A visit to the islands of Lāna‘i and Maui reveals that native Hawaiian traditions are alive and well in America’s Aloha State.
Photographs by Megan Spelman.
Probably the most laidback of all the Hawaiian islanders, it takes an awful lot to get the people on Lāna‘i excited about anything. But on a breezy weekday morning, when most of them should be in a workplace or classroom, a good number of the island’s 3,000 residents are gathered around Manele Bay awaiting the arrival of a very special boat.
A loud cheer goes up as the Hōkūle‘a rounds Kalaeokahano Point and sails into the harbor. Originally built in 1975 to demonstrate that ancient Polynesians were skilled navigators and explorers, the replica of a traditional Hawaiian double-hulled voyaging canoe, or wa‘a kaulua, is on an extended “victory lap” through the archipelago after completing a three-year circumnavigation of the globe. This is the Hōkūle‘a’s first visit to Lāna‘i following the epic voyage.
Over the week, its crew will be feted by the community, take school kids on educational cruises around the island, and fly colors from the vessel’s towering foremast that have come to mean much more to native Hawaiians than simply flags. Not the Stars and Stripes mind you, but the Hawaiian state flag and the black, red, and white Tino Rangatiratanga (“Absolute Sovereignty”) banner of New Zealand’s Maori people.
Flying the Maori flag is more than a show of fraternity with Polynesian cousins in the South Pacific. It’s an expression of what’s going on in Hawai‘i these days—a strong, growing, and very determined effort to preserve and proliferate traditional Hawaiian culture.
During the 20-odd years I’ve been traveling to the islands on a regular basis, I’ve seen the movement mature from a fringe group that most people (including native Hawaiians) ignored, into an engine of Hawaiian politics, culture, and education.
My latest visit to the islands came on the heels of the state government (in defiance of the Trump administration) declaring that Hawai‘i would implement the Paris climate accord even if the rest of the United States didn’t. But the islands have long marched to the beat of a much different drummer than the rest of America.
Hawai‘i was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana and the very first state to declare that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right. At least a dozen local organizations view Hawai‘i’s relationship with Washington, D.C. as a long, illegal military occupation and advocate some sort of sovereignty, from outright independence and restoration of the monarchy to a special status for native Hawaiians similar to what is currently afforded to Native Americans.
The people of Lāna‘i are just glad that the island’s “occupation” by the Dole Pineapple Company is long gone and that the current owner (software billionaire Larry Ellison) is more amiable to rejuvenating both local culture and the indigenous environment. After buying most of the 364-square-kilometer island and its two Four Seasons resorts in 2012 for US$300 million, Ellison announced ambitious plans to create the world’s first totally sustainable community and thereby improve the lives of the resident islanders.
Kepā Maly, executive director of the Lāna‘i Culture & Heritage Center and one of the most vocal advocates of reviving island traditions, was dubious at first. But five-plus years into the Ellison era, he has come around. I caught up with him on a Saturday morning at the center’s museum, whose collection ranges from prehistoric artifacts to records of the island’s first contacts with European explorers and mementoes of the Dole Pineapple years. As a group of elderly Hawaiians arrived for a visit, Maly greeted them in their ancestral tongue. “Aloha kakahiaka! E komo mai!” And the visitors responded in kind, a full-blown conversation in a language that nearly died out a century ago but that’s now on its way to full revival thanks to people like Maly.
“Since the 1890s, Lāna‘i has been owned by a series of individuals,” Maly explained to me. “One of them tried to build nine resorts on the island and golf courses over sacred sites and petroglyphs.
Today’s owner [Ellison] seems to be genuinely interested in the natural and cultural heritage of this community. Sure, we have two resorts. But if high-end visitors contribute to our sustainability, why not? Better than having us overrun like Waikiki or Maui. And so what if we can’t support 20,000 people at a conference? We don’t give a rat’s ass about that.”
Renting a Jeep at the Four Seasons Resort Lāna‘i in Manele Bay, I took a drive that started with a steep climb into the broad caldera that dominates the comma-shaped island’s midsection. Lāna‘i City, which sits in the center of the volcanic depression, feels like a trip back in time—no longer a pineapple company town, but still stuck in some bygone era, with people flocking to old wooden churches on Sunday morning or hanging out in a town square shaded by towering Cook pines.
The grassy plains that surround the town were once pineapple fields. Even though the last of the fruits was harvested in 1992, relics of those days remain in irrigation tubing that protrudes from the orange earth and the shreds of black plastic (used to retain moisture in the soil) that blow across the roads. Beyond the caldera, Lāna‘i remains refreshingly empty and unspoiled, slowly devolving into the wild Hawaiian landscape that existed prior to the 1920s when the first pineapples were planted.
On the island’s north shore, I took a long stroll down Shipwreck Beach to see the rusty hulks of several vessels that still languish on the reef, walking until there were no other people in sight and mine were the only footprints in the sand. From there, I cruised inland to the so-called Garden of the Gods—a Mars-like landscape of boulders and rock towers created by an ancient volcanic eruption—and on to the Pali Kaholo, a stretch of sheer sea cliffs on the island’s southwest coast.
Kepā Maly had told me that in olden days, the waters here were a staging point for journeys to the rest of Polynesia, with voyaging canoes hunkered down in the cliffs’ lee waiting for strong winds and good weather to carry them down to the Marquesas and Tahiti. As dusk closed in, I could see a sparkle in the hazy distance—the setting sun reflecting off the observatories atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island, more than 160 kilometers to the southeast. The best part? Once again, I was completely alone, affording me a small glimpse of what these islands must have been like even before the first Polynesian settlers arrived.
Over on the larger island of Maui—a 45-minute ferry ride to the east—I kept running into people with similar sentiments about blending modern and old ways into a new Hawai‘i for the 21st century.
“You know, it was once illegal to speak Hawaiian,” said Kaimana Purdy, a cultural guide at the year-old Westin Nanea Ocean Villas resort in Ka‘anapali, on Maui’s northwest coast. “If you were caught by the missionaries or the plantation owners, you’d be punished for sure.” And not just for speaking the language. Following the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 19th century, any number of traditional practices were banned or suppressed, including the Polynesian religion, hula dancing, even outrigger canoeing.
Born and raised on Maui, Purdy is an alumnus of ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (“Language Nest”), a network of private, nonprofit schools that strives to teach Hawaiian to a new generation of islanders, revitalize indigenous culture among the youth, and foster a stronger sense of Hawaiian identity. “My parents wanted to do their part, to help revive Hawaiian culture,” Purdy explained. “And they figured that putting me through immersion school was maybe the best way.”
Purdy has put his language skills to work as supervisor of the Westin Nanea’s Pu‘uhonua o Nanea Cultural Center, a small museum and reference library that also serves as a staging ground for guided tours of a hotel garden planted with taro, kukui trees, and popolo berries. He is one of many ‘Aha Pūnana Leo graduates who are now “spreading the word” about Hawaiian culture in the tourism industry.
Although initially designed for preschoolers, ‘Aha Pūnana Leo now offers programs that run all the way through university level. It has also come a long ways from the 1980s when the first immersion schools were illegal and largely underground, to the point where the program is now a strategic partner with the Hawai‘i State Department of Education and has its own officially observed day, October 24, which recognizes ‘Aha Pūnana Leo’s contribution to preserving and nurturing the Hawaiian language.
There has also been an explosion of interest in outrigger canoeing. While the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki has been around since 1908—and is credited with saving the Hawaiian-style outrigger from extinction—the trend didn’t take off until the 1990s. Today, there are more than 60 outrigger clubs scattered across the archipelago and nearly every major beach resort offers its guests some sort of outrigger activity.
Annual canoe races like the Pailolo Challenge (which traverses 42 kilometers of open water between Maui and Moloka’i) and the Moloka’i Hoe (across 66 kilometers between Moloka’i and O‘ahu) count among the state’s premier sporting events. Hundreds of canoes and thousands of paddlers take part in these races, about as close as you can come in the 21st century to the fleet of outriggers that greeted the likes of Captain Cook and French explorer La Pérouse when they arrived in the islands around 240 years ago.
Having done quite a bit of paddling in other parts of the world, I wanted to discover how the outrigger experience differs from canoes and kayaks. Maui’s Ka‘anapali Beach, overlooking the channel where the Pailolo Challenge takes place each September, seemed a fitting place to get my feet wet. I signed on for an early morning paddle with Ali‘i Maui Outrigger Canoes, a family-run business that sets up on the beach each morning.
Before pushing off, owner Jamie Balingit explained the significance of outriggers in traditional Hawaiian culture. “Nowadays canoes are made from fiberglass. But in the old days, they were made from the trunk of a single koa tree that had to be cut down in the highlands and dragged to the coast by dozens of men. Only the finest craftsmen worked on canoes. And nobody was allowed to disturb their concentration. Because if you did, the punishment could be death. It was a sacred ritual, with a kahuna [shaman] always present.”
Balingit gathered three young canoe paddlers, including his nephew Leeland, to take me paddling on the Lahaina Roads, the broad channel that separates Maui, Moloka’i, and Lāna‘i. Pushing our outrigger into the surf and leaping aboard, we paddled south along Airport Beach, so named because there used to be a landing strip behind the coconut palms that line the shore.
As we glided about a hundred meters offshore, Leeland explained how long ago, warriors used to train for combat along this particular stretch of sand. And that Elvis Presley, who helped bring Hawaiian music and culture into the American mainstream in the 1960s, had once stayed at the oldest hotel on the beach.
“Outrigger canoeing isn’t so much about power as it is strategy —how to read the swells and currents, how to navigate by the stars,” he added. It also requires skillful paddling: deep strokes that make a swirl in the water when you remove the paddle, and absolutely no splashing on the surface.
The water below us was translucent, revealing a mosaic of coral, submerged lava flows, and sandy shallows where dozens of sea turtles were slumbering in the early-morning calm. Lāna‘i was dead ahead across the channel I’d crossed by ferry a few days earlier. Our destination was much closer: a large volcanic promontory called Pu‘u Keka‘a (Black Rock). “It’s a leina a ka ‘uhane, or ‘leaping place of the soul,’ ” Leeland told me. “Hawaiians believe this rock is the place where the dead leave their earthly existence by diving into the afterlife.”
Pu‘u Keka‘a has also been a popular cliff-diving spot since at least the 18th century, when King Kahekili apparently stamped his macho credentials by making incredible leaps from the top. Not to be outdone by some bygone monarch, Leeland and his buddies swam over to the rock, scaled the razor-sharp volcanic slope in their bare feet, and dove from the summit.
Although helter-skelter development continues along much of Maui’s shoreline, the highlands and offshore waters are garnering more protection and, in the same way as Lāna‘i, slowly
slipping back into something more akin to raw nature.
Government reserves like Haleakalā National Park and the West Maui Forest Reserve are owed a lot of the credit for preserving the island’s native flora and fauna. But private lands are also part of the movement to return backcountry Maui to its natural state.
One such initiative is the 35-square-kilometer Pu’u Kukui Water-shed Preserve near Kapalua, just up the coast from Ka‘anapali. Still owned by Maui Land & Pineapple, which closed its century-old pineapple business in 2009, it’s the largest private nature reserve in the Hawaiian Islands, and arguably that company’s greatest legacy—a sizeable slice of protected rain forest and scrubland that provides a habitat for rare native plants, birds, and gastropods.
I ventured up to one of the wooded ridgelines that crown Pu’u Kukui with Peter Kekona, a burly native Hawaiian who guides for the Kapalua Ziplines company. Using an all-terrain vehicle, we were able to ascend several hundred meters up the mountainside. Eventually the muddy orange road petered out and we continued on foot along a trail flanked by giant trees.
“These are sugi cedars,” Kekona explained. “They were originally imported from Japan in the 1880s because the wood was good for fixing ships during sailing days. But these never got harvested—
all of them are more than a century old. Yeah, I know. They’re not native. But who’s gonna cut down a bunch of hundred-year-old trees? They’re an integral part of the forest now.”
From a lofty viewpoint some 420 meters above sea level, we could look out across Pu’u Kukui, a vast green sea of ferns and trees that sprawls high above the busy beaches along the Kapalua shoreline. This was also the start of a series of seven ziplines that takes you hurtling back downhill. With Kekona in the lead, we plunged into the void—and were soon soaring 100 meters above a jungle gully.
To see how environmental protection was faring offshore, I headed next to Wailea Bay for a kayaking trip with veteran guide Deja Howard. The waters between Wailea and the small, crescent-shaped island of Molokini are doubly protected as part of the Molokini Shoal Marine Life Conservation District and the much larger Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. On this particular day there wasn’t a whale in sight: wrong season. But there were plenty of sea turtles, some of which were curious enough to surface and give us a quick look. We also caught a glimpse of the multicolored humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, Hawai‘i’s state fish.
“There’s a lot more turtles and whales than when I first started doing this,” said Howard, who’s been leading kayak trips off Maui for 16 years. “And a lot more coral. Researchers tell me the coral in this part of the marine sanctuary is growing like one centimeter per year. And people are trying to clean up the water in places that aren’t protected—get rid of septic tanks, stop agricultural runoff, and limit construction that harms the ocean.”
Leaving the island behind later that today on a flight back to my home on the mainland, I kept thinking about some of the things that Kepā Maly had told me during our meeting at the Lāna‘i Culture & Heritage Center.
“We’re already light years ahead of where we used to be just a couple of years ago,” he said of the movement to preserve the islands’ cultural and natural integrity. “And I have faith that we’ll continue reconnecting our communities with their legacy. I see our future as a sort of ‘living classroom’ where people from around the world can see and learn how to integrate their own cultures and traditions into modern life and achieve the balance that we have here on Lāna‘i.”
Numerous airlines connect Tokyo, Taipei, Manila, and other Asian cities with Honolulu, from where Hawaiian Airlines (hawaiianairlines.com) flies daily to both Maui and La¯na‘i. Guests of the Four Seasons Resort La¯na‘i can also avail themselves of a private daily charter flight from Honolulu on a turboprop service called Lanai Air, with fares starting at US$500 per couple. The ferry between Maui and La¯na‘i runs several times each day (go-lanai.com).
What to Do
La¯na‘i Culture & Heritage Center
La¯na‘i City; 1-808/565-7177.
Ali‘i Maui Outrigger Canoes
Ka‘anapali, Maui; 1-808/214-3272.
Hawaiian Ocean Sports
Wailea Beach, Maui;
Where to Stay
Four Seasons Resort La¯na‘i
More like an elegant private home than a resort property, the Four Seasons’ rooms are spread through lush tropical gardens, its hallways and common areas decorated with native Hawaiian art and artifacts. Among a half dozen dining options is Nobu, lauded as one of the best restaurants in the entire state. Outdoor diversions range from a Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course to a full range of adventure sports. 1-800/321-4666; doubles from US$1,150.
Westin Nanea Ocean Villas
In addition to the usual resort amenities, this family-friendly hotel on Maui’s northwestern shore offers hula dancing, lei making, and Hawaiian language classes at the lobby-side Pu’uhonua O Nanea Cultural Center. Shuttles run guests to and from historic (and nightlife-packed) Lahaina Town. 1-808/662-6300; doubles from US$379.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Heart of Hawaii”).