As I hurry through the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki, I can’t help but wonder about the Hawaiian perspective on punctuality, or lack thereof. Zig-zagging between tourists laden with shopping bags from the likes of Jimmy Choo, Kate Spade New York and the Honolulu Cookie Company, I finally reach the Helumoa Hale Guest Services and Heritage Room. There’s barely time to catch my breath before the centre’s cultural director greets me with a smile, an “Aloha!” and a basket brimming with fresh orchids, thread and one very long needle. He’ll be leading one of the daily workshops given here on traditional Hawaiian language, heritage and crafts like basket- and lei-making.
We settle in under the palms of the Royal Grove, an open-air oasis on the site of a historic garden. With birds singing and flitting in the trees overhead and the air humid with earthy, green scents, we could easily be in a park rather than a shopping mall. While I work my needle through the corolla to gently guide each flower down the length of thread, Monte McComber explains that the use of garlands goes beyond the ritual of welcoming visitors to the islands. “A lei represents a loved one, so it should be made with its intended’s favourite flowers,” he says, tightening my string of orchids. “When students graduate, some of them are given so many leis that they’re up to their ears in them.” Before placing mine around my neck, he surprises me by starting into “Oli Lei,” a traditional song about the role of these necklaces in the saga of the goddess Hiiakaikapoliopele, sister of Pélé. I figure my tardiness is forgiven.
When it comes to cultural self-promotion, it’s hard to beat Hawaii (which I now pronounce “huh-vy-ee” thanks to a lesson from McComber). For one thing, there’s no shortage of merchandise: On my first trip here, I almost drowned in a sea of tiki key chains. But the archipelago’s traditions and legendary hospitality continue to captivate me – the proof is around my neck – and you don’t need to look far to see that the islands are not just a sun-drenched paradise but also an open-air living museum for an ancient culture.
An understated sign for He’eia Fishpond is tucked between two houses on a residential street on the Windward Coast – Oahu’s eastern shoreline. One of 25 aquaculture ponds still in operation in the archipelago, this circular jetty is eclipsed by its idyllic backdrop: a blue-water bay flanked by lush, jagged mountains that remind me of a sleeping dragon. The first stones were put in place to form this pond some 800 years ago, and it remains a marvel of local engineering. In a technique distinct to Hawaii, fish are trapped as the tide comes in. “I’m still waiting for someone to show me a better system,” laughs Mark Noguchi, who toured the world as a hula dancer before becoming a chef and an advocate for community self-determination and sustainable local food. Working with other residents, he spent years removing the thicket of mangroves that once covered the pond and several more years reconstructing the stone wall surrounding it. “On our final push, more than 2,000 volunteers showed up to help out,” he tells me as I picture a similar scene playing out hundreds of years ago. We reach the sluice gate, two handcrafted bamboo barriers, and as the tide rises, I watch the coming and going of the waves passing through the structure. Mark points out fish as they arrive to feed off the phytoplankton brought in by the waves, including a well-fed blue mullet that inhales its lunch in the murky waters. I realize I’m hungry too.
Poke is to Hawaiians what poutine is to Québécois. The preparation of cubes of raw fish sprinkled with limu (algae) dates back far before James Cook set foot here. Since my arrival, I have paid respect to this emblematic Hawaiian dish by ordering it, topped with an egg, at Honolulu’s Highway Inn as well as six different ways at Tamura, a grocery and fish-shop chain with a dedicated poke counter that serves the dish in humble plastic bowls. Tonight, however, my poke arrives fish-free. In its place sit chunks of roasted beets, smoked macadamia nuts and gorilla ogo, an invasive seaweed that’s more palatable to people than it is to reef fish. I enjoy its saline crunch at Mud Hen Water, a relaxed, modern restaurant in the busy Kaimuka neighbourhood of Honolulu. The hyper-local menu here updates Hawaiian comfort food. I also make sure to order kalo, or taro, an ingredient with deep cultural significance. The Kumulipo song of creation explains that the plant grows from the buried remains of the child of Wakea and Papa, the sky and the earth. The word kalo means eternal breath, and eating poi (paste made from the steamed root) is a ritual that brings people together. According to tradition, it’s even forbidden to argue while eating it. The waitress shows up with a delicacy called Yaki o Pa’i’ai, made of firm taro paste served on nori and slathered with sweetened soy sauce alongside squid grilled in lu’au, cooked kalo leaves. She gets no argument from me.
They say that outrigger canoe racing has been around ever since a second canoe was made. Sitting in my boat with my knees squeezed together, I raise my paddle upon hearing “Makaukau?” (“Ready?”) from the stern, alerting us to get set. Hawaii has more than 60 canoe clubs, and Kai ‘Opua, one of the oldest, offers recreational outings on most mornings. Soon my back muscles are working hard as I paddle, and I realize that this is far from the peaceful ride I was expecting. “Ekahi! Elua! Ekolu! Eha!” (“One! Two! Three! Four!”), the instructor chants as we pull away from the bay. We glide past a heia, a triangular hut made from palm leaves, and a group of beachgoers all dressed in the exact same shirt.
It’s all about form: In order to move efficiently, your body should be leaning in while your arms create a triangle with the paddle. This is harder than it looks, especially upon hearing a “Hut ho!” (“Switch sides!”). When everyone is finally paddling in unison, the Kikaha nearly levitates and sprints seaward at full throttle; these aquatic racers can reach speeds of 20 kilometres an hour. It’s tempting to drop the technique we were taught on the beach, but this canoe ride is a traditional sport, so I stick to the rules. Later, when we’re out of the water and gathered on the beach, our muscular instructor – two-time state champion Brian T. Cornel – blows into his pū, or conch, “to thank the gods and the weather for getting us back to shore and safety.”
Driving north on Hawaii Island, the quasi-lunar, arid landscape of the west coast is transformed almost instantly before my eyes. Once inland, it’s a rich and verdant oasis where low stone walls are literally overflowing with vegetation. But that’s nothing compared to the lush greenery that greets me at the Kohala Institute – equal parts experimental farm, community project and tropical paradise – which has restored one of the rare still-active ahupua’a. This ancestral system of land division ensured everyone had access to arable, forest and oceanfront land.
Soon I’m stepping over palm leaves and pushing through curtains of aerial roots hanging from strangler figs, following project development coordinator Katie Schwind along a rough trail that brings us to a revitalized kalo patch. Reaching the plateau, we see the green taro plants with matted, heart-shaped leaves partially submerged in water. This was once the beloved kalo patch of Kamehameha I, a king originally from this region who unified the archipelago in 1810. “There is a Hawaiian proverb: If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” Schwind explains as she offers me a few crushed cinnamon leaves to smell. The saying, with its simple logic, goes hand in hand with the reply that locals often give when I ask what motivates them. “It’s pono,” they say, meaning you do what it takes to maintain harmony. And that means to listen to, to protect and to celebrate nature and tradition. We could all use a little more pono.
Muddy-shoed, we wander back down to the farm, sucking on satisfying pieces of freshly macheted sugar cane. We climb into a big white van to finish the tour of the 2400-acre property. “This old school is in the process of being converted into an inn and conference centre,” Schwind explains as she waves to workers cooling down in the shade. “And this is where we’ll grow sacred flowers and plants for workshops in making leis, bark items and bamboo stamps.” She points in another direction. “And that platform will be used for hula classes.”
Before leaving Hawaii, I circle back to the Windward Coast for a final visit. The Ko’olau Range rises steeply above the road like an immense wall of green and the Kanaka Maoli, the yellow, green and red flag of indigenous Hawaii, flutters in front of a few houses. I stop in at Tamura for some kulolo, a local dessert made from taro and coconut milk, with a texture reminiscent of Japanese mochi rice cake. Then I make my way to Kualoa Regional Park, a quiet area bordered by a long white-sand beach. The water lapping at the shore is as clear as it is turbulent. This is where the chiefs used to teach their children the customs. Today the park is deserted except for the few Japanese tourists taking selfies in front of Mokili’i Islet. The wind blows so fiercely that some trees have branches growing on just one side, yet the trunks are straight. Like Hawaiians, they’ve put down solid roots.