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There’s More to Maui than Sun and Surf

Andrea Gross | Mar 4, 2013, 11:01 a.m.

It’s 5:30 in the morning, and I’m shivering on a Maui beach. The sky is still dark, and wind is gusting, testing the resiliency of the palm trees. The waves are crashing onto the shore, showering us with fine particles of mist and sand.

I’m one of about 25 people, most in swimsuits, wrapped in towels and looking either supremely serene or vaguely apprehensive. The serene folks are the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) or at least kama’aina (non-Hawaiian islanders). The apprehensive, like me, are visitors.

We’re here to experience Hi’uwai, a traditional Hawaiian purification ceremony. It’s the opening event of Maui’s Celebration of the Arts, an annual festival that takes place over Easter weekend (this year, March 29-31) and honors Hawaiian culture, from music to crafts, from rituals to herbs. It’s all part of what Hawaiians hope will lead to a resurgence of pride in their Polynesian past, which many believe has been co-opted by a tourist industry that promotes a Disneyesque atmosphere of cellophane-skirted hula girls and perpetually grinning ‘ukulele boys.

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Hi’uwai, a traditional purification ceremony, opens the annual Celebration of the Arts.

By about 5:45 the crowd has swelled to 50, and Clifford Nae’ole, the Hawaiian cultural adviser to The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Kapalua, which is hosting the event, begins speaking. “Now it is time for silence,” he says. “When you go into the water, think about what you’ve done, good and bad. When you get out, you’ll leave the dirt behind.” He calls us to move closer to each other as he intones a chant that I can’t understand. Then he waves us toward the water.

I surprise myself by going in, letting the water wash over me. The wind whips my face, blows my hair, and I almost stumble as the waves come in with a roar. As I regain my balance, I sense new possibilities. Maybe there’s something to this.

Within about 10 minutes, the last few people leave the water, and Nae’ole has us face the east where the sky is getting lighter, a glimmer of pink peaking through the trees. A woman leads us in a chant to awaken the sun. “A new day has begun,” says Nae’ole, and he encourages us to hug the person closest to us. I’m standing near three people; I hug them all.

After I dry off and fill my stomach with coffee harvested on the nearby island of Molokai and toast smeared with roasted pineapple jam, I go to the lobby where a large man in native dress is beating on a four-foot-tall drum and intoning a chant even more haunting than the one on the beach. This, I learn, is the Wehe I Ka’lpuka, the opening protocol that honors the elders who have maintained and passed on the traditional heritage.

I smile happily. It is things like this that make our Hawaiian vacation worth every penny. After all, although Hawaii’s beaches rank among the world’s best, I can get to the perfectly lovely shore of California in less than half the time and half the price.

A nonstop flight from Phoenix International Sky Harbor Airport to Maui’s Kahului Airport takes close to seven hours and costs a nearly $1,000. But the price drops more than $300 for those willing to layover for an hour and a half in Los Angeles (enough time to catch the Island spirit with a Mai-Tai) and even more for those who agree to a second stopover in Honolulu.

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