Cultural managements

Hawaii’s cultural diplomat bridges the gap between reality and misperception

Skift grip

Danny Akaka, historian and ambassador at Auberge Resorts Mauna Lani in Hawaii, represents the best of modern cultural diplomacy. He has worked at the property for 39 years and shares the stories, oral traditions and spirit of the region with guests who never tire of it. As luxury travelers seek more meaning in their travels, this is a masterclass in how to negotiate it elegantly.

Colin Nagy

For a place with true cultural depth and richness, Hawaii is often misunderstood when it comes to tourism and tourism marketing. At best only a few notes of his complete symphony run through it and at worst it can be reduced to a caricature. When you think of pop culture depictions, you think of Hawaiian shirts, mainland tourists, and Luaus. But the true range of Hawaiian culture, in terms of spirituality, community, ecology and innovation, runs much deeper.

And it’s the role of Daniel “Kaniela” Kahikina Akaka, Jr, a cultural ambassador at the Auberge’s Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii, to bridge the gap between misconceptions and reality. Since taking over management in 2020, the establishment has developed a ‘Living Culture’ program which for Akaka (affectionately known as Uncle Danny to guests and staff) is an interesting mix of cultural diplomacy. , ambassador, historian and longtime friend. guests standing. A graduate of the University of Hawaii, Akaka graduated in the first class of a fledgling Hawaiian studies program, then worked her way through various hospitality touchpoints in the islands: Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian vacations, among others.

Despite these adventures, Akaka has become a real hotelier, and deeply attached to a place: he has been employed at Mauna Lani for 39 years, having done all the jobs imaginable: from landscaper to his current role. He had a hand in building the hotel literally with his own hands: “I heard there was an opening at Mauna Lani while it was being built, so I took a job as a sub-contractor and I helped install the irrigation lines by hand,” says Akaka. “Once the hotel opened, I was first hired at the Tennis Garden. After working at the Tennis Garden, guests began to seek me out in pursuit of cultural tours and stories of Old Hawai’i, which eventually served as inspiration for the historic walking tours I do now.”

Akaka’s magnetism with guests almost got him in trouble at first. He told in a previous press article how, as a young landscaper, he would get in trouble if he spoke to guests too often. Akaka continued to build the hotel’s cultural diplomacy in his spare time, regaling guests on a range of topics, from geography to history to nuanced details of Hawaiian aquaculture.

Indeed, when I walked the property with him, he pointed out the hidden technical and architectural details of historic ponds, highlighting elements of Hawaiian ingenuity in how they handled tidal changes or the ecosystem. global sailor. As we walked along the coast, our discussions shifted from vast historical narratives to minute details. And they were frequently (and pleasantly) interrupted by the property’s guests stopping by to say hello, many of whom have built a generational relationship with Uncle Danny over the years, underscoring his stature on the property.

Office in the middle of the hall

Throughout her daily interactions with guests, Akaka elegantly adds color and depth to her culture. His office sits in the middle of the lobby, a statement of the hotel’s intent to showcase his educational work. Akaka discusses a range of topics learned from his schooling and passed down by community elders. He even enlightens people to a familiar word: “The word ‘aloha’ is a very special word that was not used lightly in the past,” he said. We all use it (and I too) for everything, but I don’t think people understand its depth. Hawaiian culture is intimately tied to aloha, so when they talk about hospitality and the aloha spirit, it’s ho’okipa … Years and years ago, my grandmother would invite complete strangers inside, and it intrigued my father because they were complete strangers and we didn’t always have enough to eat. In response, my grandmother would say, “But we have water to drink and a place to rest.

The public space at the Mauna Lani Resort of the Auberge Source: Nicole Franzen

Akaka recounts a book, “Change We Must,” by Nana Veary, a Hawaiian elder who admirably unwrapped the same gesture: “I didn’t just nurture the person, but I nurtured the spirit of God at the inside of that person.” Akaka mentions this depth of how they view the aloha spirit and hospitality as a goal, and it’s a northern star that guides the property.

Besides being a cultural ambassador, Akaka also sees itself as an important bridge to older generations of the island’s culture. He sees the root of his role as keeping important stories alive, as well as traditions, and passing on history. Too often these oral histories and traditions are not passed on to posterity, and they are only a generation away from being lost.

“Sharing these stories is like uncovering something that has been covered up,” Akaka said. “Naturally, many of these considered secrets were kept only among close-knit families and friends, lest they be misused or altered to mean something else. The knowledge and information that I share in Mauna Lani are unwritten, but I believe in bringing them out to share the spirit of old Hawai’i.”

Spirit & Soul

Akaka told me that his varied work experiences on the island and on the property were stepping stones to bring him to where he is now. It became what is called Kahu Hānai. “Kahu” refers to a spiritual guardian, and “Hānai”, which is a word generally used for adoption.

Akaka tells me that the word “Hānai” is made up of two words: “Hana” (to do or accomplish) and “‘Ai”, which means to eat or to eat. “As Kahu Hānai, my kuleana (responsibility) is to nourish food to nourish their body and knowledge to nourish their mind, spirit and soul,” he said.

It’s far beyond single-note portrayals of the island, and something that adds meaning to guests as they visit the property. It is also a powerful statement of intent on the evolution of luxury hospitality and a masterclass in nuance, education but also execution.