Maui Connections

A recent visit from our daughter and granddaughter gave us the chance to be Maui tourists for a few days. It was fun.

Even though our daughter grew up here, I always appreciate the opportunity to look at our island through Mainland visitors’ fresh eyes. Pretending you’re one of them helps cultivate a new appreciation of stuff we take for granted. It also counteracts impulses to feel too superior.

Keeping a $5 billion tourist economy healthy sometimes calls for great patience — along with courtesy, competence and smiles — from people who work in the industry. Hawaii’s got an extra ingredient you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. It’s our greatest export, even though it’s given away for free. It’s called aloha. Tourists can only glimpse what it means after a week or two here — actually, it takes years to learn — but they know it begins with a generous, open-hearted welcome.

A few Saturdays ago, we attended the Wailea Beach Resort — Marriott, Maui’s long-running luau out on the lawn, under palm trees and tiki torches, where the sky and the ocean are part of the show.

We’ve been guests at this south coast feast many times before, and always have friends, like Amanda Tillson and Gene Sparks this evening, either performing on stage or serving the sumptuous food and spirits. Over the years we’ve been served by Mark Apana, John Tanaka, George Tillson, Chip Takase and Earl Tanaka, who are also co-workers with my wife at the Four Seasons Resort Maui down the road. They’re all pros, like Zen masters who become invisible if they’re doing their jobs right.

“Te Au Moana,” the name of this Tihati Productions presentation, translates as “the Ocean Tide” and takes the audience over the horizon, which is turning orange now under the descending night sky, to the colorful dance, music and cultures of other South Pacific lands.

The more luaus you attend, the more skills you develop. Veterans have appetites for all the local tastes on the buffet table and pile their plates like engineers or architects, many layers deep.

I’ve never had enough mai tais to actually do the hukilau myself. But watching our granddaughter on stage with the other keiki, getting their first lesson in Tahitian from a dancer with flashing eyes and hips ablur, does bring a smile.

The show includes all the luau staples: guys from the audience trying to mimic the moves of beautiful goddesses in coconut bras, along with acknowledgments of honeymoons, birthdays and anniversaries of audience members who traveled so far to get here, and who will have memories of this balmy evening to warm them when they have to fly back home to winter.

Te Au Moana strikes just the right balance between playfulness, the sensual allure of the smiling performers, their physical prowess and their don’t-try-this-at-home pyrotechnics.

Framed by wide-angle Wailea vistas of land, sky and ocean, the luau experience also sneaks in lessons of values shared around the Pacific, performed by descendants of those who first brought them to this tiny island under a night sky like this one, full of stars pointing the way home.


A couple of days later we head for the Maui Ocean Center to visit the colorful undersea world of creatures great and small we just get glimpses of when we went snorkeling.

Like the luau, we’ve brought lots of visitors to Maui’s aquarium. It never gets old, since it keeps adding new features. Kahu Dane Max-well blessed a groundbreaking last week for a 139-seat, 3-D dome theater, just as his grandfather, Uncle Charlie Maxwell, had blessed the ocean center when it opened in 1998.

Lower tech, but no less ingenious, is a “passport” the ocean center gives to young visitors. It’s a big sheet of paper with squares they fill with crayon rubbings of petroglyphs placed throughout the property. Filling in all the squares pretty much requires looking everywhere — among the whales, sharks, turtles, jellyfish — for clues.

It’s also a way of acquainting the kids with the pictorial language ancient Hawaiians used to communicate, reflecting their deep understanding of nature’s ways centuries before they had written words to record their wisdom.

The aquarium, like the luau, gives hints of this wisdom. In the plexiglass tube crossing its largest tank, surrounded by sharks, rays and fish as big as you are, you’re in their world. It dispels myths and fears inspired by “Jaws” and tabloid headlines of the sea as an ominous place. It replaces them with a humbling sense of awe and the realization that we’re all in this magnificent ocean together, riding its currents, each in our own way.

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at