Sun, sand and surprises: Maui’s uncommon experiences linger long after you leave

In Maui, there are many ways to savor Hawaiian culture. Visitors can take a photo safari with a professional photographer, tackle outrigger canoe surfing with a personal steersman or try a private poke-making class from an established chef. Poke, the islands’ iconic diced fresh seafood dish, is in plentiful supply, but two of the Valley Isle’s most upscale resorts up the ante for fans of authentic poke — and the kind of exclusive experiences that define today’s luxury travel.

At Montage Kapalua Bay (montagehotels.com/kapaluabay), an enclave of multimillion-dollar villas on the island’s northwest shore, guests learn how to make poke in their own kitchen — and then add a few twists before feasting on the results. During our recent session, executive chef Chris Damskey and sous chef Juan Barajas expertly sliced local ahi and New Zealand salmon in the spacious kitchen, while Damskey explained the origin of poke (from the Hawaiian word meaning “to cut or slice”) o

n Polynesia’s early voyaging canoes.

“The sailors couldn’t cook anything, but they would catch a fresh, fatty tuna, slice it, put sea salt and ogo (seaweed) in its crevices, and the salt, sun and ogo would cure it,” Damskey says. “The flavors have evolved over the years through the addition of ingredients, but the core of the dish remains true to its roots and heritage.”

Poke’s modern form showcases Hawaii’s role as the “melting pot of the Pacific,” according to Damskey, incorporating later immigrants’ ingredients such as Portuguese chili peppers and Chinese soy sauce. “Hawaii is very much about sharing,” he notes, before leaving us to devour heaping bowls of poke we’d concocted along with other food and drinks included in the 90-minute “Poke Poke Poke” Ohana cooking class (from $1,695
for six guests.)

At the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (fourseasons.com/maui), on the island’s dry south side, sharing of local culture and cuisine takes several forms during Couples Season, Sept. 1–Dec. 15. (Adults need not be in a pair to participate.) My husband and I took chef Kela Kalehuawehe’s lunchtime Sushi 101 class ($55), which includes sake pairings for the three rolls we prepared with top-quality ingredients, including locally caught fish. Never has being a C student tasted so delicious.

That night we sat by a fire pit close to the beach and listened to wayfinder Kala Baybayan Tanaka’s complimentary “Star Stories,” tales of ancient and current voyagers who cross the Pacific using stars, currents, winds and wildlife sightings. We learned how they divided the sky into four star families, three of which are visible at any given time, as she pointed a laser at key constellations and shared the chant that identifies them as “a bailer, a bone, a fishhook, a kite.” Soaking in the adult pool the next day, I gazed out at the channel of Kealaikahiki (“the road to Tahiti”) with renewed respect for its celestial navigators, then and now.

The Four Seasons also provides a way to explore some of the island’s most stunning landscapes on foot — and document it as you go. Professional photographer Daniel Sullivan leads small groups to a hidden cove with basking turtles, an ancient footpath through the lava fields of La Perouse Bay and other scenic spots while instructing guests how best to capture them digitally. Sullivan’s two-hour, complimentary sessions take place Tuesday mornings and Fridays at sunset, when brilliant hues cascade across the sky, sea and sand.

There’s no need to stay at either resort to have an exclusive Maui experience. Environmentally minded company Hawaiian Paddle Sports (hawaiianpaddlesports.com) specializes in private kayak, canoe surfing and stand-up paddle tours in south and west Maui (from $278 for two).

While my husband enjoyed kayaking through the turtle-rich waters of Makena, I reveled in learning how to surf waves in a sleek outrigger canoe near Launiupoko. We may not have been ready to sail to Tahiti afterward, but we did work up quite an appetite for poke.