Not Just Mai Tais Anymore

The Big Island’s Kohala Coast Delivers a Luxurious Lesson in
Hawaiian Culture

Text & Photos by: Matt

PICT0028-1.jpgI 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
(or King’s Trail) from my luxury hotel room in the
Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island’s northwestern Kohala
. 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).
uncle%20gary.jpg 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

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
, 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.
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
, a tour guide for Hawai‘i Forest and
, 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). polulo.jpg 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.

PICT0045.jpgThe 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
, 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). mauna%20lani.jpg 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
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.
from Hawai‘i and a modern-day kahuna who does blessings
throughout the state. akaka.jpg 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.

PICT0147.jpgAkaka 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
, 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
, 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) kona%20village.jpg 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), kona%20bar.jpg 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. imu.jpg 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 The
author’s trip was arranged and paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort


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