White sandy beaches, gnarly waves and balmy temperatures are just a few of the attractions that draw visitors to Hawaii -- and for many, they are enough. But those willing to scratch beneath the surface can also dip their toes into a culture that has not only retained the luster of its early Polynesian beginnings but is also experiencing a renaissance among residents throughout the islands. From spiritual healing using local ingredients to re-created ancient villages to eco-excursions that bring you into contact with archeology and history, there is more to Hawaii than meets the eye.
Here are a few of our favorite cultural offerings:
Mauka Makai Excursions, Honolulu: Would you enter a shaded forest path in Hawaii without first asking the gods? You won't after one of these tours, operated by an all-Hawaiian company that promotes understanding of the real Hawaii that lies behind the stereotypes of grass skirts, pineapples and ukuleles. Visit ancient and sacred sites, hike through steamy forests and absorb the stories of the early Hawaii kings and how their fates shaped the future of the islands. Groups are small, and transportation is by van rather than bus, so you are not being herded around during your journey. Best of all, guides will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. If bringing the kids, ask for a swim break or they may become fidgety.
More info: http://www.tombarefoot.com/oahu/mauka_makai.html
Kawaiahao Church, Honolulu: Attend church services here and you'll not only be standing in a historical spot -- the church was built of coral blocks in 1820 and is considered to be the birthplace of Christian worship on Oahu -- but services are conducted in the lilting Hawaiian language. Best of all, the church is located just 10 minutes from Honolulu Harbor.
More info: http://www.hawaiiweb.com/html/kawaiahao_church.html
Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum: While the early Polynesians discovered Hawaii, it was the sugar plantations that brought many of the cultures -- including Japan, China, Puerto Rico and the Philippines -- that subsequently melded into the diverse population of the islands today. Ask Maui residents about their family tree and don't be surprised if they can trace their roots back to these early days. The Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum offers visitors a glimpse into the workings of a real sugar mill with its artifacts, scale models and even a film presentation. Interactive displays -- such as a sugar cane-crushing machine, complete with sounds and lights -- will bring history to life for the kids in your group, and part of the exhibition is outside.
More info: http://www.sugarmuseum.com
Hana Cultural Center: Visiting a re-created Hawaiian village-particularly in its natural setting -- is one of the best ways to step back in time and imagine life in Hawaii during the pre-contact era. At the Hana Cultural Center you can examine early Hawaiian quilts -- the modern versions of which are for sale throughout the islands -- and explore an antiquated jail and courthouse. The area is noted for being the birthplace of Queen Kaahumanu, wife of King Kamehameha (the most prominent figure in Hawaiian history and one you'll hear about often during your visit).
More info: http://www.hawaiiweb.com/maui/html/sites/hana_cultural_center.html
The Big Island
Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park: In ancient Hawaii, society was governed by stringent kapus or laws that residents broke at their peril. To escape punishment in such cases, offenders were allowed to flee to this Hawaiian city of refuge and seek pardon. Puuhonua, which continued this practice until the early 19th century, is now contained within a 182-acre park, where visitors can take self-guided tours (information is available at the visitor center) and picnic -- but bring your own as no food services are available. Don't miss the eerie re-created Hale o Keawe temple and keep your eye out for whales off shore in winter months.
More info: http://www.nps.gov/puho
Kani Ka Pila, A Return to Paradise: Travelers looking ahead to next fall might want to time their Big Island vacation to coincide with the annual month-long Hilton Waikoloa Village festival, which marked its 10th year in 2003. This popular showcase for authentic Hawaiian music, cuisine and culture draws heavily from the talents and expertise of performers who are tops in their respective fields. Guests and locals alike can enjoy musical events, special menus and lectures, and performers include guitarists, ukulele players and singers as well as chefs and local astronomers. Don't miss the appearance of the Aloha Festivals' Royal Court, which combines eye-pleasing pageantry and costume with historical accuracy. Aloha festivals also take place in other locations at other times during the year.
More info: http://www.alohafestivals.com
Kauai Children's Discovery Museum: Who better to promote cross-cultural understanding than kids? With this in mind, the Kauai Children's Discovery Museum offers large-scale exhibitions that introduce youngsters (and the kid in all of us) to the islands in an interactive environment. The Sea Chest Secret exhibit, which will debut in November, offers an interactive maritime mystery based on a sailor's diary from the sailing expeditions of the 1700s that brought the Western world to Kauai. Children will learn about ship-board life and how the indigenous peoples lived as they try to discover the author of the diary.
Busy parents can even drop their little ones at the Stay and Play Keiki Camps, which run seasonally -- including during the Christmas holidays -- for $40 a day or by the hour. Here even tiny kids can visit a multicultural Keiki Village with its neighborhood of kid-sized homes. The museum admission is $4.50 for adults; $3.50 for kids.
More info: http://www.kcdm.org
Kauai Mokihana Festival: Join local residents for a weeklong celebration of every aspect of Kauai culture -- from folk crafts to music and dance -- which runs every year in the fall. Far from the canned dance programs on offer at some island hotels, this festivity is the real thing, right down to the Hawaiian language. Can't wait until September? Check out the annual Hapa Haole Hula competition at the Radisson Kauai Beach Resort, which celebrates May with authentic dance performances. Admission is $10 for adults; $3 for kids aged 6 to 12.
More info: http://kauai.net/mokihana
Garden of the Gods in Kanepuu: Billed as Hawaii's most secluded island, Lanai has long been known for its vast pineapple fields and, more recently, its exclusive resorts. You don't have to look far to see beyond these recent developments, however, particularly at the Garden of the Gods in Kanepuu. Look -- but don't touch -- at the surreal landscape of rocks and boulders and hike the nature trail through the Kanepuu Preserve with its varieties of local flora.
More info: http://lanai.gohawaii.com
Molokai Horse and Wagon Ride: In ancient times, Molokai was known as a haven of powerful sorcery and human sacrifice. The center of worship during these fierce times was Iliiliopae Heiau, one of the largest -- and possibly the oldest -- temple in the islands and whose stone platform is still in existence. Although you can hike in to the temple site on your own -- with advance permission of the land owner -- why not combine the trip with a horse and wagon ride that takes you through acres of mangos featuring some 32 varieties of tree? Immerse yourself in the various legends surrounding Iliiliopae Heiau and cap off the day with a Hawaiian meal and hula lessons. $3 for adults.
More info: http://www.hawaiiweb.com/molokai/html/sites/iliiliopae_heiau.html