Kneeling next to a sun-soaked field of Big Island lava rock, I paused under the shade of a thorny kiawe tree to marvel at a tangle of figures carved into a hump of rust-colored stone.
Known as kii pohaku in Hawaiian, many of the hand-etched petroglyphs were more than 1,000 years old and depicted families, dancers, paddlers and even sea turtles with an austere brand of portraiture dependent on basic shapes and lines.
I'd seen a handful of similar carvings elsewhere across Hawaii over the years but was astonished by the sheer number spread out before me on this occasion. Hundreds of petroglyphs adorned the sprawling stretch of rock, many of which were the largest and best-preserved ancient Hawaiian etchings I'd ever seen.
"For people who come and want to learn about Hawaii, the petroglyph tour is like the first page of the book," said Umi Cabrera-Zuke, my guide from the nearby Fairmont Orchid resort.
He added that most folks end up staring in disbelief when they first encounter the field. "People are stunned. The petroglyph tour is heavy. For me, it's one of the most in-depth cultural things we offer our guests."
Sharing Hawaiian culture with visitors is a major focus of Cabrera-Zuke's job. Whether it's guiding folks out to the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve -- about a 20-minute hike from the Orchid -- teaching traditional arts and crafts or taking guests outrigger canoe fishing, Cabrera-Zuke sees great value in passing on what he knows.
"People that visit the island are like a dry sponge when it comes to Hawaii," he said. "They're willing to absorb everything, and they take that back to the mainland and talk with their friends and show them pictures.
"Our culture is being preserved more today than it was 20, 25 years ago," Cabrera-Zuke added. "It's getting spread worldwide, and that's a great benefit for us." Standing out
The Fairmont Orchid's general manager, Chris Luedi, said competing with other first-rate hotels around the globe still requires an outstanding physical product and great food, but a property needs more nowadays to ensure guests have a memorable experience.
"Quite often, guests come to a hotel for the obvious reasons: nice rooms, great restaurants and a beautiful beach," Luedi said. "But unless we take it upon ourselves to expose them to the local culture in a very authentic way, they may miss the entire point of what Hawaii is all about.
"It's important for me that we show travelers what they can find here on our island that they can't find anywhere else in the world."
That's where Cabrera-Zuke and the Orchid's Hui Holokai take over. Defined loosely as a group that loves the ocean, the program's beach ambassadors not only offer stand-up paddling, surfing or snorkeling instruction but also provide visitors with a connection to Hawaii's culture.
"It's not really the physical aspect of paddling a vessel over the water that people remember," Luedi said. "It's the exposure to a local person and learning about what being on the water means to the Hawaiian people, all while looking back at the island. Most guests tell us it profoundly affected them."
During a recent visit, Maureen Conlin, owner of Los Gatos Travel in Los Gatos, Calif., relied heavily on the Hui Holokai while taking a closer look at some of the property's biggest stars.
"I'm petrified of the water, but I really wanted to see the green sea turtles," she said, describing a brief excursion onto the Orchid's protected bay with a couple of beach ambassadors. "They were right there with me the whole way, thank God. And the turtles were these amazing, enormous creatures. I just loved it." Good as Gold
Conlin was also a big fan of the property's Gold Floor, where an extensive refurbishment to the Fairmont Gold Lounge was completed in 2010 along with later upgrades to the level's 45 guestrooms, including new HD TVs, multimedia technology hubs and new beds, finished in 2011.
"I love the Gold Floor," she said. "The rooms have a very nice feel to them, the bathrooms are terrific and the staff does a fantastic job there. Plus, the lounge is a lot like being in your own living room."