Believe in magic ... a lagoon on Big Island, Hawaii.

Believe in magic ... a lagoon on Big Island, Hawaii. Photo: AFP

Kerry van der Jagt finds the spirit of aloha is blooming again as Hawaii undergoes a cultural renaissance.

Kahokule'a Haiku was only six years old when he was given away by his parents, a life-changing moment he'll never forget. "I had spent the weekend at my grandparents' house," cultural guide Haiku recalls, as we pause to enjoy the views over Kawela Bay. "But late on the Sunday evening they told me I wouldn't be going home, instead I would live with them."

Haiku was born on Oahu's North Shore near where we are standing, but as the first-born child he was destined to be "hanaied" to his maternal grandparents who lived on the neighbouring island of Maui. A form of adoption, hanai ensures that the knowledge and tradition of elders is passed on to future generations, while also providing family members support in their old age.

Lava flows at Kamoamoa Black Sands beach in the Hawaii Volcanos National Park.

Lava flows at Kamoamoa Black Sands beach in the Hawaii Volcanos National Park. Photo: Getty Images

"In our culture it is the highest form of love and respect," Haiku says as he hands me a gift of a small fish he has just woven from a palm leaf. "My own daughter is already living with her grandparents."

It is late summer and Haiku is guiding a small group of us staying at the Turtle Bay Resort on a cultural tour. After years of cultural oppression by the early missionaries, followed by a glamourised, Westernised version of Hawaii presented as tourist entertainment, a cultural renaissance is taking place. "Once again Hawaiians are proud of their heritage," Haiku says. "The true spirit of aloha is blooming again."

And that's why I'm here. To celebrate my husband's milestone birthday, but also to travel slowly and quietly, to avoid the kitsch and glitz of Hollywood Hawaii and to search instead for the real aloha - the spirit of loving kindness.

Rainbow Falls in the Wailuku River State Park, Big Island.

Rainbow Falls in the Wailuku River State Park, Big Island. Photo: Getty Images

A left turn out of Honolulu airport, instead of the well-worn right, leads us away from Waikiki for the easy one-hour drive through the centre of Oahu to the North Shore. With its lazy bays and bohemian lifestyle, this clutch of surf towns is a world away from the plastic leis and mega-malls of Waikiki.

It is on our second morning that Haiku welcomes us with a traditional Hawaiian oli or chant, first to introduce his family line, then to ask permission from his ancestors to tell his story and finally to give thanks for this glorious day.

A Hawaiian oli is a seismic event, as intense as the volcanic forces that shaped the islands themselves. Over the coming days this moving display of Hawaiians' deep love for their island will give me goosebumps (or "chicken skin" as the locals say) many times. With eyes closed, chin raised and arms stretched towards the bay, Haiku's baritone voice floats on the breeze. I don't understand the words but I know he is singing about the land and his people, about the skies and the stars and all the elements that make up our very being.

A canoe approaches Mokoli'i island.

A canoe approaches Mokoli'i island. Photo: Getty Images

The sacred oli is a portal to an ancient way of life, but to understand more I must travel further, to the Big Island (Hawaii Island), a 40-minute flight from Honolulu. As we approach the runway, the aquamarine ocean gives way to a desert of black lacquer. I find out later that Kona airport sits atop a lava flow from the 1801 eruption of Hualalai volcano.

The Big Island is a jigsaw puzzle of five individual volcanoes, three of which are still simmering, including Kilauea, the world's most active. The first settlers to the Hawaiian Islands were Polynesians who arrived about AD300 by double-hulled canoes from the Marquesas Islands. Over time they established a kapu system with chiefs and ali'i (royalty) and a culture that was abundant in mythology and deeply tied to nature.

From Kona we pick up our rental car and head north, over crunchy black lava flows, past scallops of sandy beaches and across the spine of the sleeping volcano Kohala, to the tip of North Kohala, birthplace of King Kamehameha the Great. Born in 1758, on the night of Halley's Comet, Kamehameha grew to become a courageous warrior who united the islands and established the Kingdom of Hawaii.

It is on this wild, windswept stretch of coastline that therapist Jeanne Sunderland and her doctor-cum-gardener partner Robert Watkins built their eco-retreat in 2009. Perched high above the cliffs of Hana'ula Bay, the Hawaii Island Retreat is set on 20 hectares and includes nine guest rooms, five freestanding yurts, a saline infinity pool, a yoga room and an outdoor spa pavilion.

Sunderland, who has studied both the traditional Hawaiian art of healing with plants, and lomilomi, traditional Hawaiian massage, built the retreat to offer guests peace and rejuvenation within a sustainable environment. "The land the retreat stands on has been a place of healing for many years," she says. "It was called Ahu Pohaku Ho'omaluhia, the gathering place of peace-giving stones."

We wake at dawn. It's drizzling as we squelch our way to the circle of stones, through a forest of flowers gleaming in the first wash of morning light. In the middle of a clearing flanked by kukui trees stand the stones where Kamehameha the Great once held council. According to Hawaiian culture, rocks hold the spiritual power and wisdom of the gods. Further away is the medicine stone where healing potions were mixed, a terrace of hula platforms and the grandmother stone known as Tutu.

Later I meet Aunty Leilani, a kapuna (elder) who often visits the retreat to "talk story" with guests. I put my hand out to shake hers, but instead Leilani envelopes me in a hug, presses her weathered cheek against mine and says, "aloha, welcome to Hawaii," pronouncing the word as a gentle "huh vie- ee". "I've been waiting for you." She explains that for Hawaiians nothing happens by chance, and that I was "brought" here. Talk about chicken-skin moment.

I have another when she uncovers a basket of fresh flowers, picked especially for me, and offers to teach me about lei making. "Though the flowers in the lei will be short-lived," Leilani says, bringing her fingertips to her temple and then to her heart, "the memories we share today and what we feel will remain forever."

As she strings the flowers, alternating pink and yellow plumerias, she explains that flowers are individually chosen and given for a reason; strength or protection, celebration or remembrance. "This one is for friendship," she says, slipping the sweet-smelling bouquet over my head and holding me close.

The day wanes as we continue to thread and darkness encroaches. Leilani unpacks her ukulele and sings a traditional lullaby while Jeanne begins a slow hula. In the distance the moon turns the ocean to ink.

Reluctantly we leave Kohala and head east. We drive through paniolo (cowboy) country, negotiate "Saddle Road", which snakes between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes like a roller-coaster, and finally descend to the lush lowlands of Hilo.

One day we thunder over Kilauea volcano, the chopper pilot playing Hallelujah as we stare into the very heart of earth's creation. On another we hike the hot rim of Halema'uma'u crater and afterwards snorkel in the cool waters of Kealakekua Bay (where Captain Cook's life came to an abrupt end), before ending our island circumnavigation at Kailua Kona, described by Mark Twain as "the sleepiest, quietest, Sundayest-looking place you can imagine".

On a "Coffee and Craters" tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail we chance upon Kuali'i, one of the caretakers of the ancestral land at the top of Hualalai volcano. This giant of a man, who once helped crew the double-hulled canoe Makali'i on a daring three-week adventure from the Big Island to Tahiti, stops to talk to us about flowers. He talks of the Hawaiian creation story, where humans are considered siblings to plants, to Haloa, the taro, the first born of the earth-mother and sky-father. "Our ancestors speak through the birds, the rain, the wind and the stones," Kuali'i says. "That is Hawaii."

Kuali'i turns to the mountain and performs an oli, asking his ancestors to provide us with vision and knowledge. His parting advice: "Listen to the silence as well as the sounds."

At the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa more layers are peeled back. The resort stands on Keauhou Bay on a traditional land division known as ahupua'a, where remnants of a fishing village still line the water's edge. To help guests better connect with Keauhou's rich history the resort offers a range of complimentary cultural activities.

On a "Land and Sea Tour" with cultural director Lily Dudoit, we inspect historic house platforms and a canoe shed. Picking our way across great whorls of lava flows, each ridge like a giant's fingerprint, we visit a fishing shrine and ku'ula stones. "I was raised with respect for everything coming out of the ocean," she says. "These stones are to remind us of that."

At the harbour we are met by Kalani Nakoa, who welcomes us aboard his Hawaiian sailing canoe the Kinikini. Kalani formed the non-profit Nakoa Foundation three years ago to help school students develop leadership skills and to pass on cultural values by giving them a hands-on experience sailing the sacred waters of Keauhou Bay. The Sheraton has teamed up with the Nakoa Foundation to offer these same experiences to its guests.

As the sun melts into the ocean, I grip my paddle and plunge it in the water, watching as rainbows reflect off the spray. On January 17, 1779, Captain James Cook sailed into the adjacent bay, setting off a chain of events that would change Hawaii's history forever. Today, other brave navigators, such as Haiku, Leilani, Kuali'i and Kalani, are at the helm, steering their beloved Hawaii back on course. That's the aloha spirit.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

 

All about hula

Hula is the soul of Hawaii expressed in motion — preserving history, recording genealogy and connecting dancers with nature. During the 19th century it was forced underground because the missionaries considered it heathen, but today it is blooming with hundreds of hula schools across the islands.

There are two types: Hula kahiko (old style) performed in traditional costume and accompanied by chanting, and hula auana (modern style), which is accompanied by songs and instruments with dancers wearing imaginative costumes. The Merrie Monarch hula festival is held in Hilo on the Big Island every year. The next festival is March 31-April 6, 2013. merriemonarch.com.

 

Three other things to see

1 Volcano Art Centre Enjoy free lessons in hula and lei making on aloha Fridays, or on Saturdays watch traditional hula performance at the stone platform. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Crater Rim Drive, next to the visitors centre. +1 808 967-7565, volcanoartcenter.org.

2 Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site Visit the temple of Kamehameha the Great. Open daily. Free admission or guided tours (10 people or more) at $US2 a person. 43km north of Kailua-Kona on Highway 19. +1 808 882-7218, nps.gov.

3 Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park Take a self-guided walking tour around the grounds of the ali'i (royalty) of the Kona District. Inside the stone wall, built in 1550, you'll find more than a dozen points of interest. Entry is $US5 a vehicle; 32km south of Kailua-Kona, off Highway 11. +1 808 328 2288, nps.gov.

 

Trip notes

Getting there

Hawaiian Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Honolulu, with onward connections to neighbour islands and 11 US mainland cities. Hawaiian's partner airline Virgin Australia provides connecting flights from Melbourne to Sydney. See hawaiianair.com.au.

Staying there

Turtle Bay Resort's ocean-view rooms start from $US249 ($238). Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, +1 808 293 6000, turtlebayresort.com.

Hawaii Island Retreat offers three-night packages in an ocean-front room including personalised daily treatments plus two meals a day from $US2222, a couple. Lokahi Road, Kapaau, +1 808 889 6336, hawaiiislandretreat.com.

Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa (formerly the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa) has recently undergone a $US16 million refurbishment and has mountain-view rooms starting from $US129. Ehukai Street, Kailua-Kona, + 1 808 930 4900, sheratonkeauhou.com.

Touring there

Hawaii Forest and Trail is arguably the best in the business for day tours of the Big Island. It offers a range of tours including the half-day Kona Coffee and Craters tour for $US139. +1 808 331 8505, hawaii-forest.com .

More information

gohawaii.com.au