5 Culturally Rich Experiences to Seek Out in Hawaii

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Are you planning your first trip to Hawaii? Perhaps you can’t stop playing a mental loop tape that finds you coerced onto a luau stage to dance your best hip-shaking hula for strangers.

Or maybe you’re a beyond-seasoned island adventurer who’s done all the snorkeling, sun worshiping, and whale-watching you’ve dreamed of. You’ve been there, done that, and you have the t-shirt and the tote to prove it.

If you’re searching for some unique, off-the-beaten-path, authentic experiences on Hawaii’s enchanted islands where you can immerse yourself in day-to-day local and ancient culture, here are five things that you might not know about to inspire your plans.

1) You can hike the first settled area on Molokai with a local guide

Voyagers from the Marqueses Islands first arrived here in the 7th Century, and you can hike the spectacular Halawa Valley that boasts two of Hawaii’s most majestic and remote waterfalls. Pass by gorgeous native flowers in full bloom, ancient taro patches, and ginger and ha’u trees on the two-mile path to the 250-foot Moaula Falls. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with views of one of the most inaccessible waterfalls in the entire Hawaiian Island chain.

You’ll need a guide, because a small number of local families still live on the private property of this valley, fishing, hunting, and farming to sustain their families. Archeological remains of ancient stone temples and house sites bear witness to this extraordinarily pristine and culturally rich valley. Many consider Molokai the most “Hawaiian” island, and you might just hear the Hawaiian language spoken as you pass by locals.

2) There’s a Chinatown in Honolulu

Did you know that Oahu boasts one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States? Cultural sights, smells, and tastes abound in the numerous exotic shops and restaurants within this several-square-block area. International cuisine is easy to find as you select from Ethiopian, Moroccan, Vietnamese, Filipino, Thai, and American dining options.

You’ll find plentiful fresh fish and vegetable stalls, along with herbs, Chinese groceries, and acupuncture treatments. Be sure to visit the lei sellers on Maunakea Street to see some of Hawaii’s most exquisite wearable floral artwork.

3) You can witness the ancient Hawaiian sport of canoe paddling

Pull up a comfortable patch of grass at Oahu’s Ala Wai Canal and watch hundreds of canoe paddlers practice the traditional Hawaiian sport of canoe paddling.

The Waikiki Surf Club was organized in 1948 to nurture the preservation of Hawaiian culture through the promotion of traditional water sports like Hawaiian canoe paddling and surfing. Appreciate this ancient athletic display as today’s enthusiasts train for competitive canoe races.

4) Dance your way through a week-long hula festival

If you seek an authentic hula experience, head for Hawaii’s most prestigious hula extravaganza, the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in Hilo on the Big Island. The festival launches on Easter Sunday and offers attendees a full week of competitions that showcase schools from all of the Hawaiin Islands, the U.S. mainland, and Asia.

Dancers compete in both kahiko (ancient) and ʻauana (modern) styles, gracefully moving to chants that recount ancient epic battles and the feats of gods and goddesses. The week-long festival also features an invitational Hawaiian arts fair and a lively parade through Hilo town.

If you’re traveling in early June, celebrate hula on the island of its birth. Molokai’s Ka Hula Piko Festival at Papohaku Beach Park is celebrating the 25th Anniversary this year, with festivities scheduled for June 2 – 4. You’ll find cultural excursions, lectures, and panels graced with renowned kumu hula (hula masters) from the different Hawaiian Islands. Traditional foods, fine arts and crafts, lei making, chants, and hula dances allow you to savor the rich cultural heritage that Molokai offers.

5) Traditional Hawaiian healers still practice

While the ancient healing temples so integral to the health and well-being of the villages are gone from the islands, traditional Hawaiian herbalists and massage therapists continue to practice, often in their own homes. They are training their children and grandchildren in the healing arts, ensuring that techniques such as lomilomi (“loving hands”) massage accompanied by an oli (chant) sung as a blessing continue on for generations.

Ask around for referrals to kapunas (elders) like Angeline Kaihalanaopuna Locey in the laid-back village of Anahola on Kaua’i. Lomi practitioners pamper you with an exfoliating sea salt and clay scrub and then send you off into four-handed lomilomi massage heaven.

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