes unpleasant guests.

Beach? Yes, a fantastic one. Do try to tear yourself away for a dip in the real thing.

Ratings: First (Erin, Matthew, Thomas). Second (Me).

More information: 800-888-6100,