The Pacific waters around Hawaii also offer up an ample supply of jewels that wind up on the dinner table at ‘Ama‘Ama, the more sophisticated of Aulani’s dining venues. There, executive chef Kevin Chong prepares fresh fish that he buys daily from the local fishing crews; I’m partial to his seared ahi tuna and shrimp with Kamuela tomatoes, basil and olives with eggplant caviar. Even at breakfast, ‘Ama‘Ama provides a taste of aloha, particularly in dishes that pair poached eggs with sweet potato–Portuguese-sausage hash and marinated hearts of palm, the latter from the Big Island; the surfer’s favorite, loco moco, is a mound of white rice topped by a hamburger patty, a fried egg and a gravy blanket.

Instead of the standard-issue evening luau found at most Hawaiian resorts, Aulani brings a note of authenticity to the fore with po la‘ila‘l, the sunset gathering, when Uncle, the Hawaiian elder, leads a chant to honor nature. There’s also fireside mo‘olelo, or storytelling, when Uncle plays his ukelele beside a fire pit, sharing tales about the menehune and island ghosts in the moonlight.

My favorite, however, is the starlit hui, a fast-paced music-and-dance show under the night sky, hosted by Uncle and incorporating traditional and contemporary Hawaiian influences. At one point, all the keiki get into the action, hula dancing with expert instruction. When the hui concludes with a full-throttle disco party, there’s nothing quite as surreal as dancing the electric slide with Goofy in his luau togs.

The best end to an Aulani evening comes in the Olelo Room, the bar bearing a 1940s moderne style — think From Here to Eternity. With live music and a pub mood, the Olelo wins me over with a delightful staff, all fluent in the Hawaiian language. Brad Kekuhaupi'ookalani Kalilimoku, the bartender named by his aunt, tells me that during his football days, his teammates simply called him Brad. But he likes his name and shows plentiful patience in helping me pronounce it. Like everyone in Olelo, Keku, as I call him, helps guests learn some basic words in his language. The best I can manage is asking for a glass of something hala kahiki (pineapple) and niu (coconut) with rum thrown in.

But not too much, as I’ll need my wits about me for tomorrow’s hula lesson with Uluwehipuanani. As much as I’d love to learn storytelling through dance, my real goal is to call her by her beautiful name in a place of beauty.


Travel and food writer June Naylor lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where she eats her loco moco breakfast with chipotle salsa on top.