To most people, the 100-foot albizia growing on a West Maui family’s property was just a big tree. The young boy in the family looked at it and envisioned a canoe.
"Can we build a canoe?" he asked his father.
"I don’t have the knowledge or equipment to do that," the man replied, "but maybe one day someone will come and ask for that tree to make one."
Sadly, an accident took the boy’s life in 2003, when he was 11 years old. Six years later, fate brought his family, canoe builder Charlie Noland and the Kaanapali Beach Hotel together to fulfill his dream. All his parents asked in return for donating the albizia tree was that the canoe be named Kaililaau after their beloved son.
From November 2009 through early March 2010, Noland and most of KBH’s 280 employees carved, sanded and varnished a four-man, single-hull Hawaiian sailing canoe. This period coincided with the annual makahiki of ancient times — when war was forbidden, so the people could celebrate the harvest, honor Lono (god of agriculture) and renew their spirits and traditions.
IF YOU GO …
On March 9, 2010, Kaililaau was blessed and launched in the waters off KBH. Now exhibited on the hotel’s lawn, the 32-foot canoe is a noteworthy representation of the acclaimed Pookela (Excellence) program, which KBH’s General Manager Mike White and the late George Kanahele, a respected Hawaiian scholar, founded in 1986. Since then, Pookela has presented more than 600 classes on 70 topics related to Hawaiian history and culture, including hula, religion, language, fishing, navigation, food, music, myths and medicine.
Held quarterly, the mandatory four-hour sessions are part of ongoing paid training for employees. Lori Sablas, director of Pookela for 22 years, has been instrumental in developing the curriculum, which has included field trips to the taro patches in Honokohau Valley, the forests and crater of Haleakala, even a sail to Lanai for a lesson on ocean voyaging.
KBH is known as "Hawaii’s Most Hawaiian Hotel," a moniker that its staff views as an honor, a responsibility and a commitment. "Pookela not only teaches us about the Hawaiian culture, it challenges us to preserve and perpetuate it," Sablas said. "Hawaii’s culture is what sets it apart from other destinations. Empowered with the knowledge and experiences they gain from Pookela, our hotel ohana is proud and excited to share Hawaii’s unique ‘sense of place’ with everyone who walks through our doors."
Pookela is evident everywhere at KBH. Signage incorporates Hawaiian words. The hotel offers a dozen free cultural activities on a rotating basis (about five are available every day). These include storytelling, guided tours of the gardens and lessons on hula, ukulele playing, lei making and lau hala weaving. A free hula show begins at 6 p.m. every day.
Ulu (breadfruit), wauke (paper mulberry), puhala (pandanus) and other native plants are key elements of the landscaping. Gardeners also tend three taro patches, whose harvests are used by the hotel’s restaurants.
Employees provide entertainment at the complimentary welcome breakfast, held daily except Sunday, and during Aloha Friday celebrations. Some of them delight guests with impromptu songs and hula throughout the day.
Fishhooks, fishnets, feather lei, musical instruments, wooden drums — more than 200 items handcrafted by staff as part of Pookela are exhibited in the lobby and the Na Mea Makamae Museum on the second floor of the Maui Wing. Access to the museum can be arranged through Guest Services. In addition, artisans from the community are in the lobby every morning to "talk story" and sell their work.
Guests are welcome to try their hand at konane (checkers). Still actively involved with the program he started, White made two boards for this traditional Hawaiian game from stones gathered from nearby Honokowai Valley.
"Pookela connects us with Hawaii’s rich past," Sablas said. "The most rewarding part of my job is having the support and resources to bring to life much of what makes Hawaii special. Through Pookela, our employees gain camaraderie; respect for nature and the ways of our ancestors; and skills in craftsmanship, agriculture, music, dance and more. They are motivated to teach others. In this way the Hawaiian culture can truly remain a living culture."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.