When I first meet Auntie Malihini, a cultural practitioner at Maui’s Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel, she walks me over to the kukui nut tree on the grassy oceanfront lawn. With her gentle and nurturing manner, she explains how this tree has had a significant role in the traditional culture, lifestyle and celebrations of her family and her ancestors.
“This is a tree of life and light,” she says. The oil from the nuts creates candle pods to provide illumination. It can also soothe burns and wounds. The sap of the tree can be used to heal cold sores and other mouth irritations; the trunk of the tree was used to make canoes. A native of Maui, Auntie Malihini grew up as the oldest of 11 kids. “The beauty of our island is the people,” she says.
Auntie Malihini, who has worked at the Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel for 29 years, possesses a vast knowledge of the iconic property that opened on the sunny western shores of Maui in 1964. Part cultural ambassador and part historian, she embodies the spirit of ohana (family). As she walks through the grounds, she stops to ask guests about their kids and grandkids. She reminisces about return guests’ anniversaries and life events.
A sense of ohana is why the majority of guests at Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel are return visitors. While watching the sunset on the beach, my husband and I meet a couple from Tacoma, Wash., who have stayed at the hotel 14 times. They know the staff by name and stop to say hello to Uncle Bobby, the bellman who has worked at the hotel for 53 years.
The hotel, which boasts 432 rooms, recently underwent an $80 million kealaula enhancement project. The term kealaula refers to the light of early dawn and the glow of sunset, symbolizing the renewed essence of the hotel. Indeed, a sense of rest and relaxation greets us the minute we walk into our premium oceanfront room in the Papakū south wing. Sliding the glass doors of our lanai open, we hear the gentle waves of the ocean rolling in, and the distance between us and L.A. traffic, between us and our daily responsibilities back home, stretches wider and wider.
The design of each renovated room is a soothing mixture of muted colors, modern elements and Hawaiian culture. A unique touch in each room is an employee-made makamae shadow box with traditional items including kīholo (shark hook), lūhe‘e (octopus lure), lei kūpe‘e (nerite sea shell lei), leiomanō (shark tooth weapon) and ‘upena (fishing net).
Completed in 2021, the project includes the renovation of the 180-room Kauaʻi wing and the 84-room Lānaʻi wing, newly renamed Papakū south wing and Kauhale southeast wing. The hotel also opened a spectacular new 5,000-square-feet oceanfront restaurant, Huihui, which means “star constellation” or “to join, intermingle, mix.” Huihui, centered around the theme of ancient art of Hawaiian navigation, is a feast for the senses — a fusion of modern and Hawaiian cuisine with incredible ocean views. While we savor our kula salad of local mixed greens and hand line ahi seasoned with nīoi (Hawaiian chili pepper), we watch the sun slowly set, creating a golden glow against the piercingly clear sky. Huihui offers an abundance of locally sourced menu items, ranging from fresh seafood and organic produce to Moloka’I venison.
Culture and responsibility
Beyond the lovely amenities, warm ocean waters and balmy air, Ka’anapali Beach Hotel is focused on sharing the culture of the island with its guests. The employees view it as their kuleana (responsibility) to make sure guests understand their authentic culture and history. Kindness and respect for the environment, for the traditions and for cultural sites is woven throughout the design and upgrades of the hotel and new restaurant, as well as in complimentary activities offered daily.
In our pānānā class, we learn that Polynesian voyagers in outrigger canoes were exceptional wayfinders who navigated the Pacific Ocean by watching the sun, stars and movements of seabirds. A young girl in our group asks about Disney’s “Moana” movie. It turns out that Ānela, our alakaʻ (cultural practitioner), took part in helping the movie developers gain a better understanding of the traditional non-instrument navigation methods that explorers relied on. The young girl is excited to learn that in the scene when Moana determines her latitude by using her hands to measure the angles between the star and the horizon is precisely the star navigation technique that voyagers used to sail across the ocean in search of land.
In our lei class, Hoʻonui teaches us how to twist and tie ti leaves, which we learn are traditional leis symbolizing appreciation and respect and are often used as gifts for graduations, weddings and other special events.
During our hula class, we learn that through dance families honor and preserve their stories and cultural histories. Each movement is part of an oral story passed from one generation to the next. It’s about a way of life, spirituality, honoring your ancestors, the land and the ocean.
And in the snorkeling class, we learn about the tropical fish that feed off the coral surrounding the island, and of the many species in the area — from sea turtles to sharks — and their importance in the ecosystem and how to safety interact with them. The hotel also operates a waʻa kaukahi, a six-person single-hull outrigger canoe as part of its ocean activities program.
To immerse visitors in island traditions and celebrate the cherished hula dance, Kā‘anapali Beach Hotel hosts the annual Hula o Nā Keiki, Maui’s only children’s hula competition. This year’s event, scheduled for Nov. 10-12, marks the 30th anniversary.
I have been to Maui several times before, but this is the first time that I really soaked in its culture and traditions. The hotel invites all guests to join a special sendoff ceremony filled with music and well wishes for safe travels back home. It is during this ceremony where we receive our kukui nut leis and learn my favorite way to say goodbye — a hui hou: “Until we meet again.”
Elena Epstein is Creative Director of L.A. Parent.