In true aloha spirit, a transplanted Canadian takes us on a journey, where a reverence for history and nature goes beyond serenity to the sacred.

I am a Hawaiian. Not a native one, of course, given that I was born in Toronto. But for reasons I cannot entirely explain, this remote, exotic place feels more like home to me than anywhere I’ve ever lived. It’s not that I’ve chosen crummy locales before now: I spent years in Vancouver, Whistler, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Malibu and Manhattan, and I liked them all. And it’s not that I lack proper northern credentials, either: my father was a hockey player; my mother was born in Portage La Prairie, Man.; my cousin was one of the downhill skiing Olympians known as the Crazy Canucks. I learned to skate before I could swim. I know what to do with a block heater. In general, the tropics are unfamiliar to me, but somehow Hawaii is my spot. Who knew? The distance between southern Ontario and the north shore of Maui, where I live now, spans about 5,000 miles and six time zones and, to get here, you must fly across the North American continent and out into the vast Pacific (for six hours) until, finally, you’ll come across the volcanic islands of the most isolated archipelago on Earth. It’s a hell of a commute. But Hawaii’s far-flung location is one of the things I appreciate about it the most.

“Convenience is very dangerous,” my Maui neighbour, William Merwin, said to me over tea one afternoon, on his porch. Known to poetry lovers worldwide as W.S. Merwin, possessor of every literary honour imaginable, Merwin, now 90, was the 17th Poet Laureate of the United States, chosen by President Barack Obama. Merwin’s house is surrounded by a palm forest that he and his wife, Paula, planted by hand, reclaiming 18 acres that had been designated “agricultural wasteland,” and turning it into The Merwin Conservancy – a sanctuary for writers, poets, botanists and anyone whose idea of fun involves something more soulful than watching TV. In this magnificent forest, upwards of 480 horticultural varieties and 900 species grow, trees that Merwin calls “very ancient and wise creatures.”

“The places I’ve most loved in my life, none of them were particularly convenient,” he added, smiling as a scarlet songbird hopped down from a leaf and onto the table. “And this place – it’s not convenient at all! It was never meant to be convenient.”

The Merwin Conservancy is located along Maui’s Hana Highway, near a small town called Haiku. This is Maui’s wild windward coast, a place of huge waves and rugged sea cliffs. I always describe the Hana Highway to visitors as “a road built by hobbits on psychedelics.” To drive 60 miles along its serpentine curves is a white-knuckle journey that will take you at least three hours and, by the time you’re done, you’ll be so overwhelmed by its beauty and eccentricity that you’ll need to lie down. It’s the opposite of convenience – the antithesis of a featureless commute, done on autopilot – and that’s why it’s memorable. “Remoteness is its own secret,” Merwin writes in his poem The Wilderness. He has lived this line of poetry for 41 years on his land, and made sure that his palms will thrive long after he is gone and continue to bestow their magic on those of us who walk along the Conservancy’s red-dirt paths, underneath the green canopy, revelling in the things of this world that are larger than we are.

Merwin was born in New York City, but respecting and tending and restoring the natural world – creating in your backyard what the National Tropical Botanical Gardens calls “a living treasure house of palm DNA” – is an archetypally Hawaiian thing to do. Everyone who resides on these islands, even transplants like me, are referred to as kama’aina – or “people of the land.” It is assumed that if your survival depends on living harmoniously and sustainably on your little blip of terra firma in the middle of the ocean, you will take this responsibility seriously. The ancient Hawaiians certainly did, when they arrived in their voyaging canoes from other tiny specks of land, scattered in the Pacific like stars. In fact, there’s a Hawaiian word for this sacred trust: kuleana.

To embrace your kuleana is to take up the work of protecting what matters to you, as Merwin has done. It’s a calling you’re born with or choose or both – an obligation accepted wholeheartedly. It is the opposite of shirking duties or casting blame or failing to do the right thing because you need to make your quarterly sales numbers. On the continent, there’s always another horizon, but on these islands the finite borders of existence are obvious every day. To live on an island is basically to live aboard a spaceship and, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, there are no passengers here – we are all crew.

Photo: G. Bard Lewis

There are plenty of reasons to love Hawaii, of course. It’s one of the world’s favourite vacation destinations (even in times when we don’t agree upon much, we agree about that). But I want to tell you straight up: even the most satisfying tourist experience is a pale shadow of the rewards available to anyone willing to venture beyond the standard-deluxe-tropical-resort-experience. Yes, the pools and spas and 500-thread-count sheets and chilled towels are nice. But I’m talking about accessing something greater: the deep and primal heart of a mysterious oceanic kingdom.

“To pierce the veil from tourist to kama’aina means arriving and metaphorically taking your shoes off before you enter, before you cross the threshold,” my friend Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey told me. “It’s an expression of humility, and many cultures are not accustomed to doing that.” Lindsey, 61, comes from a long Hawaiian lineage; she is a descendant of high chiefs, astronomers, teachers and philosophers. With her PhD in cultural anthropology and as an explorer for National Geographic, her work documents ancient knowledge. Which is to say: she’s a wisdom keeper.

“Hawaii is my motherland. Often, when people go to Hawaii, they never really see her,” Lindsey continued. “The best way to experience her is with one’s feet barefoot on the ground, skin to skin with the breezes and the ocean. To really experience Hawaii means to take her in with all your senses.” In other words, choose a morning walk through Maui’s bamboo forest over a tennis game. Make the time and effort to get close to a volcano – Haleakala on Maui or the Big Island’s Kilauea (which is currently erupting – an awesome sight). Postpone that pedicure and, instead, feel the sand between your toes. And here is one sure way to enhance any Hawaiian trip: spend as much time as possible in the ocean. If you’re lucky, you may see spinner dolphins or humpback whales. And if you’re truly blessed, you’ll encounter a shark, one of the most powerful aumakuas, or ancestral spirit animals.

Hawaii is a paradise of water sports, with every possible option: paddling (prone, outrigger canoe, stand-up), swimming, snorkelling, diving, sailing and, of course, surfing, the sport of kings, which is widely believed to have originated here. But in the waves, make sure you know your limits, and always observe the rules of safety and etiquette. (If you aren’t sure what those are, it’d be best if you launched your wave-riding career somewhere else.) Especially during the winter months, the ocean currents are fast and strong, the waves tower overhead, and the locals react badly if you get in their way in the surf. As renowned big wave rider and Kauai resident Laird Hamilton, 54, points out: “This is the most aggressive water in the world. You need to be careful not to set yourself up to get spanked.”

I am always aware that I’m a guest in this place and that I’ll get back what I put out – but tenfold. That’s the Hawaiian way. Show respect, and you’ll be respected. Behave in a pono manner – live righteously, everything in order, kind and fair – and you’ll never lack for friends. Behave with entitlement or arrogance, or attempt to take something without first giving, and you’ll get spit out like a watermelon seed. My former boss and Maui neighbour, Oprah Winfrey, states it this way: “You have to come correct.” There’s a different tempo out here, a different set of priorities. One often-seen bumper sticker warns: Slow Down, This Ain’t the Mainland. And if you see this message on a hoisted truck with mud-caked tires and a couple of pit bulls in the back, driven by a heavily tattooed local who looks like he could tear a phone book in half, then you really do want to slow down.

Admittedly, the Hawaiian people are not always warm and cuddly. They’re something far better: warriors who fiercely love and want to protect their home. It hasn’t been an easy battle. In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by American interests, its queen, Lili’uokalani, deposed and imprisoned. There was big money to be made on these islands growing sugar cane and pineapple, and a rich indigenous culture that Protestant missionaries were busily wiping out.

In 1898, Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory; in 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. In 1959, these islands became the 50th state (some would argue without much input from Hawaiians themselves). During the Second World War, the U.S. military declared martial law and used the island considered most sacred, tiny Kaho’olawe, for bombing practice. They even rented Kaho’olawe out to other countries that wanted to bomb it. This onslaught was halted in 1990, after a long struggle between native Hawaiians and the U.S. Navy. By then, Kaho’olawe’s water table had been cracked, allowing saltwater to seep in and destroy its vegetation. Efforts to restore the ecosystems and remove unexploded ordnance continue today.

“Hawaii was run as a plantation for so long,” Lindsey said. “The culture was fading.” In high school, she recalls students being urged to learn Japanese so they could work in the tourist industry. Hawaiian wasn’t even offered: “We almost lost our language entirely.” As recently as the late 1960s, a license was required to dance hula, which the missionaries considered pagan.

But in the ’70s, something fantastic happened – a cultural renaissance. The Hawaiian people fought for their own identity and won. There was a resurgence of the mother tongue, the traditions, the native pride. Lindsey recommends listening to that era’s music by the Sons of Hawaii and the Brothers Cazimero, which captures the spirit of the revival: “There is deep meaning in what they are singing.” The songs are as soaring and fluid as a seabird in flight, lush with guitar and ukulele, and unique to Hawaii. To listen to them is to feel the islands’ essence in your body and spirit.

One of the most important events in this cultural rebirth was the return of traditional canoe voyaging. The first people to land on these islands were Polynesians – most likely from the Marquesa Islands 2,000 miles away – who arrived around AD 400 in double-hulled wa’as, or seafaring canoes. These intrepid explorers had no instruments or charts, but they were able to cross huge swaths of the Pacific with astonishing accuracy, using the ancient science of wayfinding: navigating by reading the sun, moon, stars and wind, the flight paths of birds, the behaviour of fish, the movements of clouds and ocean currents. These were remarkable odysseys that pushed the ideas of self-sufficiency and skill, faith and trust, and attunement with the elements, all the way to the edge.

The exquisite knowledge required to make these ocean crossings was in danger of becoming lost in Hawaii, but in 1976 a voyaging canoe named Hokule’a (Star of Gladness) was launched by the newly formed Pacific Voyaging Society. The plan was to sail it from Maui to Tahiti and back, on a kind of test run to practise the ancient skills. Hokule’a’s navigator, Nainoa Thompson, from Oahu, was tutored by master navigator-priest Mau Piailug, from Satawal, a Micronesian atoll. (Mau, the man most responsible for preserving the wayfinding tradition, was also a mentor of Lindsey’s; she studied with him for 10 years until his death in 2010 at age 78.)
The journey was a success; Hokule’a was greeted by 17,000 cheering Tahitians. But tragedy struck on the next voyage, in 1978, when the canoe sprung a leak and capsized 12 miles south of Molokai. With the crew in grave danger, one man, Eddie Aikau, 31, heroically paddled for help. He set off on a surfboard toward Lanai, the nearest island. After floating in the open water for several hours, Hokule’a’s crew was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard – but Aikau was never seen again. A massive search failed to find him, a loss that is still felt today.

Photo: Alice Humbart/Piailug and Lindsey

Aikau represented everything Hawaiians hold dear: bravery, selflessness, strength, roots, ocean skills of the highest order. The phrase “Eddie would go,” heard often in these parts, is a rallying cry, a salute, an all-purpose call to courage. A commemorative big wave surfing competition, known as “the Eddie,” is held at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s north shore, where Aikau had performed more than 500 rescues as a lifeguard. The contest takes place when ocean conditions are perfect enough to kick up clean 20-foot waves. This doesn’t happen every year: the Eddie has been held only eight times since 1985. When it does occur, it’s a very big deal, and everyone knows it’s about something far more than a trophy.

In May 2014, Hokule’a, shored up and partially rebuilt, embarked on an epic three-year voyage, Malama Honua (“To care for our island Earth”), in which it would sail 60,000 nautical miles around the globe, making 150 port stops in 27 countries. As the canoe prepared to launch from Hilo, Hawaii, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent it off with a blessing. “Hokule’a was like this dream that everyone held on to because it represented a sovereignty and a voice for people who were muted,” Lindsey said. “It came to represent a sense of resilience, vision – hope for the future. Hokule’a is so much more than a canoe.”

June 17, 2017, was a postcard-perfect day in Honolulu: sunny with light wind and regal clouds passing by. The day was outstanding for another reason: it was Hokule’a’s homecoming, Malama Honua’s final stop. I flew to Oahu to join the celebration, though to call it that is an understatement. It was a joyful, triumphant, momentous event that no one who witnessed will ever forget. People lined the shores of Magic Island, a harbour in downtown Honolulu. Many wore traditional and ceremonial clothing. There were loincloths, sarongs and capes; leis and wreaths made from ti leaves, the protector plant. Thousands of Hawaiians had gathered, but also Maoris, Marshall Islanders, Tahitians, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans – people from all over the Pacific. Haoles were well-represented (the Hawaiian term for whites), residents and tourists alike. And everyone was happy.

I watched the festivities with Kimokeo Kapahulehua, a famed waterman and Hawaiian cultural ambassador. Kimokeo, 70, is the president of Hui o Wa’a Kaulua, Maui’s voyaging society. To put it mildly, he knows his way around a canoe. “The Hokule’a changed my life,” he told me. “It changed every single Hawaiian I know because it made us stand up and say we were once navigators and we are navigators today.” He smiled. “That’s the joy: we are today.”

Kimokeo also runs a youth centre and a foundation on Maui, teaching kids traditional Hawaiian practices and working with the Maui Ocean Center to restore corals, among many other things. He makes visitor outreach a priority, so they, too, can possess what he calls “a healing knowledge of Hawaii.” And the most potent symbol of that healing knowledge was gliding into the harbour at this exact moment to thunderous chanting and applause.

Hokule’a is a majestic vessel, even more so when you are aware of its history. I defy anyone to look at it and not feel a swell of emotion. It is 62 feet long, with two hulls and two 31-foot-tall sails coloured an earthy red. Its deck is ivory. As it approached the dock, people waded into the ocean, arms outstretched and – I swear it – a full rainbow appeared, arching over everyone’s heads.

Surfboards, kayaks, outriggers – dozens of tiny vessels ringed the canoe, forming a lei on the water. Nainoa Thompson and the other crewmen stood on deck, waving.

“The canoe is a living entity for us,” Kimokeo said, watching the homecoming with pride. “When we paddle together, we share aloha. Total love, unconditional love, respect and care for each other and environment – everything. And that energy helps you to be more connected and more aware.”

The Hawaiian language contains many words that lack an English equivalent. They don’t come with easy synonyms; they’re more like wise concepts we’d be well advised to adopt. Aloha is the queen of them – and gets my vote for the single most beautiful word in the world. Though it’s often used casually, as hello or goodbye, aloha’s meaning is far grander and deeper than that. Ha means the breath of life. Aloha is an expression of love, goodwill, peace, connection: I share my breath with you. One strives always to live with aloha, spread aloha and cultivate others with aloha. Delightfully, there’s even a state law on the books that enshrines aloha as “the working philosophy of Hawaii.”
Inclusion, love, sharing, humility, caring for the natural world: these, by the way, just happen to be humanity’s often-forgotten operating instructions. For so many wonders, so many ageless lessons, we have these islands to thank. Hawaii may be a small blip on the globe, an emerald floating in fathomless blue – but her soul is beyond measure.

If you go Check in to the Prince Waikiki on Oahu (where the author stayed to watch the Hokule’a’s homecoming).

A version of this article appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 issue with the headline, “Hawaiian Soul,” p. 80-86.