Attending a luau is an embarrassment that every tourist must endure when visiting the islands of Hawaii – at least that’s what I thought as a crisp 14-year-old when I witnessed my first one. I was pretty sure I knew it all back then.
That skewed appraisal of travel in Hawaii stayed with me until my family visited Ko’Olina, a resort town on the western side of Oahu, in Hawaii.
Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa
My introduction to a deeper understanding of the islands’ cultural life started when we stayed at the Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, set on 21 ocean-front acres in Oahu. The name of its lobby, Maka’ala, translates to eyes wide open, and those eyes, in the form of floor-to-ceiling windows, provide a view of clusters of lava rock floating in filigrees of turquoise water.
To our surprise, instead of the expected theme park’s primary colors and crush of Disney characters, the Aulani was decorated in earth tones, polished wooden beams and blocks of stone that graced the floor, lines and curves of the lobby.
Overhead, smooth wood pulled into the tip of a canoe that traveled down the ceiling much like the canoes that connected the ancient people of the Hawaiian Islands. Where the canoe line ended, Artist Martin Charlot’s 200-foot mural of ancient warriors, farmers and dancers reminded visitors what Oahu once looked like.
Disney’s Aulani Hawaiian resort, designed by Imaginarium executive, Joe Rohde, is divided in half. One is a male section and the other a female. On one side, goddess Pele dances with her disciples in a framed fresco, on the other, warriors head off into battle. The theme, we found, extended into the rooms as well.
Although we did glimpse our favorite Disney characters strutting around palm-tree lined paths in beach attire, the resort makes every attempt to stay true to Hawaiian life.
“We worked with a cultural committee to ensure we were honoring authentic Hawaiian culture,” said Noriko Harimoto, Public Relations Manager for the Aulani.
A celebration of that culture is everywhere, including the kid’s club, which is aptly named Aunty’s Beach House. Islanders believe that even if a person is not of your bloodline, they are still your ohana, your family.
Because of that kinship mentality, adults are referred to as Aunty or Uncle by keiko, the children. The Aunties and Uncles at the Beach House extended that hospitality to my boys, ages 7 and 9, throughout our stay. The boys proclaimed it was the best kid’s club they’d ever visited.
In the heart of the Aulani resort is a 7-acre water park called Waikolohe Valley, which translates to mischievous waters. Our favorite part was the two, curvy water slide tubes.
The first time we tried it, the four of us trudged up the stairs with our double rafts and plopped them into the top of the platforms. My husband and I were in one raft, with our backs to the boys, who were in another. We waited for the green light to signal the time to push off, plunging us into the dark abyss.
The tubes amplified our screams as we slid from side to side, not knowing when each bend would rocket our bodies into the next curve. Water splashed into our mouths and eyes as our fingers gripped onto the straps of our raft. The tube spit us into a pool of cool water, seconds before our boys got there. Their hands reached around our necks, laughing, screaming, and promising quick revenge.
Closer to the beach is another pool, the Kamaka, a place to chill under a waterfall. It was fun surprising the boys when we told them to go underwater. They came up with mouths shaped like big Os after hearing the songs of whales in the water!
Not far from there is Rainbow Reef, an exotic fish habitat stocked with 40 varieties of fish. Each person wears an inflatable vest, so even non-swimmers can enjoy the fun. Within the safety of the huge aquarium and the rented snorkel gear, we were able to gaze as the technicolor fish swam around our bodies.
It was nice not having to fight currents to swim with ocean life. There’s even a window, set within the water tank, to wave at less adventurous spectators or adoring grandparents.
The ‘AMA’AMA open-air restaurant was a good spot for lunch. They have a poolside service with all the usual kid favorites, and offer international options for adults. In the evening, the ‘AMA’AMA transforms into a more formal dining area overlooking the ocean.
One night, we spoke with several locals residents about their take on how tourism is affecting Hawaii. Kevin Kelly, President of Triton Corp., said he thought the resorts springing up around Oahu were a good thing. “They provide jobs,” he said.
His wife, Irene Kelly, a biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, worried about depleting the island’s natural resources, though.
“The federal government doesn’t have the means to manage all the things needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem,” she said.
Luckily, she told us, a program developed over two decades allows local communities to protect the health of their island.
“In Haena, Kauai, the Community Based Subsistence Fishing Area (CBSA) was developed so communities could enforce their own environmental regulations,” she said. This was done in response to disappearing fish and shrinking dolphin pods.
Her husband agreed, “It’s like the Lorax,” he said. “Someone finds something nice and then others have to get as much of it as possible, even if that means using it up until it’s gone.”
But with CBSA as a role model for the other islands, that can be prevented, the couple hopes.
Discussing this earlier, Harimoto had told me, “We are a big H and a little d.” In honoring that big H, Disney is the first resort in Hawaii to earn the LEED silver award.
While the adults were discussing the fate of the islands, the kids noticed a nearby campfire with Uncle and Moana telling island tales. They ran to join the group sitting around the fire and learned about island folklore in the interactive presentation.
By engaging the children’s hearts through these stories, we watched as Disney created the next generation of conservationists who will hopefully continue to preserve island life.
The next day, with the warm staff at Aunty’s Beach House entertaining the boys, we enjoyed the Laniwai Spa, the first spa created by Disney and built with aloha magic. It surpasses its name which translates to freshwater heaven.
Divided into an outdoor hydrotherapy garden and an indoor sanctuary with a mind boggling (150!) array of treatments, the mostly adults-only spa is a retreat from your retreat. There’s also an Ohana Lomi Lomi massage for family to enjoy together.
Lomi Lomi involves foot long guava wood sticks, essential oils and bliss. We learned that every Hawaiian family has within it someone designated as a healer. This healer practices massage and natural remedies within the family to keep everyone at their best.
One morning, I started my day with sunrise yoga on the lawn overlooking the ocean. I got to say aloha with poses to the rising sun. I watched the day unfold under layers of crimson, salmon and sunflower while reflecting on how lucky we were to be enjoying this. It was a rare opportunity of quiet, and I made a mental note to try and bring this moment home with me.
Four Seasons Adventures
A short walk past the Aulani is its neighbor, the Four Seasons hotel. In front of the Four Seasons is a stretch of public beach called Lanikuhonua. This was an ancient vacation spot for Hawaiian royalty.
Today, it is home to a kahu, or spiritual guardian. Kahu Aunty Nettie is the oldest living resident in Oahu. Here, she blesses visitors in an ocean ceremony. After my blessing, she said she was pleased with the hotels on Oahu because they provided jobs that keep the kids on the island.
The Four Seasons has its own offering of island adventures that include a guided hike we took to Kaena Point, a half hour away from Ko’Olina. Swimming holes and a teardrop-shaped rock facing the ocean are the payoff. The rock is called Leinakauhane Point, which translates to leaping of the souls. It’s a sacred spot where islanders believe recently departed souls transition to the other side.
If you decide to venture away from Ko’Olina, you won’t want to miss Waikiki Beach. Known for its white powder sand beach and long, fat waves, it’s about an hour away. We rented surfboards and now we can say we’ve surfed Waikiki, even though not all of us stood up on their surfboard.
Our education ended at Aulani’s “Ka Wa’a” (canoe) Luau. Aunties and Uncles welcomed us with keepsake leis of Kakui nuts and tiny moss colored Mongo seashells. The boys received demi-god Maui fish hooks.
Island warriors helped prepare the feast by showing keiki, how to pound ku’i kalo, taro root, into a pasty poi. The hour before, the Aulani ohana had set out mounds of pig, fish and salads, and then they guided the keiki in lei making, applied tribal tattoos and hula dancing.
Through storyteller Noa and the dancers, we learned the history of the Polynesian people’s migration by canoe from Tahiti to Hawaii and their evolution into the present. The story involved fires and screaming and spectacular movements all set to a windswept island soundtrack.
It was nothing like the luaus I remembered as a teen. Or, maybe it was, but this time I saw it through new eyes.
If You Go to Oahu:
Author Bio: Rina Baraz Nehdar is a Los Angeles based, award-winning broadcast journalist barely keeping her head above water as she raises her two rambunctious sons. When she’s not looking for organic groceries, she could be found in downward facing dog or traveling with her family. She is a freelance writer, a frequent contributor to LA Parent Magazine and could be found at www.lafamilytravel.com and www.mommyhasastory.com