Finding Your Inner Artist at Ritz Carlton’s Annual Arts Festival in Kapalua, Maui

Opening ceremonies of the art festival take place in the Ritz Carlton Kapalua lobby.

First, there is the chanting, accompanied by shouts and drumming and the sharp slap of a walking staff against the floor. Then a procession of native Hawaiians, dressed in traditional clothing and garlanded with leis of greenery, enters the marble entry way. One at a time, they chant a genealogy in the native Hawaiian language. It is safe to say that this is not the usual way one enters Maui’s Ritz Carlton Kapalua hotel. Or, really, any five-star hotel.

“This is not a show,” explains Clifford J. Nae’ole, event chair and cultural adviser to the Ritz Carlton. “What you have seen, what you are participating in, is a real ceremony, a part of our lives.”

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It’s a great example of how a luxury property can work with a local community to the benefit of the property, the community, and the guests.
  • You’ll see an authentic side of Hawaiian culture and have a chance to intreract with artists and one on one.
  • Good for lovers of art and culture, as well as families.

That we are being included in something that is deeply personal is immediately obvious: There is a well of emotion as the participants chant the names of their forebears. I don’t understand the words, but I do understand that this is about family, that people are being remembered with love.

Thus opens the Celebration of the Arts Festival, which turns 21 in 2013. The event takes place every spring at the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua, Maui.

From Luxury to Luaus

The sacred wall is now part of a protected site between the hotel and the beach.

According to Nae’ole, The Ritz Carlton has not always had the easiest relationship with Maui’s native Hawaiian community. Sparks flew even before the hotel was built: Early in the design and planning process, the stones and walls of a wahi pana (sacred Hawaiian site) were discovered underneath the planned site. Negotiations, sometimes tense, ensued, with lawyers, developers, architects, historians, political officials, and shamans all in the mix.

Finally, the hotel was built farther back than initially envisioned. The sacred area was left intact and protected as the Honokahua Preservation Site. The resulting goodwill has created a working friendship between two unlikely allies: a luxe property mostly visited by haole (people of non-Hawaiian lineage) and Maui’s native Hawaiian community, many of whom work in the hotel. And it has led to some rather remarkable programs designed to give interested visitors insight into a local culture that is not always obvious or accessible to tourists.

From Hula to Luau: Hawaiian Art and Culture

The Celebration of the Arts includes a variety of native Hawaiian customs such as the opening ceremonies, an early morning ocean ritual (no on-lookers allowed, but everyone is welcome as a participant, says the program), and a luau, widely considered one of the most authentic in the Hawaiian islands.

A local artist carves a traditional Hawaiian drum.

But it is the art — and the artists, both native Hawaiians and haole  — that take center stage. I wandered down the halls of the Ritz, passing banquet rooms and high-end stores selling Tommy Bahama shirts and pearl jewelry. Today, though, other things caught my attention: a native Hawaiian carving an enormous drum. A display of the intricate shell necklaces made by the families of Nii’hau, a small all-native island located off the coast of Kauai’i.

Finding My Inner Artist

As I walked past a row of painters, brushes and paints were thrust at me. As someone whose visual talents are limited to kindergarten projects, I tried to demur, but to no effect. Somehow, I found myself sitting at a table with a picture of Honolua Bay in front of me, another picture of an artist’s rendition of it, and instructions to “start.”

“But where do I start?” I asked, befuddled by the expanse of nothing on my little board.

“Anywhere. Try the sky.”

Timidly, I dipped my paintbrush into the color blue and tentatively painted a patch of sky. A horizon of green hills was next. Soon, I found myself ensnared in making cliffs look cliffs and waves look like waves. An hour easily passed.

The Luau

The festival ends with a huge luau — locally regarded as one of the most authentic of all the luaus open to tourists in Hawaii — with traditional food, authentic hula dancing, and performances by some of Hawaii’s top entertainers. Food is served buffet style, and includes typical Hawaiian specialties, some of which were unfamiliar.

My inner artist may be a kindergartener, but she was gratified when someone could identify the subject of the painting: Honolua Bay.

“Don’t worry if you don’t know what something is,” the mistress of ceremonies announced. “just look for someone sitting next to you who has brown skin and ask.” I saw lots of pork, fish, and of course, fresh fruits and vegetables, including a native pohole fern, harvested in the forests near Hana. And the ubiquitous poi, a purply-gray-brown paste made of smashed taro that is regarded as comfort food by Hawaiians. Visitors find it an acquired taste.

The next morning, I was heading to check out. At the elevator, I was clutching my little painting when one of the hotel workers came into the elevator. “Are you one of the artists?” she asked, and I laughed a quick denial. “Let me see!” she said, and took my painting. “Oh! It’s Honolua Bay!” she exclaimed. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud in my life.


  • The Celebration of the Arts is held every spring at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua in Maui. 2013 dates are March 29 – 31.
  • In addition to the annual arts festival, the Ritz Carlton Kapalua displays the works of local artists every Tuesday and Friday.
  • The property has a rich program of activities that reflect the local culture and environment, from the decor in the spa, which reflects local motives, to the gardens, where vegetables, fruits, and herbs are organically cultivated for use in some of the dishes in some of the restaurants.
  • Don’t miss the on-property Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment Center, an environmental and cultural education center with excursions led by expert naturalists. Programs include Hawaii rainforest hikes, snorkel Maui’s coral reefs, underwater photography, and explorations of Hawaiian culture.

Niihau shell jewelry

Leave a Comment