"Hawaiian design has really just started to come into its own," Conrad says. "We're not copying California and adding a few ferns anymore."
"You have to understand," says Douglas Chang, the hotel's new general manager, "it's only in the past ten years that it's been okay to be Hawaiian." Chang is the first Hawaiian in memory to run the hotel, and one reason it has come back to life so vigorously.
We were in the dining room for Hawaiian Night. Nobody used the word luau. This was not one of those evenings on the other side of Maui that you get to with a coupon. (COMBO SPECIAL! TURTLE SNORKEL PLUS LUAU! FREE PAREU—$15 VALUE!) The buffet was set with a classic dinner of roast pork and poi and purple Maui sweet potatoes and taro rolls and laulau, or butterfish and pork steamed in ti leaves. The room was unusually full, as much with locals as with hotel guests.
So just who was that older Caucasian woman in the pink muumuu sitting at the best table? I would have guessed she lived behind a gate on a golf course in Scottsdale, but in fact she was one of the great ladies of Hana, who lives in an envied oceanfront house. She'd brought two young Hawaiian women to dinner and the show. Almost every night some member of the hotel staff performs in the bar or restaurant. That night it was a group of eight, all of whom work in housekeeping and catering when they're not playing the guitar or doing the hula.
These were not the professional hula babes I'd seen before on Waikiki, but nothing this genuine could be called amateur. Some of the women were big, really big, and the bigger they were, the more I couldn't stop looking at them. Their sway was the most hypnotic of all. I was assured by a fellow diner that it wasn't my imagination: "The bigger the dancer, the better the sway."
All of the Hawaiian songs sounded much the same to a mainlander's ear, except for one. The Dawning—Ke Alaula—was a pop hit eight or nine years ago and created a swell of pride in being Hawaiian. Chang said it wasn't unusual for people to cry when they heard it. I didn't understand a word, but I did notice that the local audience sat up considerably straighter. It was like being in Rick's Café listening to La Marseillaise.
Hana town is quieter than most people expect. The tour is a quick one. You can spend thousands at the superb Hana Coast Gallery, or a few dollars at Hasegawa's General Store, a local landmark stocked with Spam sushi and vacuum-packed bags of poi. After that, there's the post office.
You can drive another scenic hour to the natural pools at Oheo Gulch, but I don't recommend getting out.
Drive one more mile, until you feel you've fallen off the edge of the earth, to the grave of Charles Lindbergh, who chose the humblest end imaginable. On the way back, pull over at Seven Pools Smoothies, a wooden fruit stand with a devastating view of the Pacific, where the Last Hippie will crack a coconut for you while you wonder how you both got to this particular spot.