Hosting Hawaii

Guests get a lesson in local culture

By: Karla Aronson

Relaxing in the warm weather and enjoying the surrounding natural beauty may be foremost on the minds of vacationers arriving in Hawaii. But many visitors also want to get a sense of the islands to experience the culture of Hawaii, which can begin right at the resort.

Hotels feature some of Hawaii’s best artwork in their lobbies. Other resorts offer daily and weekly cultural programs that are free and open to the public, while still others sponsor high-profile annual events that aim to connect visitors to Hawaii’s ancient and contemporary culture.

Some resorts are especially dedicated to promoting an authentic understanding of Hawaii. Aside from the marketing strategy, the purpose is to respect Hawaii’s host culture.

Fifteen years ago, for instance, Maui’s Kaanapali Beach Hotel named Lori Sablas its director of pookela (meaning excellence). Sab-las is charged with leading Hawaiian cultural education programs for resort employees.

“We position ourselves as Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel,” she said. “Now how do you deliver this? You do that through your people.”

The Northwest Maui hotel strives to have knowledgeable employees at all levels of its business, from activities to bell service to concierge.

Many of its workers are immigrants, so the hotel assumed the mandate of teaching them about the culture to encourage a sense of belonging. As a result, employees become more comfortable and open with guests.

“It is our hotel’s way of respecting the host culture and its preservation,” Sablas said.

In turn, employees deliver all of the Hawaiian cultural classes offered to guests on a daily basis, welcome hotel guests by singing and serenade them again upon departure.

Employees also take time to share with guests their personal insights and stories about growing up on Maui.

“It’s not an ordinary hotel experience,” Sablas said. “Coming to our property, there is a distinct difference.”

Each year Kaanapali Beach Hotel sets aside one weekend to honor the next generation of practitioners of local culture.

Residents and resort guests alike are invited to the hotel’s Hula O Na Keiki, a solo hula competition for children ages 5 to 17.

Since 1990, the event has grown from a daylong into a weekend-long cultural celebration of Hawaiian arts and music, highlighted by the most talented young hula dancers around.

The 15th celebration of Hula O Na Keiki takes place this year Nov. 11-12.

Up the Maui coast, Kapalua Resort is doing its part to provide clients with a real sense of place.

As cultural advisor to the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, Clifford Naeole said he aims “to prevent the reinventing or dilution of the culture through half truths.”

Naeole’s position was created seven years ago after he noted instances when inaccurate or “totally wrong” information had been communicated to visitors, he said.

“At one end of the rainbow are mai tais, surf and sand,” he said. “At the other end is Hawaii heart and soul.”

The roster of cultural programs that Naeole now oversees includes a twice-weekly screening of the film “Then There Were None,” about the demise of the Hawaiian people and culture.

And on the last Friday of every month, the resort invites elders from the community to speak on a particular topic, drawing from their personal experiences.

Performances held at the Ritz-Carlton include “Slack Key Masters,” a Hawaiian music concert on Tuesday evenings, and the “Legend of Kaululaau,” a one-man play of Hawaii storytelling which shows twice on Sundays.

The Ritz-Carlton is probably most famed locally for its annual Celebration of the Arts.

For more than a decade, the Ritz has hosted a three-day event honoring Hawaiian arts.

The free, family-oriented festival features art displays, films, workshops and a children’s program (March 24-27), and this year’s ecological-based theme is The Land, the Ocean and Man: Partners for Life.

Asked to sum up Ritz’s aims, Naeole put it this way: “We want our guests to come to Hawaii and continue to come to Hawaii, but we want them to know who the host is.”


Kaanapali Beach Hotel
2525 Kaanapali Pkwy.
Lahaina, HI 96761

Ritz-Carlton Kapalua
1 Ritz-Carlton Dr.
Kapalua, HI 96761