What is a Hawaiian cultural experience on Oahu? Hula lessons and lei-making classes at a hotel in Waikiki certainly qualify—but how about a deeper dive, as in getting knee-deep in mud at a lo’i (taro farm) or sipping awa (a traditional Hawaiian drink) with a group of culture-sustaining Honolulu locals? These authentic experiences are all possible if you know where to find them.
Hawaii is currently experiencing a wave of renewed cultural identity aimed at increasing pride in the islands’ traditional heritage. So go ahead and learn to hula — but do it high on a hillside in a nature preserve overlooking a sacred valley known for its incredible rainbows. Here's how to do that and six other great cultural experiences in Oahu.
1. Volunteer at a lo’i. Pronounced “low-ee,” these farms carry on one of the most important traditions in Hawaii: cultivating and growing kalo (also known as taro), which is a staple of the local diet. It’s also the only ingredient in poi, a Hawaiian staple that's made by mashing and pounding the boiled root. You may have already tried taro chips — and you certainly can try poi while on Oahu — but seeing how the actual kalo is grown (the plants take root in muddy ditches and the actual lo’i is fed by natural streams); cared for (kalo takes nine to 12 months to mature, and farm workers have to regularly get knee-deep into the lo’i to pull weeds and repack wet mud atop the roots); and harvested (the roots are worked free from the mud by both hand and foot) is fascinating. To volunteer and learn at the non-profit lo’i at Papahana Kuaola. Plan your visit to Oahu to include the fourth Saturday of the month, reserve well in advance, and prepare to get dirty.
2. Try a lomilomi massage. Why get a Swedish massage when you can experience lomilomi? This technique is centered in traditional Hawaiian healing practices and incorporates long, sweeping strokes using the therapist’s forearms. Not only is it relaxing, but it’s also said to increase mana (spiritual energy and strength). You can book a lomilomi massage at most resort spas, including the Na Ho’ola Spa at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa (50 minutes for $170; 80 minutes for $267). Alternatively, try a more down-to-earth approach at the Waiwai Collective, a contemporary communal space in Honolulu that encourages local entrepreneurship and invites visitors to join its “Awa and Ai” evenings (Thursday through Saturday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., $5 admission). Here, you can listen to local music, enjoy a lomilomi massage, sip awa, and partake in talk story (informal chatting) with members of the collective.
3. Learn about Hokule’a. Is it possible to navigate a 62-foot traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe around the world— using just the stars? Yes, and the crew of Hokule’a did just that from 2013 to 2017 when it circumnavigated the globe. The ship sailed 60,000 miles and visited 150 ports in 27 nations. Hokule’a was built using traditional methods and launched by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1975 on the first traditional open-ocean voyage to Tahiti from Hawaii in 600 years. The vessel and its sister ship, Hikianalia, make their permanent home at the PVS headquarters on Sand Island in Honolulu. Check the website offer occasional dockside canoe tours.
4. Discover Hawaii’s royal heritage. The Hawaiian Islands may be one of the most remote archipelagos on earth, but that doesn’t mean the Hawaiian royals were behind the times. In fact, King Kalakaua had met Thomas Edison and made sure his Honolulu residence, Iolani Palace, had electricity in 1887 — four years before the White House did. A visit to the landmark palace, which is the only official residence of royalty in the United States, is a fascinating history lesson. Here, you ca learn about Hawaii’s royal lineage and the sequence of events that led the islands’ last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, to abdicate in 1895. For additional royal insight, as well as exhibits on Hawaii’s natural history, visit the Bishop Museum, where you can see an 18th-century ula (royal cape) worn by King Kalani’opu’u, which was made with more than four million red and yellow feathers plucked from living birds.
5. Experience a Hi’uwai ceremony. If waking up before sunrise doesn’t sound appealing, think again. You’ll probably be bright eyed anyway due to jet-lag, so go ahead and experience hi’uwai, a traditional Hawaiian cleansing experience. Led by a native healer who chants as the sun appears on the horizon, participants are asked to conjure whatever is holding them back or worrying them as they wade into the healing waters of Waikiki. As the water reaches your face, release those fears or worries into the sea and then walk backward until you’re back on the beach. By then, you’ll be spiritually cleansed and ready to move forward in life. Most resorts in Waikiki can arrange this.
6. Make a traditional or haku lei. Most hotels in Hawaii will greet guests with an orchid, or kukui nut lei. But, there’s a different and more elaborate types of lei-making that’s fun to try; for example, make a the haku lei, a crown of flowers worn on special occasions. The Queen Kapiolani Hotel offers a haku lei-making workshop with expert Meleana Estes every other Thursday and Saturday, respectively. $45 per person for hotel guests; $55 for non-guests.
7. Learn to hula on a hillside. Most Oahu visitors have an opportunity to learn a few hula moves at their resort, or at the Helumoa Hale at the Royal Hawaiian Center. But, a truly extraordinary way to experience the tradition is to join Noah “Keola” Ryan from North Shore EcoTours for a hula workshop (which is part of his Native Perspective tour). At the workshop, you'll learn an entire hula sequence and delve into the history and meaning of the dance in a natural setting that will take your breath away