Preserving Polynesia

As the tourist identity of Hawaii’s most populous island continues to evolve forward, a “gathering place” on the fabled Oahu North Shore unites past and present generations in the spirit of cultural identity.

 

My journey to Oahu’s North Shore this past spring could not have happened at a better time. Deadlines and details clamoring for my attention had recently convinced me that it was time for a sabbatical. And while I could not pry myself away for too long, I determined to take a break from the rat race—this time, Hawaiian-style. 

I’ve never been one to lie on the beach for hours on end and call it a day. Exploring a locale’s history and legends is more my bliss, and Oahu offers history and legends in spades. 

Known by many for the 60+-foot waves that pound its shoreline during the winter months, Oahu is also home to the Polynesian Cultural Center (which many locals refer to simply as “the PCC”). For 50 years, this thriving non-profit has lived its mission to preserve the cultural heritage of Polynesia—all within a dynamic setting in which each of the Polynesian islands is recreated in a “village” where visitors can discover its arts, customs and stories. The PCC also features an IMAX theater that shows a variety of breathtaking films highlighting the epic scenery and history of the Polynesian islands.

After landing at Honolulu International Airport, a rep from the PCC warmly greeted me with the traditional orchid lei and transported me to my base camp for the week: Turtle Bay Resort.  Actually we stopped at Matsumoto Shave Ice first (at his recommendation), which was perfect after my five-hour flight.

The Turtle Bay Resort spans 840 acres of largely untamed beauty—five miles of which is pristine beachfront real estate.

Because of its commitment to the environment, the resort is a recognized member of the Hawaii Green Business Program (HGBP), which assists businesses that strive to operate in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. 

 

Turtle Bay features 36 holes of championship golf that weave through the North Shore’s natural environs, including breathtaking stretches of shore break. Its new Nalu Kinetic Spa provides a multi-sensory experience of the ocean with dramatic window walls that offer views of the North Shore’s awesome swells. 

As I checked in, the sight of the shoreline through the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows drew from my lungs a deep, involuntary breath. And once I got to my room, I opened the sliding glass doors on my balcony and just crashed, like the waves that would lull me to sleep every night for the next few days.

Dinner that night was at Ola, Turtle Bay’s literally-on-the-sand restaurant. Chef Fred DeAngelo crafts contemporary Hawaiian cuisine using locally grown and caught ingredients. In Hawaiian, Ola means “life, health, wellbeing and alive,” and these words are reflected in the fresh island dishes you’ll experience at this destination. A menu as eclectic as DeAngelo’s calls for a big group to share it all with, and I was glad to be dining that night with three other journalists, our intrepid trip organizer and a few locals. 

A highlight for me was the locally caught ahi poke, lightly tossed with soy sauce, North Shore limu (a seaweed), and kukui nuts. And my entrée, misoyaki butterfish sauteed in kabayaki butter with Hamakua Ali’i mushrooms, struck a perfect balance between light and savory. 

Shortly after dinner, we all headed back to our rooms. We had a full itinerary ahead.

When my group arrived at the 42-acre living museum that is the PCC, we were greeted by David Hannemann, a historian who has worked there since 1963. Born in Samoa of Samoan, German and English heritage, he has welcomed royalty to the PCC—everyone from the king of Tonga to “The King” himself, Elvis Presley, who filmed parts of Paradise, Hawaiian Style there. David treated us no less like royalty, answering all of our questions throughout the day and sharing the many stories that have shaped his years of service.  

We began our journey in the Hawaiian village, winding our way through replicas of the single-family rooms that the ancient Hawaiians called home. Raymond Mokiao, a 30-year veteran of the PCC who manages the Hawaiian village, provided us with an introduction to Hawaiian tribal culture before escorting us to a shady grove where we would sit on traditional mats and make our own leis—those floral necklaces synonymous with greetings.  

Since we had arrived early, a peaceful quiet permeated our lei-making session. I found myself wondering what Hawaii’s first settlers heard when they arrived in their sailing vessels nearly 2,000 years ago, quite possibly having journeyed all the way from Southeast Asia.

Next stop was the Samoan village, an experience that was not unlike watching championship ice-skating. Here, our affable Samoan instructors effortlessly made fire and gave us simple but detailed instructions for doing the same. The fact that not a single one of us generated so much as a spark was proof that it’s not as easy as looks. 

Nor, I would imagine, is scaling a 40-foot palm tree in a matter of seconds. If you’ve never seen someone do this (and barefoot, no less), it’s truly astounding. However, in Samoa, those “basic” survival skills that so many Westerners have lost are part and parcel of daily life.

I dedicated Thursday morning and afternoon to exploring Oahu’s majestic coastline. Kayaking through the clear-as-crystal water before lunch, I caught a glimpse of a sea turtle swimming right under my vessel. Farther in the distance, I saw the whales that call the Hawaiian Islands home from late December through early May. 

Snorkeling near a secluded beach a few miles from the hotel, I encountered more than one school of brightly colored tropical fish. And once again, I had several strangely exhilarating brushes with my new friends, Oahu’s sea turtles.  

Thursday night’s luau at the PCC was a real treat. The PCC calls for a full day of exploration—to duck in and out is to sell yourself short of the experiences to be had in each of the villages. The PCC’s nightly luau offers the chance to settle in for an evening with the host culture. 

The celebration begins with the ceremonial blowing of a conch shell horn, announcing the arrival of the royal court by canoe. Before dinner begins, a roasted pig is ritually removed from its earthen oven in the ground and paraded across a bridge into the dining area. 

The dining area holds up to 600 guests each night, but eight buffet stations ensure that the lines move quickly. Traditional roasted pig, poi (made from taro root), fresh fish and coconut pudding are among the well-executed offerings, which I enjoyed while watching several energetic dance and music performances.  

After dinner came the highlight of my trip. Hā: The Breath of Life is the PCC’s newest show. The evening prior, my group and I had actually enjoyed dinner with several performers in the show. These students radiated joy and an energy that is contagious. But they did not let on to just how spectacular the show really is.  

Through music and dance, Hā: The Breath of Life tells the story of a boy born in a distant paradise. Each major portion of his life’s journey—from birth to death and everything in between—transpires within a different Polynesian culture. At times there were up to 70 performers on the stage, and I can say that the hypnotic rhythm of the music and dance pulsated through our seats. 

The hero is nurtured by a village, taught to hunt, falls in love and defends his people in one riveting show. It brought tears to my eyes (no easy feat), and afterwards I was so glad that I’d had the opportunity to hang out with the students who, as it turned out, had major parts in the performance. I felt like a proud mom, my heart bursting with admiration for those young men and women who give 110% of themselves to the cause of keeping their culture alive.

Of course, my trip ended way too soon. Friday morning I did have the chance to ride on horseback through several miles of Turtle Bay’s forest. The area is wild and overgrown, with banyan trees that even made an appearance in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The gentle ease with which my horse took this first-time rider through the woods convinced me that even the animals on the North Shore get the “aloha” memo. 

Is it reaching too far to say that the secret to world peace can be found on this ancient yet vibrantly alive dot on the map? The Hawaiian Islands might be among the most remote places on the planet (yes, it’s true), and yet there is nothing remote about the islands’ people. They embrace me still.

 

AUTHENTIC EATS 

Matsumoto Shave Ice

Tropical-flavored shaved ice over creamy vanilla ice cream? 

Yes, please.  

66-087 Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa, 808-637-4827, matsumotoshaveice.com

Kahuku Grill

Here and at “sister” eatery Seven Brothers in Laie, the Hannemann family work their aloha magic once again. Best burgers and fries ever. Enough said.  

56-565 Kamehameha Highway in Kahuku, 808-852-0040

Ted’s Bakery

My travelling companions and I dug into their famous chocolate haupia pie with our forks. We finished the thing off in about 10 minutes.

59-024 Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa, 808-638-8207, tedsbakery.com
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Michael Burstein

Michael Burstein, founder of Burstein Law Firm in Manhattan Beach, grew up in Newport Beach and graduated from Corona Del Mar High School.

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