AULANI STREAMA small group of us gathered in the cool sand fronting one of Ko Olina's manmade lagoons, scrutinizing the night sky and a twinkling assembly of stars strung out just above the horizon.

"Can anybody tell me the name of those stars?" our guide asked, pointing out the distant constellation with a faint flashlight. "I'll give you a hint: It starts with an S."

A brief silence followed, and then I heard someone behind me whisper, "Scorpio."

It turned out that that someone was correct, and our guide, a Disney "cast member" at west Oahu's new Aulani resort, gave us some background about Scorpio in Western astronomical tradition before asking if anyone knew the constellation's Hawaiian name.

A longer silence followed before our host spoke up again, telling us that ancient Hawaiians named the constellation Ka Makau Nui O Maui, or the "Big Fishhook of Maui." According to legend, the demigod Maui once used a fishhook in an attempt to pull the Hawaiian Islands closer together, only to see his line eventually snap and the hook fly into the sky, where it remains today.

Shortly before the guided walk concluded, we stopped in front of a seven-story-high mural of the demigod Maui adorning the Aulani's north tower and learned a little more about this Hawaiian hero. When the group finally split up for the night, I overheard a woman in front of me say to her neighbor, "Can you believe this is a Disney hotel?" (View a slideshow of the property here or by clicking on the photos.) 

Telling Hawaiian stories

A few days after the Aulani's Aug. 29 opening, I spoke with Randy Garfield, executive vice president of worldwide sales and travel operations for Disney Destinations, who told me that in developing the Aulani concept, building a Disneyland in Hawaii was never the goal.

"We picked Hawaii because we felt it had a culture and a heritage that had a rich legacy of storytelling," he said. "We came here really to use our expertise in storytelling to tell their story."

AULANI TOWERAccording to Elliot Mills, managing director at Aulani, work to make sure all of those cultural elements were correct began shortly after Disney purchased the 21-acre Ko Olina property in 2007.

"They talked to myriad artists, musicians, historians [and] practitioners, and that's what really impressed me," said Mills, a Big Island native of Hawaiian descent. "It was the commitment and dedication they had to doing all of that work to make sure what they were building was right and that they could tell the story in the right way."

In fact, the property's name, which means "one who delivers messages from a higher authority," was chosen to reflect the Aulani's goal of educating visitors about Hawaiian history and culture. And from the moment guests arrive, they are surrounded by Hawaiian influences, whether it's the lobby's vibrant mural work and sculptures fashioned by contemporary Hawaiian artists or the building's striking architecture patterned after ancient canoe houses.

The property's expansive Waikohole Valley was designed to mimic a traditional ahupuaa, or land division, where settlements were constructed around streams flowing from the mountains to the sea. Home to a 321,000-gallon, manmade meandering stream, Waikohole, which means "mischievous waters," also boasts two waterslides built into the valley's dramatic Puu Kilo lava rock formation; the Rainbow Reef snorkel lagoon, featuring 1,500 tropical fish; and the Makai Preserve, where guests can feed stingrays.

Duke Ah Moo, vice president of product development at Pleasant Holidays, said he's been following the Aulani development since they started "moving dirt around."

"I think they hit a home run," he said. "I'm just blown away at how well they have integrated the Hawaiian culture with the resort."

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