Dozens of us stood along the water's edge at dawn on Maui's Honokahua beach, looking to the ocean for a fresh start.
We were participating in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony known as hiuwai, which usually takes place right before sunrise. It's a chance to cleanse away mistakes and start anew in the warm waters of the Pacific.
"We do it when we want to clear things off our chest," said Clifford Naeole, the cultural adviser at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, located just up the hill from Honokahua.
"So prior to the dawn, we gather at the beach and contemplate things that we should not have thought, words that we shouldn't have said [and] promises we knew we weren't going to keep," he said.
The ceremony opens the first full day of activities at the annual Celebration of the Arts Festival, held at the Ritz-Carlton. The 24th edition of the three-day cultural celebration kicks off March 25 and offers Maui visitors a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Hawaiian people's rich traditions as well as experience their food, art, crafts and more.
"There are many instances where Hawaiians are feeling like strangers in their own homeland," Naeole said. "This now opens up a safe venue for Hawaiians to come in and enjoy being part of this industry, to feel safe in expressing their values and accomplishments and failures, their wants and needs for the future. This is an open invitation from the Ritz-Carlton, saying be who you are and allow us to learn."
Naeole created the Celebration of the Arts Festival at the Ritz-Carlton hoping to heal a rift between the hotel and the community. The discord began during strained negotiations in the 1980s among Hawaiian activists and the developers, who initially intended to build the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on top of an ancient burial ground. The developers agreed to move the hotel farther up the bluff, away from the ocean.
This year's festival, with plenty of free experiences, will enable Maui visitors to sit face to face with a diverse range of Hawaiian artisans and learn hands-on how to make Hawaiian rope or wood carvings, traditional jewelry or nose flutes and how to pound poi from taro roots. A diverse array of panel discussions and films will also be a part of the 2016 event, including topics such as cultural education and finding mentorship for Hawaii's young people.
Visitors won't want to miss the Celebration of the Arts luau, which requires a paid admission but is always one of Maui's best. It features top-notch local entertainers and fantastic, authentic Hawaiian food.
"A lot of the so-called luau foods are catered to the visitor," Naeole said. "In this case, we stick to the tradition."