Monday, November 07, 2005

Hotel arrange for volcano tours for guests

It's a hot day when we hike to the lava fields to see the petroglyphs with Uncle Kalani.
Trekking along an ancient coastal footpath, we enter a wooded area and squeeze past overgrown mesquite branches that block our progress.

There's something so Indiana Jones about it, and the spirit of discovery swells as much in my breast as it does in the hearts of my children, who stay just two paces behind Uncle Kalani (known as uncle in the Hawaiian tradition of respect) lest they miss a word he has to say.

Kalani, a native Hawaiian, "Beachboy" and cultural adviser at the Fairmont Orchid hotel, is well-versed in Hawaiian culture and history.

As we hike, he tells us tales of his ancestors. He learned these stories from his elders, he explains, which is the Hawaiian way. He turns to my son and says, "You must listen. To us, children are exotic flowers and we tend them with teachings. All our legends, all our musical traditions, will help you in your life."

Enthralled, 11-year-old Nick just nods, and when Kalani turns to head toward our destination, the Puako Petroglyph Preserve, my exuberant child follows him, wide-eyed with wonder.

Suddenly, we reach a clearing of baked, crusty red lava that flows like an undulating sea of rock. Our small group, participants on a cultural hike organized by the hotel, stare in silence. The sacredness of the site is palpable, and even the youngest child among us resists the temptation to scamper across the etchings.

This preserve, one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs extant in Hawaii, boasts approximately 5,000 compelling carvings, some dating back to 1000 A.D. The Hawaiians had no written language before Western contact and petroglyphs, mysterious symbols engraved in the lava rock, are thought to be one way the ancient people passed messages to one another, preserved family histories, left legends for future generations and marked sacred spots. This expansive field portrays dogs, fishermen, turtles, royal Hawaiian families, sailing canoes, pregnant women, a mother with twins and more.

Kalani shows us how to walk carefully between them, and we follow him in eerie silence. He enjoys honing our mythical comprehension skills and teaching us about the symbols. Soon we see parallels between them, and offer our theories of interpretation.

On the way back, when we reach the beach trail, Kalani stops to face us. He smiles, nodding, a professor, pleased with our progress.

"You did well," he says. And he rewards us with a story of Pele, that mischievous goddess of the volcano, whom many believe keeps the spirit of the Big Island alive.

These are the sorts of experiences I want my kids to have on Hawaii. As a pre-teen, I lived here briefly in the '70s and it was the island's mysticism that moved me most of all.

I was aware of the beauty of black lava rocks and lavender-colored seas, but these seemed more a door to what burned beneath, a sort of intensity, a healing quality, that calls out to those who listen.

Ancient Hawaiians believed that the entire island, including the Kohala Coast and especially the land beneath the Fairmont Orchid, was deeply sacred.

Karen Chandler, a yoga instructor at the Fairmont Orchid, says that on her first visit to the island, she fell weeping to her knees in a meadow outside nearby Waimea, so touched was she by the gentleness of the energy around her. She knew then she would have to move here someday — something heard often from transplanted mainlanders.

Chandler encourages her students and other hotel guests to explore the landscape around the Orchid, from the coconut grove to the Plantation Estates, to seek out energy spots that speak to them.

"For the sacredness to be real, we have to feel it ourselves," says Chandler, adding that at Honokane Nui, a valley just past Pololu, "the rocks will sing to you, if you allow yourself to slow down enough to hear them."

One of the more fascinating things about Hawaii is Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, sometimes described as Hawaii's "drive-in volcano" because of the frequency and quiet manner of its eruptions. Each time it erupts, the island changes and evolves, essentially giving birth to itself.

When I first landed on the Kohala Coast years ago, I thought I had been transported to Mars, so surreal was the pervasive black lava that blanketed the ground, the only green spots dollops of emerald by the sea that looked like crocuses popping through stone from the air.

Encompassing 10 of the 15 climatic zones, from desert to glacier, the Big Island's textured topography makes it a luscious and inviting garden of earthly delights. Along the Kohala Coast, much of the allure stems from the five mountains that surround it, rising like watchdogs on guard.
Considered sacred by not only the Hawaiians of old, but also the modern day residents, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai, Kohala and Haleakala (Maui's tallest peak), define the area and contribute to its mystical ambiance.

You don't have to feel the Big Island's spiritual presence to enjoy an immersion in Hawaiian culture and history at the Fairmont Orchid. Culturally sensitive and environmentally committed, this Canadian-owned hotel group ensures that no two hotels are alike and that each one revels in its history.

They even brought in a kahuna, or Hawaiian holy person, to determine what to do with some petroglyphs that were found on the property. Nobody knew how these carved rocks should be positioned on the property, but Kaimiloa Danang, the kahuna, sensed a strong message from the petroglyphs. She felt they needed to face northeast — to the rising sun, all except one, a petroglyph representing a male.

This one, she felt needed to face south, toward Tahiti, the land from where many of the original Hawaiians are believed to have come. Native Hawaiians, raised in the ways of the sea and students of their heritage, work at the hotel as ambassadors of the Hawaiian culture. Based on the popular "Beach Boys of Waikiki" concept, these Hawaiians lend a hand in revealing the wonders of their nature-based traditions.

Their down-to-earth approach, far from being hokey or touristy, enlightens visitors who might have come to Hawaii believing it to be just another beach resort.

At the Fairmont Orchid, Beachboys, as well as Mele McPherson, the hotel's only Beachgirl, teach guests to surf, weave with coconut fronds, shore fish from an outrigger canoe, kayak, snorkel and lead turtle talks. Like Uncle Kalani, they take guests to see the petroglyphs, ancient Hawaiian fishponds and shelter caves, and tell stories of their ancestors.

Even the hotel's sunset ceremony follows a centuries-old tradition. Prior to sunset, a Beachboy — or girl — jogs through the property, lighting nearly 200 torches along the perimeter of the oceanfront hotel. Along the way, he or she lifts a conch shell to blow a low, hypnotic croon four times, toward the north, south, east and west. This ritual, passed from early generations, lets the village know that all is well, and the message is carried on the four winds into the universe.
Seated on the beach, near a place where more than 20 green turtles have come to rest, we hear the seductive sound of the conch.

All is well, we think, deeply relaxed, in tune, with the whisper of the waves. We can almost hear the rocks singing.

If you go . . .

Expect sunshine 365 days of the year on the Big Island. The Fairmont Orchid, 23 miles from the Kona airport, is in the Mauna Lani Resort on the Kohala Coast. Besides the beach and cultural activities, the resort offers swimming pools, tennis, a renowned spa, superb dining, and golf. Rates start at $299.

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