When I was growing up, my only associations with Hawaii were grass skirts and coconut bras, and if the sitcoms of my youth were to be believed, throw in some cursed tikis and restless natives. From Greg Brady’s surfing wipeout on The Brady Bunch to Joey falling for a hula dancer on Full House, depictions of Hawaii in popular culture have typically ranged from brainless to downright offensive.
Things may have improved recently with the huge success of Moana (which my 6-year-old daughter, Lids, and I watched and loved), but as we learned from some of our new Hawaiian friends, the popular Disney movie combines several different Polynesian cultures into one story, so we still have a long way to go.
Which is why I'm a big believer in traveling with your kids as a way to teach them the difference between reality and stereotypes. Lids and I were recently invited by the to experience authentic Polynesian culture, and it was the perfect opportunity for her to start learning what to do — and what not to do — whenever she's a tourist. Because at the end of the day, tourism in and of itself isn't a bad thing. (It can help bolster economies, and is even the main source of income for many countries.) But ignoring or glossing over the local people isn't something I'm interested in, nor is it something I ever want Lids to get into the habit of doing.
As we entered our suite in , I immediately turned off the air conditioning, opened the lanai’s sliding doors and let the bustle of the beach below blow in with the breeze. Lids watched the surfers paddle out in the Pacific while I got excited about spending five days alone with my oldest child in O'ahu, the most populated of the nine Hawaiian islands. Over the course of our trip, a few lessons emerged.
Don't just watch. Do.
Waikīki is built up with high-end shopping malls, restaurants, and luxury hotels, but that doesn't mean it's completely devoid of traditional Hawaiian culture. Just a 10-minute walk from the hotel is the , a mall that hosts tons of free classes. There was the option to try Hawaiian quilting — bold floral quilts that use an appliqué technique dating back to the early 1800s when missionaries brought over cotton from the mainland. Or we could learn 'Ulana Lauhala, a jewelry-weaving technique that uses local hala leaves. There was even a session on Lomilomi, aka Hawaiian massage.
We didn't have time for all of the activities (though I happily would have tried each if I could — Lids and I bond the most during craft time), but we did take a lei-making class. It started with our kumu (teacher) passing around plumeria she picked from her own garden. (You wear it over your right ear if you're single and over your left ear if you're attached or don't want to be bothered!)
We learn that a lei is given in celebration, as a welcome, or out of love, and can be made not just from flowers, but shells, beads, or feathers. Experts can string one together in under five minutes, and while we weren't that speedy, I enjoyed using the extra time to connect with Lids. The tradition is to return the lei to the earth when you’re done with it. After ours began to wilt, Lids and I took them off the string and let the petals float out to sea.
Later, Lids took a keiki (kids) hula class, a highlight of our trip. Her instructor, , patiently taught every movement and the meaning behind each one's representation of Haleakalā, Maui’s highest mountain. The song "Ulupalakua" describes the beauty of the land, the crispness of the air and the aroma of the agriculture. Lids learned the dance while barefoot, as all hula dancers remove their shoes to increase their connection with the earth.
It's these little nuggets of wisdom that we picked up that make cultural activities rise above the rest. "Education is the key to tourism," he told me. "From dancing hula to explaining what is being danced, to speaking Hawaiian and sharing stories about places in Hawaii and beyond." It provides an extra layer that allows someone to really connect with a destination, and get a peek into what daily life is really like. Kamaka lives this, as he hosts a local show called and teaches Hawaiian language and culture during his weather forecast on the local news station.
We said mahalo (thank you) to Kamaka and then meandered through the mall back to the car. On the way there, I picked up a pair of made-in-Hawaii shoes from . And Lids refused to change out of her hula dress, which is sold at the Aloha-wear shop and made locally. She loved it so much, she basically didn't take it off for the rest of the vacation.
Eat local foods from local businesses.
Over the course of our time in O'ahu, Lids and I dug into a variety of local foods, including the Coco Puffs, chocolate cream puffs at the famous . They were so good, I ate them before we made it back to the car.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the farmer’s market sells a variety of local foods, including Island-grown lychee and a Jell-O-ized , a wobbly drink of gelatin coffee topped with a shot of whipped cream. It’s a little surreal, but give it a couple of years and it just may hit the mainland.
One of the coolest new-to-us foods we tried were dinner rolls made with poi. Poi is a native Hawaiian staple food (in the past, they’d eat up to 6 pounds per person per day!). It’s made from kalo (taro root) that’s been pounded into a paste, and it’s also a neat purple color, which delighted Lids every time she ate it.
We were also lucky enough to learn more about kalo by helping in the fields at , a nonprofit farm whose mission is to return to sustainable practices in Hawaii. It's not open to regular tourist visits, but groups can go and volunteer. There, we squished through the lo'i, or muddy wetland, to help break it up for farming. It was the perfect experience for kids — dirty, wet, and squishy — and it came with the payoff of helping the farm reach its goals.
Touristy spots can teach too.
During the last leg of our trip, we drove up to the North Shore and visited , a spot of great cultural and historical significance. Land ownership wasn’t traditionally recognized by the Hawaiian people, and the heiress to the Valley received about half of the land that was hers. The land she was granted was forced into foreclosure when she died in 1886, then changed hands several times. In the '60s and '70s, “cowboy and Indian” stagecoach rides were on offer. Now, it’s a place where locals work hard to educate people about the sacred place.
At the start of every day, staff members like the Valley’s Cultural Programs Manager, Ka'ulameialani Diamond, perform an oli (Hawaiian protocol chant), thanking their ancestors for allowing us to use the land. “We do a protocol every morning because there is so much energy that passes through here,” she explains. We spend the day learning about the history of the Hawaiian people, speaking to artists-in-residence, checking out the waterfall swimming hole, and scouting for local wildlife.
The next day, we leave the and walk the half-block to the . I thought it would be similar to Waimea Valley — meandering roads that lead to little villages and local craftspeople. In reality, it’s the Epcot of O’ahu, and it’s purpose-built for a curious child to soak in Polynesian culture.
Being there made me quickly realize that just because something is super-touristy doesn't mean it can't have teaching moments. Our guide, Ola, for example, was the perfect Hawaiian ambassador. She is native Hawaiian who speaks Hawaiian and dances hula. It was great to learn from her and experience the hands-on activities like weaving a fishing toy out of coconut leaves in Sāmoa, or choosing a (fake!) tattoo in Fiji. Lids got "inked" with a design that means navigator, right next to the traditional camakau canoe that inspired Moana's boat.
In the evening, we attended an on-site lūʻau (my darling child perused the large buffet and then ate a single poi roll for dinner) and took in the entertainment that included an 8-year-old boy (!!!) who did a fire dance. Even better was the stage show, Ha Breath of Life, which involved a love story and eight fire dancers throwing flaming sticks to each other across the entire stage. We sat there, wide-eyed, well past Lids’ bedtime, just soaking it all in. When it was over, Lids sighed deeply and said, “That was amazing!”
While spending time in the Polynesian Cultural Center made us feel more like tourists than locals, it gave Lids an introduction to more aspects of Polynesian culture that she wouldn't have learned spending another day playing in the sand. And now, nearly two months after our trip, I can tell Hawaii has made a profound impact on her. She still puts on her hula dress, takes off her shoes, and asks Google Home to play Hawaiian music. As she practices the movements, I can see the joy of traveling within her.