The sun was low in the sky, and I was on Ka'anapali Beach at the Sheraton Maui, waiting to view for the first time the famed sunset cliff dive off Black Rock, a tradition since the hotel's inception 50 years ago.
The dancer performed a hula kahiko in honor of Pu'u Keka'a, and the prerecorded soundtrack intoned the legend of Kahekili, high chief of Maui circa 1766-1793, who was known for his lele kawa, or cliff jumping, sometimes from heights in Hana of 300 to 400 feet.
We waited and waited, but out on Black Rock the torches remained unlit, and we watched as a figure picked his way uncomfortably up the sharp rocks. Then there was an unceremonious splash as he jumped feet first into the water, followed by another.
"That's it?" the well-groomed tourist next to me said. "I thought it was supposed to be a dive. I've seen kids do better than that."
It turned out the event was indeed the work of kids, some of whom had broken a pole to one of the 11 gas-fed torches on the cliff, resulting in a shutoff of the whole line and cancellation of the dive. Mike Durand and his brother Phil, who were heading back to Seattle that night, were the source of the evening's entertainment.
"How many beers have you had?" I asked.
"One an hour," said Mike.
"For 10 days," said Phil.
The incident underscored for me the many faces of Black Rock - vacation paradise, sacred spot, plantation relic, haven of marine biodiversity - and the tensions inherent within them.
Pu'u Keka'a, as Hawaiians know it, is the westernmost point on Maui, considered ka leina a ka 'uhane, the place where souls leap into the afterworld. (Each island had such a spot; Polihale on Kauai and Kaena Point on Oahu are others, as well as Kama'oma'o, the dry central isthmus of Maui.)
The cinder cone was also a Hawaiian burial ground and the site of many battles. Abraham Fornander, who lived on Maui from 1859 to 1872, commented on the "great amount of human bones at this place," so many that students from Lahainaluna studying anatomy went there to procure skeletons.
Pioneer Mill acquired the land in the 19th century (wish I knew from whom) and in 1898 built a small wharf used to ship sugar and molasses and bring in freight and plantation supplies.
An old photograph shows a winch at the end of the blunt dock, a loading derrick and a series of warehouses from which railroad tracks led to the cane fields. Logs used for lumber were submerged near the pier and left to cure for months, rendering plantation homes termite-free.
The pier, removed in the '30s, stretched out into the ocean where a tugboat waited to tow the barge loaded with heavy bags of sugar to the Matson ship lying in deep water.
Sam Kadotani reminisced about the days when his father worked that tugboat, coordinating on land with the "Brown Gang," so named for Pioneer Mill's popular superintendent of shipping. "Everybody wanted to be on the Brown gang," he wrote. "When the barge arrived back at the pier, the men would go crazy." Whoever worked the crane would "accidentally" drop a little something directly onto the pier - shoes, clothes, canned goods, for the men, who shared the booty.
The former burial ground now hosts the resort's $5,000-a-night Ali'i Suite, favored for weddings, and the cliffside rooms at Moana Hale, built in the mid-'60s, favored by honeymooners. Hmmm. To be sure, it's an exalted spot from which one can look down into the arms of Moemoe, which forms the little sandy cove at the seaward reach. The old circular driveway leads to the former lobby, now a lookout and historical center.
The Sheraton's property on the cliff is protected by locked fences and a gated parking lot, making access by local folks to Black Rock's famed fishing and diving spots a trek for the determined. One afternoon we sat on the rocks by the crumbling landing as a breeze ruffled the water and a rainbow climbed into the clouds over the golf course.
Nearby was a sign pronouncing the Kahekili Fisheries Management Area, articulating the balance to be struck between the competing interests of fishermen and divers. One can "kill and injure" fish, but not the colorful Hawaiian nenue (rudderfish), uhu (parrotfish) and surgeonfish.
That's some honor system. I hope it works.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.