By Sara G. Stephens
I had never been to Hawaii, and truthfully, I was somewhat reluctant to go.
For passionate travelers, Hawaii sits atop a towering, ivory pedestal. That’s where we reverently place it, struck with awe at the images we’ve seen, the books we’ve read and the stories we’ve heard about this paradise destination. But things that get put on pedestals, when eventually seen at eye level, inevitably manage to become much smaller, more mundane, and our worlds get smaller in the void. This was my fear–that my traveling mecca would not live up to its glorious reputation–and so I continued to put off going to Hawaii.
But this year’s seasonal stress and the winter blahs proved particularly potent, and I found myself straining to hear the distant call of a conch. Suddenly I sensed that, even if the up-close-and personal Hawaii were only a fraction of everything I had seen, read, and heard about the place, the experience would be everything I needed to feel at this point in my life.
And so my husband and two daughters and I booked our flights and rooms for one week in Maui, part of the Hawaiian archipelago. We would be staying at an accommodation regarded by the travel industry as “Hawaii’s Most Hawaiian Hotel,” which was exactly where I wanted to be.
Here I share with you highlights from our 7 days in this heavenly retreat, the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel. It began on a
The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel (KBH) is a 45-minute taxi ride from the airport and is set on a three-mile stretch of sandy beach along the sunny, western shores of Maui. We arrived at dark, tired from the trip, so we decided to bed down for the evening and gear up for the next morning’s introduction to paradise–but not before sweeping open the curtains in our room, stepping out on the lanais, and taking in the nighttime view. We could not see the ocean, but we could hear it, smell it, feel it. What we could see from our 5th floor room was a sparkling, whale-shaped pool, where a few lingering guests quietly enjoyed the water. To the right of the pool, a tikki torch-lit bar hosted a small gathering of patrons, all seemingly engaged in pleasant, low-voiced conversations, which we could observe but not hear from our terrace. Through the leaves of the swaying palm trees, we could see hula dancers on a stage, and we went to sleep hearing the honey-like hum of a Hawaiian band that lulled us into dreams about the next morning’s adventures.
It was time to rise and shine, whip open the curtains and step out onto the lanais for a morning view of our new home away from home. Ahhhhhh, and there it was….the sapphire sparkle of the Pacific Ocean. It patiently ebbed and flowed just beyond the immaculately manicured hotel grounds–emerald grass kissed in a random passion with freshly fallen Plumeria blossoms. Closer to the hotel, just before the stage we had seen the night before, lay the hotel’s open air, casual restaurant, Tikki Terrace. The Pacific would have to wait. This family was ravenous.
With much delight, we entered the restaurant to discover an abundant breakfast buffet. The food, a combination of authentic, Hawaiian regional cuisine and traditional morning fare, is is prepared under the direction of award-winning Executive Chef Tom Muromoto. The restaurant takes pride in the selection of menu items with local flavors, fresh local produce and a range of gluten-free items. Many of the ingredients come from gardens cultivated on the hotel grounds. I ordered the pancakes (because if they’re on the menu, I’m ordering them–it’s an addiction). They were, simply put, the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten. I also enjoyed a serving of Portuguese sausage, breakfast potatoes and coffee. The kids devoured the fresh pineapple, watermelon and other fruits. My husband ventured out to try the local dishes–all delicious, judging from his clean plates and multiple returns to the buffet.
We crossed through the lobby on our way back to the room, to peruse the tables of locally, handcrafted items being sold by local artisans–everything from pearl necklaces to Hawaiian-print dog collars. We made a few purchases (the craft fair is presented every day, with different artisans displaying their wares, so we knew we’d be back for more) then hurried back to the room to change into our swimsuits for a day at the beach (more on this later).
I love the KBH lobby and would find any excuse to wander around the space. Contrary to the slick, polished vibe of other national franchise lodging, this lobby, with its low ceilings, rich, wood paneling, glass-louvre blinds, and open-air access, feels distinctly Hawaiian. I spent a good deal of time looking at a wall of framed pictures showcasing winners of the annual Hula O Na Keiki, a children’s solo hula competition. KBH has been hosting this event for over 25 years to educate local children in the ways of their ancestors so the culture can be carried forward.
Across from this display sits a long desk where the hotel’s cultural advisors answer guests’ questions about ways in which to enrich their Hawaiian experience. I spoke to one friendly advisor on Wednesday who gave me the idea for Thursday’s activity: driving the road to Hana.
This rite of passage consists of traversing a 64.4-mile long stretch of the coastal Hawaii Routes 36 and 360 which connects Kahului with the town of Hāna in east Maui. The road is famous for its narrow, one-lane bridges (there are 59 bridges in all); hairpin turns (620 curves in all); and incredible island views. We got an early start, upon the advisor’s tip (the trip takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to complete), leaving the hotel at 5:30am. The trek, though nauseating at times, paid off with mind-blowing natural encounters. We stopped the car to hike toward waterfalls; to enjoy local roadside stands selling fruit, smoothies and banana bread; and to take picture after picture after picture. My camera just about exploded with the color and beauty revealed at literally every turn.
We made it to Hana, a lovely, sleepy little town. But the town was mostly closed. It was Thanksgiving. Yikes! The family wasn’t too happy with me. Still we got out of the car to walk around Kauhale village, a replica of a pre-contact chief’s compound. It’s right in front of the historic courthouse and Hana Cultural Center and Museum, which were also closed. It was Thanksgiving.
Right! It was Thanksgiving! I reminded everyone of the Thanksgiving banquet we’d be enjoying back at KBH that evening. Oh, and don’t forget about the ukulele lesson we’re signed up for this afternoon. With fresh springs in our steps, off to the car we retreated. My husband took the roads with a little bit too much confidence on the way back, greatly encouraging our tendency for carsickness. But noting the lines of cars approaching us from the opposite direction, we were glad we had gotten an early start.
We woke the kids up as we arrived back at the KBH, left the car with valet parking, and raced to the activity hale for our family ukulele lesson. Around six other people joined us to learn the basics of strumming and 3 chords on ukeles loaned to us by the instructor. I can’t say we left the lesson bound for Carnegie Hall, but it was fun, even as we fumbled through our final “recital” piece.
Eagerly we bounded back to the room to dress for the Thanksgiving feast. And oh, what a feast! KBH offers such banquets on holidays, extending the Tikki Terrace by opening up a generously sized ballroom lined wall to wall and filled in the center with tables stocked with exotic, local flavors, as well as more traditional holiday cuisine. An entire wall was dedicated to desserts, with a chocolate fountain in the middle. My kids were in heaven.
This day was all about Hawaiian culture. While my husband and younger daughter embarked on the few minutes’ walk to the nearby Whaler’s Village (an open-air collection of shops), my older daughter and I strolled across the hotel grounds to the activity hale, where we enjoyed learning a unique way to share love and aloha: the art of lei making. KBH’s cultural advisers showed us how to string exotic and colorful flowers. There’s something about the experience that’s ever so relaxing–it could be the repetitive, careful motions involved in sorting and stringing, or perhaps it’s the calming scent of the flowers. Our leis turned out beautiful, and we wore them the rest of the day, feeling more Hawaiian than ever.
After the lei-making class, we popped over to the Grab-n-Go for refreshments, then headed back to the hale for a class in Lauhala weaving. This activity was a bit more tricky. We were given three reeds, which we wove to create a bookmark. Thanks to the monk-like patience of our instructor, I finally produced a finished piece, which I quickly inserted into my book and am still enjoying today.
For dinner this evening, we relaxed at the Tikki grill, enjoying some exceptional chicken wings, burgers and fries. At 6 pm, the conch was blown, and the courtyard tikki torches lit, signifying the start of the evening’s entertainment. We moved to a table near the stage to take in a delightful show put on by local hula students, from adorable toddlers to mesmerizing advanced dancers. What a show.
I had been dreading this morning. Being anything but athletic, I wondered as we padded down to the beach at 8 am why I had ever agreed to take a stand-up paddleboard lesson. The instructors met us on the beach and within minutes had us laughing off our worries as they taught us the basics of this sport on land. The kids were given smaller, more lightweight oars and boards that were more manageable for their size, and they were encouraged to ask questions. The group ventured out to the water til we were waist deep, then we hopped onto our boards in a kneeling position and paddled our way out to Black Rock, a natural wind barrier, at the opposite end of the beach. Once positioned, we were instructed to stand without overthinking it. “You don’t have to invent standing, you do it every morning,” the instructors reminded us. From there it was a simple matter of looking out into the horizon (never at our boards) and using oars to steer the boards left, right, backward and forward. Here’s where I get to boast just a little, because I so rarely have the opportunity to toot my athletic horn. I did it! I stayed on that board, paddling all about water, and painting with all the colors of the wind. I carefully navigated around snorkelers and swimmers, and even battled the wind to get myself back to shore after a good 30 minutes on the waves. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
After the standup paddleboard lesson, we kicked around the beach, making fantastic castles in the soft sand seemingly created for just that very purpose. My husband rented a cabana for when we craved some shade, but we didn’t use it much. Instead, we took turns playing with a boogie board we purchased at the hotel sundries shop. One guest was catching a plane out that evening and left us the boogie board she had bought, which just doubled the fun.
We’re a churchgoing family and were delighted to hear we wouldn’t have to leave the hotel grounds to celebrate the Lord’s Day. Instead, we donned some casual but clean clothes and made our way to the Hale Hema, where service was ministered by Church on the Go’s Garden Chapel by the Sea. We were given flowers to put in our hair, we sang songs, we watched some hula, and we even listened while an Elvis impersonator the minister had met in Las Vegas sang a spiritual hymn. Sunday mass will never be the same.
From the service, we found our way back to the Tikki Terrace for Sunday champagne brunch. More mouth-watering food, and the chocolate fountain made its happy return, much to the delight of our daughters. We were entertained by local Hawaiian musicians as we ate.
It had been our plan to check out of the KBH on Monday and spend a day in Honolulu before heading back to Houston Tuesday night. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave our home in Maui. We especially couldn’t leave without experiencing an honest-to-goodness luau, which KBH hosts every Monday night. So we extended our stay another night. The show was magnificent, everything we imagined it would be, complete with a shell lei greeting; a whole, roasted pig; mai tai’s (for which KBH’s 39-year veteran bartender Dale is famous); another scrumptious buffet; and an open bar of mixed drinks, beer, wine and sodas. The Hula show, The Legends of Ka’anapali, was breathtaking and included incredible fire performances. They even got my whole family up on stage for a brief hula lesson before unleashing us to perform in front of the entire gathering of guests. I’m not sure my husband has quite recovered.
What a bittersweet morning. We tasted the bitterness of the thought of leaving the KBH, but also the sweetness of knowing we were now Ohana–family. We were invited to gather in the lobby Tuesday morning for the Lei Kukui ceremony. Beginning with a traditional oli (chant), the ceremony explains the symbolic significance of the kukui nut leis as the staff presented one to each guest. Part of this ceremony is to tell guests it’s not “goodbye,” it is “A hui hou” (until we meet again), “because once guests are ʻohana, the door will always be open at Kāʻanapali Beach Hotel.”
Thank you, KBH, for ensuring that Hawaii continues to enjoy its lofty perch atop this traveler’s ivory pedestal. A hui hou.