Ono Organic Farms

Join us as we discover Hawaii’s heart

The palm fronds are dancing the hula in the gentle Waikiki breeze and it would be oh so tempting to be seduced by this scenario, plonk myself down on the white sands of one of the world’s most photographed beaches and gaze at the horizon for the next eight days.

And that’s exactly what I did 22 years ago, as a young backpacker on a stopover from Europe, and it was simply divine. But for the past two decades a niggling feeling, which blossomed into an overwhelming urge, nudged me to return to this Land of Rainbows and impossibly good-looking people to see what else there was to this Pacific paradise. Incurable travellers will confess it’s both a blessing and a curse, this blatant desire to discover what’s “around the next corner”, but the one thing I know is that it cannot be ignored.

Stories for a traveller

So that’s how I find myself on the island of Oahu on a full-day circle eco-adventure with Discover Hawaii Tours and a man called Maurice, who grew up on the island in the late ‘60s. At this stage, I should point out there are actually 132 islands that make up Hawaii but only seven of these are inhabited. Oahu boasts the largest population with around 1 million people, while the remaining 300,000 Hawaiians are scattered among the other islands. In terms of scale, Oahu is 1125km in circumference and the Big Island — the largest in the archipelago — is six times larger.

The word hawaii itself means “breath of life” and you’ll see many locals greet each other by pressing noses and literally taking in each other’s breath in what is arguably the most charming acknowledgment on the planet. As for Waikiki, where we begin our journey, it was so named by the early Hawaiians because of its spouting water.

“The Hawaiians were like the Greeks — they had a number of gods they worshipped. There was no water source, so they believed the god took his spear and pulled it out and water came out of the earth,” Maurice says, as we wind our way out of Waikiki and snatch a snapshot of suburbia before we begin our journey, which will take us past the bluest beaches, down lush valleys, through ancient Hawaiian grounds and around incredible waterfalls.

There are evocatively named places everywhere and, when Hawaiians speak, they do so with an American accent, but they play it like a ukulele. There’s a stringy, sing-y lilt to their tone and, as they wrap their mouths around every vowel, it’s like being at a luau, or party.

The word hawaii itself means “breath of life” and you’ll see many locals greet each other by pressing noses and literally taking in each other’s breath.

Like many first nations people, early Hawaiians had no written language, so culture was passed down by storytelling, such as supernatural birthing tales where the wives of chiefs would come to sacred stones to give birth. At the stone, a medicine man would perform a ritual to help relieve the pain of childbirth and to empower the children to become strong chiefs.

It’s chiefs, in fact, that early Hawaiian surfing was reserved for — but some traditions evolve and, these days, Hawaii is a surfer’s mecca with board riders dotting the coastlines like exclamation marks. Away from the crowds at Waikiki, surf-lovers can head to Haleiwa, an old surf town of the ‘60s that produces good surf, particularly when Chile experiences an earthquake and the waves roll in several days later.

Waikiki Beach
Credit: Christine Retschlag

Hawaiians adore their lore and legends as much as their pumping surf, and one of the most revered tales is of the ancient Makahiki Festival, which began in November and ended in March and was in celebration of the god Lono, who made things grow. It was a time for games, surfing and hula. Work was forbidden as it was a time to strengthen the body.

Indeed, there is still so much happiness to be found in Hawaii, yet there is also a modern history of heartbreak. We pass a particular beach on which Maurice says his grandmother was standing, collecting shells as a child, on December 7, 1941, when she saw a squadron of Japanese planes flying overhead. Scared and confused, she rushed back home and sat around the transistor radio with her family and learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Hawaiians are huge of heart, however, and these days that blip in their history is another tale for tourists rather than an ugly grudge.

A sacred feeling

I fly to the Big Island and arrive at Kona, where Sheraton Kona cultural tour officer Lily Dudoit guides me to a spot by the ocean and encourages me to “really just experience and feel it”. What appears to be a cluster of rocks is actually one of the island’s sacred sites.

“We consider this site to be extra special and sacred, and a gift from our elders to learn about our history and past,” says Dudoit. “The real gift is the message which is within the site, but we need to spend time with these sites to understand their stories.

“My mother would always make sure we stopped at the water’s edge to say thank you. That respect for the ocean runs very deep for us. We wanted to make sure the stories stay pure.

“As long as we stay true to the land and don’t try to make it what we want it to be, it will take care of us. If we take care of the land, the visitor will come for rest and nourishment, and they will come back.

Hawaii is a surfer’s mecca with board riders dotting the coastlines like exclamation marks.

“We are in the current now where we are able to bring back the historic sites and what they are meant to be. Walk softly, talk softly, respect the place and the land will open up to you.”

Dudoit also speaks of the ku’ula, stones named after the ancient fish god that were considered a lucky charm to keep fish coming into the bay. “Everywhere in Hawaii we are known for our myths and legends,” she says. “We have the little people who only come out at night to do their work. We call them Menehune and they are said to have reddish skin colour.

“There was a couple who had their wedding photo by this tree and, when they had it developed, there was a Menehune peeking out from behind the tree.
“They like to make trouble. Sometimes things go missing or they move something. You don’t find them; they find you.”

Sustainability is king

The Sheraton Kona also offers a wide variety of activities, one of the most popular and magical of which is the opportunity to dive or snorkel with the manta rays in Keauhou Bay. Partnering with Eka Canoe Adventures, which raises funds for local schoolkids, guests can board a Hawaiian sailing canoe replica at night on this sustainable tour, in which these gentle giants swim right up and eyeball you, before performing a languid tumble turn. The Sheraton Kona also has an education centre in which visitors can learn more about these sensual sea creatures.

Another sustainable addition to Keauhou Bay is the Akule Supply Company, a cafe that serves fresh catches such as mahi mahi straight from the trawler for breakfast. General manager Joey Keeney says Akule is named after a type of fish on which the locals survived, and he has worked hard to make his casual establishment as eco-friendly as possible.

“We are sitting on the pond where royalty used to be,” he says. “This place was created to be conscious of these aspects. The plates and everything you dine on are biodegradable to keep within that cultural aspect. Food is served on banana leaves.”

“In Hawaii they have this term, Ohana — it’s like extended family. When people come and stay with us they become our Ohana.”

Sustainability is king on the Big Island, the home of Madame Pele: the volcano that was flexing her muscles in late 2014. At the tiny township of Hawi on North Kohala, Richard Liebmann and his wife Natalie Young own Lokahi Garden Sanctuary. This sustainable organic farm and botanical sanctuary captures Hawaii’s sacred heart through residential healing and wellness programs.

Richard is a former native New Yorker who studied to be a naturopathic physician at university and avoided conscription to the Vietnam War. Natalie, who has a Masters in social work, hailed from Georgia and “grew up with a grandfather who was a health nut”.

The couple, who met in Hawaii 30 years ago, have been running their 4ha garden sanctuary and wellness centre for the past eight years on what was an old, overgrown sugar-cane farm.

“We actually climbed trees because we knew there was a view,” Richard says of their property, which overlooks the ocean. “We’ve planted more than 800 trees on the property … everything from mangos to papayas, to bananas to passionfruit.

“It is quite profound what can happen we you eat food that is nutritious. The Polynesians were agriculturalists. When people come here into this space, the environment is just so nurturing. The energy is here; we’ve worked with it.”

Travaasa Hana Hawaii
Credit: Christine Retschlag

Despite their healthy living, Richard says he and his wife are omnivores. “I’ve been up and down the different diets over the years and as a practising physician I’ve seen a lot of unhealthy vegetarians,” he says. “It comes down to the health of the animal and how it is raised.”

The couple prepare lunch plucked straight from their garden, starting with a mocktail of fresh ginger, turmeric, honey, coconut oil, peppercorns, lemon juice and aloe vera. It’s all part of the retreat experience for guests, who spend anywhere between 10 days and two weeks at Lokahi Garden Sanctuary.

“We spend a lot of time with clients to try to determine what their health concerns are,” Richard says. “What we find is that people are depleted. They need to be nourished and replenished. We ask about body, mind and spirit.”

Natalie, who also performs natural therapies using herbs, flowers and fruit and vegetables from the Garden, says most of her clients are “successful yet exhausted”. “They are thinking there is more to life than what they have been doing and being,” she says. “They need to think again about who they are truly and what’s authentic for them.

“In Hawaii they have this term, Ohana — it’s like extended family. When people come and stay with us they become our Ohana.”

Richard and Natalie also work with Hawaiian cultural practitioners, including an elder who performs a greeting ceremony. There is also a sunrise visit to the active volcano, Pele.

“We are giving you this opportunity to see how you can live your life in a different way,” Richard says. “It’s all about how you greet what comes to you every day. The power of healing resides within you.”

Old Hawaii

For a taste of the “old Hawaii”, I head to the island of Maui and to the tiny township of Hana. Travaasa Hana is Maui’s oldest resort and families have been repeatedly flocking to its plantation-style shacks overlooking the ocean for the past 40 years. While the drive from Maui is spectacular, as it hugs cliffs and coastline, it’s also a long four hours with its 600 windy bends. My advice: take the road one way and a small plane ride the other way to the resort, stopping near the airport at Hana Farms for a farm-to-table clay-oven pizza, which supports local organic farmers.

Hawaiian cultural specialist Kainoa Horcajo says Hana is one of the wettest places on earth, receiving a walloping 1016 centimetres of rain a year. “You can see waterfalls everywhere we go,” he says. “The sense of community out here is awesome,” Horcajo continues. “It makes you feel good about humanity.

“A lot of people here still survive on subsistence living, so they fish or hunt for their survival. The Hawaiians don’t believe so much in bartering but free trade. We view it more as you give what you have — there is a reciprocity to it. As in ‘I have the ability to give you this — please take it freely.’

“This land is a great teacher in how to survive. It’s a traditional insurance policy. Hawaii has this way of letting you know whether you should be here or not.”

The organic movement is alive and prospering in Maui with properties such as the 145ha Ono Organic Farms working some 28ha of its property since 1972, to supply fruit to places such as Travaasa Hana. Over at Kahanu Garden, I meet elder Pi’iLani Lua, a proud Hawaiian woman who hails from a long Hula line.

At these lush gardens they’ve been sending fruit trees overseas since 2009 to help battle world hunger. One of their trees, the Ulu, or breadfruit tree, is believed to have the potential to solve the crisis of hunger in Africa. The property is also home to a sacred temple.

“Our ancestors were thankful people,” she says. “The reason for praying wasn’t to ask for any favours; they felt you had to summon the spirit to your presence.

“Hawaiian kids come here for educational programs. They harvest taro and sweet potato and plant more. But mostly we teach them how to be humble. If you want to call yourself of this land, you have to be humble.

“We teach them humility because, with humility, doors fly open before you reach them.”

Escape routes

Getting there
Hawaiian Airlines offers a number of regular services from east coast Australian cities, including improved aircraft and schedules out of Brisbane since last December. hawaiianairlines.com.

Staying there
If you visit Oahu, stay at The Modern Honolulu (themodernhonolulu.com). On the Big Island, spend a night or more at the Sheraton Kona (sheratonkeauhou.com). Staying in Maui? Try out Travaasa Hana (travaasa.com/hana) or Andaz Maui (maui.andaz.hyatt.com).

What to do
To see more of Oahu, take a Discover Hawaii Tour (discoverhawaiitours.com). On The Big Island, book a retreat at Lokahi Garden Sanctuary (lokahigardensanctuary.com). On Maui, visit Kahanu Garden (ntbg.org/gardens/kahanu.php) and Ono Organic Farms (onofarms.com).

More information
To book your Hawaiian escape, go to gohawaii.com/au.

Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag is an award-winning Australian journalist who has worked in newspapers, magazines and online for the past 27 years in Australia, Hong Kong, London and Singapore. In 2006, she won the Australian Travel Writer of the Year award for Best Trade Story as well as the Jack Butters Memorial Award for Travel Writing Excellence. In 2007, she won Best Australian Story over 1000 words and in 2014 won Best Food Travel Story.

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