Published in The Toronto Star

Thu Feb 28 2008


Maui, Hawaii–My children are being kicked out of the hula class.

It’s being done in the softest voice and without a hint of anger, but there is no doubt that both Ethan and Cameron are being asked by our teacher to step aside.

Two little girls in the front row can stay. They weren’t doing handstands or chatting incessantly as our teacher, Malihini Keahi-Heath, tried to teach us the first steps of the dance. My guys were.

Standing in the back row of about eight women on the hula mound at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel, I wait for the ground to open up beneath me.

“I think they’re a little too young,” says Keahi-Heath, clearly searching to ease my embarrassment.

My husband scoops in, plucks the boys out of the front row and the lesson continues. In no time, the incident is behind us and I’m learning to dance the Hukilau step-by-step and verse-by-verse.

It’s then that I grasp the mistake I made in bringing the kids to this class: This isn’t Disneyland.

The Hawaiian culture that is marketed, displayed and sold around the world as cute and exotic is celebrated in an entirely different way at this resort.

It’s not enough here to simply gyrate your hips, pop a flower behind your ear and head off to a luau. This is genuine Hawaiian culture, lovingly taught by people who are trying to share its history and preserve its dignity.

It’s why when the class is over and we’ve all learned (through the song) of the old Hawaiian way of fishing – laying out a net in the ocean by evening and then having your entire community join you early the next morning to pull it in – we are led to a collection of photos showing the ancestors in action while Keahi-Heath reminisces of participating as a child.

Her eyes begin to water while remembering the good old days, and the laws that now generally forbid such fishing. Mine do too.

Originally built to be a part of a chain of hotels, the resort changed direction after Sir Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong-based tycoon, bought it and brought in general manager Mike White (a fourth-generation Hawaiian) to run it. They wanted a hotel that was simple and offered the basic amenities and employees were encouraged to share their views on what the hotel should be.

By 1986 the employees were instrumental in drafting a mission statement for the hotel: It would be run as if everyone who visited was ohana (family).

The philosophy has held true for more than 20 years, resulting in the hotel being named “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian Hotel” by the Waiaha Foundation.

White also implemented the Po`okela (excellence) project. Every staff member must take part in workshops on Hawaiian culture, not for the benefit of guests but for the betterment of the family.

“The Po`okela program is fundamental to who we are behind the scenes and spills over to our guests,” explains Luana Pa’ahana, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

There are no canned greetings here and employees welcome you like you’re coming into their own home.

Within 24 hours of your arrival you’re invited to the Ohana Welcome Breakfast where you’ll find traditional Hawaiian food (alongside your bacon and eggs) and be introduced to all of the “staff” and a little of the culture.

Free classes, like the hula, ukulele lessons, lei-making and ti-leaf skirt making, are offered daily and with each you learn a little more about the island.

And while my kids were a little young for the hula lessons, the Aloha Passport Program is designed for keiki (children) to try out various other activities and to meet and greet staff members across the property – each handing out a small treat and a stamp for their passport.

It’s an educational vacation that is neither imposing nor onerous. Guests who opt to skip the classes can focus on the hotel’s well-kept grounds, beachfront and whale-shaped pool.

Even when it’s time to leave, you feel like family. A brown, kukui-nut lei is placed over each of our heads while staff sing a lei chant.

“Each time you return,” Keahi-Heath explains, ” a lighter-coloured nut will be added to your lei.”

A quick look around the room demonstrates how popular return visits are.