Danny Akaka, a historian and ambassador at Auberge Resorts Mauna Lani in Hawaii, represents the best of modern cultural diplomacy. He's worked at the property for 39 years and shares the stories, oral traditions, and spirit of the area with guests who can't get enough. As luxury travelers look for more meaning in their travels, this is a masterclass on how to broker it elegantly.
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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 from its full symphony make it through and at worst, it can be reduced to caricature. When we think about pop culture portrayals, we think about Hawaiian shirts, mainland tourists, and Luaus. But the true range of Hawaiian culture, in terms of spirituality, community, ecology, and innovation is much deeper.
And it is the role of Daniel “Kaniela” Kahikina Akaka, Jr, a cultural ambassador at Auberge’s Mauna Lani Resort on the big island of Hawaii, to bridge the gap between misconception and reality. Since taking over management in 2020, the property 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 friend to long-standing guests. A graduate of the University of Hawaii, Akaka graduated in the first class of a nascent Hawaiian studies program, and then worked his way through different hospitality touchpoints in the islands: Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian holidays, among others.
Despite these adventures, Akaka has become a true hotelier, and tied deeply to one place: he’s been employed at Mauna Lani for 39 years, having done every conceivable job: from landscaper to his present role. He had a role in building the hotel literally with his hands: “I heard there was an opening at Mauna Lani during its construction, so I took a job as a subcontractor and helped set the irrigation lines by hand, says Akaka. “Once the hotel was opened, I was initially hired at the Tennis Garden. After working at the Tennis Garden, guests began looking for me in the pursuit of cultural tours and stories of old Hawai’i, which ultimately served as the inspiration for the Historic Walking Tours I do now.”
Akaka’s magnetism with guests almost got him in trouble in the beginning. He recounted in an earlier press article how, as a young landscaper, he would get in trouble for speaking too frequently to guests. Akaka continued building the cultural diplomacy for the hotel on his own time, regaling guests about a range of topics, from geography to history, to even nuanced details of Hawaiian aquaculture.
Indeed, when I walked the property with him, he pointed out hidden engineering and architectural details from the historic ponds, highlighting elements of Hawaiian ingenuity in how they managed tide shifts or the overall marine ecosystem. As we walked along the coastline, our talks zoomed from sweeping historical narratives to tiny details. And they were frequently (and pleasantly) interrupted by the property’s guests stopping to say hello, many of whom have built a generational relationship with Uncle Danny over the years, highlighting his stature on the property.
Office Smack in the Middle of the Lobby
Throughout his daily interactions with guests, Akaka elegantly fills in color and depth to his culture. His office is in the middle of the lobby, a statement of intent from the hotel to put his educational work on display. Akaka touches on a range of topics learned from his schooling and passed down from elders of the community. He even illuminates people on a familiar word: “The word “aloha” is a very special word that was not used lightly in times past,” he said. We all use it (and I do, too) for everything, but I don’t think people understand its depth. The culture of Hawaii is intertwined with aloha, so when they talk about hospitality and the aloha spirit, that’s ho’okipa …Years and years ago, my grandmother would invite total strangers inside, and it puzzled my dad because they were complete strangers and we didn’t always have any food to give. In response, my grandmother would say, “But we have water for them to drink and a place for them to rest.”
Akaka recounts a book, “Change We Must,” by Nana Veary, a Hawaiian elder who unpacked the same gesture beautifully: “I didn’t just merely feed the person, but I fed the spirit of God within that person.” Akaka mentions this depth of how they consider the aloha spirit and hospitality is a goal, and it is a north star that guides the property.
In addition to being a cultural ambassador, Akaka also sees himself as an important bridge to the elder generations of the island’s culture. He sees the root of his role as keeping important stories alive, as well as the traditions, and passed down history. Too often, these stories and oral traditions are not captured for posterity, and they are just one generation away from being lost.
“Sharing these stories is similar to unveiling something that’s been covered,” said Akaka. “Understandably, a lot of these regarded secrets were only kept within families and tight-knit friends out of fear it would be used the wrong way or changed to mean something else. The knowledge and information I share at Mauna Lani is unwritten, but I believe in bringing it out to share the spirit of old Hawai’i.”
Spirit & Soul
Akaka told me that his varied job experiences on the island and on the property were stepping stones to get him to where he is now. He has become what is known as Kahu Hānai. “Kahu” is in reference to a spiritual keeper, and “Hānai,” which is a word usually used for adoption.
Akaka tells me that the word “Hānai” is made up of two words: “Hana” (to do or perform) and “‘Ai,” which is to eat or to feed. “As the Kahu Hānai, my kuleana (responsibility) is to feed one food to nourish their body and knowledge to feed their mind, spirit & soul,” he said.
It’s far beyond the one-note portraits of the island, and something that adds meaning to guests as they visit the property. It’s also a powerful statement of intent on the evolution of luxury hospitality and a masterclass in nuance, education but also execution.