Created in the early 1960s as Hawaii’s first master-planned resort community, Kaanapali Beach Resort keeps traditions alive even as it continually evolves with new amenities, event spaces and activity options. No matter how much it changes, this idyllic stretch of shoreline where the gently curved silhouette of Lanai looms on the horizon like a sleeping whale, remains true to its Hawaiian essence, something I discovered during a visit there in May.
The ancient roots of Kaanapali are especially evident at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, which first opened in 1963 on a choice site next to Black Rock, a jagged promontory of volcanic lava from which the Maui Chief Kahekili was known to make daring dives into the waters below. Today the practice lives on through the hotel’s nightly sunset dive ceremony in which a local diver blows a conch shell before lighting torches and sprinting barefoot to the top of the rock to make a graceful arched dive.
“The Hawaiians were the first people to do cliff diving,” explained Jack Stone, the Sheraton’s cultural advisor, who oversees an array of teambuilding options created around such traditional Hawaiian practices as taro pounding, coconut husking, bamboo stamping, lei making and more.
With Chris Lederer, the property’s executive sous chef, Stone also oversees the hotel’s new Culture & Culinary Series, interactive talk-story and cooking demonstrations where guests gain insight on traditional Hawaiian foods and culinary practices. Dropping in at the hotel’s Black Rock Lounge on my first afternoon, I saw Stone hard at work pounding steamed taro root into the purplish paste known as poi in front of a small group of meeting planners.
While Stone scraped and smoothed the taro with a pestle made from river rock, Lederer prepared a sizzling pan of marinated beef tenderloin topped with chutney made from Maui tomatoes that we enjoyed along with a dollop of the freshly made poi. Having always considered poi bland and tasteless, the combination was a revelation.
“Taro is the staple food for Hawaiians—and there are 300 types of it grown in Hawaii,” said Stone, who learned to make poi while growing up on Molokai. “However, it’s best enjoyed accompanied by other foods.”
Later that night I was astounded at how versatile the humble paste can be while sampling delicate poi beignets at Black Rock Kitchen.
Along with cultural programs, groups are drawn to the array of event spaces at the Sheraton and the neighboring Westin Maui Resort & Spa, said Mike Masterson, director of sales and marketing for both hotels, who gave me a tour of the expansive luau lawns overlooking Black Rock.
“The advantage for planners is that almost no decor is needed,” he said, and I couldn’t help but agree.
Later in the week came the chance to experience another Kaanapali icon, the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa. Built by Christopher Hemmeter as a “fantasy resort,” it turned heads back in 1980 with its $1 million collection of Asian art, exotic birds roaming the grounds, half-acre pool, waterfalls and Chinese gardens. A few years later Hemmeter brought a similar lavish touch to the Westin Maui. While the developer’s concept was new and controversial at the time, both properties have aged gracefully and enhance their already spectacular settings.
Leaving the Hyatt’s dramatic atrium lobby and crossing a stone path through a cluster of waddling penguins, I saw the resort’s newest addition, Halona Kai, a sweeping event lawn with unobstructed views of the Pacific. Along with a koi pond, Halona Kai offers a permanent stage and state-of-the art audiovisual and acoustical systems.
“The best part is that it provides some of the best sunset views of any hotel function space in Maui,” said Francis Goss, director of events for the resort. “It’s ideal for groups of 500 or less.”
Like the Sheraton, the Hyatt offers ways for guests to learn about Hawaii’s culture and environment. Its rooftop Tour of the Stars, led by longtime resident astronomer Eddie Mahoney, who interprets the constellations in the clear night skies, is among the many unexpected ways to experience Kaanapali.
Maui Visitors & Convention Bureau