Kaanapali Captivates

Kaanapali, Maui's revered master-planned resort, immerses guests in its rich heritage By: Marty Wentzel
Kids can learn to hula at Sheraton Maui Resort located in the Kaanapali master-planned resort. // © 2011 Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa
Kids can learn to hula at Sheraton Maui Resort located in the Kaanapali master-planned resort. // © 2011 Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa

The Details

Kaanapali Beach Resort Association

Maui Visitors Bureau

When Shelley Kekuna first visited Kaanapali Beach Resort in the 1970s, she immediately fell in love with its obvious charms, from its perfect weather and three-mile beach to its intoxicating floral fragrances. These days, as Kaanapali Beach Resort Association’s executive director, Kekuna’s appreciation for the West Maui master-planned mecca runs much deeper, down to its roots, and she hopes visitors can develop a similar passion for Kaanapali’s culture and history.

Kaanapali’s accommodations, attractions and activities make it easy for clients to learn about the legacy of the area. Most resorts offer cultural classes, from lei-making sessions at Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa and Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa to Hawaiian language lessons at Kaanapali Beach Hotel. Luaus light up the Sheraton, Hyatt and Westin Maui Resort and Spa, the last of which recently built a new stage allowing better visibility for visitors.

Hotel cultural programs appeal to all ages, starting with young guests. At Aston Kaanapali Shores’ Camp Kaanapali, kids try their hand at hula and tapa cloth making; at Kaanapali Alii, cultural advisor Fred Torres gives free ukulele lessons. One of the most revered events of the year takes place each fall at Kaanapali Beach Hotel, home of Hula O Na Keiki, a showcase of hula students from around the world.

An easy way to catch some culture awaits at the Sheraton. The hotel is fronted by an oceanside formation called Puu Kekaa (Black Rock) where, legend has it, the souls of the dead leapt into the other world. Maui’s 18th-century king Kahekili was famous for his fearless dives off the great rock. For contemporary visitors, the Sheraton reenacts his feat each day at sunset, as a young warrior dressed in a malo (loincloth) launches himself off the promontory in dramatic fashion.

The Kaanapali History Trail provides another fun way to learn about the area’s heritage. Starting at the north end of the destination, the route leads walkers to 10 sites marked by lava rock monuments with informative plaques. With a free brochure and map in hand, clients can learn about such significant places as Kekaa Landing Pier, which operated for years as the primary shipping point for Maui sugar; and Koko O Na Moku Race Track, which hosted horse races attended by royalty and laborers alike.

“On the trail, visitors can learn about how Kaanapali was not only a playground for royalty, but a site of battles and home to thousands of native people living in harmony with nature,” said Kekuna, who played a role in establishing the trail.

Clients looking to learn more about Kaanapali’s maritime heritage can stop by Whalers Village shopping and dining complex, home of the Whalers Village Museum. There, they’ll find such exhibits as a birdcage made from whale bone, ornaments and utensils crafted out of whale tooth ivory and a scale model of a 19th-century whaling ship.

Even golfers can learn a little lore about Kaanapali. Each hole of the Royal Kaanapali Golf Course carries a Hawaiian name that refers to a specific legend.

The cultural experience extends into the heavens courtesy of the Hyatt’s rooftop stargazing program. As program director Eddie Mahoney points out various constellations, he talks about how ancient Polynesian sea voyagers used the stars to navigate their way to Hawaii, imbuing the sights on high with a sense of place.

Resorts focus further on the destination’s unique riches by using local products in their restaurants and spas. At the Westin, for instance, clients can taste rum infused with Maui-grown pineapple. During a Hyatt spa session, they can indulge in a body scrub calling on the natural healing qualities of raw Maui sugar.

Then there’s the Sugar Cane Train, which celebrates the days when fields of green cane dominated the local landscape. A quaint open-air locomotive chugs six miles between Kaanapali and historic Lahaina town while a narrator points out pertinent sites.

Immediately behind Kaanapali stands Honokohau Valley, where a farming community thrived until the 1800s. A community effort is under way to restore the overgrown valley, and visitors can join in to help restore taro patches, pull weeds, move boulders and rebuild stone foundations, all in tribute the area’s ancestors and culture.

As Kekuna reflects on all that Kaanapali has to offer, she maintains that the resort has a responsibility to share its unique history with visitors.

“Kaanapali was the first master-planned resort community in the state, a benchmark for others to follow,” she said. “By respecting and staying in touch with our past, we can help shape the future.”

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