Cultural traditions mesh with modern amenities on the home island of Hawaii.
Predictably, this was the first word I saw when I stepped off the plane at Kona International Airport in Kalaoa, Hawaii. It was displayed above my name on the screen of an iPad in big, bold letters. The tablet belonged to a smiling chauffeur who subsequently drove me across this 4,000-square-mile Polynesian landmass – commonly known as The Big Island – describing the science of the sprawling lava fields that dominate its landscape. He also surprised me with statistics about one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the U.S., which sits on more than 100,000 acres of land on the northwestern side of the island.
The word “aloha” appeared many more times – murmured, emblazoned, exclaimed and insinuated – during my four-day stay on the island’s Kohala Coast. Prior to my visit, I regarded it simply as a trite salutation. However, “aloha,” I learned, means much more than hello.
It stems from the words “alo,” which means presence and “ha,” the breath of life. It is often used as a standard greeting, but it also possesses a complex spiritual significance, signifying love, peace and compassion. Despite any misconceptions I had about its meaning, this spirit of aloha permeates the island’s swaying palm trees and flows through its lava-caked pastures.
That same spirit is undoubtedly present on Hawaii’s other five islands, including the tourist hubs of Oahu, Maui and Kauai, where many-a-mainlander have decamped for family vacations, destination weddings and honeymoons. But the Big Island, oddly, often gets short shrift when it comes to press coverage and vacation planning. It’s not a matter of beauty – in fact, the island has the most dynamic climate and greatest biodiversity of any in the Hawaiian chain, including five of the state’s six active volcanoes, causing much of the island’s lush greenery to mingle with molten rock. The result: terrain that at once looks like a tropical paradise and the surface of Mars.
Plus, in classic Hawaiian fashion, you get all the beautiful beaches, hula lessons and poke bowls you want. Pulling into my hotel, I knew this aloha would be special.
A Dry Side Stay
Getting your bearings on the Big Island is pretty easy, despite its size and diversity. Thanks to the shielding effect and elevations of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the island is home to all but four of the world’s 14 climate zones, ranging from polar tundra to tropical rainforest. There are two major cities: Hilo on the east and Kailua-Kona on the west. Beyond having newer resorts, better beaches and numerous nightlife options, Kailua-Kona is also known as “the dry side” – the Kohala Coast gets an average of only 10 inches of rainfall per year, while Hilo averages more than 130.
I was happy to be staying on the sunny side of paradise, at a sprawling resort that sits on 32 acres of lava plains about a 30-minute drive from Kona. At first blush, Mauna Lani (aubergeresorts.com/maunalani) is a garden-variety luxury resort. Yet, much like “aloha,” there’s much more to the story. Built in 1983, its ownership brought on California-based Auberge Resorts Collection to reimagine the 333-room resort in 2018. Each guestroom features floor-to-ceiling windows and spacious lanais that overlook the ocean, and earth tones and natural materials throughout its public spaces seamlessly blend with the area’s natural beauty.
I learned about Hawaii’s history and customs while simultaneously experiencing the kind of contemporary hospitality you’d expect from a fancy hotel. Driven by a series of core values and experiences, Mauna Lani has the aloha spirt on lock. Upon arriving at the resort, I was greeted with a garland of fragrant orchids and a can of Kona Brewing Co. beer before I could even get out of the car. When I walked into my room, I was met with a platter of fresh fruit. Then, I rushed down to the beach to catch a cocktail and the sunset before getting some shut-eye. After all, I had to be up at dawn for a canoe ride.
Kainalu Pro Sports
Over the next four days, I collected stories like seashells. I saw a sea turtle while snorkeling, enjoyed moments of stillness at sea, ate breadfruit right off the tree, learned how to weave a basket out of coconut leaves and made friends with all the kainalu guides, who I swapped stories with over fresh guava juice as the sun rose over the ocean. These guides take guests on every sea-centric exploit imaginable – outrigger canoeing, surfing, standup paddleboarding and more. My favorite activity was greeting the sun as it rose above Mauna Kea – the world’s largest mountain, measured from its base at the bottom of the ocean – in a wa’a (canoe) while learning about the Polynesians’ voyages throughout the Pacific as I paddled. Kainalu translates to “ocean wave,” a reminder that the ocean is a mighty force of nature, a highly revered mentor and a metaphor for life’s ups and downs.
Back on land, I cruised the scenic trails that surround the property on an e-bike, passing by historic landmarks, stopping at a secret beach and trying seasonal produce plucked right from the tree. I whiled away the rest of the afternoon with my quirky docent, Uncle George, who taught me Hawaiian pidgin and traditional lauhala basket weaving techniques. During our tour-turned-conversation, he explained that Hawaiian people call their elders “Uncle” and “Auntie” as a sign of respect, despite not actually being related.
The following morning, I started the day with a passionfruit mimosa courtesy of Paola Tavella, on-site eatery HaLani’s cheery food and beverage manager. I also opted for the açai bowl, topped with kiwis, seasonal berries and straight-up the freshest bananas I’ve ever had. House-made poke ceviche and lobster mac and cheese are lunch and dinner highlights, featuring fresh catches and produce from the island’s farmers and fishermen. Botanically inspired alcoholic beverages and thoughtful mocktails combine tropical ingredients like guava, hibiscus and ube. Even typical resort restaurant requisites like pizza are inspired here. To wit: a pie featuring shrimp, garlic, shallots and charred broccolini, the whole marvelous mélange set off with a spritz of fresh lemon.
That evening, I headed to CanoeHouse, the resort’s fine dining destination, to try the nightly MY menu, a five-course tasting experience inspired by Japan’s customized omakase concept, which spotlights the dazzling talents of husband-and-wife team, Matt and Yuka Raso (he’s the chef, she’s the general manager). I enjoyed dishes that teeter between traditional and innovative – tuna sashimi, ahi tatake kale salad, grilled Kona kampachi and Keahole Point lobster shined brighter than the tiki torches and fire pits that illuminate the space after the sun sinks into the Pacific.
I also frequented The Market to quickly quench my thirst or curb my appetite. It’s a specialty coffee shop, deli and general store where I got my caffeine fix every morning, while also stocking up on everything from sunscreen to local hard seltzer, plus souvenirs for my friends and family back home.
This February, Mauna Lani will partner with New York City-based Japanese eatery Nami Nori on an exclusive pop-up event and cooking class, where chef Taka Sakaeda will teach guests how to make sushi. Additional collaborations will be announced later this year.
Culture & Heritage
“Talking story” is Hawaiian slang for shooting the breeze with new friends or reminiscing with old ones. Curious about the island’s pre-colonial cowboys and ancient deities, I stopped by Hale ’I’ike (the house of knowledge) to “talk story” with the resort’s resident historian, Uncle Danny Akaka. We sat on the couch in what felt like his living room, not an open-air lobby area, and he regaled me with stories and ukulele songs about Hawaii’s history.
I continued my cultural sojourn at Mauna Lani’s saltwater pond, where marine biologist Pi’i Laeha loves “talking story” about the sea turtles that inhabit it. Laeha oversees Malama Honu, a conservation and education program in partnership with Oahu’s Sea Life Park, which sends captive-reared hatchlings to the hotel where guests get the unique opportunity to learn about the endangered species. Every year on the Fourth of July, hundreds of visitors gather on the Mauna Lani beach as the Malama Honu team releases the turtles back into the wild.
Tuckered out from all that talking, I strolled across the airy lobby for some quiet time at the Auberge Spa, which uses locally sourced herbs, oils, honey and flowers for treatments like the goop Glow Facial, an exclusive experience that nourishes the skin with natural serums and tonics.
My esthetician started with a steamer, which helps purge the pores and allows the face masks and micro-exfoliation that follow to work better. The 50-minute facial was so relaxing, I almost fell asleep, and I left in a delightful daze. Not to mention the noticeable results – my skin was literally glowing. The treatment is part of a partnership with Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle brand – the resort is also home to a goop retail store where guests can shop for high-end jewelry, swimwear and other singular souvenirs.
Then, still in my spa-induced stupor, I stumbled to the beach for some fresh, salty air in my hair and sand in my toes. It was then that I felt like I had finally got the hang of this whole aloha thing.
Explore beyond the beaten path with these bucket-list Big Island adventures.
Get a bird’s-eye view of active volcanos, cascading waterfalls and coastal cliffs with Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours. bluehawaiian.com
Book a tour with Manta Adventures to mingle with manta rays under the stars in secluded Keauhou Bay, where dozens of these gentle giants gracefully glide through warm water. mantaadventures.com
Trek through rainforests, lava fields, hidden craters, black sand beaches and other tropical terrain during an all-day expedition led by a knowledgeable nature expert from Hawaii Tours. hawaiitours.com