America Online’s chirpy "You’ve got mail" message was the soundtrack of the first Web boom of the late 1990s. Steve Case’s fortunes ballooned as the chairman of AOL was able to gobble up Time Warner in hopes of building an old/new media behemoth.
It all unraveled at the dawn of the 21st century, and Case’s fortune is a mere shadow of its past. But if you feel like you want to weep for the guy, take the road past Kaanapali and Napili to the far northwest coast of Maui. You’ll eventually find Kapalua Resort, with two of the best beaches in the world, a five-star hotel and a golf course that hosts PGA tournaments. Case is the majority owner with 63.4 percent of the company that owns it all.
Case, who was born and raised in Honolulu, originally was a minority owner in Maui Land & Pineapple Co., a 104-year-old company that in recent years has exchanged harvesting pineapples for tourists. The company holds nearly 24,000 acres on Maui, but its jewel is the Kapalua Resort. It includes the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the nearby Residences at Kapalua Bay, which has expanded in recent years into primarily a time-share operation. The resort is also home to the PGA golf tournament whose most recent incarnation is as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, held each January. In 2010, Case upped his stake to more than 60 percent of the company, though it sold off the two golf courses to investors.
Though he doesn’t own them, the resorts have almost exclusive access to two of the best beaches in the islands: Kapalua and D.T. Fleming. Kapalua topped the first list of best U.S. beaches compiled by Stephen Leatherman, who bills himself as "Dr. Beach." Fleming was No. 1 on the list in later years.
For visitors the lure of Case’s resorts is their feeling of remote luxury. Guests are far from the T-shirt shops and mushy frozen margaritas of Lahaina. After a renovation that overturned the traditional English country house decor of Ritz-Carlton in favor of an arts-and-crafts-meets-the-tropics feel, the hotel is one of the finest on the island. The pool steps down the hillside like a liquid blue staircase. Guests are shuttled by golf cart down the steep path to Fleming beach. It’s a top spot for sports-minded visitors, with the championship-caliber golf courses and the famous Honolua surf break, the best paddle-in spot on the island during the winter months, just minutes away.
It’s not for everyone. The price tag is steep — there are no budget accommodations. It’s distant from everything, the last stop before a rough stretch of highway that most rental car companies ban drivers from traveling. A renovation and expansion of the Residences at Kapalua Bay ran into rough times with the recession, leaving too many units and too few owners. Earlier expansion destroyed the palm-spotted grass hill above Kapalua Beach, giving way to a stack of condos.
Those looking for a party atmosphere are better off staying in Kaanapali or down in Kihei. Of all the luxury hotels on Maui, it’s my kids’ least favorite because of its sedate atmosphere. If you aren’t staying, a good way to experience the area is to have lunch at the historic Honolua Store, a modernized plantation-era market and cafe that serves an excellent hamburger. Or visit during the annual Kapalua Food & Wine Festival.
Case also owns 40,000 acres on Kauai, a resort in Arizona and a planned resort in Costa Rica.