I never fantasized about visiting Hawaii with my sister. The land of molten lava, fiery sunsets, and evening luaus has always, in my mind, been reserved for honeymooners. Yet here we are, Debra and I, moments after arriving in Honolulu, padding out of our hotel room in flip-flops to wade into the tourmaline sea, just the two of us.
On the beach in front of the hotel, a Japanese couple is posing for wedding photos, architectural hair sprayed in place, white tunic billowing--and that's just the groom. I feel a twinge of jealousy as we pass them in our own white gowns (of the belted terry variety). Then I remember our mission: We're here to rejuvenate, to relax. We have come to the 50th state to go native, spa-style.
A volcano tour and a few mai tais used to be enough to give visitors a sense of escape, but now that new (and New Age) travelers require professional and mystical help to unwind, Hawaii is attempting to reinvent the chakra wheel. Indoor-outdoor, lanai-style spa suites are being built; coconut scrubs and leho shell massages are popping up on treatment menus. With a spa tradition rooted in the archipelago's history, Hawaii is joining the global trend toward regionalization of spa services. To that end, spas are reviving native massage techniques performed by kahunas centuries ago and incorporating indigenous herbs into skin preparations. They're bringing aloha into the treatment room.
In Hawaii, the word is more than just a greeting or farewell: aloha roughly translates to compassion for your neighbors, mutual affection, and respect for nature—and it's taken very seriously (it's even codified in the state's 5-7.5 Aloha Law). It sounds to me like, "Everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten," which isn't half bad. In fact, it could be a refreshing change from the corner day-spas that regularly pull out sundry candles, pipe in sitar music, and profess to make contact with past-life meridians to solve your woes.
We start at Honolulu's Kahala Mandarin Oriental, a sanctuary squeezed between the Koolau mountain range and the Pacific. Built by Conrad Hilton in 1964, the hotel sets a slightly retro tone for our trip: sepia-toned photos of hula dancers line the halls, pineapple prints decorate our room. The new spa, however, is anything but vintage. All five 550-square-foot treatment suites have private gardens, glass-enclosed showers, a relaxation area, and an infinity-edged Jacuzzi bath. They're rented by the hour, and in them guests can opt for Piha Kino full-body massages and many other Hawaiian-themed indulgences, which the spa readily endorses.
In our suite overlooking the mountains, Yoko, my therapist, has me inhale the mango-infused oil, which smells even more like mango than the one I ate at Hoku's, the hotel's restaurant, and is meant to help me relax. She promises me a deep-tissue lomilomi (meaning "break up"), the ancient massage performed by kahunas, who used their elbows, arms, and other body parts to release the tension in their subjects' knotted muscles.