Walking out of DFS Kahului International Airport after landing on Maui, you can feel the spirit of aloha almost as quickly as you feel the dense humidity. It hits you instantaneously, whether in a friendly “E komo mai” greeting (that’s Hawaiian for “welcome”) by baggage claim staff, or the warm smile of your aloha shirt-clad shuttle driver. The air feels warmer, there’s the light aroma of plumeria in the air, and the magic of the Hawaiian Islands becomes undeniable.

It was no different on our last trip to explore beautiful Maui. After relishing in the powerfully present sun (something we don’t experience all that often as Seattlites), we decided that we wanted to do something a little different than we had done on previous trips. While we fully intended to spend ample time at the beach, sipping mai tais, and acquiring sand in uncomfortable places, we yearned to gain a greater understanding of the history and culture of the island.

As clichéd as it may sound, a traditional lu’au is a wonderful way to get a brief (and delicious) introduction to Hawaii’s history and culture. Old Lahaina Luau, in downtown Lahaina, is one of the best on the island. Lu’au guests have the opportunity to watch as the steaming pig is unearthed from the imu (a traditional underground pit where the meat is cooked), and are then treated to a generous helping of the kalua pig with a medley of authentic Hawaiian staples including lomi lomi salmon, creamy poi, sticky rice, and slices of sweet haupia.

Viewfinder Tip: Get to the imu early for a prime spot to watch the pig emerge from its underground oven. A crowd usually forms 10 minutes before the pig is unearthed.

Of course lu’au guests also are treated to an engaging performance that traces the pilgrimage of the original Hawaiians as they navigated the oceans from French Polynesia to settle on Hawai’i. Old Lahaina Luau’s dedication to preserving historical accuracy and delivering an authentic cultural experience is what puts this lu’au above the rest.

After indulging in a little too much kalua pig, we realized that we wanted to have a hands-on cultural experience. This came in the form of a volunteer day with Maui Cultural Lands. During this experience, we found our knees buried in the soil, literally getting our hands dirty. If there’s one surefire way to become one with the land it is to fully immerse yourself in it. And immerse, we did.

Our guide and cultural advisor for the day was Ekolu. Together with his mother and brother we entered the sacred Honokowai Valley. The valley, inaccessible to the general public, is lush with vegetation and rich in history. With a traditional chant and prayer, we asked the ancestors for passage into the valley. Once we offered our thanks, we  descended slowly to the lush brush below.

The breathtaking Honokowai Valley

The mission of Maui Cultural Lands is to stabilize, protect, and restore Hawaiian cultural resources. The operation runs on a volunteer basis, with restoration opportunities every Wednesday and Saturday. On this particular Wednesday, our goal was to rid the area of invasive plants, leaving room for the endemic species to thrive. We spent our time in the valley attempting to eradicate those pesky plants and listening to fellow volunteers share their stories on how the valley has changed and impacted them. 

Ekolu walked us through the history of the valley. It was here that nearly 600 Hawaiian families lived and thrived hundreds of years ago. The very plants that we were trying to protect were plants used for medicine, food, clothing, and more for the Hawaiian ancestors. Holding a fallen sample in his hand, Ekolu taught us the many uses for kukui nuts (the same nuts that you’ll traditionally find in leis for men). While the nuts were used for medicinal purposes, the most common use was for oil; kukui oil apparantly burns like a candle. It was hard not to gain a deeper appreciation for the original Hawaiians, and how resourceful and connected to nature they were.

 

Chris, after volunteering with Maui Cultural Lands

While our time with Maui Cultural Lands was cut short (we had an afternoon flight to catch) we urge all visitors to Maui to spend a day with Ekolu and his dedicated team of volunteers. Not only will you be granted access to a breathtaking valley, but you also will walk away with a greater knowledge of Hawaiian culture. Getting our hands dirty never felt so good.

The next time you find yourself on Maui, take the time to dive into the island’s rich culture. If you don’t know where to start, ask your hotel concierge. Both of the hotels at which we stayed (the Grand Wailea and The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua) had knowledgeable Hawaiian Cultural Advisors on staff. These people are tasked with maintaining cultural integrity and authenticity while helping spread the island’s famous aloha.

Oh, and if you do stop in on the Honokowai Valley, send Ekolu and his volunteers our love and appreciation. We can’t wait to get our hands back in the soil.

What are your favorite ways to experience local culture while traveling?