Features & Images » Travel

Hawaii: Families find culture at Maui celebration

by and


KAPALUA, Hawaii — Something's not right. For two hours, my family and I have been feasting on traditional Hawaiian food, listening to talented Hawaiian falsetto singers and ukulele strummers and enjoying a Mai Tai. Or two.

Now, hula dancers have taken to the stage and this luau at Maui's Celebration of the Arts is kicking into high gear. But I can't shake the feeling that something's missing.

Then it hits me: I have not seen a coconut-shell bra, plastic lei or cellophane skirt all night. What a relief.

I've come to Maui with my husband and two young teenage sons for the Celebration of the Arts, a one-of-a-kind festival in which Hawaiian musicians, artisans and kupuna (elders) gather to tell their stories of Hawaii's rich cultural heritage.

Held on Easter weekend, the celebration fills the drop-dead-gorgeous Ritz-Carlton Kapalua hotel with local residents, Ritz guests and visitors staying elsewhere, who all come to take part in (mostly) free activities. Stay at the Ritz (as we did) and you've got easy access to all the events, from sunrise chanting on the beach to musical performances well into the wee hours.

During the festival we participate in hands-on native craft demonstrations (my children are particularly taken with the chance to carve wood and etch scrimshaw) and dance performances, and attend presentations on everything from Hawaiian myths to the nature of hula.

While there is much laughter, there are also serious, adult-oriented discussions — of a culture struggling for relevance among its young, of a proud people seeking recognition, even of sovereignty for the Hawaiian nation. It is a rare opportunity for a visitor to consider the other end of the Hawaiian rainbow.

The Ritz-Carlton's commitment to the Hawaiian way of life extends beyond the festival, thanks in large part to Clifford Nae'ole, the hotel's full-time cultural advisor. Twice weekly, Nae'ole hosts a "Sense of Place" presentation featuring the documentary Then There Were None, a no-holds-barred look at the erosion of Hawaiian culture. The hotel's other cultural programs — lei making, hula lessons, sarong tying — offer more predictable, yet still authentic, experiences.

Just down the road is another hotbed of authenticity, the Napili Kai Beach Resort. For over 40 years, this popular resort has taught local children the history, arts, language and dance of Polynesia through its non-profit Napili Kai Foundation. The results of this labour of love are on display.


For information on the Celebration of the Arts, go to www.celebrationofthearts.org. This year's festival is April 6 to 8. For information on Maui, visit the Maui Visitors Bureau website at www.visitmaui.com.