Since the Polynesians ventured across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 years ago, these floating jewels have continued to call visitors from around the globe.
Located in one of the most remote and isolated places on the planet, Maui, as part of the Hawaiian Islands chain, floats in the warm waters of the Pacific, blessed by a tropical sun and cooled by gentle year-round trade winds -- creating what might be the most ideal climate imaginable. Centuries of the indigenous Hawaiian culture have given the people of the islands the "spirit of aloha," a warm, welcoming attitude that invites visitors to come and share this exotic paradise. Mother Nature has carved out verdant valleys, hung brilliant rainbows in the sky, and trimmed the islands with sandy beaches in a spectrum of colors, from white to black to even green and red.
Visitors are drawn to Maui not only for its incredible beauty, but also for its opportunities for adventure: bicycling down a 10,000-foot dormant volcano, swimming in a sea of rainbow-colored fish, hiking into a rainforest, or watching whales leap out of the ocean as you tee off on one of the country's top golf courses. Others come to rest and relax in a land where the pace of life moves at a slower rate and the sun's rays soothe and allow both body and mind to regenerate and recharge.
Venturing to Maui is not your run-of-the-mill vacation, but rather an experience in the senses that will remain with you, locked into your memory, way, way, way after your tan fades. Years later, a sweet smell, the warmth of the sun on your body, or the sound of the wind through the trees will take you back to the time you spent in the islands.
Incidentally, Maui is the only island in the Hawaiian chain named after a god -- well, actually a demigod (half man, half god). Hawaiian legends are filled with the escapades of Maui, who had a reputation as a trickster. In one story, Maui is credited with causing the birth of the Hawaiian Islands when he threw his "magic" fishhook down to the ocean floor and pulled the islands up from the bottom of the sea. Another legend tells how Maui lassoed the sun to make it travel more slowly across the sky so that his mother could more easily dry her clothes. Maui's status as the only island to carry the name of a deity seems fitting, considering its reputation as the perfect tropical paradise, or as Hawaiians say, Maui no ka oi. (Maui is the best.)
A Cultural Renaissance -- A conch shell sounds, a young man in a bright feather cape chants, torchlight flickers at sunset on the beach, and hula dancers begin telling their graceful centuries-old stories. It's a cultural scene out of the past come to life once again -- for Hawaii is enjoying a renaissance of hula, chant, and other aspects of its ancient culture.
The biggest, longest, and most elaborate celebrations of Hawaiian culture are the Aloha Festivals, which encompass more than 500 cultural events from August to October. "Our goal is to teach and share our culture," says Gloriann Akau, a former manager of the Aloha Festivals. "In 1946, after the war, Hawaiians needed an identity. We were lost and needed to regroup. When we started to celebrate our culture, we began to feel proud. We have a wonderful culture that had been buried for a number of years. This brought it out again. Self-esteem is more important than making a lot of money."
In 1985, native Hawaiian educator, author, and kupuna (respected elder) George Kanahele started integrating Hawaiian values into hotels like Maui's Kaanapali Beach Hotel. "You have the responsibility to preserve and enhance the Hawaiian culture, not because it's going to make money for you, but because it's the right thing to do," Kanahele told the Hawaii Hotel Association. "Ultimately, the only thing unique about Hawaii is its Hawaiianess. Hawaiianess is our competitive edge."
From general managers to maids, resort employees went through hours of Hawaiian cultural training. They held focus groups to discuss the meaning of aloha -- the Hawaiian concept of unconditional love -- and applied it to their work and their lives. Now many hotels have joined the movement and instituted Hawaiian programs. No longer content with teaching hula as a joke, resorts now employ a real kumu hula (hula teacher) to instruct visitors and have a kupuna (elder) take guests on treks to visit heiau (temples) and ancient petroglyph sites.
The Question of Sovereignty -- The Hawaiian cultural renaissance has also made its way into politics. Many kanaka maoli (native people) are demanding restoration of rights taken away more than a century ago when the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Their demands were not lost on President Bill Clinton, who was picketed at a Democratic political fundraiser at Waikiki Beach in July 1993. Four months later, Clinton signed a document stating that the U.S. Congress "apologizes to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893, with the participation of agents and citizens of the United States, and deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination."
But even neonationalists aren't convinced that complete self-determination is possible. Each of the 30 identifiable sovereignty organizations (and more than 100 splinter groups) has a different stated goal, ranging from total independence to nation-within-a-nation status, similar to that of Native Americans. In 1993, the state legislature created a Hawaiian Sovereignty Advisory Commission to "determine the will of the native Hawaiian people." The commission plans to pose the sovereignty question in a referendum open to all persons over age 18 with Hawaiian blood, no matter where they live. The question still remains unanswered.
Symbol of a Culture: The Outrigger Canoe
Hawaiians have been masters of the outrigger canoe since the first Polynesians landed on the islands' shores about 1,500 years ago. Today, outrigger canoeing is the official state sport, and dozens of canoeing clubs throughout the islands cater to a growing interest -- and pride -- in this oldest of Hawaiian traditions.
Far more than a simple mode of transportation, the canoe in ancient Hawaii was inextricably woven into the culture: as an expression of royal power, the basis of its early naval fleet, a favorite sport, an essential tool for fishing and survival, and an art form. Outrigger canoes have one or more lateral support floats (outriggers), or can be double-hulled, like today's catamarans. Historically, the one-piece hulls were carved from the hardwood koa tree; the floats and other parts were lashed together with coconut-fiber cord. Sails were mats woven from pandanus leaves. Because the canoe's performance in Hawaii's rough ocean waters could determine life or death, a priest often oversaw the building of the vessel, and offerings of fish, pigs, and flowers were made upon completion of a canoe. Canoe racing was a physically rigorous sport, and races were held primarily for serious gambling purposes. It's estimated that when the Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century there were as many as 12,000 canoes in Hawaii, though canoe racing, like surfing, was banned once missionaries arrived, around 1820.
Centuries before European explorers were plying the world's oceans, the Hawaiians' ancestors, the Polynesians, were using sophisticated long-distance navigation techniques and large, double-hulled outrigger canoes to travel thousands of miles in the vast Pacific. From their earliest origins in Southeast Asia, these early navigators traveled to the western edge of Polynesia (Micronesia) between 3,000 and 1,500 B.C. From there, they steadily moved west and north to colonize eastern Polynesian islands like Samoa and Tonga. Sometime between 300 and 700 A.D., the Polynesians arrived in New Zealand, the Easter Islands (Rapa Nui), and Hawaii. The Polynesians and Hawaiians practiced star map navigation, which uses the rising points of the stars, and observation of the sun, moon, ocean swells, and flight patterns of birds, as a natural compass to steer the course.
The Lei of the Land
There's nothing like a lei: the stunning tropical beauty of the delicate garland, the deliciously sweet fragrance of the blossoms, the sensual way the flowers curl softly around your neck. There's no doubt about it: Getting lei'd in Hawaii is a sensuous experience. Leis are one of the nicest ways to say hello, good-bye, congratulations, I salute you, my sympathies are with you, or I love you. The custom of giving leis can be traced back to Hawaii's very roots; according to chants, the first lei was given by Hiiaka, the sister of the volcano goddess Pele, who presented Pele with a lei of lehua blossoms on a beach in Puna. The presentation of a kiss with a lei didn't come about until World War II; it's generally attributed to an entertainer who kissed an officer on a dare and then quickly presented him with her lei, saying it was an old Hawaiian custom. Leis are the perfect symbol for the islands: They're given in the moment and their fragrance and beauty are enjoyed in the moment, but even after they fade, their spirit of aloha lives on. Lei making is a tropical art form. All leis are fashioned by hand in a variety of traditional patterns; some are sewn with hundreds of tiny blooms or shells, or bits of ferns and leaves. Some are twisted, some braided, some strung; all are presented with love. The lei of choice on Maui is the lokelani, a small rose. Molokai's specialty lei is the kukui, the white blossom of a candlenut tree. On Lanai, it's the kaunaoa, a bright yellow moss.
Leis are available not only from florists, but also at the airport, supermarkets, and large drug stores. You can arrange in advance to have a lei-greeter meet you as you deplane; Greeters of Hawaii (www.greetersofhawaii.com; [tel] 800/366-8559) serves Kahului. In addition, many hotels offer family-friendly workshops on stringing your own lei, typically with sturdy purple orchids or, for kids, paper petals. Visitors to Molokai can make an appointment to create a more fragrant lei with pink and white blossoms they’ll gather themselves at Molokai Plumerias.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.