In Hawaii's newest spas, aloha translates to a quest for inner peace—with the help of kahuna chants, hula massages, and lava saunas
Vera Hartmann

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.

A 90-pound grandmother, Yoko straddles my back to lift me up by my arms, then drops me on the table. She mashes her elbows into my thighs, erasing my 12-hour flight from muscular memory. She turns me on my side with my cheek against the crisp Frette pillowcase, and as her fingertips pry my shoulder blades from my ribs, I watch the palm trees swaying in the trade winds like metronomes. The lomi starts to kick in, and I flutter out.

Recharged, I meet Debra and we make our way to the hotel activities desk. Uninspired by the list of indoor lei-making, hula dancing, or ukulele lessons, we then spot our ticket to aloha: SURF LESSONS. What better way to immerse ourselves in the Hawaiian lifestyle than with a surf bum in wraparound shades driving a beat-up van to Waikiki Beach?On the sand we follow Steve, our sinewy instructor, through a quick lesson: facedown like a plank, up to a lunge I recognize from yoga, then standing, arms akimbo. Along with a half-dozen other students, we paddle into the baby-soft water. On my first wave, to my ecstatic surprise, I'm up. Cowabunga! Meditation can't rival the elating blankness of balancing on our boards. No talking, no thinking, just concentrating on the next wave.

Hair matted with salt, minds blissfully detached, we make our way to Hilton Hawaiian Village. As we pull up to the hotel drive, flanked by Louis Vuitton and Gucci storefronts, bare-chested men run down the median lighting tiki torches. The compound, with its 22 acres, 18 restaurants, and 15,000 square feet of conference space, feels like a landlocked cruise ship. It's a bit past its heyday, when JFK addressed a crowd in the old (now gone) Long House, but the Hilton is still an ideal place for an Ÿber-kitsch Hawaiian vacation. We decide to give it a try, and appear with a fresh attitude at the Hilton's new Balinese-inspired Mandara Spa, where a forest's worth of grandly carved teak decorates the walls. (We skip the even newer, adjoining Holistica Health Center, whose bone-density tests, EBT scans, and genomic testing are too medical for these neurotic wahines.) My vanilla pikake-flower facial, however, turns out to be as bland as, well, vanilla. Meanwhile, Debra is happily being exfoliated and pummeled into cookie dough with a chocolate-macadamia nut scrub. We retire to bowls of watermelon gazpacho by the kidney-shaped pool before our strenuous afternoon massages.

By nightfall, we're en route to the Big Island, a 35-minute flight away. As our taxi pulls in at the 3,200-acre Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, I'm beginning to understand that to fully grasp the Hawaiian devotion to beauty, nature, and leisure, you've got to get out of town. The hotel is constructed like a lanai--it's hard to tell where the interior ends and the rest of the world begins. Palms and vines climb up the six-story, open-air central atrium; carp ponds are refreshed by waterfall fountains. At the spa, an attendant hands us kikepas (like sarongs) and teaches us multiple tying options. I take a turn in the outdoor shower, where bougainvillea and hibiscus flow from a trellis overhead, then make my way to a treatment area for puolo paakai, a scrub using heated salt bundles, wrapped in muslin, to exfoliate the skin. But first, a pule, or prayer. "O god, teacher," intones Mel, my masseur (who prefers to be called a "keeper of Hawaiian tradition"), "grant me the ability to relieve this body of all of its aches, pains, and troubles." He speaks his incantation in Hawaiian, then translates. As he presses heated lava stones into my hands and on my stomach, Mel tells me that the resort's recently developed treatment menu is part of an effort to revive Hawaiian traditions, which have been obscured by the image of what the island is supposed to be (tiki lounges, roasted pigs, grass skirts). Mauna Lani, in the shadow of a live volcano and the Mauna Kea peaks white with snow, bases its therapies on the dichotomy of fire and ice. Mel alternates the heated stones with slippery, chilled leho shells over my neck, shoulders, and hips. At the checkout desk, a pouch of hono hono grass from the spa garden awaits me—Mel thought it might help a blister on my foot.

My naked body covered in glacier clay, an orchid tucked behind my right ear, I'm prancing around the open-air lava sauna. My massage therapist, Betty Lau, escorts me (post-shower and mud-free) to a grass hut, lowers the bamboo shade, touches my belly to realign my stomach and abdomen, and says a pule. A former hula dancer, Lau designed many of the Mauna Lani treatments, including the opu huli massage she's just performed. As she moves through the lomilomi hula dance, working on each body part to the beat of a different Hawaiian tune, she explains that children "lomi" elders at luaus, to pass on their happy-kid energy. My muscles release, and I have a deep spa thought: the Hawaiian path to spiritual well-being is just about playfulness, having fun, keeping things light.

After the massage, Betty shows me a few hula moves. I now know how to say rain, land, and—for my next trip to the land of aloha—love.

Ilene Rosenzweig co-hosts A Girl's Guide to Swell Movies with designer Cynthia Rowley on Showtime Women.

The Facts

Kahala Mandarin Oriental 5000 Kahala Ave., Honolulu; 800/367-2525 or 808/739-8888;; doubles from $295.
Hilton Hawaiian Village 2005 Kalia Rd., Honolulu; 800/445-8667 or 808/949-4321;; doubles from $185.
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows 68-1400 Mauna Lani Dr., Kohala Coast, Hawaii; 800/367-2323 or 808/885-6622;; doubles from $375.