When I told a friend that I planned to stay in an off-the-grid cabin on a farm in Hawaii, her response, a combination of confusion and intrigue, mirrored my general attitude toward camping and most outdoor activities: “You’re doing this voluntarily?” Aren’t there hundreds of beautiful hotels and resorts in Hawaii?”
It wasn’t a mistake.
For someone who considers a jog through the park to be an outdoor adventure, my choice of lodging in one of the most beautiful places in the world was understandably bewildering.
But I wanted a different kind of adventure than the kind people tend to associate with the islands, one that did not involve parking myself on a beach with a mai tai. In addition to kayaking, snorkeling, tours, and art, I wanted to learn something new and support local businesses while doing so.
In addition, I knew that the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the organization recently tasked with marketing the state to the rest of the country, was working to make local and Native Hawaiian businesses a bigger part of tourism.
My friend told me a few days before I left, “Have fun.”.
The 120-foot waterfall of the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls in Hilo attracted me to the property, as did its array of interesting activities. Moreover, it provides a glimpse into how tourism can flourish in Hawaii and other over-touristed places in the future, without harming the environment or the people who live there.
The inn sits on a sprawling 40-acre property, with a farm featuring three cabins that visitors can book (I paid US$147/night in November). Everything is powered by the waterfall and solar panels, my cabin included, plus rainwater is filtered for drinking, bathing and cleaning. This unique experiment in sustainable and regenerative travel and living is definitely worth experiencing – could even sway a skeptic like me who’s hesitant to spend hundreds for an outdoor holiday.
After having checked into my cabin—which, while not having a private bathroom or electricity, offered a spectacular ocean view and a super comfortable bed—I wasted no time in getting out and kayaking beneath the cascading falls. This marked the beginning of my outdoor girl era, something which I proclaimed out loud for all to hear! I spent hours exploring green trails (failing to identify the majority of plants along the way!), admiring bamboo gardens and taking dips in tranquil waters. As I lingered, looking up from below the falls, I was overcome by an urge to put away my phone and truly disconnect from everyday life.
Christophe Bisciglia, one of the inn’s partners, expressed his hope that guests will take full advantage of their stay at Kulaniapia. To maintain a tranquil atmosphere and intimate experience with nature, access is restricted to overnight guests and those who have registered and purchased day passes in advance (US$49 for adults, US$29 for children). With our family-like staff members of Native Hawaiian descent participating in activities that involve local businesses, it allows each guest to connect more with the land and its history.
It involves rappelling down the falls with a guide, which I decided against. Instead, I went on a farm tour led by two Kulaniapia “farmily,” as they call themselves. About a dozen members live there full-time, and many are involved in its community project, where they learn skills like hospitality, farming, construction, and more.
I learned about taro, bananas, cauliflower, broccoli, and other vegetables and fruits grown on the farm on the tour. In the farm’s cooking classes, which are offered a few times a week, these ingredients are used, giving “farm-to-table” its own meaning.
As I explored the inn, I stopped occasionally to take in glimpses of Chef Gregg Lockwood preparing dinner. The evening meal was served on the lanai with a beautiful backdrop of the falls, trails and gardens. He presented a delicious array of Kauai prawn and mahi mahi ceviche with an ahi tuna poke, kabocha squash soup accompanied by coconut cream and pancetta, opakapaka from Japanese taro paired with poi and ginger-lemongrass broth, snap peas and grape tomatoes – all leading up to the dessert of coconut ice cream pie. Topping it off was a delightful macadamia nut crust along with Hawaiian dark chocolate ganache.
As someone who is indecisive or easily overwhelmed, I found this meal to be ideal not only because of the flavor and freshness, but also because there were no decisions to make. Gregg paired local meats, fish, and produce with local wines.
As I crawled into bed that night, pleased to have been experiencing and enjoying farm life, I bathed in the outdoor showers and then used the flashlight of my phone to walk the few yards to my cabin. A chorus of birds sang outside, and a cow named Opus bellowed. I couldn’t begrudge him — with that name, he would have a lot to say. I had also been warned. But then, around 5am, another reality of farm life became evident: animals.