story by Luci Yamamoto
photo by Sergio Goes
“Don’t judge your work too much,” says master lei maker Kilohana Domingo as I braid my first-ever haku lei. “Just do what comes naturally. The finished product reflects the maker’s personality.”
“In the end,” he promises, “this lei will be you.”
Earlier in the day, we had driven to a roadside clearing where ‘öhi‘a and pukiawe grew in ancient lava fields. Before collecting the plants, Kilohana offered an oli, a chant to announce our presence, to get permission and to give thanks. “Take only what is needed,” he cautioned. “No pillaging. After picking, the plant must not look any different.”
Now we’re seated on the spacious lanai of Kalaekilohana, a plantation-style inn near Ka Lae (South Point) on the Big Island, weaving our plants into lei. Kilohana and his partner, Kenny Joyce, are full-time hosts at their self-built B&B, which won a “Keep It Hawai‘i” award from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority only a year after it opened in 2006. Kalaekilohana offers classes in lei making, lauhala weaving and other Native Hawaiian crafts, plus free weekly Hawaiian-language gatherings and kanikapila (music jams).
Kilohana, who is half-Hawaiian, grew up in Kealakekua, where his father worked as a Greenwell Ranch hand. At 13 he attended Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, where he joined Robert Cazimero’s hula halau. Later, during graduate school at UH Manoa, he studied Hawaiian language and traditional arts.
Originally from the Chicago area, Joyce moved to Ka‘u in 1987. “I came with no survival tools in terms of local culture,” he says, “but I received thousands of lessons along the way.” Joyce might be a malihini (newcomer), but he had gathered our lei-making plants with the appreciation of a kama‘aina (native). He’s also the chef, whose home-cooked breakfasts feature local ingredients, including Ka‘u’s delicious tomatoes, honey and coffee.
South Point might be remote, but Kalaekilohana is no less busy for that; if you want to stay, make a reservation at least a month in advance. The guests, like Kenny and Kilohana, appreciate the spot’s quiet beauty—isolated, undiscovered, still rural. “Ka‘u is a deep place, with an old, settled feeling,” Kenny says. “It’s like old Hawai‘i here.” HH