06/25/2012 05:04 EDT | Updated 08/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Toeing the Line Between History and Present: A Stay in Maui

The gateway to the 13.6 acre Honokahua preservation site in Maui is simply marked "kapu," forbidden. To one side, the vast Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon with Molokai a hazy bump in the distance. On the other side stands the behemoth Ritz Carlton, Kapalua. Clifford Nae'ole pauses before entering and begins reciting a Hawaiian prayer. Without this metaphysical handshake it would be unseemly to enter. One of the most sacred sites in all Hawaii, it is the burial ground for almost 2000 kupuna (ancestors) from 850 A.D. to the early 1800s. "Sand dunes were the preferred spot of burial for our people because we believe we came from the sea. We had no markers, nothing, because we didn't want people to find us," he explains.

The site encapsulates the latent dynamism between Maui's history and present -- the tug of tourism in a land once given to the spirit of aloha. In the late 1980s the site was discovered just as plans for the hotel were being designed. Nae'ole clarifies:

"The Ritz-Carlton gave this piece of property back to the state of Hawaii, which we maintain. We became the first hotel in Hawaii's history to provide sanctity and dignity for our people. From that came new lessons, new laws and it redefined the whole hospitality industry and its effects. Were we a hotel with an ancient site on it, or an ancient site with a hotel on it? You had to make the judgment. Of course it is an ancient site with guests."

Though tourism has come to define modern Hawaii, its ancient traditions are still alive though often embedded in thoroughly modern life. Nae'ole continues:

"Start opening your eyes. When you're landing at the airport, you have the volcano on one side, Haleakala, and on the other range Puʻu Kukui. So you have a male entity and a female entity, and you're right smack dab in the middle; you're right in the bosom of these two heads that are saying welcome. The rest is up to you. I want you to be immersed in this place, not just the tangible things but the intangible side as well. I think here especially, you can find yourself. I think that is the real essence of Hawaii."

Nae'ole's easy balancing act with one foot in the modern and the other in the ancient, of reciting Hawaiian chants yet equally enthralled by the latest NFL scores was hard won. After graduating from high school, he was chosen to take over the family lands by his grandfather, a man who had been self-sufficient, growing bananas and taro, catching shrimp and fish. Refusing the call, Clifford opted to move to California instead.

"I made a really young and stupid mistake when I told grandpa 'why don't you just sell your land and take grandma on a cruise.' I thought he was going to hit me. He said 'if I open my hand and you give me all the money in the world, it's just going to go through the crack of these fingers and I've got nothing. But if you turn your hand this way, you can put it into the earth. You can take out of the earth and put into your body, and our family will be secure forever.'"

After years in California and Washington, Nae'ole returned to Maui with a new perspective. "From that point on was my renaissance," explains Nae'ole who today runs the only male hula school in Maui. He is versed in the Hawaiian language, culture and lore; he conducts "sense of place" discussion tours near the Honokahua preservation site, and hosts Mai Ka Pu'uwai (storytelling from the heart) and is chairman of the Celebration of the Arts, a three day festival held annually over Easter weekend in honour of Hawaii's culture.

We stop near the Makaluapuna Point (known as Dragon's Teeth to some), mere meters from the burial site. Waves crash onto black volcanic rock. Lamentably, many travelers come to this place looking only for the descriptive moniker the place has earned. "People come looking for this place not knowing how sacred it is. And it blocks the essence," Nae'ole says providing a clue to the mystery of Maui. If you come looking for something and distractedly miss the resonance of the place, miss the feeling, then you've missed the whole thing.

That afternoon I enjoyed a spa treatment at the hotel recalling Nae'ole's advice. "Here's the trick to the spa treatment -- when you're done there, you're not done yet. What you need to do is take a walk outside to the Honokahua preservation site. That's when your treatment ends, when you go down there to your ancestors." I try to mentally locate the spot where Clifford Nae'ole had said a prayer as we exited the burial site. In my mind I replay his translated words. "May you live so old that your eyes become beady and you're hunched over on a cane. And when you end your life, may you remember this place and say, 'ah.'"

Ah, indeed.

This blog was originally part of an article that first appeared in City Style and Living Magazine's summer 2010 issue.