There's More To An Hawaiian Sunset Than You Think

One of my all time favorite moments of day is sunset. I live in San Francisco's Marina district just a few blocks from the Golden Gate Bridge, and on clear evenings I like to head down to the water to watch the sun set over the bridge.

The sunset has always felt more magical to me than simply a watercolor rainbow sky or the graceful dip of the sun below the horizon, but I have never created any formal ritual to mark my sunset experiences or brought any clear intentionality to these special evening moments.

Not until my recent trip to Maui.

I stayed at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua--a gorgeous resort perched above a sacred ancient burial site. No stone is left unturned there--from the impeccable service that begins the moment you arrive to the traditional symbolic island décor (the lights are designed like traditional fish traps!), from the lavish VIP poolside cabana experience to the perfect ocean-side burger and the Hawaiian lomilomi massage against a live soundtrack of palm trees rustling in the wind.

Needless to say, I was having an utterly perfect Hawaiian vacation.

But what made the trip even better--more meaningful, that is--was the way The Ritz gave me what they call a sense of place. In other words, the Ritz helped me plug into the history, traditions, culture, and spirit of this beautiful island of Maui. My stay was an experience well beyond the typical touristy luau and hula fun.

Some of my favorite sense of place insights came from The Ritz Kapalua's Cultural Advisor, Clifford Nae'ole--a native Hawaiian with deep wisdom and heartfelt enthusiasm. I had the good fortune of having lunch with Nae'ole, and listened, intrigued, as he shared details about the Honokahua Preservation Site situated at the edge of the Ritz property, special ancient Hawaiian lifecycle traditions, the resurgence of Hawaiian culture, language and music (and the annual Celebration of the Arts festival the resort hosts each Spring), as well as the beautiful Hawaiian art I passed as I meandered through the resort each day.

But my very favorite gem of all was about the Hawaiian sunset ceremony I had an opportunity to witness the evening before.

I was sipping tropical cocktails and enjoying live Hawaiian music in the lounge when I heard the sound of a conch (Pu) just as the sun disappeared from the sky before me. The beat of the pahu, a sacred Hawaiian drum, echoed throughout the lounge and was followed by the incantation of a beautiful Hawaiian oli (a chant).


I was already captivated by the marvel that is a Hawaiian sunset, but now I was curious about what all of this meant. Perhaps I could fold the intentions of this ritual into my own sunsets back in San Francisco.

The ceremony, as Nae'ole explained, starts with the sounding of the conch shell to gather up all of the mana--or energy--from the four corners, and from our day, from our ancestors, and from our ourselves. It signals to us that it is time to reflect upon the day--what we have accomplished and all of our good deeds, but also what we're yet to accomplish, the things we shouldn't have said or thought or done, the promises we made but can't keep.

"As the sun touches the ocean," Nae'ole explained, "you let all of these things go, so you can await the dawn and a new day."

"And the Mother tells you are forgiven," he shared, "but to remember."

The chant calls on the gods and on our ancestors to give us wisdom, and to help us bid farewell to the day, whose light is represented through the heartbeat-like rhythms of the drum.

The thought of releasing the day with the sinking of the sun is soothing--and the notion that whole families perform this ritual together (Nae'ole told me that traditionally family units engaged in this ceremony) feels powerful.

What if we all punctuated every day with a moment of reflection and intention?

What if we could release ourselves from our mistakes, our failures, and our misgivings each evening and begin again, anew, tomorrow? And what if we did this with the people whose lives--whose feelings and thoughts and possibilities--are all tangled up in our own? What if we could collectively move forward refreshed and renewed, to try again--maybe to try harder--tomorrow?

After my lunch with Nae'ole my vacation shifted. I was no longer simply a tourist salivating over the culinary delights of Lahaina Grill or mindlessly watching a hula performance or canoeing along the coast without any connection to the land or to the insights and wonder of its people and traditions.

So I came home with more than a tan and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts; I came home with a head full of new ideas and inspiration.

And when I looked out my window at the busy city street last night and gazed up at the sky--at the streaky cotton candy pink clouds against a darkening blue--I thought about Nae'ole, the sound of the conch, the oli reverberating between my ears, and the rhythm of my heartbeat as I bid a thoughtful farewell to my day.