The silk paintbrush is tiny, better suited to artwork than walls, and therapist Kalei Engel leisurely uses it to apply cool sea green paste, a mixture of native 'awa and spirulina, to nearly every inch of my body--my palms, my soles, even between my toes (a first for me). There's no hurrying, no slathering, just a comforting sense that we have all the time in the world. Then she cocoons me in soft towels, a sheet, and a Mylar blanket and gently massages my face and scalp. "Tension and stress cannot persist," the spa menu had promised, and I drift off, waking only when she asks me to turn over so she can rinse off the paste and rub fragrant coconut and kukui oil into my softened skin.
The 'Awa and Spirulina Body Wrap speaks volumes about Hotel Hana-Maui's character. It's slow and painstaking, even artistic, and rather than the greatest new technology or latest trendy treatment, it's a simple return to tradition. It doesn't promise to take inches off my thighs but simply to lower my stress meter a notch or two. The paste is custom-formulated by Island Essences, a boutique natural-product line made in Maui. Spirulina, a type of algae, is rich in nutrients, and 'awa (known as kava on the mainland) has long been used as a mild sedative. Kalei, a native New Yorker who has lived on Maui for 16 years, tells me the effects are the same whether you ingest the herb or absorb it through your skin. I don't need a double-blind study to tell me it works.
There's a similar thoughtfulness and authenticity behind almost everything on the spa menu, and much of the hotel itself. The pace is slow, the relaxation is near total, and the definition of luxury is simple: being unplugged--from home, from cares, from the 21st century. (Every guest room but one has neither television nor air-conditioning, and Internet access is limited to one slow computer in the hotel's club room.)
Hawaii is farther from any other inhabited landmass than anyplace else on earth, and Hana, on the eastern tip of Maui, is about as far as you can get--both physically and psychically--from the high-rise resorts on the western and southern coasts of the island. Most guests arrive via the Hana Highway, which is a good introduction to the resort. From Kahului, Maui's biggest city and the site of its airport, the 52-mile road snakes around some 600 curves, across 66 one-lane bridges, and past waterfall after waterfall. The drive takes two to three hours. "That road makes Hana what it is. It's part of the journey, and it keeps the experience intimate," Douglas Chang, the hotel's general manager, tells me over juicy fresh papaya and sweet, nutty homemade granola my first morning here.
The hotel came about almost by default. In 1946, San Francisco entrepreneur Paul Fagan bought the Hana Plantation, replaced the sugarcane with Herefords, and founded Hana Ranch. Hoping to lure tourists to this part of the island, he built the six-room Ka'uiki Inn, which grew into Hotel Hana-Maui. During the '80s, when it was owned by Rosewood, it became an effulgent playground for those who felt sophisticated for choosing a small resort but wanted high-glam big-resort style. But by the mid-'90s, it had been lateraled from one hotel company to another and declined precipitously.
The rebirth came in 2001, when Peter Heinemann and Michael Freed became managing partners of the hotel. (They're also partners in the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort.) They began a major renovation almost immediately, added the spa, and made a commitment to authenticity, hiring third-generation Hawaiian designer Hunton Conrad to make over the 66 guest rooms in old-Hawaii style (rough-hewn teak furnishings, curtains with traditional kapa patterns, lauhala mats on the floors) and Chang, a native Hawaiian (Hana-Maui's first native GM), to run the operation.
Going native was a smart move. "The hotel is very much part of the community," Chang tells me. He employs 274 of Hana's 2,000 residents, making him the town's largest employer. Eighty-five percent of the staff was born and raised here, and many of them have worked at the hotel for 30 years or longer. The rest seem to be guests who fell in love with the hotel or the town and never left. I meet a bellman who worked on Wall Street until he burned out and threw it over for Hana and a bartender who moved from Alabama after reading about the town in a guidebook.
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