Facedown in an undulating swatch of sapphire blue, not much more than a couple city bus lengths from the West Maui shoreline, I watched a Hawaiian green sea turtle rise from beneath me like a balloon.
Sporting a segmented brown shell, about the size of a manhole cover and layered in a thin film of translucent green algae, the female turtle wasn't in much of a hurry to reach the surface, pulling herself out of the darker blue below me with only an occasional effort from her front flippers.
I cleared my snorkel while fumbling with the underwater camera tethered to my wrist, panicking some about missing a shot of the marine creature now only a few feet from me. Unfazed by all the commotion I was creating nearby, the turtle poked her head out of the water a number of times, taking in several breaths of air, before reaching out again with her flippers and pulling herself downward, diving at the same carefree pace she'd used to ascend moments earlier.
"How was that?" Kevin Highfield, the Ritz-Carlton naturalist leading my snorkeling excursion around Kapalua Bay, asked me shortly after. "I thought we might see a turtle here. They like to sleep under that ridge of reef right below us."
Still spellbound by the now departed turtle, and somewhat astonished by the idea of an extended nap after only a few deep breaths, the only response I could manage was a giddy smile and a wobbly thumbs up. A new beginning
The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October, but the 463-room property guests enjoy today seems to have really taken shape a little over four years ago, following a change in ownership and a six-month renovation project to completely overhaul the hotel's interior.
"We pretty much ripped out all the bathrooms and the guestrooms, the lobby and the pool, the meeting rooms, everything," Tom Donovan, the property's general manager, told me during a recent visit.
For Clifford Naeole, the hotel's longtime cultural adviser, that renovation was a chance to infuse the property with an authentic, Hawaiian sense of place, and just about every interior design element incorporated in the refurbishment had to first meet with his approval.
"It was kind of one of those 'be careful what you wish for' things," he said with a laugh. "While everybody was laid off and having a good time, I was here reviewing carpet and artwork and thinking 'Oh man, I could be fishing right now.' But in the end, of course, it was well worth it."
While the hotel's interior was updated with a far more authentic Kapalua feel, Donovan was looking to enhance the Ritz-Carlton's capacity to educate guests, negotiating with Jean-Michel Cousteau about the well-known conservationist's Ambassadors of the Environment program.
It didn't take long, however, for a problem to emerge from those discussions. Cousteau's Ambassadors programs had, in the past, focused solely on the ocean, and for Donovan, that wasn't good enough.
"I told him, 'We want to talk about why the land is so important here, because let's be honest, Jean-Michel, what happens on the land ends up in your oceans,'" Donovan explained. "We also want to talk about the culture, because that's really the special part. They might not know it at first, but in the end that's why people come to Hawaii: the aloha and the unique spirit of this place."
According to Donovan, Cousteau wasn't interested in redesigning his program initially, but the iconic oceanographer came around, and today the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua's Ambassadors of the Environment curriculum not only features a variety of ocean-focused activities for guests of all ages, including the snorkeling and underwater photography expedition I joined, but also options like sustainable agriculture outings, hosted stargazing and even nature hikes into a nearby rain forest showcasing Maui's native plants and birds. And all of the Ambassadors excursions are designed to reveal the Hawaiian culture's fundamental connection to the natural world.
"Jean-Michel came back to me a year later and said, 'I've got nine of these around the world, and this is my best one,'" Donovan told me. "And he said it's because this is the first one that's truly connected to every part of the destination with a sense of place." Sacred ground
Clifford Naeole and I stood on a grassy rise in front of the Ritz-Carlton, looking out over the Pacific toward the nearby island of Molokai. The late-morning sunshine was heavier against my neck now, and the wind had picked up, blowing an army of white caps across the ocean channel before us.
"There are two pronunciations for the name of that channel," Naeole said. "One of them, Pailolo, literally means to slap you until you're silly, and trust me, when this place gets blown out, it will slap you until you're silly."
A few steps from the restricted entrance to one of Maui's most sacred sites, Naeole had only moments earlier finished a spoken chant, introducing me to the more than 1,200 Hawaiians interred at the location's nearly 14-acre ancient burial ground.
"I said that you come from afar, over the ocean, over the mountain, and you are here at the door, hungry and cold, which means you want to learn," Naeole translated. "And the reply to that is, 'Come into my house, guest, and eat as much as you can. Eat until your stomach begins to rise, engorged with enlightenment.'"
In 1984, developers began excavation work near where Naeole and I stood, planning to build their hotel much closer to the beach. That digging spawned a passionate protest by the Hawaiian people, leading to a drawn-out negotiation lasting the better part of five years. According to Naeole, carbon testing performed on some of the bones unearthed during the excavation dated the remains back as far as 850.
Ultimately yielding to the protests, the developers agreed to sell the sacred land back to the state of Hawaii in exchange for permission to build the high-rise, oceanview Ritz-Carlton standing several hundred yards away from the beach today.
Naeole said that all of the iwi, or remains, disturbed during the excavation have since been returned.
"They are all still here, covered by sand, which is what they were covered with in the first place," he said. "And boulders. Just in case you have some New Age Indiana Jones who wants to go down there and try and dig them up."
Every Friday, Naeole offers guests a complimentary Sense of Place presentation at the hotel, which includes a tour of the property, explaining the building's many Hawaiian artifacts and cultural design elements, along with a walk out to the burial site and a history of the location's significance.
"If you do the cultural walk with Clifford, it's just incredible to listen to his stories," said Jonna Jackson, the senior director of global product at Classic Vacations. "The richness of that area's history is fascinating, and he has such a warm heart. It's obvious he loves sharing the property's stories."
Naeole also heads up the hotel's annual Celebration of the Arts festival. Held each year over Easter, the two-day event features a range of traditional Hawaiian protocols and ceremonies, along with Hawaiian art, music, hula, panel discussions and, according to Naeole, "the best luau in the state."
"I have to give Mr. Donovan some kudos, as well, because without him, any other G.M. could have come in here and just cut the line," Naeole said. "He's a firm supporter of the culture, and that's not cheap. The celebration is an investment. It doesn't make any money, but what it does is create trust, and it creates an alignment between what was, what is and what will be for this hotel.
"And that's important," he added, because in the wake of the property's tumultuous development process, "we were probably the most hated hotel in the world at one point."
Along with its standard guestrooms, starting at $399 a night, and suites, beginning at $579, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua features two-bedroom residential suites, starting at $949 a night, outfitted with full kitchens and excellent for families already intrigued by the property's superb Ambassadors of the Environment program.
"That program is a great feature for families because it's such a terrific way to engage in the local environment, and the residential-style suites are just perfect for families," said Jackson, who hopes to bring her 4-year-old son the next time she visits the property. "I think my son would absolutely love the place."