Not Just Mai Tais Anymore
The Big Island’s Kohala Coast Delivers a Luxurious Lesson in Hawaiian Culture
Text & Photos by: Matt Kettmann
I am hot on the heels of Uncle Gary’s flip-flops, trying to keep up as he leads me on a rocky trail through a dense kiawe forest toward a petroglyph field. We’re about a 10-minute walk over the white coral and black lava of the Ali Kahakai (or King’s Trail) from my luxury hotel room in the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island’s northwestern Kohala Coast. But this place feels like a different, magical world, a sensation that — Uncle Gary tells me in his pidgin-accented voice — the native Hawaiians also experience here.
“This place is the piko,” says Uncle Gary, motioning to his belly button and explaining that the Kohala Coast is considered sacred because it’s centrally located between five major volcanoes: Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Kohala, Hualalai, and Haleakala, whose top is visible on Maui across a 30-mile expanse of wind-whipped ocean. A native Hawaiian himself and a resort employee for 28 years, Uncle Gary remembers when the Hawaiian language and heritage were shunned. But thanks to a cultural renaissance that began in the 1960s, Uncle Gary is happy to have seen things change — just a few years ago, he notes, the first class of students to have learned Hawaiian from grammar to high school graduated.
We turn another corner and my jaw drops. Laid out before me, covering an area nearly the size of a football field, are smooth lava rocks containing countless images scribed by native Hawaiians over the past dozen centuries. There are sketches of Polynesian crab-claw sails, icons of the god Lono, checkerboard-like hole arrangements, and animals such as honu (the sea turtles that swim all over the coast here). But mostly, the petroglyph images are humanoid, denoting newborns and family lineages. Next to each of those is a shallow hole, which Uncle Gary (pictured) also calls a piko. This is the place where a newborn’s umbilical cord would be buried soon after birth, marking the fact that the baby was no longer connected to its mother but was now connected to the earth.
And these connections — of ancient Hawaiians to their land and of modern Hawaiians to their nearly forgotten heritage — are ripe on the Kohala Coast, the 50th state’s leader in cultural tourism. “Yea bruddah,” explains Uncle Gary, “Hawai‘i isn’t just for mai tais and lava flows anymore.”
Poi and Polulo
That’s exactly what the folks at the Kohala Coast Resort Association had been telling me for the past two years in hopes of getting me to visit and write an article. I hesitated because I figured it was just a clever marketing ploy, and I’m no sucker for creative PR. But immediately upon arriving, I found what they were saying to be truer than I could have imagined. Over six nights and seven days at three resorts — the Fairmont Orchid, the Mauna Lani, and the Kona Village — I enjoyed a primer on Hawaiian history and culture and watched other tourists eagerly do the same. From half-day hikes and themed massages to restaurant menus and newspaper headlines, the Kohala Coast exudes culture and serves it up on a luxurious dish. (For a map of the Kohala Coast, click here.)
This cultural buffet began on my first night on the island. After checking into my room at the Orchid, I was escorted to my first luau in nearly 20 years. As I chowed on a Polynesian-themed feast — including poi and lau lau from Hawai‘i, green-lipped mussels from New Zealand, coconut shrimp from Tahiti, and oka from Samoa — I realized things had definitely changed in the world of luaus. Featuring modern dance, creative costumes, vivid storytelling, and fancy lights, the Orchid’s luau — called “A Gathering of Kings” — managed to balance historical insight with 21st-century production values. The luau — as well as the other two that I’d digest in the next week — was no longer our grandparents’ affair. And they don’t even make you dance anymore.
Much like the luau, the secret to the Kohala Coast’s successful blend of luxury and heritage lies very much in the presentation. Tourists don’t want to be lectured. They need adventure — or even just something active like a short walk — to pull them into the cultural realm. At the Orchid, one way to do this is by taking outrigger canoe lessons. I joined beach boy Kenny for a short outing one morning, and he taught me the proper ways to paddle. It was a peek into his “progressive paddling” class, a three-day series where paddlers go farther out to sea each day. By the time I looked up from my strokes, I realized that we had gone pretty far ourselves — the turquoise waters had changed to a deep blue, spinner dolphins were frolicking nearby, and I could see nearly the entire Kohala Coast.
The next day, I found myself riding shotgun in a bus driven by Bob Fewell, a tour guide for Hawai‘i Forest and Trail, the concessionaires of choice for the KCRA. Sitting behind me were tourists from Southern California, Kentucky, and Toronto, all eager to embark on the easy but awe-inspiring “waterfall” hike up the Polulo Valley (pictured). Fewell fueled us with more information about the island’s natural and cultural history than can fit in a book. Here are the highlights: the Big Island features 11 of the world’s 13 ecosystems (arctic and tundra got the boot); King Kamehameha, who united the island chain in the late 1700s, was born north of Kohala near the cute sugar-plantation-cum-artist-colony town of Hawi; and although Hawai‘i constitutes a miniscule portion of the landmass of the United States, it boasts more than 50 percent of its endangered species.
The hike had us following a cliff-hugging trail on private land that only Hawai‘i Forest and Trail enjoys access to. Along the way, Fewell kept the natural history tidbits coming, explaining which shrubs were the “canoe plants” brought by the first wave of Marquesan islanders when they settled this chain 1,200 years ago, why it might rain when you pick a lehua flower from the ‘Ōhi‘a tree, and how the fuzz on ferns was used successfully by Hawaiians as a coagulant and not-so-successfully by the white folks who tried to make it into pillow stuffing … and so on. When we reached the final waterfall, a several hundred-foot-high beast that pours just over the trail, we scurried beneath the falls to get our picture taken (that's me in a photo taken by Fewell). And given that Fewell is a former photog for the daily newspaper-of-record West Hawaii Today, they all turned out winners.
Water Hazards and Aquaculture
After the hike, I checked into the Mauna Lani (pictured) hotel and headed to their spa for a traditional lomi lomi massage choreographed to Polynesian music (a prime example of how Hawaiian tradition is entrenched in resort tourism). While the musical aspect was somewhat silly, the actual massage technique — long, full-back strokes, delivered deftly by a Frenchman named Alain — was invigorating. Alain told me afterward that the technique is based on the one employed by the Hawaiian ladies who’d massage the men after long treks along the King’s Trail.
Even the Kohala Coast’s golf courses are jumping on the cultural bandwagon. Because six of them lie along the King’s Trail, the courses have teamed together to entice visitors to play all of them. I notched off the Mauna Lani’s South Course during my stay, sinking four balls into the drink on the infamous, ocean-side 15th hole.
That night I ate dinner with Susan Bredo, marketing director for the Mauna Lani. Over raw ahi and teriyaki chicken wings, Bredo told me how Francis I’I Brown, a Hawaiian of royal blood who once owned this land, had made a handshake deal with the Japanese buyer to keep the ancient fishponds intact and maintain a focus on Hawaiian culture. The buyer agreed, and to this day, the same Japanese company owns the land, and the spotlight is more than ever on culture.
“The Mauna Lani is one of the leaders in cultural tourism,” Bredo said as a rare rain shower fell on the dry landscape. “Tourists these days are looking for authenticity. They don’t want the Disneyland-like Hawaiian experience anymore.”
Foremost among authentic Mauna Lani experiences is a walk with Danny Akaka, Jr. (pictured), son of the longtime U.S. senator from Hawai‘i and a modern-day kahuna who does blessings throughout the state. I first met Akaka, or Kaniela, as his Hawaiian friends call him, by the hotel pool sitting with a mom, son, and daughter, who was taking notes for her school newspaper. Half Hawaiian and half Chinese, Akaka — who toured the world playing songs and talking story for Aloha Airlines many years ago — gives a whole new meaning to “Hawaiian time,” as he’s a notoriously slow mover, taking each step and uttering each word with careful grace. Everyone on the Big Island knows Akaka, it seems, and they should, for he is one of the leading ambassadors of Hawaiian culture. “He’ll be named a national treasure one day,” predicts one of his colleagues.
Akaka led us on a slow, two-hour-plus meander around the fish ponds, explaining that Hawaiians were the first aquaculturists and that these ponds were used for raising mullet and ava (milkfish) — the bony fish preferred by royalty — that kept leaping clear out of the water as he talked. As we looked at the makaha, or sluice gate, which allows baby fish into the ponds but traps the big ones, Akaka taught us how easy it is to speak the Hawaiian language, and why it’s so beautiful. “The Hawaiian language is a language of poetry,” he said in his graceful manner. “It’s a reflection of the Hawaiians’ love for the world that surrounded them.” Sporting cowboy boots, blue jeans, a red and white aloha shirt, a straw hat with bird feather band, a leather belt that said “AKAKA,” and a cell phone that wouldn’t stop ringing, Akaka is the quintessential holy man for the 21st century and a vivid storyteller able to keep even restless 9-year-olds enchanted. It’s worth a visit to Kohala simply to hear him — and the walks are free, though he always appreciates a tip.
The next morning, after having treated myself to a $140 solo dinner the night before at the resort’s Canoe House, I joined Akaka again, and we walked the Fisherman’s Trail that his ancestors once trod. He started working at the resort more than 20 years ago as a groundskeeper but would offer tourists tidbits of information about this and that in passing. The tourists wanted more, so he led free tours after his day job. Resort management noticed, and a department of cultural affairs was started. “I always felt it was important — for people who want to know about Hawaii — to be able to provide that,” he says. “This is the biggest attraction for the Mauna Lani. I’m sure many properties would love to have something like this to show their guests,” he continues, looking across the palm-lined ponds with a glimmer in his eye, “but they’ve already destroyed it.”
Mother Earth and Father Sky
Destruction is the last thing on my mind when I check into the Kona Village, one of the first resorts on the Kohala Coast and now owned by Montecito’s Ty Warner. An oasis of simple Polynesian-themed hales (or huts) spread around a tranquil cove and amongst fishponds, the Kona Village is a masterpiece in resort design: There are no keys, no TVs, no radios, no computers, no cell phones, and no money (prices include meals). But there are activities galore, turtles on the beach outside your sandy porch, a hot tub in your private backyard, exquisite food for every meal, a bar crafted from the original owner’s storm-washed sailboat (pictured), free grind-it-yourself Kona coffee, an unbeatable feel-good vibe, and painted coconuts to put outside your room as a “Do Not Disturb” indicator. No wonder 70 percent of their visitors are returnees, with some chalking up 40-plus visits. Oh, and if you can tear yourself away from snorkeling with underwater scooters and relaxing on the beach, there’s ample culture too.
On my first night, I walked down the beach from my hale and met Vicki Kometani and Auntie Lani ‘Opunui, who proceeded to tell me about the property’s ancient past. Due to the nearby petroglyph field, it’s speculated that the cove was probably used as a school for sailing, says Auntie Lani. She later emceed the onsite luau, which is more of a throwback to luaus past, with traditional hulas and lessons on how to make poi from taro root and why we should all cook our pigs in underground imus (pictured).
For my last evening on the Kohala Coast, I was torn away from the Kona Village for an evening of volcano exploration, once again hooking up with Hawaii Forest and Trail, but this time for a journey to the top of the 13,796-foot Mauna Kea. Named “White Mountain” for the snow it gets in the wintertime, Mauna Kea is visible on every clear day from the entire Kohala Coast. Considered, my guide tells me, the son of Mother Earth and Father Sky (just like humans and taro), this massive mountain (it’s the world’s tallest if measured from its true base on the seafloor) is the island’s most sacred place.
Before we did some stargazing near the permanent zillion-dollar telescopes, we watched the sun set, changing into many hues as it sank. I watched the hot orb drop into the ocean due west of the Kohala Coast, as people have since the first Hawaiians landed here nearly 2,000 years ago. Much has certainly changed for Hawai‘i, but it’s not hard to see why those first voyagers decided to call the place home.
4•1•1 For more on the Kohala Coast, see kohalacoastresorts.com. The author’s trip was arranged and paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association.