Hana: Cultural connections via disconnection

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Kini Oliveira scouts the pools along Hana’s beach before casting a throw net to catch fish.
Kini Oliveira scouts the pools along Hana’s beach before casting a throw net to catch fish. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
Naihe Akoi repeats the mantra: "You have to use your maka, eyes, to find the i'a, fish.


We nod in unison as if to say, "sure, no problem," but none of us are harboring any delusions of being a natural throw-net fisherman.

Akoi, as well as anyone, knows it takes years of practice to learn how to catch fish with nothing more than ingenuity, instinct and a circular nylon net rimmed with tiny weights. He grew up in Hana and learned from his elders how to live off the land. He practiced throw-net fishing on dry land as a child, and then finally his grandfather took him out to the shore to fish. Akoi missed everything on his first throw, risking the expensive net. His grandfather turned and left him there to find his way home.

The locals will tell you Hana is the "most Hawaiian" place on Maui. It takes an effort to get here, and at the eastern tip of the island, the town feels isolated. Cell service is spotty, the pace of traffic and life is a little slower and few people bother to lock their doors and close their windows.

Our group of journalists, sponsored by the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, was getting a crash course in Akoi's way of life, and over the course of 24 hours we met a handful of people who demonstrated the community aspect of Hana. The community maintains shoreside fishing pools, using a system to ensure everyone can fish but no specific pond is worked too often. Akoi talked about how you get more mana (power) from fishing and hunting for your own food, but it's also an economic necessity.

"Brah, we can't afford the store for everything," Akoi said. "Gas costs $5 a gallon here."

While still on flat ground, Akoi and his friend Kini Oliveira showed us how to bunch and wrap the net around our shoulder and hip so we would be able to cast the net without getting tangled. We all threw and failed. Meanwhile Akoi and Oliveira would cast their nets with uncanny grace, perched on uneven rocks with waves crashing around them, then plunge into the water and re-emerge with an armful of fish.

Back at our hotel, the Ala Kukui, there was something we could help with: cleaning the fish. We took the morning's catch to the kitchen and helped gut and prepare the fish for the evening's dinner. After being knuckles-deep in a fish belly, the shame of not being able to catch anything wore off pretty quickly.

Hana is about disconnecting and getting off the beaten path, and the accommodations embrace that spirit. Ala Kukui is dubbed a "Hawaiian cultural retreat." They often host groups, and they tailor itineraries, with activities like throw-net fishing, to the guests' needs. The Travaasa Hana is an upscale resort with a full spa and restaurant, but, like the Ala Kukui, goes to no great pains to increase connectivity to the outside world. On the budget end, Waianapanapa State Park has campsites that offer the opportunity to explore the popular black sand beach and volcanic rock tunnels at sunrise, before the crowds arrive.

A waterfall-fed swimming hole in Hana, on the eastern tip of Maui. The town is a 64-mile drive from the island’s Kahului Airport.
A waterfall-fed swimming hole in Hana, on the eastern tip of Maui. The town is a 64-mile drive from the island’s Kahului Airport. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan

Visitors can fly in and out of Hana through Kahului Airport and enjoy drool-inducing views of the coastline along the way, but the road to Hana is the kind of hurdle that makes the destination all that more rewarding. Some of the blind turns on the 64-mile, two-lane road will get the steeliest of drivers to clench their jaws, but the bonuses are stunning vistas and breaks at waterfall-fed swimming holes.

At the Kahanu National Botanical Garden, our education of traditional Hawaiian life continued with guide Ipo Mailou, who grew up in the area. We started the tour in a shady grove of breadfruit trees, a plant that is not native to the Islands but was brought by the early Polynesian settlers.

Mailou explained the importance of the plants found at the garden and how they were used in everyday Hawaiian life, including tea leaves and taro. The gardens are also home to a Hawaiian temple, Piilanihale, a solemn place for the community. The heiau (temple) is made out of lava rock and is thought to be the largest Polynesian temple still standing. It was built by the 16th century chief Piilani, and it took a 7-mile chain of workers to move the rocks to the site.

That evening Akoi and his wife joined us for dinner. Our chef was Troy Baker-Sato, owner of Troy's Plate Lunch, one of the roadside food stands that dot the road through Hana. Some of the best Hana treats are found at the these roadside stalls, including local banana bread, Coconut Glen's ice cream, Maui coffee and Hana Gold chocolate. Baker-Sato also grew up in the area fishing and hunting and cooked up the morning's catch, which included rudderfish, convict tang and threadfin, in a variety of ways.

Akoi works for a community project that is reviving the traditional way of making poi, the Hawaiian staple made from taro. The laborious process of pounding the poi causes fermentation, which lends the final product added nutritional and digestive benefits. The manufactured, powdered version of poi doesn't offer the same perks, Akoi explained.

In addition, this year for the first time, children at the Hana elementary school are taking Hawaiian language classes. Akoi's youngest will be in the first class, and he beams at the idea. It all means Hana is on course to keep its reputation as the most Hawaiian place on Maui.

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