One evening nearly 30 years ago, a blond, 14-year-old kid named Chip Bahouth filled in as a last-minute replacement for an ill cliff diver at the Sheraton Maui.
Although he'd never performed this particular duty officially, Bahouth had done some practicing, and the job itself was relatively straightforward: don the customary attire; light the torches; run barefoot down a jagged, lava rock path; perform the traditional Hawaiian prayers and rites; and dive 40 feet into the clear, blue Pacific below.
Fast-forward three decades and Bahouth, like his father before him, is general manager of the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
Much of the Kaanapali Beach property is situated atop Puu Kekaa, or Black Rock, the remnant of a volcanic cinder cone formed during the last of the Valley Isle's eruptions.
"Puu Kekaa has a great historical sense of Hawaiian culture," Bahouth said. "It's where King Kahekili, who was the last reigning king for the island of Maui, would go out and dive off Black Rock to demonstrate his virility, his leadership and his courage to his warriors."
According to Hawaiian tradition, Puu Kekaa is a place where souls of the dead leap from this world into the next. By diving into the water surrounding the lava formation, Kahekili gained respect for showing no fear in an area inhabited by so many spirits.
Today the resort's diver honors those departed souls by lighting torches at sunset around the property while Kahekili's story is shared with guests near the pool. The diver then runs along the beach and up a pathway over Puu Kekaa's rocky cliffs, lighting more torches as he goes, before offering his own torch and a lei to all four directions of the sky and finally diving into the darkening sea.
Open since 1963 and a haven for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby in the 1960s and '70s, the Sheraton Maui started to show its age in the late '80s. In 1995 the property underwent a two-year, $160 million redevelopment aimed at distancing the hotel from some of its more densely designed competitors.
Bahouth noted that as a 500-room hotel on 23 acres, "the resort is very spread out."
In the years since, Bahouth said, the property has undergone a consistent schedule of upgrades, including the new Spa at Black Rock that opened in April.
"Every year we put $3 million or $4 million into the hotel," Bahouth said. "We aren't waiting to run the thing down to do a renovation 10 years from now and then have to sink $80 million into it."
Gardenview rack rates for the fall begin at $505 per night, while oceanfront rooms start at $675. Guests will pay $950 for a family suite and $1,550 a night for a deluxe oceanfront suite.