How to Understand Land in Hawaii

Life & Thyme

Words by NICOLE ZIZA BAUER | Photography by ANTONIO DIAZ

Encouraging Reconnection With Our Most Essential Resource

It’s where we plant gardens and build empires. Uncover treasure and bury our dead. Wars are fought over it, and freedom is running through it barefoot. Land is at once a place, an identity, and a resource.

Understanding it is no small task, but in some parts of the world there seems to be a deeper grasp on “the land”—how it anchors us and how we honor it. Hawaii is one such place, offering a rich history so embedded with nature that the rest of us would do well to mimic it, even in very small ways.

Hawaiians exemplify what it means to live off the land and maintain a connection to what fundamentally supports all human life. But they don’t stop there; by blending agriculture with tourism, they invite every aloha-seeking visitor to join them.



Nearly fifty percent of all visitors to Hawaii visit Oahu. The island welcomed a record 5.9 million tourists in 2018, so it’s no surprise the ‘Alohilani Resort, located steps from Oahu’s famed Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, would have a vested interest in educating guests on what makes the property so special.

“The ‘Alohilani sits on the site of Queen Lili’oukalani’s summer cottage,” explains Minh-Huyen Nguyen, Area Marketing Manager for Highgate. “We have to make sure that what we are doing is pono, as we say [in Hawaiian], which means ‘the right and honorable thing to do.’”

Queen Lili’oukalani was the last monarch and only woman to rule the Kingdom of Hawaii. Everything at the ‘Alohilani, which means “heavenly brightness” or “royal light,” was renovated with her love for the land in mind. A soaring lobby greets visitors with floor-to-ceiling windows, a 280 thousand-gallon oceanarium, and eighteen-foot columns hand-wrapped in basket-woven teak. A modern, custom coral art piece immortalizes the sea above the reception desk.

But it’s not just the interior that evokes a reign of nature. As part of the resort’s focus on sustainability, guests have the opportunity to plant trees at Gunstock Ranch, a former sugarcane plantation turned working ranch (the name Gunstock honors one of the ranch’s horses). And it has dedicated five hundred of its nine hundred acres to reforestation on Oahu’s North Shore.

Only two indigenous trees had remained on the land when Gunstock first began to reforest it. “Whatever is here is not native,” says Gunstock Ranch CEO Kyndra Smith. “[When this was an operational sugarcane plantation], the U.S. Forestry would send over whatever was good on the mainland to Hawaii, not knowing how it would destroy the local ecosystem.”


Thanks to its partnership with the Hawaii Reforestation Initiative and hotels like the ‘Alohilani, which has committed to planting one hundred thousand trees with the help of its guests, Gunstock is working to restore that ecosystem with milo trees, a native Hawaiian hardwood that was frequently used for royal ceremonies and to eat from, since the wood provides no aftertaste. Milo trees were also prized by King Kamehameha; they grew abundantly around his home in Honolulu.

“Hawaiians believe that everything has a spirit. The animals, the grass, the trees, all of us,” continues Smith. “We want visitors to be able to give part of their [spirit] to these trees. There are about eight hundred that have been planted. All of those trees have a story because someone came out and planted it there.”


The experience of planting a tree at Gunstock is both beautiful and simple: first digging a hole for the young plant, then tucking it into the warm earth with bare hands. As the plant is watered, the visitor folds their palms around its stem while saying a word of honor. A personalized certificate and identification tag enable the tree’s growth to be tracked over time.

“Our goal has been to make sure these trees become more valuable in the ground than they would be [by] being cut down,” Smith explains. She adds that after milo trees are planted, next will be sandalwood, followed by fruits and flowers that are native to Hawaii.

“We want to encourage tourism that’s not just about consuming,” reiterates Nguyen. “You could come back twenty years from now and see the tree you had planted in honor of an anniversary or your grandparents. It creates a legacy to the land and to the visit.”


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