When it comes to Western Canadian Christmas rituals, the family escape to Maui is right up near the top—but this year was different. British Columbians and Albertans joined with the rest of the world in collective horror as August wildfires destroyed the historic town of Lahaina in one of the worst natural disasters in the USA in recent memory.

And while everyone was reeling, Western Canadians debated the options. For the past five-plus decades, we’ve not only travelled to Maui far more than to any other Hawaiian Island, but we’ve built hotels there, our airlines like Wardair pioneered the first charter flights, our companies run golf courses there. And now that this island, whose beauty we all revelled in, was so badly damaged… what was the appropriate thing to do?

The obvious choice that many made was to stay away until the Island was healed, a reasonable solution at first blush, but one with a deeply problematic consequences. Anecdotally, the Christmas season was well below normal occupancy, even in parts of the island far away from ravaged Lahaina, and the hard reality is that no amount of government support can make up for the shortfall in the all-important tourism revenue. But the alternative of simply frolicking on the beach as if everything was normal also seemed deeply unpalatable.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to pave a new path and commit to becoming a better traveller. It’s something that’s long lingered in the back of my mind: how to enjoy the island, while also learning and paying respect to local culture. So it was against that backdrop that I found myself driving to Wailea a few months back and spending some time with Kamihawa Kawa’a, who is spearheading a major new initiative at the Fairmont Kea Lani that might become the paradigm for engaged travellers—not just in Maui, but throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

I met with Kamihawa at the hotel’s newly opened lobby entrance, but as impressive as the towering open-air space is, it’s the new Hale Kukuna or cultural space that draws the thoughtful traveller. The idea of a cultural centre isn’t new—anyone who’s spent any time at the larger resorts has seen a lei-making class or the always present, frequently cringy, nighttime luau. Kamihawa was born and raised on Maui and he was well aware of the existing paradigm of what passed for embracing the local culture. But as a proud son of Maui—he was raised by a mother who worked to preserve the Hawaiian language through teaching, and who taught the ritual of Hula to fellow Islanders—he wasn’t interested leaving his job at the Department of Education to teach tourists how to play Taylor Swift on the ukulele.

But the more he talked with the hotel’s management, the more he became convinced that this was an opportunity to work with a team who were truly interested in bringing a serious understanding of local culture to their operation. For starters, they were interviewing him for the newly created role of Manager, Hawaiian Culture—not a tourism specialist, but a role for someone whose career had been focussed on teaching and preserving Hawaiian culture. They further told him that the Hale Kukuna wasn’t going to be shunted off to some little-used part of the property, but was going to be given the prime view location in the new renovation that would normally be reserved for a high-earning option like a bar or a boutique. Every visitor would interact with it daily. And the kicker: it would be open to everyone who was interested, not just hotel guests, an unheard-of move for the highly competitive hotel industry.

It all added up to convincing him that this was a partner who was as committed to the cause as much as he was. The next step was to develop a layout and programs that could move the mission forward while also being able to attract the highest number of participants. First, they thought about how the space was organized. It had to be inviting—the prime ocean view certainly helps—but there needed to be substance to go with the charm. The team approached the Hale Ho’ike’ike Museum at the Bailey House about showcasing some of their collection of important pre-Western contact artifacts and relics and a deal was struck so that a broad swatch of the public could now interact with these historical pieces. And it was supplemented with an extensive collection of historical books that guests are at liberty to dig in to during their stay.

But while it was important to emphasize the region’s history, it was also important that it not feel like a museum. To that end, an entire cultural slate of classes is offered. Close to Kamihawa’s heart is teaching not just the moves but the deep significance og hula: “Hula is how our culture is passed down, and it tells the history of the places and people,” he says. They’ll offer a traditional lei-making class, but here participants will forage their own flowers for their work. Also on offer is classes on Kapa, the traditional craft of Hawaiian bark cloth that formed much of the pre-contact clothing worn by the Islanders. Not only will the work of current artisans be on display, but there’s a plan in place for visitor to craft stamps for their own creations that will chart their visits going forward.

The goal, says Kamihawa, is to “set the tone for how Hawaiian culture is portrayed to the world.”

Other ways to be a thoughtful traveller in Maui

1. Maui Nui Strong offers volunteer opportunities like working at the Coconut Line that provides free items to those affected by the disaster or other local agencies working with the displaced.
2. Hands on Maui is a great platform for exploring ongoing volunteer opportunities when visiting. Many deal with the day-to-day needs of locals—from food deliveries to farm work—that make you a good, even if temporary-citizen.