I’m awake before the first rays of light have touched the sandy shores of Ko Olina. I’m not a morning person by any means, but the five-hour time difference between Toronto and Hawai’i (as it’s spelled in Hawaiian) makes 6 a.m. feel more like 11 a.m. Since I’m already up, I decide to walk down from the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina to the shimmering lagoon at the property’s edge.

Sitting on the beach by the jewel-like pool that feeds into the ocean, basking in the stillness of the morning air and the sunlight slowly inching its way across the land, this place feels different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Hawai’i has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, but in my early 20s, I dreamed of the flashing lights, high-end shopping and wild parties of Waikiki. I thought my trip to Hawai’i would involve dancing until the break of dawn, not sitting in the sand at sunrise embarking on a guided meditation with the hotel’s in-house wellness specialist, Adam Brewer.

I settle into the sand with one other hotel guest, as Brewer tells us about his practice and gives us tips for our own meditation: the earlier in the morning, the better, and always start from a place of gratitude. I don’t know if it’s the early morning or being surrounded by nature, but somehow, I can feel the energy here in a way I’ve never felt before.

“This land is not just for us — this is a beautiful sacred land that we get to share with everybody,” says Pi’iali’i Lawson, my teacher in a ulana lauhala workshop later that afternoon. “Today, we’re going to connect to the land of Hawai’i, the energy of Hawai’i. And today, the workshop is called weaving from the heart.”

“This land is not just for us — this is a beautiful sacred land that we get to share with everybody”

The #FSWayfinders program at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu sees local storytellers, artisans and crafters lead on-site workshops, where hotel guests can have firsthand cultural experiences. A reiki healer and an intuitive, ancestral weaver, Lawson comes from a long line of lauhala weavers who have been doing this for generations and centuries. “It’s really important in our culture that we honour our ancestors,” says Lawson.

Pi’iali’i Lawson at the Four Seasons Resort Oahu

Sitting outside at a picnic table, we prepare to weave earrings with lauhala, dried leaves from the hala tree. We each start out with two shimmering pieces of rose quartz already hanging on earring hooks. They look good enough to wear already, but Lawson explains that we’ll be weaving hearts and stuffing the precious stones inside.

At first, I’m taken aback: Why would we hide these beautiful crystals? But Lawson explains that it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, but our intention inside.

“Hala also means ascension. In the old days, we would weave leis out of fruit, and when someone passes away, we would use that as a way to help them to ascend into the ancestral realm,” says Lawson. “Going back to the intention, hala also means to pass away. Before, when there were elections, they would actually weave leis for the person they wanted to lose. You see, everything is intention.”

I sit there, dumbfounded. What was my intention for coming to Hawai’i? I mull it over as Lawson shows us how to weave our heart-shaped earrings and charge the crystals with energy before stuffing them inside. At the end of the workshop, we take our leftover scraps and place them under the hala tree. “This is our way of giving back to the earth. Because it’s all about cycle,”
says Lawson.

A Hawaiian canoe sails off the shore of the Four Seasons Resort Oahu

Lawson’s words are still echoing in my head the next morning as we head out on a Hawaiian canoe sailing adventure — another part of the #FSWayfinders program. The conditions aren’t suitable for snorkelling today, so we’re just looking to spy sea creatures from the boat. I’ve never had any luck when it comes to animal encounters, though, and I’m about to sink into a slump when I remember the sentiment I learned the day before: When we’re able to connect with nature, animals and the elements, it’s a beautiful gift we should be grateful for, not something that we should feel owed or entitled to.

I relax into my spot on the boat and decide to just enjoy the scenery: the lush mountains stretching into the sky, the crystalline blue waters of the Pacific and the soft sandy beaches whizzing by us. “Sea turtle!” someone shouts and we strain to see the magnificent creature paddling right underneath us. My day is made, and then someone spots a dolphin. Then another, and another. Dozens of dolphins surround the boat, swimming so close I can almost touch them. They leap into the air, spinning and flipping just for the fun of it.

A Hawaiian canoe sails on the ocean

As we watch in awe, our captain Zach Arreola-Chun also speaks of the great balance that Lawson had mentioned the day before. The balance of the elements, of not taking more than we need and giving back is integral to Hawaiian culture — a culture that we learn is now dying.

“The first thing is to get the language back. Once we get our language back, we can start sharing our knowledge,” says Arreola-Chun. “Hawaiian culture is very dependent on learning from our ancestors and taking that knowledge and passing it on.”

Arreola-Chun recalls that while he was in school, Hawaiian studies were only required teachings until Grade 8. Students were then encouraged to learn Spanish to align with the rest of the U.S., or Japanese to cater to the tourist market, he says. “Hawaiian culture isn’t part of American history; it runs parallel,” says Arreola-Chun.

“People want to come down here, put on a coconut bra and a hula skirt, go to a luau, drink a mai tai and watch the sunset”

On top of that, he explains that a lot of tourists don’t take an interest in Hawaiian culture. “People want to come down here, put on a coconut bra and a hula skirt, go to a luau, drink a mai tai from a pineapple and watch the sunset on the west side.” Turns out, the ideas I had in my mind about hula are all wrong. “Hula is direct storytelling. It’s more than just a dance. If you learn the dance, you learn the story, and then you pass it on,” Arreola-Chun explains. “We have to reclaim hula. Be proud to spread hula. Be proud to spread the spirit of aloha.” I realize how little I know about aloha, as well. At the beginning of my trip, I knew that aloha means hello and goodbye, but I learn there is more to it than that.

Captain Zach Arreola-Chun and his crew member Kai in front of their Hawaiian canoe

“Aloha means many things,” says Ka‘ōiwiokalani Karosu, our guide at Kualoa Ranch later that day. “For me, aloha means hello, goodbye, I love you. I’ll say things to people like, ‘How’s your mama? Oh, give her my aloha,’ meaning give her my love, give her my sincerity, give her my warmth. Aloha is that to me. Aloha is family, it’s love.”

"Aloha means hello, goodbye, I love you ... Aloha is family, it’s love.”

On this excursion, we are also able to connect with the theme of giving back again. Kualoa Ranch is the film location of more than 200 Hollywood movies, including the Jurassic Park series, Jumanji, 50 First Dates and Kong: Skull Island. But we’re not here to stand in the giant dinosaur’s footprint or pose beside the famed log where Alan Grant and the kids hide from a Gallimimus flock. We do get to bask in the beauty of the “Jurassic valley” — a sweeping landscape so green and lush that it’s hard to believe this is real life.

Jurassic valley at Kualoa Ranch

But we’re really here for one of their malama, or “giving back” experiences. These volunteer experiences have been increasing in availability and popularity throughout the islands. At Kualoa Ranch, a malama experience might involve taking care of animals or planting koa trees (another resource that’s been desecrated, courtesy of the Americans). Today, Karosu takes us to the lo’i — a taro patch.

Before entering the patch, Karosu performs an oli, a special prayer-like chant in which she asks permission of the elements and the ancestors to allow us into the lo’i. She explains that anywhere with food and water is sacred — like so much of the island.

Ka‘ōiwiokalani Karosu in a lo'i or taro patch

Hawaiians believe power lies within one’s bones, so an ‘ōiwi (pronounced o-eevee), like Karosu, is someone tasked with protecting the remains after someone passes. (“W” is pronounced as “V” in Hawaiian, so yes, we’ve been saying it wrong.) It was once very important for the location of a powerful person’s bones to be kept secret, so an ‘ōiwi would hide them. As a result, there are unmarked graves all over Hawai’i.

I ask Karosu if the unmarked graves are the reason the land is sacred, but she says that it’s because the land nourishes us — speaking of the great balance. Like our boat captain, Arreola-Chun, Karosu reveals that she did not learn about Hawaiian culture until later in life.

“I was born in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I started to learn about my Hawaiian heritage,” she says. “It was because Hawaiian culture was suppressed here. They didn’t want Hawai’i to be its own independent country like we once were — we were our own kingdom. The government took over Hawai’i; our queen was overthrown. And it was for profit.”

While the history is complicated, in 1893, American and European businessmen staged a coup to overthrow the queen so that they could control the sugar industry. The kingdom was forcibly taken over, all for money, and Hawai’i became annexed to the U.S. It became a state in 1959, but many Hawaiians dream of one day breaking free from the U.S.

Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu, Hawai'i

My heart breaks for native Hawaiians. We had visited Iolani Palace the day before to see where the Hawaiian royalty used to live, and learned about their accomplishments, from building hospitals to reviving hula after it had been suppressed by the early missionaries. While a monarchy might seem like an outdated concept, it was clear that many of these rulers had loved and cared for their people and their culture.

Back at Kualoa Ranch, Karosu instructs us to remove our shoes and climb into the wetland taro patch. The water is murky and I can see little tadpoles swimming about. On my first step, I can feel the mud and roots squish between my toes. I don’t think I can do this.

Taylor Newlands working in the taro patch at Kualoa Ranch

On the second step, I almost lose my balance and fall in. Slowly, but surely, I gain my footing and begin our task: peeling off the plants’ dead leaves and crushing up snail eggs from an invasive species that will destroy the taro if they hatch. All of a sudden, a switch flips in my mind and I feel the need to protect these plants. Before long, I’m the star of the group, trudging through the muck to save the precious taro plants.

The next day, taro appears on my plate during a food tour in Hanalei on Kaua’i. Being nourished by the plants I tended to the day before, I start to understand the balance I have heard so much about. Taro is a staple of Hawaiian cuisine. We munch on taro chips with taro hummus. We enjoy it as poi, a mushy paste in a plate lunch alongside kalua pork and lomi lomi salmon, a mixture of fresh tomatoes and salted salmon, from Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.

A plate lunch of kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon and poi from Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.
Chili pepper chicken from The Village Snack Shop and Bakery in Hanalei

We walk around Hanalei, a small and charming town, and chow down on other Hawaiian delights like chili pepper chicken (some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had) from The Village Snack Shop and Bakery. We stop in at Tahiti Nui to try their world-famous mai tai that The Wall Street Journal named one of the best cocktails in the world.

Back at the Sheraton Coconut Beach Resort, our hotel on Kaua’i, we try even more Hawaiian specialties. I hate to say it, but hurricane fries — topped with aioli, chili sauce, furikake, unagi and green onions — put poutine to shame. And Hawai’i doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its world-famous dish: poke. But my all-time favourite has got to be loco moco, a comforting dish of white rice topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and lots of rich brown gravy. And to drink? POG, a lip-smacking mixture of passion fruit, orange and guava juice.

Tahiti Nui's world-famous mai tai
Loco moco at the Sheraton Coconut Beach Resort

I’m floored by the layers of culture here that remain so unknown. From the breadth of local dishes and drinks to the history, traditions and way of life, Hawai’i is an incredible place, beyond words. You just have to see it, and feel it for yourself.

But if you’re planning to travel to this precious place, Lawson has some advice: “Come with an open heart. Remember you’re a visitor. That goes for everyone. So, come in aloha. Come in love.”