Category Archives: TravelAge West

Trade magazine for travel agents.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Far back in Oahu’s Makiki Valley, where the stream chuckles through the lush grounds of the Hawaii Nature Center, Ena Sroat kneels and gently hefts a hibiscus sapling into a shallow hole.
“This is a kokio [hibiscus],” she says, using her fingers to shovel soil around its roots. “When it blooms, it has brilliant orange flowers.”

By now, the small group of visitors listening to Sroat knows that the kokio is an endangered native plant, one that’s become almost impossible to find in the wild. Adding it to the center’s patchwork of native gardens is their small contribution to the survival of this rare species. Solemnly, they douse the little plant with water from their Dasani bottles.

Sroat is one of the guides and owners of Hina Adventure Tours, and this stop is the last on a tour called Ancient Waikiki and Sacred Valley Exploration. Like all the tours offered by the young eco-tourism company, this one is built out of the intricate stories, legends and natural history associated with a very particular place the royal sites of Waikiki and the inshore valleys that supported them.

“We want to show visitors why Waikiki was so beloved by the Hawaiians,” Sroat says.

The tour includes a short hike down Kalakaua Avenue, a stop at Tantalus Lookout for spectacular views and an exclusive tour of the Manoa Cultural Center. But for clients, it’s the quiet planting ceremony at the Nature Center that sets this tour apart. This simple act tourists giving back to the community they visit makes the tour a part of the growing field of voluntourism.

Sroat and her partner, Uluwehi Hopkins, have based their voluntourism program on their unusually close relationships with several of Oahu’s cultural and environmental organizations.

“That’s really why we started this company,” says Hopkins. “To help these kinds of groups succeed.”

For clients, the charms of voluntourism are obvious: They get the satisfaction of doing good work and the opportunity to interact with locals. But Sroat is quick to point out that community groups are also excited about the tours.

“They’re very open to tourism done with respect,” she says.

Hina Adventure Tours works with organizations like Hui Malama o Lokahi, a group that cares for sacred sites on Oahu’s windward side; Pae Pae o Heeia, the caretaker organization for an historic fishpond; Kaala Farms, a cultural education center for Hawaiian youth; and the Nature Center, which manages natural sites on three islands.

Hina Adventure Tours offers several different levels of voluntourism. The least demanding is the brief visit to the Nature Center, perfect for clients who just want to know their visit has had a positive impact. It’s also the easiest to schedule, since it runs more or less like a regular tour. Their most popular voluntourism offering is the Hoolaulima Community Service Project and Sacred Sites Tour, when clients work side by side with members of Hui Malama o Lokahi. Afterward, they have a potluck lunch with the work group before heading down to the beach for a swim.

With enough advance notice, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange work trips with any of their community partners. Each has its own charm. The Hawaii Nature Center, for example, manages a couple of wetlands on Oahu.

“That’s good for bird-lovers,” says Hopkins.

At Pae Pae o Heeia, clients join local volunteers in rebuilding the lava stone walls and removing invasive plants in a 1,000-year old fishpond. As an option, the staff will take visitors out into the pond on a small boat to fish for moi (threadfin), then cook it up for lunch.

For corporations and community service groups, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange more traditional voluntourism opportunities. These programs often a week or longer blend real community service with a series of tours and cultural activities. This kind of voluntourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry, and the women of Hina Adventure Tours see it as the future.

“That’s the direction we want to grow,” says Sroat. “I believe there are a lot of people out there who want to reach out that way.”

For Hopkins, the commitment of this new kind of tourist is inspiring.

“They have no investment in this place,” she says, “and yet they work so hard.”

Obviously, local communities benefit from all the dedication. But the payoff voluntourism offers clients is equally clear.

As Sroat points out: “They can actually touch Hawaii as it was in ancient times.”

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Bishop takes Night

After hours, Bishop Museum comes to life.

It’s a typical evening at Moonlight Mele, the Bishop Museum’s annual summer concert series. The crowd is sprawled down a slope of lawn, staking out territory with blankets, woven mats and low beach chairs. There’s a festive atmosphere as they share teriyaki beef and Longboard Ale purchased from the vendors around the perimeter. But when Hawaiian musician John Cruz begins to strum the opening chords of his theme song, a calm comes over the crowd and they quietly sing along.

For the growing number of clients who seek an authentic experience during their visit to Hawaii, Moonlight Mele is an excellent opportunity to experience the local lifestyle. In fact, despite its focus on the past, the Bishop Museum provides a surprisingly valuable window on contemporary Hawaiian culture, especially after hours. In the daylight, of course, the Honolulu-based museum is one of the state’s most important visitor attractions. But its nighttime activities — cultural lectures, films and special events — are decidedly local. Collectively, they give travel agents unexpected opportunities to tailor their clients’ trips to their particular interests, while helping their clients mingle with likeminded residents.

Bishop Museum has dubbed 2008 The Year of the Hula, so as part of its Traditions of the Pacific series, it’s running a series of fascinating seldom-seen films that celebrate the role of hula in Hawaiian culture. During informal seminars and presentations, Traditions of the Pacific also encourages clients to hobnob with cultural practitioners and learn about the essence of Hawaii.

Since the museum is one of the world’s premier natural history institutions, clients of a more scientific bent can attend fascinating public lectures given by informed scholars. Sometimes, the lectures tie into current exhibits; for instance, the upcoming Whale Talks correspond to the Whales-Wonders of the World exhibit that runs through Sept. 21. Other lectures look at subjects like the coral reefs of Hawaii and the world’s largest sharks.

For clients traveling with children, the Bishop Museum offers a variety of family-focused events that are an important part of living in Hawaii. Take Treat Street, an elaborate celebration of Halloween that has become a local tradition. Family Sunday, an event that precedes the opening of any major exhibit, is a festival of local food and entertainment as well as an opportunity to preview exhibits.

But it’s the Moonlight Mele concerts that offer clients their easiest access to local culture. Inevitably, they come away with the same mix of nostalgia and conviviality that, for years, has drawn islanders to a night at the Bishop Museum.

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Preserving Culture

The old Hawaiian lady smiled wistfully as Mr. Young tonged her order of wet li hing mango out of a massive jar. When he put them on the scale, the scarlet slices glistened in the afternoon light.

“Every time I come here,” the lady said in a strong pidgin accent, “it’s like I goin’ back to old-time Hawaii.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by customers a thousand times a day in the old store. But, if a visit to this Oahu institution, known simply as the Crack Seed Store, is a dose of nostalgia for locals, for visitors it’s a charming glimpse into the real Hawaii.

Crack seed, fruit preserved in a concoction of sugar, salt, licorice, star anise and li hing, a tart red powder made from the pits of plums, was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago. Ancient Chinese warriors are said to have carried crack seed under the saddle of their horses. But despite its immigrant past, the crack seed store is thoroughly Hawaiian.

Pre-packaged crack seed can be found in almost any supermarket on Oahu, but if clients are eager for an authentic crack seed experience, encourage them to visit Mr. Young’s pleasantly grubby shop in the old neighborhood of Kaimuki. Inside, hundreds of great apothecary jars line the shelves, each filled with a different variety of crack seed: rock salt plum, candied ginger, li hing mango, sweet sour lemon. The atmosphere is like an old-fashioned candy store, a place where grandparents and children both feel at home.
When your clients are ready to order, Mr. Young shuffles out from behind his battered counter and scoops the sticky morsels into little plastic bags. The sheer number of options can be daunting, and even old hands often walk out with four or five varieties.

A more modern version of the crack seed store can be found among the luxury outlets at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center. The Crack Seed Center is a bright, clean shop with an enormous selection of traditional fruits, crackers and dried seafood. Its central location makes it tremendously popular with locals, and a squadron of young women in red smocks are quick to offer their help.

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