8 Ways to Experience Traditional Hawaiian Culture on Maui

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The Hawaiian Islands are a diverse place–and this isn’t just referring to the flora and fauna.

A rainbow of cultures exists on Maui and throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but one came first: the traditional Hawaiian culture of its original inhabitants. While visiting Maui, the best way to connect with the island is through a traditional Hawaiian culture activity.

These activities come from the rituals and celebrations of the native Hawaiians, who originally came to Hawaii from Polynesia as early as 400 CE. The traditions have been passed down through generations and many are now available for travelers to try out.

Here are eight ways to celebrate Hawaiian culture on Maui, and the best spots to try them.

Hawaiian culture experiences on Maui

1. Visit the Kihei Canoe Club

At the Kihei Canoe Club, visitors are immersed in Hawaiian culture. Spend a day in the visitor paddling program, and experience much more than just a canoe ride.

During the paddling program you will be given an introduction to Hawaiian culture, experience multiple Hawaiian chants, explore sea life, and be instructed in outrigger canoe paddling, called wa’a. You may even see a green sea turtle up close as you paddle beyond the reefs.

Visit the Kihei Canoe Club on Tuesdays or Thursdays and for just $40 you can have this unique experience only available on Maui. Bring your swimsuit and be prepared to get wet!

2. Go to an authentic luau

Few Hawaiian cultural experiences are more iconic than a luau. They may look like just a party on the outside, but luaus are part of the rich Hawaiian culture.

Luaus originated when the king of Hawaii first permitted women and men to eat together. There was a giant and completely decadent feast to celebrate–as you do.

Apparently, this decadence was pretty popular, because luaus are now celebrated on the daily across the Hawaiian Islands! During a luau you can enjoy roast pig, poi, and other Hawaiian delicacies.

There are often fire dancers, hula, and so much more. There are tons of places across Maui that you can visit for a luau. However, for the most authentic experience, try the Old Lahaina Luau, which is widely respected for its cultural sensitivity.

3. Eat traditional Hawaiian dishes

When in Hawaii…eat like the Hawaiians eat! There are so many good eats on Maui that it can be hard to choose.

While I know it’s tempting to have a smoothie bowl for every meal, be sure to try the traditional Hawaiian foods as well (açai bowls, despite their prevalence in Hawaii, actually originated in Brazil).

The real crowd pleasers include Poke (cubed raw fish, often served in a rice and salad bowl), Poi (a fresh paste made from taro root, served savory or with dessert), and Kalua pork (slow roast pig often served at luaus).

For a modern spin on traditional Hawaiian foods, try a poi mochi. This chewy Japanese dessert is made from Hawaiian poi, mixing two of the Islands’ cultures into a yummy concoction.

4. Take a hula lesson

Hula dance is not just a super fun workout, but an essential part of Hawaiian culture. On Maui there are so many opportunities to experience hula.

You can take free hula lessons at Whalers Village Shopping Center (Fridays at 3pm), or Lahaina Cannery Mall (Thursdays at 5pm). If you want to splurge on a private lesson you can also book with the Hawaii Hula Company For an extra dose of cuteness, watch a Keiki (“children”) Hula Show at Lahaina Cannery Mall (Sundays at 1pm, free!).

5. Learn how to make leis

Most visitors to Maui and the other islands receive a lei upon arrival – a beautiful garland of island flowers. Leis are so important on Maui… they symbolize not just welcoming to the island, but also act as a sign of love, acceptance, and respect. They are given on birthdays, graduations, and even memorials.

Try your hand at lei making with a free class at Whalers Village Shopping Center. Classes are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-1pm.

6. Take a Hawaiian language class

So many people don’t know that there is an actual Hawaiian language–this is called Ōlelo HawaiʻI and it is one of the oldest known languages. Not many people are fluent in Hawaiian language nowadays, but it is still an integral part of the islands’ culture.

On Maui, you can immerse yourself in the Hawaiian language through a class–the best options are the free Hawaiian language classes offered via online resources and apps. Unfortunately, the University of Hawaii Maui no longer offers its free weekly Hawaiian language course. However, you can still explore longer term opportunities at the University of Hawaii Maui and the College of Hawaiian Language.

7. Jam on a ukulele

The ukulele is, quite literally, the sound of Hawaiian culture. As the official Hawaiian instrument, ukuleles have a tropical sound that is not only beautiful, but also relatively easy to learn.

If you’re like me, you may have dabbled in a few ukulele chords on your own. When in Maui, though, you should definitely spring for a lesson. Head to Lahaina, Maui where you can take free lessons from Lahaina Music, offered five times a week. You can also try out Ukulele Mele, a Maui native who offers online classes.

8. Plan your trip around a Hawaiian culture festival

An easy way to pack in some traditional Hawaiian cultural activities is by planning your trip around a festival. See the island come alive with festivities that are uniquely Hawaiian. Maui has many festivals that celebrate Hawaiian culture, and there is one for everyone depending on your interests.

Foodies should try the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival in October, history buffs may enjoy the Olukai Hoolaulea in May which celebrates the island’s ocean culture, film lovers should come to the June Maui Film Festival…and if you really really really like poi (see #3), eat ‘til your heart’s content at April’s East Maui Taro Festival.

Maui has so much to offer. It is really a vibrant and diverse community, but so much of what it is today is thanks to the Hawaiian native people. As travelers it’s so important to respect and honor the traditions of the places we travel. In Maui, you can try any of these eight experiences to celebrate Hawaiian culture.

What Hawaiian cultural activities would you most like to try while on Maui?

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