I had just plunged headlong into the warm water off south Maui's Wailea coastline searching for, of all things, music. Moments earlier, I was paddling in the Fairmont Kea Lani's outrigger canoe when Kolomona, the Hawaiian guide steering behind me, pointed out a pair of humpback whales.
A white column of mist surged up from the shimmering Pacific only a few hundred yards from us, followed by the dark silhouette of a dorsal fin and then a graceful fluke.
"If you jump out and get deep enough," Kolomona told me, "you can hear them sing."
An instant or two later and I was in the water with Kekoa, the trip's other guide, trying to put a little distance between myself and the white canoe.
"Dive headfirst," Kekoa instructed, bobbing in the swell next to me. "The deeper you get, the better."
I did as I was told, kicking furiously and reaching out into the clear blue surrounding me, pulling myself farther and farther from the surface. Content with my progress, and suddenly thinking about sharks rather than whales, I stopped swimming and just floated a bit.
And there it was, the astonishingly clear and hauntingly lovely sound of whales singing.
"Isn't that amazing?" Charles Head, the Fairmont Kea Lani's general manager, asked me during our interview a few days later. "It's such a fundamental experience that it just sends shivers down your spine. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up." Hawaiian highlight
The Fairmont Kea Lani has been offering its Hawaiian Canoe Experience, which departs from the beach fronting the property, to guests free of charge for more than seven years, and according to the resort's director of public relations, Wendy Harvey, the activity has been a hit since day one.
"Many guests have said it is hands down the best experience they've had on their entire trip," she said. "I think people enjoy it because it's very heartfelt and very touching, and some of them have told me they learned more about Hawaii in that one-hour trip than in the last five years that they'd been coming to visit."
Along with the chance to hear and see humpback whales during their calving and mating season in the Islands, which runs December through April, guests are "almost guaranteed to see turtles," while Hawaiian spinner dolphins and an inquisitive Hawaiian monk seal make frequent appearances.
Launched with a traditional Hawaiian oli, or chant, the tour is also loaded with Hawaiian culture, history and legends and is a great place for visitors to learn about Maui and the Wailea region.
"I think the canoe experience really hits two things for us," Head added. "It's an authentically Hawaiian experience and an introduction to the Hawaiian environment; [it illustrates why] it's important to make sure the turtles are looked after and to respect the whales and other wildlife and the reef that's out there." Recent refresh
Work on a four-month, $16 million soft renovation of the Kea Lani's 413 suites was finished toward the end of last December. Upgrades were also completed on the property's 37 two- and three-bedroom villas and its three individual pool decks.
Conceived by local designer Robert Gagnon, the layout in the renovated guest suites and villas now features a sophisticated, contemporary Hawaiian feel along with flat-screen TVs and iPod technology upgrades. New kitchens were installed in the villas, and new refrigerators and microwaves can be found in the main building's 480-square-foot guest suites.
"It's definitely a nice improvement, and the overall property is looking great," said Jonna Jackson, the senior director of global product for Classic Vacations. "The rooms really needed a refresh, and it just looks beautiful."
Mickey Weill, vice president of sales development at Protravel International, said the upgrades help build on the property's dedication to a legitimate Hawaii connection.
"The hotel has such a genuine, authentic Hawaiian feel from the staff perspective, and now with the new room product, they have taken it to the next level with a real Hawaii feel," he said. "I think they've really raised their game."
Recent changes to the resort have not, however, altered its appeal to a diverse clientele.
"At some properties, it's clear this is a family hotel or this is a couples hotel," Weill said. "But from my experience, the Kea Lani is really able to balance the families and the honeymoon couples throughout the property."
Jackson, who traveled recently to Maui with her 2-year-old son, told me her boy hasn't forgotten the trip.
"My son is still asking to go back to the Kea Lani," Jackson said. "And if you look at it from a kid's point of view, I think that says a lot about the hotel." Serious about sustainability
Winner of the March 2010 state of Hawaii Green Business Award, the Fairmont Kea Lani has also made a significant effort to reduce its impact on the environment, introducing more than 50 environmentally friendly initiatives during the past nine years.
One of those endeavors is a laundry water recycling system that's saved more the 50 million gallons of water since its installation in 2005 and functions with an average recycle rate between 80% and 82%. Also, the hotel also features a state-of-the-art, centralized thermostat that has reduced its air conditioning bill 20% annually. And since 2009, every disposable container used at the property has been made of an earth-friendly product such as corn, sugar cane bagasse or even potatoes.
The Kea Lani also started an aluminum-, glass- and plastic-recycling program that has helped Maui nonprofits raise nearly $30,000 since 2005.
"Imagine if every single hotel on the island did this," Harvey said. "What a win that would be for all of our charities."