Can Responsible Travel to Hawaii Be Fun? We Gave It a Try.

When I told a friend that I planned to stay in an off-the-grid cabin on a farm in Hawaii, her response, a combination of confusion and intrigue, mirrored my general attitude toward camping and most outdoor activities: “You’re doing this voluntarily? Doesn’t Hawaii have literally hundreds of the most beautiful hotels and resorts?”

She wasn’t wrong.

Hawaii does have hundreds of hotels spread across its islands. And for someone who generally considers a jog through the park an outdoor adventure, my choice of lodging in one of the most beautiful places in the world was understandably confounding.

A rock formation in the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay, where Fair Wind Cruises, a local company, offers sustainable snorkeling trips.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times
The clear, fish-filled waters of Kealakekua Bay.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

But I wanted a different kind of adventure than the kind people tend to associate with the islands, one that didn’t involve parking myself on a beach with a mai tai. I planned to kayak, snorkel, go on local tours and view local art. I wanted to have fun, but I also wanted to learn something and support local businesses in the process.

I also knew that making local and Native-Hawaiian-owned businesses a bigger part of tourism was a major goal of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the organization recently tasked with marketing the state to the rest of the country.

“Have fun, I guess,” my friend told me a few days before I left.

I planned to.

The Kulaniapia inn and farm offers rustic cabins (above) and activities such as farm-to-table cooking classes, waterfall rappelling and more.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Farm stay

I was drawn to the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls in the hills of Hilo by its stunning 120-foot waterfall and because it offers a number of interesting activities. It also offers a window into how tourism in Hawaii and other overtouristed places could thrive in the future, without harming the environment or the people who call a place home.

The inn is on one side of a more than 40-acre property; on the other side is a farm with three cabins that guests can rent (I paid $147 a night in November). The waterfall, along with solar panels, powers just about everything, including the cabin where I stayed. Rainwater is also collected and goes through a multistep filtration process; it’s used for drinking, bathing and cleaning. The entire operation is an exciting experiment in sustainable and regenerative travel (and living) that’s worth watching and experiencing — even for me, a skeptic of paying hundreds of dollars to be outside.

Tropical foliage, as well as farm fields, can be found on the more-than-40-acre grounds of the Kulaniapia property.

Within an hour of checking into my cabin, which did not have a private bathroom or electricity but did come with an ocean view and an extremely comfortable bed, I was kayaking under the falls, an experience that made me utter, out loud, that this was the beginning of my outdoor girl era. I spent hours walking along verdant trails (failing miserably at identifying most of the plants), sitting in bamboo gardens and swimming in cool, still waters. Looking up at the trees from below the falls, I felt the need to put away my phone and disconnect.

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The Kulaniapia waterfall, a hiking destination for visitors.
Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

And this is exactly what everyone who works on the property hopes guests will do, said Christophe Bisciglia, one of the inn’s partners. Access to Kulaniapia is restricted to overnight guests and those who register and purchase day passes ($49 for adults, $29 for children) in advance, an arrangement that limits the number of visitors, Mr. Bisciglia said, and ensures that “each guest gets to enjoy our wild and natural setting.” He added that more than half of the full-time staff is of Native Hawaiian descent and many of the activities offered on the property involve local businesses.

One of those activities involves rappelling down the falls with a guide, an activity I decided against. Instead I went on a farm tour ($29) led by two members of the Kulaniapia “farmily,” as they refer to themselves. About a dozen members live there full-time. Many are part of its community project, which allows them to gain experience in hospitality, farming, construction and other skills.

On the tour, I learned about the vegetables and fruits grown on the farm, including taro, bananas, cauliflower and broccoli, among others. These are the ingredients used in the farm’s cooking classes, which are offered a few times a week and give “farm-to-table” a very literal and personal meaning.

Cows are among the farm animals at Kulaniapia.
Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times
The compost pile at Kulaniapia Farms is full of tropical fruit such as pineapple, papaya, lilikoi (passion fruit) and eggs that were produced on the farm.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

I also ate. As I explored I occasionally walked by the inn’s kitchen and caught glimpses of Gregg Lockwood, the chef, preparing the night’s dinner. Served on the lanai, or veranda, with a view of the falls, trails and gardens, Mr. Lockwood’s dinner included Kauai prawn and mahi mahi ceviche with ahi tuna poke and sushi rice. Another course was kabocha squash soup with coconut cream and pancetta. The third course was opakapaka (one of seven snapper species endemic to Hawaii) with poi from Japanese taro and ginger-lemongrass broth, snap peas and grape tomatoes. Dessert was coconut ice cream pie with a macadamia nut crust and Hawaiian dark chocolate ganache.

For the indecisive or easily overwhelmed, like me, this meal was ideal not only for its rich flavors and freshness, but also because there were no decisions to be made. Chef Gregg chose local meats, fish and produce and which wines to pair with each course.

That night I bathed in the outdoor showers, then used my phone’s flashlight to walk the few yards back to my cabin where I crawled into bed, pleased that I was experiencing and enjoying farm life. But then I was rudely awakened around 5 a.m. when another reality of farm life became apparent: animals. Outside, a chorus of birds chirped, and a cow named Opus bellowed. I couldn’t begrudge him — with that name he would have a lot to say. I had also been warned.

“Opus has a unique sound,” Clay Mosby, the community manager had told me on my first evening there. “It’s a mooing with this kind of metallic ring to it.”

Kamakahonu Beach, with a replica of a heiau, or temple, near the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Jumping in the water

While it’s optimistic to hope that more travelers try farm and camping stays in Hawaii, it’s safe to assume that most will continue to gravitate to hotels and resorts. Even the least adventurous among us can feel comfortable in a hotel without too much effort.

For those who prefer traditional accommodations, it is possible to choose hotels that are working with local businesses and prioritizing sustainability in their operations.

In Hilo, for instance, the Soul Community Planet Hilo Hotel uses energy-efficient systems, including solar power, and is on track to achieve net-zero waste by the end of this year. Guests automatically support the Hawaii Wildlife Fund when they stay at the hotel. The fund works to preserve Hawaii’s native species, keep its beaches clean and educate people on the environment. (Tourists can check the fund’s website for ways to volunteer.)

I, however, was headed to Kailua-Kona, which is convenient to sandy beaches and good snorkeling. So, from Kulaniapia, I took the free Hele-On bus to Kailua-Kona (a nearly four-hour drive) and checked into the newly renovated Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, a Courtyard by Marriot property. I chose it because it was on the beach and within walking distance to restaurants, museums and bars. But I was also drawn to the cultural work happening inside.

The lobby and common areas of a chain hotel might seem to be an unlikely place to learn about Hawaii’s history, but cultural preservation and education are an increasingly important part of many chain hotels’ efforts, including this one. In addition to paintings by Herb Kāne, an artist and historian whose work focuses on Hawaiian history and seafaring traditions, there are traditional crafts on display. The sprawling lobby also houses the Kai Opua Canoe Club’s 40-foot canoe made from a koa tree, which is endemic to Hawaii.

A display at the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel features a traditional canoe and paintings by the artist Herb Kāne.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

A few days a week, local business owners are invited to sell their products inside the hotel, an effort that began in the wake of the pandemic. Guiding guests to local experiences is part of an ongoing effort by hotel leaders around the islands.

Among the businesses suggested to me was Fair Wind Cruises. In the 1970s, Michael and Janet Dant began offering snorkeling tours in the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay. A few years later, their son Puhi and his wife, Mendy, bought the company and have continued offering these tours and added others, including manta ray tours.

In its earliest days, Fair Wind, like most tour providers, was focused on simply showing people a good time. Today, educating people about the island’s history, the region’s nature and how to protect it is at the center of how the business is run.

“We are embracing our host culture and respecting it more, and part of that is making sure travelers are being educated about what’s going on with the environment,” Mendy Dant told me. “We want to show people that our coral isn’t what it was 20 years ago, that there is a thoughtful way to be here and to interact with people and nature.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, tour participants were given reef-safe sunscreen — or, as our captain put it, “as reef-safe as possible” — upon checking in for a three-and-a-half-hour snorkeling trip.

On board the custom-built power catamaran, which ran on bio-diesel fuel, we drank from reusable cups and were told not to touch marine life — and to use the bathroom on board, not the ocean. We were served fresh fruit, including Hawaii’s famed pineapples and chips made from uala, Hawaiian sweet potatoes. All food waste, we were told, is composted at one of the Dants’ farms.

After an hour of motoring across ultra-calm waters in shades of blue, green and turquoise, we neared Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. The bay is not accessible by car, only by foot or by boat.

After anchoring, I spent at least 10 minutes deciding whether or not to make the 15-foot jump into the water from the boat or to ease myself in from the stairs. Embarrassed by the crew members and strangers in the water urging me to jump, I finally did it, and then did it twice more, thus adding points to my outdoor girl status. The reward in this instance was pure beauty. Through my mask, I saw fish everywhere I looked: tang fish, striped Moorish idols, yellow longnose butterfly fish. The area’s coral, which we were told to keep our distance from, lay below in shades of pink, purple and white.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins play in the wake created by a Fair Wind Cruise boat in Kealakekua Bay.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times
A view of the shore from a Fair Wind Cruises vessel.Credit…Michelle Mishina Kunz for The New York Times

Embracing thoughtful tourism

Many things are true about tourism in Hawaii: The islands are full of tourists; the islands need tourism; tourists are often disrespectful. That lack of respect has created a great deal of tension between visitors and residents for decades.

In 2019, when a record 10.4 million people visited the islands, a breaking point was reached. By the time the pandemic hit, locals were relieved to have their home to themselves.

In June, the Hawaii Tourism Authority rocked the tourism industry when it announced that, for the first time in more than two decades, it would not award the Hawaii Visitor and Convention Bureau, which has been responsible for selling Hawaii to the world for 120 years, its multi-year contract for marketing the state.

Instead, the contract was given to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a 23-year-old organization that believes tourism should benefit Native Hawaiians and the state’s residents above all else. The H.V.C.B. responded by fighting the decision, arguing that the process for determining who should get the contract was unfair. In October, the organizations agreed that they would work together, and the H.V.C.B contract was extended by six months.

Kūhiō Lewis, the president and chief executive of the C.N.H.A., told me that the fact that the organization received the contract indicates a shift in how people are thinking about tourism.

“Visitors want authentic, they want real, but they don’t even know what that looks like,” Mr. Lewis said. “This shift allows people and our culture to be the center of the industry. Hawaii is one of the biggest tourism markets in the country and could potentially be a model for what a Native-run model of tourism looks like, one that gives more than it takes.”

While some voices on social media might leave potential visitors to Hawaii with the impression that they’re not wanted — after all, aloha means both hello and goodbye, I’ve been told — the truth is that most residents do want tourism, as long as it is respectful and thoughtful.

What I learned is that respectful and thoughtful travel can actually be fun — and enlightening. Not only did I kayak beneath a waterfall, wake to a mooing cow and jump 15 feet into the open water, I also ate food grown and harvested locally, shopped at local stores and learned ways to keep supporting those businesses even after I left. I’m not ashamed to say that most of my holiday gifts will be coming from Pop-Up Makeke, the online marketplace created by the C.N.H.A. during the pandemic to keep local businesses going.

That I got to nurture my nascent outdoor girl self was also a win. Next on the agenda: the ski slopes.

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