KAANAPALI — When the phrase “the most Hawaiian Hotel” was bestowed upon the Kaanapali Beach Hotel (KBH) by the Waiaha Foundation, this was no whim. It met many of 100 different criteria the foundation said should be met by Hawaiian hotels.
Lori Ululani Sablas, cultural advisor and head of guest services, calls the KBH’s transformation from a conventional hotel as fate. “The stars were aligned,” she said.
The newly built Sheraton Maui, Kaanapali’s first hotel, did not have enough rooms for a scheduled golf tournament. A Las Vegas businessman stepped in and planned and built Kaanapali Beach Hotel in a record 10 months (that’s MONTHS). His only setback: he wanted the top to look like a volcano. County zoning officials said no.
Later, a Hong Kong businessman — a philanthropist known for his commitment to education — strolled through the lobby, walked to the beach, turned around and bought the hotel. Still alive at 103, he hasn’t been back since. But he was lucky enough to retain Hawaii-born Mike White, who has been general manager for the last 23 years.
White, as Lori tells it, was attending a Honolulu conference at which hotel managers were challenged to bring more Hawaiian culture to visitors. White listened and hired practitioner Akoni Akana, and later Sablas, to be part of a four-person guest services staff that would help turn the hotel into one of the most important educators of visitors in the state.
Sablas got involved after ten years managing the Kaanapali Beach Operators Association. An “island girl,” Lori went to the old Honokowai School (site of an ABC store today), King Kamehameha III School and Lahainaluna High School, but she skipped college because of family finances.
“I was taught U.S. and world history but not Hawaiian history. We knew nothing about the culture. Mike White gave me a dream job and the resources to meet the challenge,” Sablas explained.
And so began the hotel’s Po‘okela program that has grown to include nine prime elements:
The Blue Shirt — Most employees wear a special shirt created by brilliant designer Sig Zane with four lines printed on a conch shell symbolizing welcome. Written by University of Hawaii professor George Kanahele, they proclaim: “From the calm of Haulola listen to the murmuring of the sea. The life giving sea of Pu‘u Keka‘a (also known as Black Rock). The abundant sea, the legendary land. There the land of Ka‘anapali leaps and produces fruit.”
Classes — Every employee is required to become an ambassador of the culture. Each one is required to take a four-hour class on company time developed by Kanahele. Some 65 separate classes have been held over the years.
Music and Hula — Both are central to the culture. Kaanapali’s only extended free hula show runs seven nights a week amid three hours of Hawaiian music by local groups. Every Friday, scores of colorful dancers appear from a different halau (hula school), often providing spectacular shows.
Cultural Lessons — Thirty classes a week over six days teach visitors about lei making and lauhala weaving, sand imaging, story telling, ukulele playing, pineapple cutting and medicinal Hawaiian plants (grown on the property) to bring the culture to guests.
Makahiki Season — Celebrating abundance of land and sea, this traditional harvest festival is commemorated each fall with a royal court presentation, games of skill and more hula dancing.
Hula O Na Keiki — An annual keiki hula competition is held to educate children on Hawaiian traditions.
Moku‘ula — Twenty years ago, the Salvation Army wanted to build on an ancient site where Hawaiian royalty lived near the corner of Shaw and Front streets. Akoni and Sablas said no. They lobbied the County Council for a grant and helped establish Friends of Moku‘ula, now beginning efforts to restore the site.
Na Mea Makamae — A craft project each year has each hotel department creating ancient treasured objects, including feather leis, poi boards, fish hooks and other items. More than 200 are on display. This year’s ultimate project: the building of an entire canoe.
Lei Ceremony — KBH believes its visitors — many who return year after year — are part of its ‘ohana (family). On departure, each is presented with a kukui nut lei with one white nut symbolizing the recent visit. Guests often bring their leis back for the adding of a new nut each time they come. Sometimes guests are moved to tears.
The most Hawaiian hotel has brought the culture to thousands. Often missing out are the hundreds of transplants from the Mainland who live up Kekaa Drive or elsewhere, but never see the sign posted as visitors leave a hula show or festival: A hui hou (until we meet again).
This columnist makes no secret of being a fan, and our family spends time there every chance we get. And if you don’t come, you will never know what you may miss — 70 hula dancers filling the courtyard or legendary singers strutting their stuff.
Columnist’s Notebook: The book “Voices of Maui,” based on these columns, debuts June 18.