Tapping into Native Hawaiian Secrets to Good Living with Annie Daly, Co-Author of Island Wisdom

CREDIT: Chronicle Books

For her literary debut, Destination Wellness, journalist Annie Daly ventured to six destinations around the world to plumb the depths of generations-spanning wellness traditions. Months of on-the-ground research had brimmed with transcendent encounters and seismic insights. Though after the book was published, one chapter in particular would be more pivotal than the rest, planting the seed for her sophomore release. Co-written with Native Hawaiian and cultural expert Kainoa Daines, Island Wisdom: Hawaiian Traditions and Practices for a Meaningful Life dives even deeper into elder-approved formulas for better living—from how to be pono (live a balanced life) to how to mālama ‘āina (preserve and protect the land)—straight from the source. HAP spoke to Annie to learn more.

Have you always been drawn to Hawai‘i as a destination? Why did you dedicate an entire chapter to the island chain in your literary debut, Destination Wellness?

credit: liz barney

I definitely have! I grew up on the East Coast, in Rhode Island, but my mom is originally from Los Angeles, so I’ve spent a lot of time there throughout my life. My California-based grandfather organizes a big family reunion every August, and when my siblings, cousins, and I were kids, those reunions often took place at the iconic Kona Village Resort on the island of Hawai‘i, nicknamed the Big Island. (Traveler’s note: Kona Village got wiped out by a tsunami in 2011 and is scheduled to reopen as a Rosewood in 2023.) 

Those Hawaiian vacations were a highlight of my childhood, and not just because it was a prime time to hang out with all my LA-based cousins—I also fell in love with the Hawaiian spirit. My mom says I used to come home and mope in my room for weeks after we got back, because all I wanted to do was eat pineapple and make lei and hang out with all the aunties and uncles who worked in Kona. Hawaiian culture definitely touched my heart—so yes, that’s why I included it in my first book, Destination Wellness, which is about different well-being philosophies around the world. I’d traveled to lots of other places since my Kona days, but I still felt called to the islands, and wanted to explore that strong pull through my journalist lens. Hawai‘i that just hit differently.    

How did the idea for Island Wisdom, a book dedicated to native Hawaiian culture and traditions, come about? How did you end up collaborating with your co-author, Kainoa Daines, and why was that important to telling this story?

credit: liz barney

It all started when an editor at my publishing house, Chronicle Books, read the Hawai‘i chapter of Destination Wellness. She grew up on the island of Hawai‘i and had always wanted to work on a “Hawaiian lifestyle book,” as she called it, but was still searching for the right writer for it. She was into my writing style, but wanted the book to be written by a Native Hawaiian to be sure that it honored the culture as it deserves to be honored—and I 100% agreed. So she asked me: Could I find a co-author to write this with me? 

I immediately thought of Kainoa. We’d only had dinner one time, in Waikiki during my Destination Wellness reporting, but we’d hit it off. Kainoa grew up in Honolulu and works in tourism (he’s the senior director of brand at the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau), and I remember loving his energy and his vibe, especially how open he was about sharing his thoughts and cultural history with me that night. I ended up sending him what may just be the most random DM of all time, one that basically amounted to: “Hey Kainoa! It’s been about three years, but…wanna write a book together?” 

And what was Kainoa’s reaction? Was he immediately on-board to join your Island Wisdom journey?

At first, he said no. As we wrote in our afterword in Island Wisdom, most books about Hawai‘i are written by Hawaiians for Hawaiians and stay within the local community, and Kainoa wasn’t sure he wanted to risk being thought of as “the” global voice of the Hawaiian people. He was also skeptical of sharing valuable information that is not meant to be shared in Hawaiian culture, as well as getting too involved with the national media. Hawaiians have been misrepresented in countless articles and feature stories, and he didn’t want that to happen in book form. But then he started thinking more deeply about the decision—and talking to his friends and family members about it—and a new theme emerged: Maybe this was Hawai‘i’s opportunity to set the record straight. Maybe this was Hawai‘i’s moment to introduce the world to the beauty of Hawaiian wisdom that is so often overlooked in favor of its more commercialized plastic-lei-and-grass-skirts persona. And most importantly, maybe Kainoa didn’t have to be “the” voice of his community—maybe he could bring his trusted circle into the project, too.

And that’s what this book ultimately became: a collaboration. Kainoa and I interviewed an incredible group of trusted Hawaiians, from storytellers to lei makers to hula practitioners and more. We came to think of ourselves as the funnels through which all of this traditional Indigenous wisdom made its way to the page. And as a white woman, I feel especially honored to be able to help share the stories of a culture that is not my own. I’m so grateful to all of the Hawaiians who trusted me with their hearts and minds. 

Of all the characters and personalities featured in Island Wisdom, was there one in particular that left a particularly indelible personal impact on how you perceive the “meaningfulness” of life? 

credit: liz barney

There are so many, but I particularly love the Hawaiian saying i ka manawa kūpono, which translates to “at the right time.” It’s rooted in so many practices, but especially traditional agriculture. Instead of trying to harvest vegetables before they were ready, or catch fish when they were out of season, ancient Hawaiians knew that waiting for the exact right time to harvest and catch would not only feel and be easier, but it would also get them the optimal result. This idea translates to modern life and has been a guiding light for me throughout the past couple years, because it is a good reminder that timelines are a Western construct. 

In Western culture, we are taught to hustle hard and make things happen for ourselves instead of being patient and waiting for the right time—but this phrase has taught me to stop trying to force things into being. I’m currently in my late 30s, when so many people I know are buying houses and having babies and doing all of those things, and I keep reminding myself: It’s not my time yet. Now I trust that if those things are meant to happen to me, they will happen when the time is right—and the outcome will be even better as a result.

Assuming you’ve traveled extensively throughout the archipelago, what are some of the most special spots you’ve discovered and why? 

I could definitely sit here and tell you about all of my favorite sunset spots, and the beaches you must visit, but for me, the true magic of Hawai‘i is learning about the story behind every place—because there is a story behind every place. And once you know the story, the place becomes even more special. 

I love Kaua‘i, for example, not only because it’s incredibly lush and otherworldly, but also because it’s the setting of one of my favorite Hawaiian legends. In it, Hi‘iaka, who is a goddess of hula and a younger sister of the fire goddess Pele, comes to Kaua‘i to fetch Pele’s love interest. There are many versions of the tale, but basically, it turns out to be quite difficult for her to reach shore, so she chants to ask permission to make safe harbor. The chant works, she lands safely ashore, and the chant continues to be used by Hawaiian practitioners today to ask permission to enter a space that is not their own. As a traveler, this chant really hit home for me, as it’s such a good reminder to treat every place we visit with respect, because we are ultimately in someone else’s home. But to answer your original question, knowing this chant’s connection to Kaua‘i makes the island even more special. 

What are some tips you would give to travelers to Hawaii who want to go beyond the typical, let’s say “White Lotus” resort experience to authentically experience local culture while supporting the local community? 

In the Hawaiian language, there’s a word “mālama,” which means “to take care of and protect.” We have a whole section in our book about how visitors can help “mālama” Hawai‘i when they visit—aka do everything the disrespectful White Lotus guests did not do. The main idea is to remember that, as travelers, Hawai‘i is not our playground. Hawai‘i is home to Native Hawaiians and kamaʻāina (locals), and it’s on us to not only treat their home with respect, but also leave it better than we found it. 

Last year, the tourism board (which Kainoa is heavily involved in) launched a campaign called the Mālama Hawai‘i program, featuring a list of ways to give back while you’re visiting—like helping restore native trees, learning about sustainability through a farm tour, or participating in a beach cleanup. I highly recommend seeking out those activities and participating in as many as you can! 

A couple other ways to go beyond the “White Lotus” experience and support the local community include: 

Using the Hawaiian name, not the English name, when referring to places. In Kaua‘i, for example, Makua Beach is nicknamed Tunnels Beach. Call it Makua Beach—it’s a way to show your respect for the Hawaiian language and the local Hawaiian community. 

Reading and following signage. In Hawai‘i, there are many private spots with “no trespassing” signs. This is often because it’s a dangerous location due to weather (i.e. prone to mudslides), or it’s sacred ancestral land that is not meant to be visited. No matter the reason, follow the signs—they’re there to keep both you and the land safe. You’d be surprised how many visitors don’t do this.   

Driving with aloha. Locals in Hawai‘i are not aggressive drivers, and usually let each other pass and enter lanes freely. Do the same while you’re in your rental car—you’ll feel better for it! 

What are some hotels and resorts in Hawai‘i that strive to facilitate these authentic experiences? 

Within the past decade, more and more hotels in Hawai‘i have started to employ cultural ambassadors or practitioners, whose job is to promote cultural awareness at the hotel and offer educational classes and experiences. (In fact, some of the Hawaiians we featured in our book are advisors to some of the top hotels!) 

I’ve listed some of those hotels below, but it’s equally important to make a point to go to the experiences the hotel offers. For example, the Four Seasons Maui, where The White Lotus was filmed, actually has wonderful cultural programming—it’s just that the guests didn’t bother to attend any of the events! 

Mauna Lani, Auberge Resorts Collection, on the island of Hawai‘i. Their cultural practitioner, beloved Kahu Hānai Danny Akaka, is featured quite heavily in Island Wisdom. Every month, on the Saturday closest to the full moon, Uncle Danny hosts an event called Twilight at Kalāhuipua’a, where he “talks story” (the local phrase for having a conversation) with community members and plays his ‘ukulele. The hotel also has lots of other cultural programs, from hula and ‘ukulele lessons to lei making and more. 

Ala Kukui, in Hāna, Maui. Many travelers drive the famous “Road to Hāna” and back in a day, without checking out actual Hāna—big mistake! One hula practitioner we featured in our book, Kau‘i Kanaka‘ole, is the executive director at Ala Kukui, a remote non-profit cultural center steeped in Hawaiian tradition. It also functions as a retreat center, with cultural workshops, farm-to-table catering, and more. 

The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua on Maui, which sits adjacent to the Honokahua Preservation Site, where many Native Hawaiian ancestors are buried. Uncle Clifford Nae‘ole, who is also featured heavily in Island Wisdom, is the cultural practitioner there. Do anything that involves him if you can, especially the Sense of Place program! It begins with a complimentary viewing of Dr. Elizabeth Kapu‘uwailani Lindsey’s award-winning documentary Then There Were None, which chronicles the effects of colonization on the Hawaiian people. Then you’ll participate in a discussion about the film, followed by a walking tour to the border of the preservation site.

The five Four Seasons Hawai‘i properties, including Maui at Wailea, Lāna‘i, Sensei Lāna‘i, Hualālai on the island of Hawai‘i, and O‘ahu at Ko Olina—they all have wonderful cultural programming. At the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea, for example, you can attend a class about how to preserve the local coral reefs, or a nighttime “Hawaiian Star Stories” gathering, where Hawaiian navigator Kala Baybayan Tanaka will teach you about the history of Polynesian wayfinders, who used only the stars, wind, and currents to get to the Hawaiian islands. 

Support your local bookshops by clicking here to purchase your copy of Island Wisdom.

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