Ka’anapali Beach Hotel Wa’a Tour

In an age when culturally appropriate tourism is so important, it’s great to see Ka’anapali Beach Hotel leveraging what they’ve always been good at: being “Hawa’i’s most Hawaiian hotel.” KBH, as locals affectionately call the resort, has had a cultural education program for guests, long before it got trendy. Their Po’okela program was started by general manager Mike White, who saw the need for special cultural training for staff, and then later it expanded to guests. Alika Guerrero is the current director of the program.

“The Po’okela program was started in 1986 by general manager Mike White and an authority on Hawaiian culture, Dr. George Kanahele, with the intent to introduce Hawaiian values, language, culture, and history as an essential component of staff training,” says Guerrero. “After several years, it was decided to extend some of these activities and experiences to the community and especially our guests. The result has been an entire staff dedicated to developing programs and community events focused on the perpetuation of Hawaiian language and culture.”

At my recent stay on the Ka’anapali Beach property I fell in love with their old school charm. The big plumeria trees that dot their beautifully landscaped property were fragrant and flowering, and the thatched roof pavilions where they hold some of the Po’okela classes were among my favorite outdoor features. The property really lured me outside of my room, enjoying the shade of their large trees, delighting in the breezy gusts of Ka’anapali. Different cultural activities take place daily, and guests can sign up at Hale Ho’okipa in the lobby. 

“I became the director of the program in May 2018,” says Guerrero. “Shortly after my arrival, I adjusted the name of the program to ‘Imipo’okela, which means ‘to pursue excellence.’ The purpose was to ensure our organization never becomes content with our work in perpetuating Hawaiian language and culture, and constantly seeks ways to improve ourselves and increase what can be provided to guests and our community.”

Under ‘Imipo’okela, the staff has new opportunities for observing Hawaiian culture.

“One great achievement for the program has been our renewed Makahiki celebration and festivities,” says Guerrero. “This is an annual, traditional practice that celebrates the abundance of resources provided to us, and for the first time in the history of our hotel, all of the ceremonies and protocols were conducted solely by our own employees in an event that had participation from 200 employees from every department.”

Image by Aubrey Hord

The employees of the resort not only treated me with aloha, but were well informed about Hawai’i and were able to answer my many questions with grace. As a kama’aina I never pass up the opportunity to learn more about Hawai’i and Hawaiian culture, and this is the staycation place to do it – especially since Hawaiian culture and language spent so many years repressed, Hollywood-ized, and white-washed. I realize that even though I’ve been educated here in West Maui public schools from Kamehameha III through to Lahainaluna, there was very little we learned about the ancient sites, traditions, and settlements of the West Side, or how to be culturally sensitive and appropriate. 

“We hope every guest gets an authentic, non-commercialized experience while working with true Hawaiian cultural practitioners,” Guerrero says. “The hope is that these experiences will give them a true appreciation for our culture, community, and environment which they will carry with them throughout their stay and their return home.”

Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel was built in 1964. Amfac sold it in 1978 to Grosvenor properties, but Amfac held the management until 1988 when Sir Run-Run Shaw, a Hong Kong entertainment mogul, purchased the management contract. It’s now owned by a company called the The Shaw Group. The hotel has 418 guest rooms and 14 suites in the Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka’i, and Kaua‘i wings. The buildings form a semi circle facing the ocean with a four-acre courtyard of lush tropical gardens and their iconic whale shaped pool sequestered within. The rooms are ‘ohana ready, with either two queen beds, or a king and a twin bed, and kids stay free at KBH. Mike White has been the general manager on property for 34 years.

“Every moment working here is my proudest moment,” says White. “The start of Project Poʻokela is pretty big for me, and the hotel. It sets the culture for this hotel and makes sure we carry on Hawaiian values.”

All of the staff from the groundskeepers to White attend regular four-hour Po’okela classes in geography, mythology, economics, and history, and sometimes even field trips to cultural sites. 

“At the Kā’anapali Beach Hotel, we embody the Hawaiian meaning of hospitality, ho’okipa, and we share the aloha spirit with our guests while providing quality service,” says White. “I believe this is what really sets us apart from the rest of the hotels, as our spirit comes from the heart, shows in our faces, and is a part of our daily work life.”

If there is one thing you must do at KBH, it’s the wa’a (canoe) tour. You can sign up at the Hale Huaka’i, the resort’s beach and ocean center. Participants get to learn the Hawaiian terms for the canoe and the words’ significance, and also gain some paddling skills while they’re at it. 

“Our Waʻa Paddle Tour is one of our newer ocean adventures,” says White. “The six-person waʻa, christened Kaleopo‘okela, provides guests with a unique opportunity to venture out on the ocean with the assistance of experienced Maui watermen as guides. It is very memorable, and one of my personal favorites!”

The wa’a tour taught me history of the Ka‘anapali area, like how Pu’u Keka’a is a sacred site known as a “ka leina a ka ‘uhane” – where your soul leaps to the other side for eternity. The spot is also one where Chief Kahekili would engage in the sport of lele kawa, or cliff jumping. As we paddled by the north side of the cliff you can imagine the skill and bravery of ancients leaping off of here. We also went south to the point in front of the Ka’anapali Ali’i, and later got to jump out of the canoe and swim around before paddling for the shore. I appreciated the view of the area from the ocean, where the whole Hanakao’o ahupua’a is visible.

Wa’a captain Maleko Lorenzo narrated our tour. He explained the significance of the Pu’u Keka’a Leina for him, and put into perspective his connection to the ocean. He also talked about how the Hokule‘a and voyaging canoes have contributed to pride in Hawaiian culture.

“Learning the ancient ways of navigation was a catalyst to awakening culture and history and knowledge,” he says.

“For the ‘Imipo’okela program, I am excited to host trainings that foster connections between our employees and community practitioners and organizations, so that Hawaiian language and culture will become a part of their everyday life,” says Guerrero. “Currently, we are working on more exciting projects and events to give back to our community that focus on a diverse array of Hawaiian practices. And for our guests, we hope to hone the classes so that the experience is much more impactful and the result is long-lasting, and with every new staff member, we are able to offer new classes they will get to enjoy each time they return.”

Staycations start at $198 per night for kama’aina, and KBH’s award winning Sunday Brunch is just $46 for kama’aina. Find availability and reservations at https://www.kbhmaui.com/.

I write lifestyle and culinary columns for MauiTime. I love being a Maui girl and adore my big family. Dedicated food taster, blogger, internet fanatic, and Maui and Hawaii specialist.

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