Volunteering in the valley on Maui

“The great thing is that because they choose to help, they are automatically the better tourists.”

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OLOWALU, MAUIHAWAI’I – Petyr Beck was there maui for a day, but he’s still not hanging out on the beach or relaxing under a palm tree.

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Instead, he’s about a mile offshore, knee-deep in dry grass, hacking at invasive trees in the hot Olowalu Valley sun. He flicks a small saw back and forth several times, grabs a loose trunk from a haole koa tree, and tosses it in a heap at the side of a dirt road. Then move on to the next one.

Beck is one of several volunteers who showed up in the valley on a beautiful February morning to help a called group Kipuka Olowalu Help transform this piece maui in slightly more like its original condition.

It’s hard work, made worse by the blazing sun, but most have brought water and snacks and no one seems to mind the work.

Petyr Beck cleans branches from haole koa trees in the Olowalu Valley.
Petyr Beck cleans branches from haole koa trees in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

Beck tells me he just arrived the day before and is visiting his old buddy from Washington state, Erik Giesa.

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“I spoke to him last night and asked him what’s up for today,” Beck told me. “He said, ‘I can’t be with you in the morning as I’m volunteering.’ I was like, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’”

“We let tourists help,” said Lizzy Gibson, a relocated Vermont native who works as a field technician and artist for Kipuka Olowalu. “The great thing is that because they choose to help, they are automatically the better tourists.”

Kipuka Olowalu (Kipuka means an area of ​​land surrounded by younger lava flows, while Olowalu is the name of a deep valley south of Lahaina) has been working hard to get rid of invasive species in the valley.

Ua Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and director of Kipuka Olowalu, said the area had been grazed for years, causing great damage to the country.

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Including Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and supervisor for Kipuka Olowalu.
Including Aloha Maji, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and supervisor for Kipuka Olowalu. Photo by Jim Byers

Maji shows various fruit trees and flowering shrubs that have been planted in the valley in recent years. One of the prettiest is a crown flower known as Puakalaunu in Hawaiian. It is often used to make flower leis, and Maji explains that it was a particular favorite of Queen Lili’uokalani (who wrote the song Aloha Oe).

I pause to snap a photo of some nice little berries on an akia plant, which contains neurotoxic oils that can be used to sedate fish. The Hawaiians found that if they collected the roots, stem, twigs, leaves, fruit, and flowers and mashed them up, they could use the pulp to saturate coconut fiber. The fibers could then be dropped into tide pools to knock the fish cold.

The gardens also contain sweet plantains and swollen white noni fruits, which have a distinctly sparkling odor when ripe, but have been used medicinally by Hawaiians and Polynesians for centuries.

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A few workers hack through a dense haole koa thicket and find a nice path that leads to a beautiful pool of water in the creek that runs through the valley.

A Hawaiian crown flower in the Olowalu Valley.
A Hawaiian crown flower in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

After our work for the morning is done, Maji takes me on a short walk upriver through the valley, which has towering, jagged peaks clad in soft shades of green. We spot some mud wasps making nests out of mud and a meadow where there is an ancient stone heiau or temple. The heiau is mostly covered by a monkeypod tree, giving it a mysterious Indiana Jones feel.

Another morning I find myself on the other side of the west maui Mountains where the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund is conducting a cleanup at Ka’Ehu Beach, a black rock beach just outside of Wailuku.

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The Hawai’i Wildlife Fund is one of the groups involved Malama Hawaii Program that connects visitors to the state with local charities or environmental groups to take care of these beautiful islands. Participants who sign up and volunteer at select hotels will receive a fourth or fifth night free. Some hotels also offer free breakfast to those who help out.

Bright orange fruits on an akia plant in the Olowalu Valley.
Bright orange fruits on an akia plant in the Olowalu Valley. Photo by Jim Byers

on maui, both the Ritz Carlton Kapalua and the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea are part of the program like many others. Kauai, Oahu and Hawai’i Big Island also have participating hotels.

“The Malama Hawai’i program currently has more than 100 affiliates with 14 affiliates nationwide.” mauisays Leanne Pletcher, director of public relations for the maui Visitor Office.

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On my morning beach cleanup, I join a diverse group of volunteers. Noelani Lee is a former Molokai resident and activist who now owns a property maui and is here with her two boys. Jerry and Esther Rice joined from Illinois maui for part of the winter. Danyel Erickson and her husband Jonathan Rodriguez live in nearby Lana’i and run a community called Plastic Pickers in Paradise.

Lee isn’t a big fan of modern tourism, but says the Malama Hawai’i program is a great way for visitors to get their hands dirty or mingle with locals and learn more about the islands.

Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, says she loves the Malami Hawai’i program and that her group features volunteering in nine of their Hawai’i Wildlife Project video stories Discovery Center at Whalers Village Shopping Center on Ka’anapali Beach.

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A group of volunteers examine some of the items they picked up on Maui's Ka'Ehu Beach.
A group of volunteers examine some of the items they picked up on Maui’s Ka’Ehu Beach. Photo by Jim Byers

“What I love about the videos is that they show us real people really doing malama Hawaii. Plus just saying and defining those words, words like malama and aina (“the land”) and aloha and more, bathe the listener in concepts that can reach the heart and move mountains.”


The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel is consistently voted one of the most Hawaiian hotels on the islands. They are not affiliated with Malama Hawaii, but have been running extensive Hawaiian cultural programs for decades.

The Fairmont Kea Lani, part of Malama Hawaii, has large suites, a beautiful swimming pool, and a great beach

The Napili Kai Beach Resort is also not affiliated with Malama Hawaii, but they too have extensive Hawaiian cultural programs and support beach clean-ups and other environmental initiatives.

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The Ritz Carlton Kapalua participates in the Malama Hawaii program and has had an on-site Hawaiian cultural practitioner for many years. It’s a quiet place in the West maui with luxurious rooms and excellent food.


The Sea House at Napili Kai Beach Resort has a great bar overlooking the beach and excellent seafood.

Mala Tavern is a fun, casual spot in Lahaina that’s right on the water.

Huihui is the new gourmet restaurant at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel. Look for lots of Hawaiian touches and a great breakfast menu.

Nick’s Fishmarket Restaurant at the Fairmont Kea Lani Hotel offers a romantic setting and wonderful, fresh seafood.

Merriman’s Kapalua offers excellent cocktails and a terrace with some of them maui‘s best sunset view.

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