Marriott’s Waikiki: Make Mine Marriott

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Waikiki’s 2.5 mile-long beach parallels Kalakaua Avenue and features some of the gentlest and most swimmable beaches in the world. Imagine taking a dip into the Pacific Ocean, right at your doorstep. Picture this and it’s the Marriot’s Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa that fits the bill.

The first whiff of fresh Hawaiian air brings a surge of oxygen into our lungs. Upon entering the hotel, a balmy breeze brings the scent of the salty sea air wafting through the lobby. It is nothing less than a godsend. The ocean breeze is refreshingly free of the stifling humidity found at southeast Asian coasts. The wind is cool and dry.

Local color on the shore

Steven Caires, CEO of Island Creative, is there to meet us with his affable smile and boyish good looks. We hunker down over a schedule that will take us throughout the property and all its offerings. It’s a wonder how we managed to go through it in just a couple of days with a packed itinerary. But the real wonder is how he can set us in the mood to go right ahead and see what the Marriott has to offer. His zeal is infectious.

Before we even have a chance to check into our rooms, we follow his lead and take a short walk to the side of the property to have our first taste of Marriott’s cuisine in the Arancino restaurant. As we step out into the pavement, we are awed by the wondrous view of Waikiki Beach. They weren’t kidding when they said that the Marriott is located on one of the best spots on the beach. Just across Kalakaua Avenue, crossing over a bike path and a short grassy portion takes you right up to the sand and surf. The seemingly endless horizon that looks out into the Pacific Ocean paints a picture perfect image of what Waikiki is all about; it is a tropical paradise.

The little orange

The Arancino di Mare, meaning “orange of the sea” in Italian, is the acclaimed restaurant that serves authentic cuisine of Naples with a unique Japanese flare. Arincini, plural of arancino, is also the name of an antipasto common in Sicily, made of deep-fried breaded rice balls, usually stuffed ragu or mozzarella, that resembles a small orange, hence the name.

On this occasion, Toshika Higgins, PR Manager for the Arancino group of restaurants, greets us. In halting English, she narrates that the restaurant began when Ichihiro Inamura, its founder, could not find an authentic Italian restaurant in Honolulu that met his taste for the cuisine. So he started the Arancino as a showcase of true Italian cuisine in the island. Executive Chef James “Kimo” Oh Young states in no uncertain terms that it is the owner’s distinctive palate that helps develop the flavors of Arancino.

The first offering is a refreshing vegan pasta dish—spaghetti all’ ortelana—composed of crisp zucchini, asparagus spears, arugula, mango slices and halved cherry tomatoes in a simple garlic and olive oil toss up that highlights the freshness of the local produce and pristine environs they grow. Another entrée—spaghetti con tobiko e calamari—puts the squid on center stage, on a bed of warm pasta and generously topped with tobiko roe blackened with the squid ink. There is a simple rule when cooking squid; you cook it quickly for 1 to 2 minutes over a high heat or 30 minutes or more over a low heat. In this case, it was a quick blanching and an ice-bath, no doubt to keep it tender. The spaghetti alla pescatora is the quintessential seafood pasta with a medley of clams, mussel and whole scampi (langoustine in French). Completing this Italian lunch is pizza topped with prosciutto crudo and fresh arugula.

Rooms with a view

Of the over 1,300 rooms at the Marriott, one of the most stunning vistas has to be the Diamond Head Ocean View Suite at the topmost corner of the Paoakalani Tower. The Diamond Head is an extinct volcano that derives its name from the crystals in the hardened lava that glitter and that were mistaken for diamonds by the mariners of the West. Called Leahi by the Hawaiians, as it resembled the brow of a tuna, the mountain reveals the shape that gives it its ancient name when viewed from the suite. The sweeping panorama of the mountains of Oahu it offers is simply breathtaking.

One of the more opulent suites on the property is fittingly named after Queen Lilio Lili’uokalani, the last reigning monarch of the islands. It has played host to numerous weddings and heads of state, most notably the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting. Equivalent of the presidential suite in most other hotels, it is luxurious to say the least. The use of quilts is a Hawaiian tradition and the snowflake patterns are painstakingly hand sewn befitting the last reigning queen of the islands. Its extensive use in the design of the suite pays homage to this time honored indigenous tradition. The lanai of the suite is the perfect vantage point for a stunning sunset on a seemingly endless horizon.

The Marriot is the perfect setting for the most cherished moments in a person’s life. A couple looking out towards the sea, exchanging “I do’s,” are in for a remarkably memorable experience. Fast-forward a few years: as the family of this same couple grows, they are magically drawn back to the Marriott’s family room with its great city view and its spacious accommodations for a family of four. It is to our good fortune that we are booked at the Southwest corner of the Kealohilani Tower, in a suite overlooking the most wonderful spread of beach in Waikiki.

What you see is what you get

Everywhere we go around the property, people greet us with a warm aloha (hello) and mahalo (thank you.) What is this spirit that is aloha? How does the Marriott share this with every guest? We speak to Michael Nisky, General Manager who shares his thoughts on this aloha spirit:

Marriott professional for the last 36 years, Nisky moved to Kailua only a year and a half ago. He notes that Marriott innovated the mixed market of China, Japan and Korea and built their offerings for these new emerging markets. So focused and engaged is he, I had to ask him: is this the professional face of Michael Nisky, or is this the real thing? “What you see is what you get,” he answers.

He notes that the Marriot culture is unique: it takes care of the customer by seeing everyone as a person. “It’s a culture that’s expanded throughout our ‘stores.’ When guests arrive, we have to see things from their perspective so the most important person is the one they meet.” What makes them stay and all the more memorable all the more memorable is the interaction they have with other people. Nisky understands that the guest’s comments revolve around the people they come into contact with rather than the facilities or the food. It’s an attitude that he has managed to pass on to their associates, which is how he fondly calls his people.

Aside from providing the necessary leadership, he encourages his associates to do things with a passion. He says, “That Aloha spirit is a perfect marriage with the Marriott culture.” They have associates who have been with the property for over 40 years. This longevity and loyalty is the real aloha spirit. The Marriott ethic fits perfectly with the Hawaiian culture.

He recounts an incident during the most recent APEC summit that illustrates this spirit: The fanfare is done with and the meetings are over. His bellman sees the team packing up and getting ready to leave at 3AM. Nobody else is there to see if they’re doing okay. Upon seeing this, the bellman sets up coffee and snacks for this team that was left behind. This was never part of the deal, but it was this spontaneous act of kindness that this team will remember the Marriott for.

“It’s all about people caring for other people with sincerity. The guests come first and we do it with sincerity. You can’t teach sincerity,” Nisky says.

He waxes almost romantically about how each island is distinct but how Oahu has what most people want. The island has it all: a tropical island with a big city feel, public beaches, a varied mix of cultures, and the surfing. Waikiki beach is the perfect surfing area to learn. The room renovations are a work in progress and the next best thing is the fitness center that took the place of the Meeting venue. He tells us it is the most popular facility throughout the property.

The Waikiki Resort and Spa is in the center of all this activity, where all the restaurants and bars are within the central location offering direct access to the beach. It certainly is all about location. The Marriott is in the middle of it all with that indomitable spirit of aloha.

If the people are the secrets to their success, our next encounter with Miles Togikawa, Executive Chef, certainly makes it all worthwhile.

Miles to go

Even as a busboy at the Coco Palms, Miles must have brought along his Aloha spirit of hanging loose and going with the flow. He had always planned on being at the “front of the house” and never as an executive chef. Manning a 1,315 room property certainly puts him right up there at the top with the best of them. His multifaceted history even took him to Sapporo where he joined ice sculpture contest. While working at the Sheraton and many other hotels and resorts from New Zealand to Fiji, Miles honed his craft. Destiny played her hand and he found his way back to Wailea in 1976.

We talk on the Moana Loa Terrace open air viewing deck while the sun sets on the horizon. As we sip on our Blue Hawaii and Lava Flow—a cocktail drink that combines an assortment of rums with coconut cream, banana and strawberry—Miles tells us about how the cuisine depends on where you are and the type of customer you serve. Honolulu and Hawaii is a multi-faceted market with Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, American and other influences. Consequently, the cuisine lends itself to all these influences. Although 90 percent of his sous-chefs are Filipinos, they adjust the cuisine depending on how the market is. Hawaii is a melting pot and the cuisine is a blend of all these races: Chinese, Filipino, mainland American, local Hawaiian, and now especially Japanese. He has no one favorite and just goes with the flow.

He characterizes his style as hands-on managerial interspersed with his personal style. We chow down on the offerings of the Moana Loa Terrace, starting with their Diamond Head Salad which marries greens with strawberries mango and pineapple. With this one dish, we see the confluence of influences coming together in one plate. The Seared Ahi, which can be either yellowfin or big eye tuna, obviously takes it cue from the Japanese sashimi. But as prepared at the Terrace, it is crisp and crunchy outside and sits on a bed of chopped lettuce, radish and carrots. And as if to emphasize its American roots, the Angus Beef Burger is topped with picture perfect strips of bacon and slices of American cheese, oozing with the succulent juices of the patty and laid on a freshly baked roll and complemented with French fries.

Whether it’s a Seared Ahi on the Moana Loa Terrace or the Prime Rib of the daily family style buffet at the Kuhio Bar and Grill, Miles takes us there with his inimitable style and easy going personal touch. Now that’s the Aloha spirit at work.

Fun for all

Just a quick look around the resort and you know that the Marriott has everything that you want in a modern paradise: from the stretches of pristine sand on Kuhio Beach where you can just frolic by the sea; to the entire stretch of Kalakaua Avenue that has all trappings of a modern paradise such as excellent cuisine and fine wine; to street level entertainment, which is an attraction in itself. You don’t even have to leave the property with all the offerings of the resort to its guests: from the Hula and lei making lessons; to learning how to snorkel and scuba; to indulging in the best food that Hawaii has to offer. If you prefer a quiet private spa treatment, Paul Brown’s Salon and Spa is the place for you. If you can think it, Marriott’s Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa has it already in mind. All you have to do is ask.

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