Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

InsightGuests who join Clifford Naeole’s weekly Sense of Place presentation at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui begin the experience with a screening of the 1996 documentary “Then There Were None.”

The film is an unflinching look at the effects of colonization on the Hawaiian people following Captain Cook’s arrival to the Islands in 1778, detailing the decline of the population from more than 500,000 pureblooded native Hawaiians in the late 18th century to just over 8,700 in 1993.

During a recent visit to the Ritz-Carlton, Naeole told me he always offers guests a few words of reassurance before showing them the movie.

“I tell them, ‘When you see this film, I don’t want you to get angry or embarrassed,’” he said. “Some of you might feel guilty, and I don’t want that either because those things happened. You weren’t here in 1893 [the year the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown] and I cannot blame you for what happened. You’re not responsible for what happened. But from today on, I will hold you responsible for what will happen.”

Naeole has worked at the property since it opened in the early 1990s, but he started out on the phones, calling guests in the morning with their wake-up greeting and the day’s weather. But he ended up offering his employers so much advice about how to properly handle the Hawaiian cultural issues at the hotel that they eventually promoted him, creating a cultural adviser position.

“Clifford is the only one of his kind in our company,” Tom Donovan, the hotel’s general manager, told me during my visit. “Of 80 Ritz-Carlton hotels worldwide, he’s the only cultural adviser we have. And everybody at the company knows Clifford, even the president.”

That far-reaching notoriety doesn’t make one of Naeole’s chief objectives any easier. Leaving a lasting, authentic impact on the guests’ experience, one allowing those who are interested to take a better understanding of the Hawaiian culture home with them, seems to require a more patient approach.

“People come here to the Ritz-Carlton because they work hard and they want to indulge themselves, and that’s great,” he said. “I’m all for that. But just give me the opportunity to show you the intangible.”

Showcasing that intangible is done in a number of ways across the property, but perhaps most notably on the Sense of Place tour Naeole leads following the film. Featuring things like long-told Hawaiian stories about the Kapalua region, a history of the sacred ancient burial site located directly in front of the hotel, or even a sampling of Hawaiian protocol and chanting, the walk exposes guests to a range of cultural details firmly rooted in the property’s exceptional setting.

And for those traveling with extraordinary burdens, Naeole frequently performs a ceremony called hiuwai, a Hawaiian cleansing ritual carried out shortly before dawn in the ocean and on the beach just as the sun rises. Naeole said that over the years he’s invited many guests to take part in the ceremony -- some with terminal diseases, others who’ve recently lost loved ones, even families hoping to earnestly reconnect.

“It’s something I’ve done for over 200 people at one time, and it’s something I’ve done for just two,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me because if I can reach out and touch one person with the Hawaiian sense of value, I put another flower in my lei.”

Naeole hopes his contribution to the hotel guests’ experience may also help perpetuate the Hawaiian culture itself.

“What we do here touches many, many people,” he said. “Hopefully they go enlighten someone else and someone else, and then they all become partners in our future by understanding our past.”



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