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Situated in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands are the only place in the United States with a culture steeped in Polynesian roots. On the Big Island, activities on and off resort properties immerse visitors in Hawaiian culture. From hula to paddling, visitors can learn ancient Hawaiian traditions from native Hawaiians.
Enrich Your Big Island Vacation with Hawaiian Culture
There’s more to the Big Island than volcanoes, snorkeling and sunsets (although there is that). From the moment you arrive at the airport, you’ll be immersed in Hawaiian culture. Plus, you won’t have to look far to find various cultural activities that teach the traditions and customs of ancient and modern Hawaiian people.
During my stay at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast, I found many fascinating onsite and nearby cultural activities. Hawaiian Airlines is onboard too, with fuel-saving initiatives, and an in-flight video about ways to protect coral reefs. It also partners with local non-profit organizations that offer cultural experiences.
How Hawaiian History Shapes Hawaiian Culture
To understand Hawaiian culture, it’s important to know Hawaiian history. Native Hawaiians trace their ancestry back to the original Polynesian settlers of Hawaii. Over time, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and others settled on the islands. (In fact, Asian Americans are the majority in Honolulu.) Meanwhile, western influences from the Portuguese, Mexican, and Spanish people in the 1800s brought musical instruments like the ukulele and guitar to the islands.
The Hawaiian language was spoken by all islanders until it was banned following the overthrow of the kingdom in 1893. After the ban was lifted in 1986, the Hawaiian language was revived. Hawaiians are proud to share their heritage, culture and language with visitors.
“I think more and more travelers are looking for an authentic cultural experience when they travel to Hawaii,” said Ka’iulani Blankenfeld. A native of Oahu, her family’s genealogy precedes King Kamehameha. Traditional Hawaiian food, music and hula dancing still comprise her family’s gatherings.
As the Fairmont Orchid’s Director of Hawaiian Culture, Blankenfeld enjoys creating similar authentic Hawaiian experiences for families. “We want to make sure we’re infusing Hawaiian culture in everything we do. I really hope to lead our commitment to preserving and honoring the ‘aina (land). And to guide our guests to experience the property and Hawaii Island in a manner that is pono (right),” said Blankenfeld.
Pampering & Hawaiian Culture at the Fairmont Orchid
Situated on a lovely stretch of beach, the AAA Four Diamond Fairmont Orchid sits on spiritual, historical land. Onsite trails lead to lava rocks, burial sites and petroglyphs. It’s a beautiful property that both pampers and immerses guests in Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian green sea turtles bask on the shores, around a bend from the resort’s private lagoon – the hub for water sports. Tropical landscaping with waterfalls make it a pleasant walk to restaurants, pools, activities, and guestrooms.
My spacious, luxurious room on the private Fairmont Gold floor overlooked the ocean and golf course. Handy amenities include a private check-in, deluxe breakfast, and afternoon tea and evening canapes. I especially enjoyed sitting on the lanai for my morning coffee and breakfast, a peaceful way to start my day.
Fairmont’s Programs Feature Authentic Hawaiian Culture
Over breakfast in the Gold Lounge, Blankenfeld discussed some of the resort’s authentic cultural programs, beginning with hula dancers. “We believe hula is one of the best ways to perpetuate the Hawaiian history—it’s truly the heartbeat of our culture,” said Blumenfeld. In fact, in the new Hula Le‘a Wale workshop families can learn the steps, hand movements and historic significance of this iconic dance.
In addition, the Fairmont’s Hui Holokai Beach Ambassadors program introduces guests to native Hawaiian culture. Activities include ukulele lessons, weaving niu (coconut) fronds, and canoe paddling in the open ocean. In “turtle talk” sessions learn about the Hawaiian green sea turtles that bask on the resort’s shores. Nearby archeological hikes lead to petroglyph fields, the largest in the Hawaiian islands.
On Kamehameha Day on June 11, guests can help make a few 20-foot long lei to present to the King Kamehameha Statue in Kohala. “This is an excellent way for us to perpetuate the name, spirit and legacy of Kamehameha the Great,” said Blankenfeld.
Keiki Aloha Adventure Program
The resort also offers a state-licensed, year-round children’s program with engaging cultural activities for ages 5 to 12. These include exploring a lava tube cave, an ancient Hawaiian petroglyph field, and tide pools.
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Hawaiian Culture on a Sunrise Canoe Voyage
We met Elijah, a native Hawaiian and a Fairmont’s Hui Holokai Ambassador, for a sunrise canoe voyage. As we paddled, Elijah explained that canoes were used by Polynesians who traveled to the Big Island centuries ago. Canoes were also used to travel within the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Molokai.
After a while, we stopped paddling to enjoy the calm ocean and surrounding beauty. Elijah pointed out nearby Maui, and the five surrounding mountains.
We sat quietly while Elijah performed native Hawaiian customs: blowing a conch shell and performing an oli. These chants to their kūpuna (people) and ʻāina (land) are a way to communicate with the universe. “This oli is to greet the new day, and to the rising sun from the eastern seas,” said Elijah.
Paddling back to shore, we saw Ka’iulani Blankenfeld waving and chanting a traditional mele komo. The Hawaiian greeting song was a warm aloha to start our day.
Hawaiian Culture: Voluntourism at Kohala Institute
The Kohala Institute, which manages about 2,400 acres in North Kohala, offers tours and programs about its lo‘i kalo (taro patches). In fact, one of the island’s few remaining intact ahupua‘a ( ‘Iole) is situated here.
Our tour began with a Hawaiian history lesson by Ryan McCormack, program director at the Kohala Institute. Because of its location on the windward side with water resources, this land is ideal for farming kalo (taro). The heart-shaped plant has been a major staple for the Hawaiian people for hundreds of years. But it’s more than a food source.
Hawaiian Culture Embraces the Connection Between Taro and Humans
Hawaii’s creation stories link people to taro genealogically. “The relationship to taro is not just a material one, it’s about relationships. People treat the taro plant like a family member,” said McCormick.
We made our way to the taro fields, walking carefully through muddy water. Native Hawaiian Sa’o Vaefaga showed us how to pull the plant from the ground, and cut the kalo stems. When we had a big bundle, we walked to another field to plant the freshly cut stems for a fresh crop of taro. Later, we tried our hand at traditional cord making from the Hau tree.
These customized place-based experiences are available to groups of at least six guests or more. The cost is $25-50/person depending on activities. There are also volunteer opportunities. For information, call 808-889-5151.
Hawaiian Culture & Onsite Sustainability Programs
Another way the resort promotes sustainability and cultural practices is on weekly Botanical Tours offered Tuesdays in summer. The complimentary tours stop at four onsite flow hives, home to 80,000 honeybees producing kiawe honey. The tasty white honey is exclusively made on Hawaii Island where trees flourish in the volcanic lava environment of the kiawe forest.
During my visit, beekeeper Michael Domeier explained the honey-making process. Various flowering plants (not bees) determine the taste and color of honey. He showed us the difference between traditional beehives and flow hives, which have plastic honeycombs. It’s an easier process, enabling the honey to flow through tubes into a container.
To launch the free garden and beehive tours, the Fairmont is offering guests a complimentary Honey Connoisseur: Botanical Garden & Bee Tour at 9:30 a.m. June 25. Blankenfeld will share Hawaiian legends and lore behind pollinator-friendly plants like the naupaka. The plant was named after a beautiful Hawaiian princess who became a half flower. The ilima, a golden hibiscus, is considered sacred to the hula goddess named Laka.
The tour culminates with a honey and wine tasting. Featured are honey macha truffles, a local artisan cheese spread and Bee’s Box Wines.
Fairmont Orchid’s Spa Without Walls
All week I looked forward to my massage at the resort’s Spa Without Walls. Private treatment rooms are located by waterfalls or on the beach. I had a sweet relaxation honey massage in a cabana by a waterfall. There was nothing sticky about it. The silky smooth honey treatment is high in anti-oxidants and rich in conditioning. In fact, it felt so nice I didn’t want to wash it off!
Exploring Hawaiian Culture on a Hidden Craters Hike
This was my third tour with Hawaii Forest & Trail, but my first hike on the upper slopes of Hualalai Volcano in Kona. (Previous tours were a lava tour in Hilo and stargazing on Mauna Kea.) As with my other guides, Melanie was very knowledgeable and passionate about Hawaii. She was an especially good storyteller, her deep voice at times choking with emotion.
Our climb began with an oli for permission to enter the sacred land locked behind three gates on private property. Our four-mile roundup hike took us through the cloud forest, home to koa and ohia trees. Along the way, we had coastal and island views of of Maui, and peered into deep craters.
On the leisurely, family-friendly hike Melanie talked about plant life, fizzures, and rift zones, sprinkling in Hawaiian legends. For example, there’s a love story about the ohia tree with pretty lehua blossoms.
Hawaiian Legend: Ohia Tree and Lehua Flowers
Ohia was a warrior in love with Lehua. But volcano goddess Pele wanted Ohia for herself.
“When Ohia rejected Pele, she stabbed the ground with a fire stick, causing a lava flow. Ohia grabs Lehua and holds her up as lava encases his feet,” said Melanie.
To the rescue is an apapane, a native bird. “He puts his powers on the lovers and Ohia starts to change form, becomes bark-like, deeply rooted. Lehua is transformed into a beautiful flower. To this day, Ohia and Lehua are still telling Pele, ‘you can’t separate us’,” said Melanie.
Continuing our trek, we reached a small lava tube – Katie’s cave (named after tour company owner Rob Pacheco’s daughter). Wearing helmets with headlamps, we rappelled into the cave, walked a short distance over rocks, and climbed out the other end.
Cheers to Ola Brew
After the hike, we drove to Ola Brew in Kona, for a tour and beer tasting. The only community-owned brewery, Ola Brew supports local farmers by using their fruits to make ciders. We sampled a double grapefruit IPA, dragon fruit lychee cider, and Kona gold pineapple cider draft.
Lounging at the Fairmont
With a late night flight on my last day, I welcomed some free time to enjoy the resort on my own. In the morning I went snorkeling, one of my favorite activities. Paddle boards, kayaks, and snorkel gear are available on the onsite Hui Holokai Beach Shack. (These are complimentary to Gold Lounge guests.) The snorkeling here is excellent. I snorkeled every day and saw numerous colorful fish darting around the coral reef at the mouth of the lagoon.
For lunch, I had a very tasty steak sandwich and glass of beer at the oceanfront Hale Kai restaurant. It’s a casual, outdoor restaurant with an extensive menu of pupu, salads, flatbreads and sandwiches. I sat there for about two hours, savoring my lunch and beer while listening to the mesmerizing sound of waves. On the other side of the fence, half a dozen turtles lounged in the sun. Not ready to pack up and leave this paradise, I relaxed on a hammock facing the ocean.
Hui hou Hawaii Island. Until we meet again.