Although many visitors to Maui, Hawaii dream of sipping cocktails while lounging poolside, there’s much more to the island than tropical beverages and gorgeous scenery. If you wish to make the most of your vacation, there’s an array of fun and intriguing learning experiences that teach kids and adults how to embrace Hawaiian culture.
Hawaii travel has opened up once again this year, attracting visitors from near and far, and the islands are offering plenty of authentic, hands-on cultural opportunities taught by respected island locals.
Hawaiian cultural expert, Oralani Koa, is the manager of Hawaiian programing at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa in Ka’anapali. She has developed and oversees a robust program of immersive activities for guests, which encompass a variety of workshops related to island traditions, such as coconut frond weaving, hula dancing, Hawaiian language lessons, lei-making, outrigger canoe rides and more.
Koa says, “Personally for me, these activities are successful if our guests walk away from their experience with a new appreciation and lasting memory of Hawaii.”
Additionally, Koa has played a major role at the Westin Ka’anapali, as she was instrumental in leading the team in selecting the name for the resort’s newly renovated tower, which opened in 2020. After much research, the name “Hokupa’a” (pronounced ho-ku-pá-a) which is the Hawaiian word for “north star,” was chosen for the structure.
As a trained Hawaiian language instructor, Koa was able to dive into historical resources and translate some older documents during her quest for the tower’s re-naming. She explained, “My family comes from this side of the island, so it came easy for me because I have a history here and I was able to look closely at the area’s significance and determine the ideal name to convey a sense of place. And it’s been the biggest highlight of my career here at the Westin.”
Today, the Hokupa’a tower features spectacular beach views and an expansive, modern indoor-outdoor lounge overlooking the ocean. This new luxury tower offers some additional curated cultural activities for guests who stay here.
Below are several authentic activities that guests can participate in when visiting Maui. While these specific cultural opportunities are available at the Maui Westin Ka’anapali, many other resorts and organizations across Hawaii offer similar classes and workshops. (Please visit your hotel’s website to find out which ones are offered during your stay.)
Coconut frond weaving / lei-making lessons
These two activities enable guests to make their own lovely hats, baskets, headbands, colorful lei necklaces and floral keepsakes. With guided instruction, participants learn how to tie, twist and weave the delicate natural materials to create a finished piece of their choice.
Koa says, “We intentionally wanted to give guests a new perspective by teaching these two activities separately. It’s important that our guests see that I’m not just the ‘lady with the flowers.’ The weaving and lei-making are from cultural practices in our history and represent who we are as people, and these flowers are a special part of the environment that surrounds us.”
She purposely included the coconut frond weaving because it’s considered unique.
“What I love about the coconut frond weaving is that we talk about the many different uses for coconut – including water, coconut meat and the food that you can make from it. Also, guests get to broaden their perspectives and learn that the coconut and palm trees are not indigenous plants to Hawaii – they grow around the world and are used in many different ways, so participants gain a deeper knowledge.”
Hula dancing lessons
Traditional hula is a graceful dance that uses movement set to island music to convey a meaningful story. Unsurprisingly, many visitors to Hawaii will have the chance to enjoy an authentic hula performance while at a luau, ceremony or island cultural show.
As a hula dancer with nearly 30 years of experience, Koa explained that hula means much more than just entertainment. She says, “Hula dance has helped to preserve our language during the time when the Hawaiian people were unable to speak our own mother tongue.”
She teaches the basics of hula to provide visitors with an understanding of the dance and explains how the hula kept traditions alive. Participants of all ages receive a basic introduction to the revered dance, while learning a bit about the true meaning behind the movements. It’s also an incredible opportunity to learn how the hula has played an essential role in Hawaiian history and why it’s important to future generations as well.
Outrigger canoe paddling experience
Newly launched in 2022 at the Westin Ka’anapali, the outrigger canoe experience is essentially a history lesson on the water, as you can paddle into the ocean on a narrow four-person traditional canoe (with experienced guides onboard).
Depending on water conditions, participants have the opportunity to jump into the ocean for some snorkeling, catch waves and (if you’re lucky) spot some whales. The canoe guides are islanders who come from a long line of local families who are canoe and paddling experts, and they share stories and backgrounds with the participants.
Koa says, “This experience aligns with our pillars of who we are, as Hawaiians, through land, water and sky. It’s all about honoring the ocean, telling the story of our people, and how we arrived here in Hawaii. So, in essence, paddling an outrigger canoe offers visitors the chance to see the ocean through the eyes of our people.”
Visitors to Hawaii are increasingly becoming more interested in learning about ways to be more eco-friendly. The Westin Waterman program connects guests with local environmentalists – for beach clean-ups and sustainability workshops – who happen to be world-class surfers, windsurfers and paddlers who share their love of the ocean. For this activity, the experts lead a small group of island visitors on an educational beach walk to pick up plastic and discuss how to help combat ocean pollution.
The program is directed by Eric Frankum, marketing manager at the Westin, who explains that the Maui beach clean-up experiences are educational and fun for all ages. He says, “We’re surrounded by the ocean here, and we created this program to really resonate with our community. Most importantly, by participating in beach clean-ups, visitors are encouraged to make a real difference while they are vacationing and when they return home.”
World champion windsurfer and Maui local Zane Kekoa Schweitzer is involved in the Westin Waterman program and guides coastal clean-ups. He is passionate about inspiring mindfulness in others while striving to improve the environment. He said, “The start of being an ocean guardian is a shift in mindset, and you can actually begin with small, positive actions.”
He pointed out, “It’s very eye-opening to know that even in Hawaii – with one of the most beautiful, healthy ecosystems in the world and top-rated beaches, we are sadly still finding plastics.”
Schweitzer’s family owns Maui Sports Adventures, which hosts beach clean-up activities as well. He says, “Our story is to truly connect all of our different ocean communities, and also share the history and the legacy that my grandparents have left for the world, which I’m so proud to follow each day as a windsurfer.”
Hawaiian language lessons
For visitors who arrive on the island and find it a bit daunting to pronounce some of the Hawaiian words, an introductory language lesson with an instructor is a helpful experience. As the Hawaiian alphabet has twelve letters, and the pronunciation is similar to English, a little bit of practice goes a long way. Although learning Hawaiian is not a requirement for a visit, it provides an insightful glimpse into island history.
“I’ve seen an increased interest in learning about the Hawaiian language, from residents as well as visitors to Hawaii,” explains Koa, who is an experienced language instructor. “Tourists in Hawaii who wish to become familiar with the basics of the language will most certainly come away with an extremely valuable and enriching experience. We always welcome visitors who wish to learn about Hawaiian culture while on vacation.”
If you go
Travelers who are interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture (and possibly volunteering during their vacation) can also go to the state of Hawaii’s website for more information about the “Malama” program. (Note: some activities may need to be scheduled in advance.)
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