Searching for Mana: Where to See the Real Hawaii

Overlooking Lanikuhonua Hidden Oahu
Photo: Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Standing in the hot sand at the tip of Ka'ena Point, La'akea Perry, master teacher at Kei Kai o Kahiki, an all-male hula school, begins to chant, his voice trembling in a lilting vibrato. The words of the oli impart a greeting, one that conveys both a deep love for O'ahu's west side and an inherent responsibility to the land.

When the oli ends, the hula begins. La'akea kneels and begins to beat the ipu heke, a golden double gourd instrument, as his student, Ka'ena — who shares the name of the point on which he dances — adopts a stance reminiscent of an ancient warrior. La'akea's voice and his rhythmic drumming rise above the rush of the Pacific. This time he chants a mele about Hi'iaka, favorite sister of the fire goddess Pele, who walked to Ka'ena Point to visit her ancestral divinity. During the journey she chanted an oli of her own, describing the intense effects of the sun's heat on her body and the landscape — a heat not unlike the one that we encountered during our hike that morning.

The word mana in native Hawaiian translates as life energy or spiritual power. On O'ahu's untrodden west coast — a 20-mile stretch of shoreline from the Ko Olina Resort to Ka'ena Point — mana takes shape in the volcanic Wai'anae Mountains and the vast cerulean Pacific, in tales of ancient ali'i and in the passion and perseverance of a new generation of cultural practitioners. Rich in oral tradition, the leeward side, with its slower pace and sunnier skies, feels a universe away from the cluttered development and homogenized high rises of Honolulu. It may also have the most potent mana on the island. I've come to hear its stories.

Laakea Perry Hidden Oahu
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

A 10-hour flight followed by a 25-minute drive toward Kapolei delivers me to the airy Four Seasons at Ko Olina, where, in typical Hawaiian fashion, a cool drink and an equally cool towel relieve the weariness of travel. My room overlooks a wide, emerald-blue lagoon and I'm tempted to plant my jet-lagged self on the balcony for the remainder of the afternoon, but I'm on a mission. Instead, I head back out to explore the side of O'ahu that most visitors rarely see.

Driving west on Farrington Highway I pass the low-slung, wooden houses that make up the working class neighborhoods of Nanakuli, Ma'ili, Wai'anae, and Makaha, home to the largest percentage native Hawaiians in the archipelago. Here, businesses lining the busy road — Aloha Gas, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Mike's Bakery, BK Superette — cater to locals. Aside from nearby Ko Olina, the polished tourist infrastructure that exists elsewhere in the Hawaiian Islands isn't part of O'ahu's west side story.

But no one seems to miss it. On a sunny Sunday afternoon families fill the oceanfront parks that dot the entire length of Farrington. At Ma'ili Beach, smoke wafts skyward from a barbecue tended by a man whose large, tanned belly spills over the waistband of his red swim trunks. Diapered toddlers run squealing across the grass chased by older siblings while grandparents sit and talk story — the Hawaiian term for shooting the breeze — in lawn chairs placed beneath pop-up canopies.

Further west, the highway narrows and as I approach Keawaula Beach, one of O'ahu's most spectacular, harbingers of the region's poverty mar the natural beauty — husks of abandoned cars sit along the road while tarps strung between palms and sea grape trees shelter some of the island's homeless.

On the drive back to Ko Olina, a different scene captures my attention. It takes a moment for my brain to register that the motley band of leathery men standing on the rocky bluff are roasting a pig over a wood fire, but when it does I decide to stop. I pull my embarrassing rented behemoth of an SUV into the gravel parking area and a wave of apprehension washes over me as I walk toward the spit — "Look, a random haole girl with a camera," I imagine them thinking.

A few of the men watch my approach and eye me with more curiosity than derision as I gesture toward the fire with my camera. "That's a beautiful pig," I say. "Do you guys mind if I take some pictures?"

The man at the spit grins and nods. He steps behind the pig and poses for the camera, still smiling and flashing me a shaka, the hand symbol most people would recognize as the one that means "hang loose."

As I snap the shutter, another guy approaches and shakes my hand, introducing himself as Richard. "This is my pig," he says. "I have a farm up there," he waves behind us at the mountains. "These are my guys. I'm doing the pig to say mahalo for their hard work."

They ask me where I'm from and seem surprised when I tell them I just arrived from New York. "What the heck are you doing in Wai'anae?" they ask.

"I guess I came to see you guys," I say. "I wanted to see the real O'ahu." Before I know it someone has pressed a beer into my hand. Richard has a knife and a pair of tongs and begins to cut through the pig's crackling, brown skin, placing thick slices of roast pork onto a paper plate and handing it to me. It's smoky and delicious. I'm given a piece of tender white fish drizzled with soy sauce that Richard's nephew pulled from the ocean a short time earlier — a nephew, Richard says, who can show me some great places to snorkel.

I thank them again and again for the feast and walk over to my car. I'm just getting in when I hear Richard shout something and I turn back to hear what he's saying.

"Remember that this is Wai'anae!" He calls. "Put that in your story! This is the true aloha spirit!"

Waianae Pig Hidden Oahu
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

Still on east coast time, I wake early the next morning to a deep rose-gold sunrise and head out for a run around the Ko Olina lagoons, which were built to replicate O'ahu's ancestral fishponds. One of those ancient ponds, known as the "Looking Glass," can be found just next door to the Four Seasons at the Lanikuhonua Cultural Institute. Later that morning, I watch as Auntie Nettie Tiffany, the kahu — spiritual custodian — of Lanikuhonua, steps gingerly into the clear, turquoise waters, a clutch of verdant ti leaves in one hand. Bowing her head, her lips form a silent blessing as she bends toward the gently lapping surf to fill a wooden bowl.

She gestures for me to come to her, squeezing my wrists with her hands and brushing my forearms with water from the bowl. Pressing her forehead against mine, Auntie Nettie welcomes me to O'ahu, blessing my journey and instilling me with west side mana. Afterwards, at her prompting, I wade into the warm Pacific to seal the exchange.

As a descendent of a family that once served King Kamehameha the Great, Auntie Nettie inherited her role as kahu from her mother, who taught her the ancestral traditions. "Ko Olina is a homestead land," says Auntie, when I ask her to tell me Lanikuhonua's story. "This is a very special place. It was a retreat area for the royals. They came for the water. They came to bathe in these sacred ponds."

These days, Lanikuhonua strives to sustain and celebrate native Hawaiian culture through educational programs and annual festivals. In keeping with that mission, the institute provides space for La'akea and his hula students to train each week. Their dance style, called 'ai ha'a, is extremely strenuous, replicating the moves of an ancient form of martial arts. At Lanikuhonua, the hula brothers train as warriors, using only what the ancestors had available to them — the rocks, the sand, the coconut palms, the ocean — as they memorize ritual dances and the stories those dances tell.

Mele and Hula Hidden Oahu
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

It was on my last west side morning that I set out before sunrise to hike to Ka'ena Point, La'akea and Ka'ena acting as guides. Ka'ena started telling stories as soon as our feet hit the trail.

"There's a town on the west side called Nanakuli and the people there were once thought to be deaf," he began, "but they could hear perfectly well. They were just ashamed."

He went on to explain that in Hawaiian tradition it has long been customary to offer food and drink to travelers, yet the inhospitable landscape of the island's west coast, with its arid land and brackish waters, yielded barely enough to sustain the locals. When visitors passed through town, the Nanakuli natives stood mute, staring blankly at the newcomers and pretending not to hear, embarrassed that they had no refreshment to give. When the travelers returned home, they spoke of the strange people on the leeward side — people who appeared to neither hear nor speak — and the area became known as Nana (look) kuli (deaf).

"But I've also heard that Nanakuli means, 'look at knee,'" says Ka'ena. "They hung their heads and looked at their knees, ashamed because they had nothing to offer."

Later, after the mele and hula and plenty more stories, we headed back. Along the way we stopped to zigzag down through rough volcanic boulders to where they met the ocean, forming deep tide pools perfect for a swim. Nearby, a large monk seal lounged on the porous black rocks that surrounded the pools. Scratching its green-gray girth with a kelp-tinged flipper, it tilted its smiling face toward the sun looking just like my dog when she basks in a warm patch on the driveway. I heard La'akea shout and lifted my gaze to follow his finger to where he pointed at a pod of spinner dolphins frolicking across the cobalt surface.

Monk Seal Hidden Oahu
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi

The salty water made buoyancy effortless and as I floated in the aquamarine pool I thought about Queen Ka'ahumanu bathing in the sacred ponds at Lanikuhonua, of Hi'iaka and the red hot cliffs that framed her ancient journey, of the Nanakuli people who had to climb high into the Wai'anae uplands to find fresh drinking water and had none to spare. I thought about Richard and his pig and his generosity. Of the families enjoying the unspoiled west side beaches. Of Auntie Nettie's embrace. The people I'd met these past few days all had their heads up. The shame of Nanakuli's past was no longer a part of their story.

Don't go to Waianae, I've heard it said. Heeding such advice would be akin to playing deaf, oblivious to the mana that infuses every aspect of Oahu's leeward coast.

When we returned to the trailhead, someone handed me a fresh bottle of water and I took a long drink. The sun had risen fully over the Wai'anae Mountains and climbed high into the wide, blue sky, its heat baking the already parched dirt path — just as it has since west O'ahu's most ancient days.


Four Seasons Oahu at Ko Olina

Make the Four Seasons the home base for your west side adventures. Luxurious inside and out, the classic mid-century property was designed by the renowned "master of modernism" Edward Killingsworth, and features 371 spacious rooms all with private lanais and sweeping ocean views. Bespoke amenities include plush cabanas, a stunning new saltwater infinity pool, and the Naupaka Spa, which features a delicious menu of traditional Hawaiian wellness therapies. The healing Lomilomi massage is a transcendent experience.

Aulani Disney Resort & Spa

Families will find the neighboring Aulani Resort, which shares a lagoon with the Four Seasons, the ideal spot to delve into Hawaii's landscape and history. Parents can expect topnotch service and plenty of understated Disney magic while kids will love storytelling and hula lessons at Aunty's Beach House and snorkeling in Rainbow Reef. The resort's luau, Ka Wa'a, spotlights the west side district of 'Ewa and tells its stories through a dazzling array of traditional music and dance.


Four Seasons Wayfinders

As part of its mission to forge a deeper connection between its guests and native Hawaiian culture, Four Seasons Oahu recently launched their new Wayfinders program, which spotlights local artisans, storytellers, craftspeople, and living legends through hands-on workshops, signature adventures, and wellness experiences.

Lanikuhonua Cultural Institute

Once known for being a place of rest and rejuvenation for bygone monarchs, Lanikuhonua was the private home of Alice Kamokila Campbell for many years before becoming a non-profit organization that works to promote and preserve native Hawaiian culture and tradition.

Ko Olina Marina

Explore the gorgeous west side waters from the Ko Olina Marina, which offers snorkeling and dolphin tours, whale watching excursions, catamaran sails, fishing charters, and sunset champagne cruises aboard a swanky yacht.

Ka‘ena Point

Considered the place where souls departing the mortal world leapt into the afterlife, Ka'ena Point continues to be a sacred place. Drive to the very end of Farrington Highway and hike to the westernmost point where dolphins and humpbacks play in the surf and albatross come to nest. Nearby, Keawaula Beach, also called Yokohama, is one of the island's prettiest and most secluded.

Kuilioloa Heiau

Ancient temples, or heiau — honoring everything from good health to success in war to prosperity in fishing — are spread throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Perched on a peninsula overlooking Poka'i Bay at the base of the Lualualei Valley, the Kuilioloa Heiau was once a blessing site for ancient voyagers and a training school for navigators.

Pu‘u O Hulu Pillbox Trail

A semi-steep trail off Kaukama Road between Nanakuli and Ma'ili leads to World War II bunkers known as pillboxes for their squat, square shape. A climb along the ridge leads to amazing views of the bright blue Pacific and the entire Waianae Valley all the way out to Ka'ena Point.

Kahumana Farm

West O'ahu's local food story is ripe for the telling these days and can be discovered at Kahumana Farm. Nestled among verdant mountains on 50 acres in the Lualualei Valley, Kahumana works to support and provide food for the most vulnerable members of the west side community while promoting sustainable, organic farming practices. Tours take visitors through the day in the life of a farmer and end at the farm's field-to-fork café.

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