It's easy to lose track of time while chatting with Danny Akaka. Cultural director at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows on the Big Island for more than 28 years, Akaka is frequently introduced as a living legend and is no doubt one of the most enchanting storytellers I've ever met.
"Hawaiians had names for different types of winds and rains," he told me during a recent visit. "There was a name to describe every one. And a wind that's known specifically to this area is called makani olauniu, where 'makani' means wind and 'olauniu' refers to stripping the coconut leaves."
The topic of wind had come up earlier while Akaka showed me how to toss a traditional Hawaiian throw net. Picture a circular contraption, nine or 10 feet in diameter, that's weighted at the outer edges and woven together with a material similar to heavy fishing line.
Despite a stubborn breeze, Akaka made the process look wonderfully simple, fluidly flinging the large net time after time like an oversize Frisbee onto the grassy lawn fronting the ocean.
My first several attempts were a great deal more tangled and ended with the net looking like a poorly wrapped burrito.
"Don't worry," Akaka insisted, with a smile. "You'll get it."
He was right, of course. Countless failed throws, a captivating, 50-minute "talk story" session, followed, but I finally tossed a fully opened net out onto the grass and shared a giddy high-five with one incredibly patient instructor. Exceptional exposure
Thanks in large part to Akaka's phenomenal knowledge of all things Hawaiian, the Mauna Lani is home to one of the best cultural programs in the state, but the property also features a host of on-site historical attractions.
"Mauna Lani's rich history makes us a destination within a destination; you don't need to leave our resort to learn about Hawaiian culture," said Brian Butterworth, the property's general manager. "You will find a treasure trove of archaeological sites, aboriginal trails, royal fishponds and prehistoric lava formations.
"We constantly look to provide new experiences for our guests that educate in a unique, fun, interactive and memorable way."
Complimentary for guests, activities include things like lei hulu, or feather lei-making demonstrations; coconut frond weaving; opportunities to learn the Hawaiian language; petroglyph hikes; and, perhaps most importantly, time with Akaka during his Tales of Old Hawaii gatherings or his regular guided tours around the property.
"Instead of being in a classroom with four walls, now you're in a classroom with no walls," Akaka said of the walks.
"That was an old Hawaiian way of passing knowledge. The grandparent would take the grandchild to the place, and the child would experience, see and feel and smell all of these things, and it would be ingrained in their minds. And that's what we're doing here with our guests." Fresh foot forward
During the spring of 2010, all of the Mauna Lani's 343 guestrooms underwent a soft goods upgrade, refreshing the hotel with a casual elegance and design elements inspired by the Big Island's natural beauty. Complimentary WiFi also comes standard along with new LCD TVs and private lanais for each room. Ninety percent of the property's accommodations feature ocean views.
Kathy Lerner, owner of the Long Beach, Calif.-based agency Worldwide Travel, visited the Mauna Lani recently, hoping to find a suitable replacement property for her many clients displaced by the Kona Village Resort closure. She told me the hotel's top-notch facilities, comfortable beach and emphasis on culture distanced it from competitors.
"And their spa was incredible," Lerner said. "I thought it was the nicest spa I saw on the island. So far, I've had a couple dozen people stay at the hotel, and they are all coming back raving about it."
It turns out she also spent a little more time chatting with Danny Akaka than originally planned.
"I went in expecting to speak with him for, like, 10 minutes, and we were there over an hour," she said. "He was just wonderful."