Hawaiian Canoe Culture
How two Hawaiian sailing vessels are reshaping the visitor experience.
IF YOU FALL into one of three categories — you’re a fan of the sea, you love a good adventure-triumph story, or you live within a kukui nut’s toss of the Pacific — then you likely have heard about the Hokule’a. This Hawaiian sailing canoe has now circumnavigated the globe and enjoyed rousing welcomes in more than 23 countries around the world in 2017 alone, its rotating crew raising ecological, environmental and cultural awareness along the way. There seem to be only upsides to everything the Hokule’a and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, whose members support the Hokule’a and another sailing vessel, Hikianalia, are accomplishing in global waters.
For those who are reading of this for the first time, brace yourself for the inevitable Google deep dive later on or, possibly, an uncontrollable urge to purchase a ticket to the Pacific Islands to experience some of this adventure for yourself (we’ll get to that later). Here’s a recap:
In 1976, a group of Hawaiian watermen climbed aboard a sailing vessel modeled after the canoes that carried the first Polynesian settlers from island societies farther west across thousands of miles of ocean to Hawaiian shores. The crew members, who had diverse backgrounds and expert skills, were quietly reclaiming the power and prowess of generations of ocean voyagers in an effort to revive and preserve an ancient culture that was slipping away into kitschy stereotype and movie punch lines. The goal was for the crew to navigate to Tahiti with zero modern instrumentation, only using the tools that were available to their ancestors centuries prior. While this trip predated technological advances that sailors now rely on, it was itself a groundbreaking effort that brought many aspects of ancient Hawaiian culture to the fore, including hula (the graceful art of storytelling through movement and chants), visual art, song and more. In 52 days, the crew successfully sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back.
In the interest of space, I jump forward to today; since that first maiden voyage, two generations of Hawaii school-children have learned the ways of their ancestors through the eyes (and words) of the men and women who now sail on this vessel. From language and history to accomplishments in the oceans, that spread of knowledge continues today in part with the financial and marketing support of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which also conducts outreach through current voyages. In 2018, these vessels arrived in places like Sausalito, San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier and Half Moon Bay, welcoming aboard school groups, outrigger canoe clubs, environmentalists, scientists, technologists, celebrities and others to walk the decks and learn how the crew is navigating open waters without instrumentation and working toward a healthier future for our planet’s oceans.
Fortunately for many, some of the experiences of Hokule’a and Hikianalia can be had during a visit to Hawaii. Hotels and resorts keen on preserving their sense of place and connection to all things Hawaiian culture are now offering informative activities like daily classes and weeklong seminars. Whether you’re interested in a sunrise paddle lesson or a more direct connection to the legacy exemplified by these historic vessels, here are destinations to consider for your next Hawaii holiday.
When the Kelly family opened their first hotel more than half a century ago, it was with the spirit of the ocean and all it provides for Hawaii at top of mind. Today, although the family recently sold their holdings, the cultural ties between each of their hotels and the surroundings remain strong. While the Outrigger Waikiki is themed around surf (the famous Duke’s Waikiki is on the ground floor, ocean fronting), the Outrigger Reef, also directly on Waikiki Beach, is entirely focused on sailing canoes and those who piloted them. Pull up to the porte cochere and look up — you’re standing in a canoe hale, or house, where ancient voyagers would store their canoes to protect them from the elements. Resort cultural adviser Luana Maitland’s knowledge of Hawaiian practices and how to share them with guests of all ages may be unparalleled on the island; she oversees and often leads daily classes in subjects like lei-making or hula. Yet this isn’t Elvis’s Blue Hawaii hula; this is “talk story,” how tales were passed from Maitland’s grandmother to her and her 13 sisters and now to a new generation. Ocean family suites at Outrigger Reef are $400– $950 per night; penthouse suite starts at $1,500 per night. Daily cultural programming starts at 9 a.m. and is free.
On the island of Kauai, guests at Kukui’ula can enroll in a three-day “Canoe Sailing Intensive” that focuses on upping your sailing skills. Led by world champion sailing canoe steersman and captain Jason Dameron, you’ll learn a combination of paddling, ocean safety, recovery and other lessons. Ending each day with a visit to the spa for a cooldown experience doesn’t hurt either. Rooms start at $750 per night; the three-day canoe camp starts at $1,440 per person.
At the Fairmont Kea Lani, on Maui, the guest immersion begins with an oli (chant) on the shores of Polo Beach just after the sun emerges from behind Haleakala, the island’s central volcano. The resort’s lead outrigger canoe paddler- instructor, Solomon Pali, begins the morning by asking the ocean to grant safe passage to everyone. The one-hour intensive course on the hotel’s custom six-person wa’a kaukahi canoe teaches participants paddling, steering and ocean voyaging techniques. Free, but reservations in advance of your stay are recommended. Rates at Fairmont Kea Lani start at $735 per night; two-bedroom private villas start at $1,800.
Ritz-Carlton Kapalua partnered with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s organization to offer a wide range of “Ambassadors of the Environment” programs suited to young visitors, teens and adults. One example is the Coastal Hike and Tidepool Exploration, which teaches guests about historic bays and lava fields along the Kapalua Coastal Trail and the native birds and sea turtles there. Other offerings include excursions with in-house whale experts during humpback season (November–April) and an underwater photography and snorkeling class. Room rates start at $550 per night; club level starts at $800.
The tranquil Four Seasons Hualalai on Hawaii Island offers outrigger canoe experiences as well as oceanography explorations with local wildlife experts. Guests can opt for the hourlong four- or six-person outrigger trip that launches from Kua Bay and into the Pacific to learn about ancient paddlers and modern techniques. Those looking to deepen their experience can sign up for one- or two-person canoe lessons. The Alaka’i Nalu team runs kids’ paddling and snorkel camps too, so no visitor is left out. Room rates begin at $925 per night.