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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

Maui Nei Cultural Tour

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.

Volunteering on Maui

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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

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.

  • Rekha Devarapalli
    July 28 2014

    Hey Meihoukai,

    Great to know about these organizations and sad to know that your Maui posts have come to an end. Looking forward to your Tomorrowland posts now 🙂

    Rekha Devarapalli recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      Thanks Rekha! Hopefully I’ll be back in Maui soon with even more posts to share 🙂 But there is plenty more fun coming up before that!

  • Justine
    July 28 2014

    This is the kind of tourism I love. I think it’s great to really take the time to learn about the places you’re visiting, especially in a place like Hawaii. From its land to its history to its culture, Hawaii is a seriously incredible place. Oh, and extra kudos for quoting Gertrude Stein in this post. Love it!
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    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      I love that quote, think about it all the time! Glad to hear it was appreciated 🙂

  • becky hutner
    July 28 2014

    i’m realy intrigued by hawaiian history & culture. have you read the last queen’s biography, “hawaii’s story?” there’s a doc on netflix too. fascinating!
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    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      Ooooo no, I haven’t but I just added it to my must read list! I reread the history section of my guidebook over and over on my first trip… it’s fascinating!

  • I love would love to do this! Definitely on my list for my trip to Hawaii next summer. If I had a US passport I would be moving to Hawaii in a second 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      I definitely have a feeling I might call Hawaii home someday! If so I’d love to get more involved with these organizations.

  • The Guy
    July 29 2014

    Whilst I’ve never been to Hawaii I love the way you open this article and how it fits into my perception of the islands.

    I always get the view that Hawaii is almost like another country, or that is how I imagine it. Very different from the mainland, it’s own people, culture and way of doing things so very distinctly Hawaiian and not American.
    The Guy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      Yes, Hawaii is very much its own! Glad I captured your impression of Hawaii well. And I hope you go see if it’s accurate for yourself soon 🙂

  • Craig
    July 29 2014

    I love reading about travel bloggers volunteering, I think everyone should volunteer more often as it really can make a difference. Great post and pictures, Maui is beautiful. Glad to hear you helped keep it that way 🙂
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    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      I’m usually extremely cautious about voluntourism experiences…. but this one I felt great about. I really hope others check these organizations out when they are in Hawaii!

  • Kristen Noelle
    July 29 2014

    What a special experience! To know you’re really diving into and contributing to that genuine, distinctive Hawaiin culture must have felt amazing — especially since it’s a place already so dear to you. It reminds me a bit of a volunteering adventure I did in Thailand — one of my most memorable days spent on the trip.
    Inspires me to plan on seeking out more volunteer experiences in future travels.
    Kristen Noelle recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2014

      It’s so hard to find an authentic way to learn and to give back when you travel, I really cherish examples like these. It’s a good reminder to me to seek them out as well!

  • I feel the same way you do about voluntourism, but this seems like a great experience and a worthwhile organization. I can’t believe how beautiful Hawaii looks. I’ve never had much of a desire to go, but now I’ll have to add it to my list!

  • I’ve possibly mentioned this in a previous comment but my BF has been going to Maui for years and I think he totally would get that deep love you’re trying to describe. He’s been trying to explain it to me in anticipation of our trip. I guess I’ll just have to experience it for myself!

    Thanks for writing this post – you’ve honestly really opened my eyes about Maui. I don’t think that I ever anticipated so much culture and history, probably because it’s easy to get caught up in the touristy things. I’m going to make a point to learn as much as I can while I’m there 🙂
    Sara @ The Let’s Go Ladies recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 1 2014

      That’s a huge compliment Sara, thank you! I was once a Hawaii skeptic myself so I love turning people on to the idea that it can be more than mega resorts and fruity drinks with paper umbrellas!

  • Cristy
    August 1 2014

    Craving for some glazed pineapples now! Haha…What a wonderful story of volunteerism you got here Meihoukai. Hawaii is a tropical paradise, it’s lovely to hear that there are people who wholeheartedly shares their commitment to protect the culture of the land. 🙂
    Cristy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 1 2014

      Thanks Cristy. I’m just excited to show people a few ways to make their trips to Maui a bit more meaningful! It’s such a special place, I want travelers to get every ounce of wonderful out of it that they can.

  • Meihoukaia
    August 1 2014

    Hi Meihoukai!
    I have really loved your Maui series. I plan to go again next year and play to try to do many of the activities you described here. It is so important to give back and hope that I will have a opportunity to do so soon!
    Meihoukaia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 3 2014

      Thanks Meihoukaia! That is great to hear. I hope your return to Maui is as amazing as mine was!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    August 3 2014

    I really hope to be able to go with Scott in the spring since we’re not doing a big international trip next year, and your photos are making me so excited!
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    • Meihoukai
      August 3 2014

      It’s funny, I know Hawaii is technically part of the US but going there I always feel like I should need my passport. Ugh, I just love it so much!

  • Diana Edelman
    August 4 2014

    I am so glad you got to do this and even more glad you wrote about it so others can follow in your footsteps and be more responsible tourists.
    Diana Edelman recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 4 2014

      I think anyone’s trip to Maui would be richer for it!

  • Angie Away
    August 4 2014

    We definitely share an affinity for all things Hawaiian… there’s no place like it! I love how even though it’s a US state, it feels like a different country entirely. Kudos to you for promoting such an awesome cause. Hawaiian culture is absolutely worth preserving!
    Angie Away recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      AND Hawaii will always have the important distinction of being Where I Met Angie, of course 🙂 By the way girlfriend, your Gravatar is not showing!

  • Kristin Addis
    August 4 2014

    Beautifully written and I truly felt what you mean as I was reading your intro about immediately feeling the culture of Hawaii. I just love places like that.
    Kristin Addis recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      Thanks Kristin! I think you’d love Hawaii… might be time to add it to the list!

  • Amy
    August 4 2014

    What a great volunteer experience. You have to be so careful when it comes to volunteering as I think it often causes more harm than good, but local grassroots projects like these are awesome. If I ever get to Hawaii (which I hope I will!) I’ll check the project out!
    Amy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      I completely agree with you Amy. And I’ve been meaning to write a post about it forever 🙂 But I think its great that groups like these are making sustainable and enriching tourism so readily available.

  • Giselle and Cody
    August 4 2014

    We love being able to contribute to local society while we travel. It’s a nice way to give back, but you’re right in saying there are programs where you shell out a substantial amount of money and stand around feeling useless. It’s great to find a program where you feel you’ve made a difference and you can get your hands dirty,…..Hawaii looks beautiful, we look forward to visiting!

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      Definitely check both these organizations out when you do 🙂 I think they are giving a wonderful gift to the people who work with them!

  • Ligeia and Mindy
    August 10 2014

    Wow, what an amazing place! It looks like those pineapples are worth the trip alone, let alone the gorgeous jungles and the interesting cultures. We’ve put Maui on the list! 🙂
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    • Meihoukai
      August 12 2014

      I think you’d love it! Not too far from Thailand, either… 🙂

  • tammyonthemove
    August 15 2014

    This volunteering opportunity looks great. I am not a fan of voluntourism either, but when it is done responsibly then it can be very beneficial for both the locals and the volunteer.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 19 2014

      I think this is an example of one of the good guys! Glad you approve 🙂

  • Karen
    February 20 2015

    Hi Meihoukai! I love the color (vintage?) tint in all of your pictures. I don’t even know what you would call it. Is that effect after you edit the pictures, or when you take the pictures with a certain camera lends? Thanks!

    • Meihoukai
      February 25 2015

      Hey Karen! I don’t use any special filters on my lens, but I do tinker in Photoshop. Often I download different free Photoshop Action packs and play around with them. Not sure which I used on these photos specifically but I love to play 🙂 Hope that helps!

  • Donna
    September 29 2015

    What a great trip you had! Hawaii is amazing! So many of my friends are inviting me to go see this amazing land. What you do is great. I am from Colorado and loving the mountains but what a great view if you have a match of the mountains and the beaches. I am so ready to see Hawaii! 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      October 2 2015

      It’s one of my favorite places on earth. Get there as soon as you can 🙂

  • Jamin Tom
    January 4 2016

    Hi there Meihoukai,

    I’m glad you got to check out the Cultural Lands and I just wanted to extend a warm mahalo out to you for volunteering and spreading the word about cultural awareness. Our islands are our pride and joy and it’s always nice to see someone caring enough to take the time out of their schedule to volunteer. Props!

    Best regards,
    Jamin Tom recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 6 2016

      I can see why — I’d be proud to call Hawaii home too! I think this experience is one of the greatest you can have on Maui simply for the opportunity to meet such a warm family and learn so much about the island’s history and culture. I’ll be there next time I’m back for sure!

  • Carly
    August 20 2016

    I know exactly what you mean about it being hard to put into words. Hawaii is such a special place. I arrived here 20 years ago on holiday and just couldn’t leave. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating place. Love that you are encouraging people to volunteer here!
    Carly recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 24 2016

      That’s amazing — I might just find myself in the same position someday 🙂 I often fantasize about “retiring” from nomad life in Hawaii!

  • Natalie
    August 17 2017

    What an interesting experience. We travel with the kids and love the opportunity to teach them about new things from how to read a map to appreciating cultures around the world. Getting your hands dirty…figuratively and literally as in this case, is the best way to experience another culture. We have only taken the kids to the big island and would love to go back. This activity would be number one on our list!

    • Meihoukai
      September 17 2017

      Aw, I’d love to hear about it if you do go! Such a unique experience and one I feel kids would love!