Luxury hotels can often be a stark barrier between visitors and the surrounding culture, particularly those with tragic colonial pasts, even one as noted for hosting as Hawai'i. (Ari Burack/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Luxury hotels can often be a stark barrier between visitors and the surrounding culture, particularly those with tragic colonial pasts, even one as noted for hosting as Hawai'i. (Ari Burack/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Locals infuse Hawaiian luxury with soul

Beyond the swaying palm trees and plucked ukeleles, past the white sand beaches, theatrical hotel luaus and framed photos of dark-skinned surfers, a handful of Hawaiian luxury properties are making an important effort to more fully embody native culture.

“When the sun touches the water, our soul leaps back to Po,” Clifford Naeole whispers, as a solitary male figure climbs atop the volcanic cliff of Black Rock in the Ka’anapali resort area on Maui’s touristy western coast, sets down his torch, pauses and plunges into the azure void. Naeole is employed as a cultural adviser at the nearby Ritz-Carlton and is one of several locals that some hotels have been bringing on in recent years to enhance the experiences of both guests and employees.

The cliff diving ceremony performed each sunset at the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa — accompanied by a prerecorded narration, live music and hula dancing, as guests snap photos or lounge in oceanside pools — is still a “very modest” version of what was traditionally an important ceremony for young men, Naeole says. He explains that native Hawaiians knew Po as an original place of “darkness and tranquility” from which everything sprang, and that cliff diving is a symbolic return to that.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a rite of passage, and it’s significant in the spiritual world of Hawai’i,” Naeole says, adding that he hopes the modern ceremony can be expanded “so more people will be aware of it.”

Luxury hotels can often be a stark barrier between visitors and the surrounding culture, particularly those with tragic colonial pasts, even one as noted for hosting as Hawai’i. Conversely, it requires a commitment for resorts to devote resources to cultural experiences and education for guests, many of whom are perfectly happy spending their well-earned vacations bronzing on the beach with fruited cocktails in their hands. But it’s one that hotel groups like Starwood, which includes Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and Luxury Collection properties, have emphasized here for over a decade.

All of Starwood’s 11 Hawaiian properties retain cultural specialists responsible for leading activities for guests, everything from lei-making to stargazing, and guided historical tours to storytelling. They also train staff in cultural awareness and advise on hotel artwork, furnishing and food. They are, in a way, the face of the properties, and there is no substitute for an individual touch.

Photographs of Makalapua Kanuha’s family — her son learning to pound poi and make rope from coconut, others practicing traditional stone carving and spear fishing — adorn the Pu’uhonua Cultural Center at Maui’s Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas. The center, which opened at the hotel (primarily a vacation ownership property) in December 2014, was envisioned as “a place of refuge” for guests and residents to learn about Hawaiian culture.

“The goal was to make it very unique, and very up-close-and-personal,” says a regal and radiant Kanuha, her long hair spilling down towards her tattooed arms and feet. Kanuha teaches visitors here about traditional Hawaiian song, dance, chanting, storytelling and language. The mother of nine, grandmother of 19, and great-grandmother of one began working at the hotel in 2010, and sees guests as increasingly wanting more cultural tourism. She’s hoping to eventually lead a walking tour of nearby Lahaina, a homey seaside village looking out on the smaller islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i that’s undergone incarnations as the original capital of the kingdom of Hawai’i, a missionary and whaling center, home of sugar cane plantations and now, a popular shopping destination for tourists.

There has been skepticism among some in the native Hawaiian community about getting involved with the multi-billion-dollar resort hotel industry, Kanuha acknowledges.

“It’s very new,” she says. “We’re not where we could be, or where we want to be, but we’re on our way.” And though it’s not easy to communicate something authentic in a non-traditional setting, or to gauge the overall success of these cultural programs, Kanuha insists that the hotels “get it.” She’d like to see a cultural director in every resort in Hawai’i.

“When you chant, and you’ve got 25 people crying, you didn’t just make a connection, you made an emotional connection, and that’s the key to success.” Kanuha says. “The hope is that they’re going to leave learning something about our ancestors, about our sense of place, and when they share it, they perpetuate our culture.”

Thelma Kehaulani Kam, who was chosen to spearhead Starwood’s Hawaiian cultural programs in 2003, is emotional when describing her work as director of cultural services at the hotel group’s four Waikiki properties, including Honolulu’s oldest, the white-pillared Moana Surfrider. The venerable Oahu hotel, built in 1901 on famous Waikiki Beach and now a Westin property, was the first in Hawai’i to accommodate luxury travelers, and they’re still arriving in droves to enjoy the view, as well as upscale shopping and dining. It’s even a popular wedding destination.

“This is such an amazing industry, because you get to share who you are, share your culture,” Kam says. Formerly the manager of the nearby (and also beautiful) Royal Hawaiian, Kam has been working in the industry since 1971. From the 1960s through the 1990s “it was all about the glitz and the glamour,” she says, “forgetting about that sense of place. And that’s where my job comes in.”

Kam’s role could be seen as more of a mission than a job. Her duties include everything from giving input to ownership on culturally and historically appropriate new construction and renovations, art and entertainment, to employee training, work in the community, and tours and activities with guests.

“They have a hunger for, ‘Tell me about this place. Tell me about the land that you’re on. Tell me about this art, what story does it tell?’” Kam says. It is not uncommon for guests at her sunrise ho’ala ceremony on the beach — intended as a cleansing for mind, body and spirit — to remain transfixed in the water for well over an hour, she says.

Kam notes that the Moana broke ground only a year after Hawai’i transitioned from a kingdom to a U.S. territory. She thinks of the hotel as a “continuous bridge” that “played an integral role in introducing the islands to the world.”

There’s something deeply pragmatic about Kam’s approach. Those in Hawai’i’s sovereignty movement, who advocate for a return to independence more resembling the days of the kingdom, have her sympathy, but not her support.

“Where is that going to take us?” she asks. “I hear what they’re saying, I understand what they’re saying.” But, she adds, “every guest that arrives on our shore, they’re putting food on my table. They’re allowing me to be a success, to look forward into the future.”

Starwood, which plans to continue its cultural advisor program, will soon merge with Marriott to form the world’s largest hotelier. On Hawai’i alone, that is expected to include about 25 percent of the islands’ hotel rooms.

“Are we going to get lost in this?” Kam wonders. “Are we still going to be culturally sensitive? But where we are today, I trust that we will. We have a responsibility to make sure that we live the culture that we say we are.”

Others living that culture include Nani Kupihe, one of three cultural ambassadors on staff at the Sheraton Kona on Hawai’i’s Big Island, who presents herself with such warmth, grace and a nearly childlike innocence that one cannot help but become absorbed in her storytelling about the days when the hotel’s volcanic black shoreline was a fishing village. She is showing that those days still, in some ways, exist. On Kauai, KarLyn Sukehira-Flores, who has been dancing hula since she was 3, leads entrancing performances for guests of the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas.

After that handmade garland of flowers, kukui nuts or seashells is draped over a guest’s neck in welcome, simply learning about the meaning of words like aloha, which is actually closer to a sharing of one’s breath or life force with another, and pono, doing things at the right time for the right reason, brings a measure of cultural depth to a traveler’s experience of Hawai’i.

Even as larger issues such as the redress of historical injustices, responsible development and resource management, and fostering healthier relationships with the natural world linger in the background, what arises of out of a sincere desire by these representatives of the native Hawaiian community to share their culture with tourists in an opulent resort setting, may just bring a sense of soul, and heart, to an indulgent vacation.

A smile, a gesture, a song, a story, an embrace — all tangible connections with Hawai’i’s past, present and future that can be had at a luxury hotel by those willing to steal a moment away from their beach chairs and spa treatments — are doing their part to show the truer face of these islands.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at


• Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas: This luxury beach property on Maui is made up of primarily vacation ownership villas but also offers rooms for nightly stays. The cultural center is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 6 Kai Ala Drive, Lahaina.

• Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort and Spa: On bustling Oahu, Waikiki’s oldest hotel, the stately and luxurious “First Lady of Waikiki,” with a giant banyan tree in it’s oceanfront courtyard, also offers live music, upscale dining and historical tours. 2365 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu.

• Honolulu Fish Auction: The only fresh tuna auction in the country. See and hear up close how Hawai’i’s abundant seafood — tuna, swordfish, ono, opah and more — is fished, auctioned to wholesalers and delivered fresh to restaurant tables, and how it can be kept sustainable. Early morning tours by the nonprofit Hawaii Seafood Council. Saturdays, 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.; reservations required. $25 adults; $20 children ages 8 to 12. Pier 38, Honolulu.

• Azure: The restaurant at the Royal Hawaiian hotel on the sands of Waikiki takes Hawaiian cuisine to another level. After delicious and creative cocktails and appetizers at the Mai Tai Bar next door, taste some of the best of the Honolulu fish auction’s fresh catch, simply roasted with fresh herbs or spiced with tropical flavors. Royal Hawaiian, 2259 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu.

• Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay: The gorgeous seaside, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel on Hawai’i’s Big Island is set on volcanic black rock that was once a village for native fishermen. Dramatic views, upscale dining, and a spa with outdoor massage tables overlooking the ocean. And, a chance to swim with giant manta rays feeding just offshore. 78-128 Ehukai St., Kailua-Kona.

• St. Regis Princeville Resort: Perched above spectacular Hanalei Bay and its dramatic sunset views on the north side of remoter Kauai, the St. Regis’ opulent accommodations include butler service. 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville.

• Waimea Canyon Bike Ride: A fun, nearly pedaling-free 3,000-foot downhill ride along Kauai’i’s picturesque “grand canyon” is accompanied by dramatic ocean views, snippets of history and culture from your guides. $112.50 adults; $91.67 ages 12 to 14. Outfitters Kauai, 2827A Poipu Road, Poipu Beach.

Just Posted

Dominion Voting Systems, a Denver-based vendor, is under contract to supply voting machines for elections in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/Examiner file)
Is San Francisco’s elections director impeding voting machine progress?

Open source technology could break up existing monopoly

The 49ers take on the Packers in Week 3 of the NFL season, before heading into a tough stretch of divisional opponents. (Courtesy San Francisco 49ers)
‘Good for Ball’ or ‘Bad for Ball’ — A Niners analysis

By Mychael Urban Special to The Examiner What’s the first thing that… Continue reading

Health experts praised Salesforce for keeping its Dreamforce conference at Moscone Center outdoors and on a small scale. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Happy birthday, Marc Benioff. Your company did the right thing

Salesforce kept Dreamforce small, which made all kinds of sense

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, pictured with Rose Pak in 2014, says the late Chinatown activist was “helping to guide the community away from the divisions, politically.”
Willie and Rose: How an alliance for the ages shaped SF

How the Mayor and Chinatown activist shaped San Francisco, then and now

The Grove in Golden Gate Park is maintained largely by those who remember San Francisco’s 20,000 AIDS victims.<ins> (Open Eye Pictures/New York Times)</ins>
Looking at COVID through the SF prism of AIDS

AIDS took 40 years to claim 700,000 lives. COVID surpassed that number in 21 months

Most Read