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Makena Golf Course is a scenic, natural Maui escape

MAKENA, Hawaii -- Many visitors to Maui explore the island, from Lahaina to Hana, without ever venturing a few minutes past Wailea to the mysterious place named "Makena" on the southernmost tip of Maui.

They're missing out.

Makena, home to the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Makena Golf Course, is an 1,800-acre parcel that, with the exception of a small cluster of houses down near the beach, is almost entirely a nature preserve.

Locals escape the crowded beaches of Kihei to find their own secluded beaches such as "Little Beach," tucked on the other side of the Pu'u'Ola'i volcanic cinder cone that requires a short hike to get to.

The golf ambiance at Makena is similarly quiet and all-natural. It's also making a comeback. Makena used to be a 36-hole club until the South course was closed in 2008 to develop real estate. But plans faltered with the economy, and the entire resort soon went into receivership.

In 2010, new ownership recovered the resort and golf course, and it began pumping money back into both for renovations. New golf carts were purchased, the pro shop was renovated and irrigation was installed to help with maintenance.

Makena's South Course, while currently closed with no set opening date, is being maintained with the thought of opening some holes as soon as possible.

It's only natural to compare Makena to the three golf courses just up the road at busier Wailea. Makena, like Wailea Golf Club's Gold Course and Emerald Course, was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and plays on the slopes of Mt. Haleakala. Each features natural vegetation and old, black stone walls used when calm waters of south Maui were home to many fishing villages.

Makena has its differences, though. The golf course routing heads higher up the slopes of the volcano and features more severe elevation changes on particular holes than Wailea's courses. Also, given that Makena is a large plot of land with hardly any residential component, more holes here have their own playing corridors, framed on each side by black lava rock and dense vegetation.

It's Makena's back nine that makes the argument for south Maui's best stretch of holes. The front side and the early part of the back nine tiptoes uphill. Holes such as the par-5 fifth trudge straight up the base. But the climb is worth it.

When you get to the par-3 12th hole, it's time to soak in the views. The 185-yard hole darts over ravines and straight towards the ocean. The green site of the 13th is similarly spectacular, showcasing the calm waters of south Maui and views out to Molokini.

But the 14th is a real showstopper. The tee box, set on the course's highest point, is spectacular enough for Makena Golf & Beach Resort to host a lot of weddings right behind the tee box. At 620 yards, only the 18th on Kapalua Golf Club's Plantation Course is longer on the island. From the landing zone, it funnels even further downhill to a green guarded by black lava walls to the left.

After golf, a pleasant lunch setting is footsteps away at Cafe on the Green, which has a beautiful open-air setting overlooking the 10th hole of the South Course and the ocean. Or, if you’re a guest of the Makena Beach & Golf Resort, complimentary luxury transportation can take you into Wailea where you can choose from a number of dining options -- or even Mulligan's, a popular restaurant and Irish pub.

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