On your next trip to Hawaii, add one more word to your local vocabulary: mālama. Mālama means taking care of something, and it’s central to how Hawaiians relate to their beautiful islands. By embracing that idea and actually giving back on your next trip, we’re sure you’ll have the best Hawaii vacation you’ve ever had.
That’s because when you give back, you actually take the time to personally connect with a place. You learn more about it, spend time with others who are also working to make it better, and you feel fulfilled. You’ll also better understand the two other words that you may already be familiar with: mahalo and aloha.
Meaning more than just thank you, mahalo also means deep gratitude. Likewise, aloha is used as a greeting but refers to the breath of life and implies kindness and respect towards others. If it all sounds confusing, come to the islands, give back in one of the wonderful ways we describe here, and you’ll not only understand mālama and aloha –– you’ll bring the spirit of these ideas home with you. Here’s how you can do just that.
1. Take care of the beaches
Hawaii’s diverse beaches — ranging from leafy, secluded coves to ultra-long stretches of pale, soft sand — are a top draw for most visitors. And you can do your part to keep them healthy, both on the shore and in the water. For one, use sunscreens that don’t harm coral reefs. If you aren’t sure which sunblocks are reef-safe, buy them in Hawaii, where only reef-safe sunscreen may be sold.
It goes without saying that you should dispose of any trash correctly. Note that includes cigarette butts, which are the most common single item of trash on Hawaii’s beaches and which are harmful to wildlife. But you could go one better and volunteer to maintain local beaches.
You’ll find plenty of opportunities to participate in beach cleanups, which occur on different mornings of the week, depending on the beach. Or help monitor marine debris so researchers can determine how best to deal with it. If you’re more of a gardening type, you could help preserve dunes in South Maui by removing invasive plants and planting native ones.
2. Hike safely
Hiking in Hawaii is a wonderful way to appreciate the beauty beyond the shores. But it’s critical to hike carefully and stay on trails since going off-trail can harm local plants and wildlife. If certain areas are closed off, there’s a reason for it. An area may need to recover ecologically, or it may be dangerous to hikers.
Many of Hawaii’s most popular trails hug mountainsides, offering a chance to both marvel at the mountains and the sea at the same time. But if you plan on hiking, be sure you have proper footwear and heed any signs to steer clear of certain areas. If conditions are muddy and you’re wearing flip flops, cliffside walks may be a bad idea. (Let’s hope this is not why flip flops are called “slippers” in Hawaii).
Staying safe is not just a good idea for yourself and the loved ones you are traveling with; it’s the right thing to do, so as not to tax the resources of Hawaii’s busy lifeguards and first responders.
3. Plant a tree
Beyond native plants, you could plant native trees. The Hawaiian archipelago is home to spectacularly diverse ecosystems mere miles apart — including deserts, temperate forests, and lush jungles. You could learn more about these varied biomes and help restore some to their original state by planting trees.
Hawaiian Legacy is a reforestation initiative that plants native trees anew. You can book a tour with them, learn about Hawaii’s ancient forests and end the day by planting a tree of your own. On Maui, the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project is working to reintroduce the island’s tropical dry forests, which are its most threatened type of forest and which are home to dozens of native plants. While some beach clean-ups take only an hour, you’d be spending a whole day with Auwahi, hiking and planting.
Another organization, travel2change, recently partnered with Alaska Airlines to help visitors to the islands connect with the community and nature. This collaboration is a simple way you can find enriching, deeply educational, memorable, and fulfilling volunteer experiences in the local community.
4. Grow and eat Hawaiian foods
Volunteer at a farm that grows kalo, the Hawaiian word for taro, using ancient methods to harvest this important root from which poi is made. You can do this at a few farms across the island. Or simply go and learn about how taro is made, supporting the farm with your visit and taking the time to better understand the local culture. Also, you can support local growers by visiting farmers markets, one of the best things you can do on the islands. and you can find one on pretty much any day of the week somewhere on the island where you’re staying. Eating locally grown food doesn’t just support farmers; it’s a lot more sustainable overall.
5. Learn about the local culture
When you eat Hawaiian foods, especially ones as historically valued as poi, you’ll get a window into the local culture and feel more connected to Hawaii. There are plenty of other ways to learn more about Indigenous Hawaiian culture, from visiting museums that offer information about the life of Native Hawaiian before the arrival of Europeans or that celebrate the revival of Hawaiian culture since then. You can take classes on traditional arts like lei making or hula dancing. Perhaps take a few ukulele lessons or listen to Hawaiian music, or time your visit to take in a Hawaiian festival.
And of course, another way to learn about local culture is to learn the language. For example, āina means land — so “mālama ʻāina” means taking care of the land, something you too can do when you come to the islands with the intention of giving back.
6. Stay in accommodations that also gives back
Embodying mālama can also be done by seeking out accommodations that give back, and encourage their guests to do the same. AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea is a perfect example of this. This gorgeous hotel goes out of its way to use local artists for their lobby decor and source locally-made and grown foods. With their “Mālama package” guests staying a minimum of five-nights receive 20 percent off or one night free when they participate in any voluntourism activity on the island of Maui. This can include beach clean ups, removing invasive plants, or volunteering at a local non-profit. Mālama is easy to participate in and will turn your vacation into an unforgettable experience.