It doesn’t take long to realize there is something special about Hawaii. I was trying to explain it to a friend recently, to put in to words why my love for these islands runs so deep. Yes, Hawaii has beautiful beaches and lush mountains and fabulous opportunities for adventure, but it has something more. The people haven’t let their islands be converted into glorified cruise ship terminals. From the moment you step off the plane, there is this tangible sense of culture, and pride in that culture, and connection with the history and the land — and yes, that infamous spirit of aloha. You know that quote from Gertrude Stein, about a sense of place? “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” In Hawaii, there is so much there there.
This is my final dispatch from my most recent trip to Maui, and I think I saved the best for last. Because what I loved about these two experiences is that they bring you beyond the rainbows and the palm trees. In some places, you have to fight to find that deeper level. In Maui, these two organizations have made it easy for you — and they are waiting with open arms.
Respecting History with Maui Nei Cultural Tours
Today, it’s easy to see Lahaina as Maui’s charming waterfront epicenter of tourism, a laid-back former whaling town where shave ice and sunset sailing tours are available on every corner. wants to show you another side. Their two-hour tours guided by a native Hawaiian aim to cultivate awareness of the culture through education and preservation.
Our tour began with a beautiful ancient Hawaiian chant by our guide at the steps of the Lahaina Heritage Museum. I received a nod of approval when I complimented his tribal tattoos and mentioned the exhibit I’d attended on them at the Honolulu Museum of Art the year before. He was dryly cynical and harshly critical of those who have threatened Hawaii’s cultural heritage, and I warmed to him immediately. We meandered through the museum as our guide interjected his colorful commentary along the way, and I wondered how I’d missed all this on my previous visit to Lahaina.
As we made our way out of the museum and into Banyan Tree Park, the topic of the Hawaii sovereignty movement came up. Suspecting the answer, I asked our guide if he supported the efforts. “That depends,” he replied slyly. “Who’s asking?”
We strolled through Lahaina, and saw the town through new eyes. A slab of cement became a large lo‘i kalo, or taro patch, used by the monarchy. A rock in the harbor became the Hauola Stone, a birthing site for the highest ranking and most sacred chiefesses, considered descendants of the deities. (Best crack of the day came from as we stared down at the very, um, firm looking birthing rock: “And where was the epidural administered?”)
And then we went for pineapples.
The last stop was the heart of the Maui Nei tour. Towards the East side of Lahaina, we were led onto what appeared to be a very scenically located overflow parking lot. But like most of the gems we had been walking past all along, it was something so much more: this was Moku’ula, former home of Maui’s great chiefs and former royal residence of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and one of the islands’ most important cultural sites. It’s mind-boggling to think this site has been so overlooked.
Maui Nei and its sister organization Friends of Moku’ula want to revitalize the Moku’ula island and Mokuhinia ponds. Having seen similar cultural sites restored and preserved and enjoyed with great success on The Big Island, I was moved by their mission and sent them a donation when I returned home still thinking about it.
Spend a morning with Maui Nei — and consider contributing to their cause. You won’t regret it. In fact, you might just get fired up enough to want to get into action…
Volunteering with Maui Cultural Lands
Normally I’m quite suspicious of volunteer travel experiences. Often, they involve a potent mix paying a hefty fee and standing around feeling useless. Not so with grassroots organization . The organization’s mission is to stabilize, protect and restore Hawaiian cultural resources. And every Saturday they journey deep into the Honokowai Valley for a day of , celebrating Hawaii’s heritage, and maintenance labor removing invasive plant species and supporting endemic ones. Anyone can join, and all they ask for is hard day’s work.
Community leader Ekolu met us and the other volunteers in a parking lot in Ka’anapali, where we caravaned up the mountain to a point of no return. From there, we jumped in the pickup truck until we reached the summit, from where we hiked down into the valley.
We were an interesting mix. Along with our group and Ekolu’s mother and brother, there was a tourist joining in for the first time, an older woman who’d transplanted to Hawaii years ago, and a local middle schooler who’d been volunteering with the organization every Saturday for more than two years.
Along the way, the more experienced volunteers stopped to point out endemic species of plants, and to fill us in on the history of the valley, which was once home to up to 600 native Hawaiian families.
Once in the valley, we got to work pulling weeds and other invaders. And of course, we never stopped talking Hawaii. “We want to teach our children to be stewards for the land,” Ekolu explained. To him and so many other native Hawaiians, it is a privilege to care for the island.
There was something therapeutic in the repetitive physical work and the chatting with the other volunteers, and I felt a tug of regret when it was time for our team to call it quits (we left early to catch our flights — normally, it’s a full day activity ending around 4pm). As I left, I promised Ekolu I’d be back. And I meant it.
Mahalo to Maui Nei and Maui Cultural Lands for the opportunity to learn about the great work their organizations are doing. And with a heavy heart I say aloha for now, Hawaii. It won’t be long till I’m back.
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Many thanks to the Maui Visitors Bureau for hosting me and showing me so much aloha. As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.