Pure Hawaii: Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa
Source & Video Source: Hub.aa.com
Her name means “beautiful flower growing in beauty,” the soft-spoken young woman explains as she quickly braids thin strips of palm leaves into a men’s lei, all the while keeping an eye on my hands as I thread delicate white lilies into a necklace of my own. I dare not ask if redundancy avoidance might have made her name more manageable, as I can’t begin to pronounce the word on her name tag, Uluwehipuanani. She sees my confusion and laughs, telling me to call her Uluwehi for short.
But as my stay at the Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai`i, on Oahu’s leeward coast, continues, I come to understand how sensible the name is that was given to this lovely artist. She, along with fellow Hawaiians employed here, gently steers me to this realization: Virtually everything in Hawaiian culture focuses on the gifts of nature, a truth celebrated with great care throughout Aulani.
This isn’t quite what I expect in Disney’s maiden Hawaiian venture, its first resort not connected to a theme park. If I’d suspected that Disney’s Imagineers might deliver a magical, fairy-tale version of Hawaii, shame on me. But what surprises me is the degree to which the company so famous for its iconic cartoon mouse incorporates a great wealth of pure Hawaiian culture in this 20-acre sliver of paradise, roughly an hour west of Waikiki.
Though I’ve visited Hawaii a half-dozen times, my immersion in the Hawaiian language and traditions at Aulani gives me newer appreciation, not improbably because I’m seeing the culture the way children visiting here do: through expert storytelling, crafted through the centuries. Just as Uluwehi demonstrates with descriptive detail the lei-making craft and hula-dancing skill she learned from her tutu, or grandmother, so do the many Hawaiians at Aulani, who share legends they grew up with and that remain strong throughout these islands.
For guests craving character interaction, time spent with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Stitch is simply gravy. Parents get ample doses of quiet time while staffers wrangle kids into adventures and artistic pursuits. Of course, the expected resort offerings include spa treatments and whale-watching excursions, but the Aulani experience always circles back to the essence of Hawaii. And the bonus? There’s not a luau in sight.
Here’s how I find the best of Hawaii, in ways I wouldn’t have expected.
Immediately at arrival, I’m taken with the lobby murals that tell stories of Hawaiian history. Paintings, sculpture and an endless supply of wood carvings from a legion of island artists figure into resort decor, creating one of the largest private collections of Hawaiian art anywhere. In rooms and suites, calabash bowls serve as light fixtures and outrigger-canoe beams show up in headboards. And though their discovery is meant to be a kids’ game, I find myself searching for the menehune, the little forest people of lore, cleverly hidden into design work throughout the resort.
After the long flight to Honolulu, my first stop is the Laniwai Spa, given the Hawaiian name for “freshwater heaven.” I get to create kilikili, a custom scrub with my choice of essential oils and botanicals to use in the shower after my treatments. In the open-air, hydrotherapy garden, the islanders’ reverence for nature feels heightened with a proliferation of brilliant flowers and abundant soaking tubs. Also in the 23,000-square-foot dream space, there’s a family spa suite and a place called Painted Sky, a separate spa for teens ages 13 to 17.
On the beach, I take part in a yoga practice at dawn, where the view from my mat is the Pacific. Early-morning adventurers are first in line to rent kayaks and paddleboards, which are easy to maneuver in the tranquil resort lagoon that opens to the ocean (though guests are cautioned to not swim beyond the entrance to the lagoon). Just a few yards away, I snorkel amid tropical sea life in Rainbow Reef, a man-made pool filled with seawater and angelfish, butterfly fish and many more. At the nearby Shake-A-Shaka Pool Party, there’s a wholly different kind of family entertainment incorporating surfer games, dancing and the arrival of Disney characters.
The pool scene also involves floating down the Waikolohe Stream, where water slides burrow through rock formations and misty caverns, and where hot springs blast a bit of steam in modified volcano fashion. But when the play becomes too rowdy, I’m off to the Wailana Pool, a separate retreat with its own bar. Or, I’ll arrange for a poolside cabana, with a ceiling fan, a refrigerator and Wi-Fi, and where I’ll lounge on fancy furniture and eat fresh fruit.
Parents don’t have to feel guilty when parking their kids for supervised fun at Aunty’s Beach House, the play place where keiki (children) shed their flip-flops and spend the day learning the hula, playing games with Disney characters, watching movies, running around in a backyard or creating something arty. And when it’s time to go off-site, the excursions desk books trips for hiking in a rainforest, learning about art and history in guided tours through Honolulu museums, taking a ghost tour in haunted island corners, or sailing on a catamaran to see dolphins and whales.
The Pacific waters around Hawaii also offer up an ample supply of jewels that wind up on the dinner table at ‘Ama‘Ama, the more sophisticated of Aulani’s dining venues. There, executive chef Kevin Chong prepares fresh fish that he buys daily from the local fishing crews; I’m partial to his seared ahi tuna and shrimp with Kamuela tomatoes, basil and olives with eggplant caviar. Even at breakfast, ‘Ama‘Ama provides a taste of aloha, particularly in dishes that pair poached eggs with sweet potato–Portuguese-sausage hash and marinated hearts of palm, the latter from the Big Island; the surfer’s favorite, loco moco, is a mound of white rice topped by a hamburger patty, a fried egg and a gravy blanket.
Instead of the standard-issue evening luau found at most Hawaiian resorts, Aulani brings a note of authenticity to the fore with po la‘ila‘l, the sunset gathering, when Uncle, the Hawaiian elder, leads a chant to honor nature. There’s also fireside mo‘olelo, or storytelling, when Uncle plays his ukelele beside a fire pit, sharing tales about the menehune and island ghosts in the moonlight.
My favorite, however, is the starlit hui, a fast-paced music-and-dance show under the night sky, hosted by Uncle and incorporating traditional and contemporary Hawaiian influences. At one point, all the keiki get into the action, hula dancing with expert instruction. When the hui concludes with a full-throttle disco party, there’s nothing quite as surreal as dancing the electric slide with Goofy in his luau togs.
The best end to an Aulani evening comes in the Olelo Room, the bar bearing a 1940s moderne style — think From Here to Eternity. With live music and a pub mood, the Olelo wins me over with a delightful staff, all fluent in the Hawaiian language. Brad Kekuhaupi'ookalani Kalilimoku, the bartender named by his aunt, tells me that during his football days, his teammates simply called him Brad. But he likes his name and shows plentiful patience in helping me pronounce it. Like everyone in Olelo, Keku, as I call him, helps guests learn some basic words in his language. The best I can manage is asking for a glass of something hala kahiki (pineapple) and niu (coconut) with rum thrown in.
But not too much, as I’ll need my wits about me for tomorrow’s hula lesson with Uluwehipuanani. As much as I’d love to learn storytelling through dance, my real goal is to call her by her beautiful name in a place of beauty.