Surf's up in blue Hawaii

See the West's biggest waves―and the world's best surfers―at classic beaches along Oahu's fabled North Shore

Flying into Kona, the plane passes low over turquoise water so clear I can see white sand and black lava rocks through its shimmering depths. Beyond the shore, the land tilts up to form mountains cloaked in mist.

Not so long ago, I came to Hawaii, like most visitors, to vacation on those beaches, to swim in the crystalline shallows and watch yellow butterfly fish glide over the reefs. Afterward, I'd drip dry on a lounge chair by the beach, sipping a cool drink or losing myself in a novel, before sun or soft breezes lulled me to sleep.

But a couple of years ago, another, more vital Hawaii began to reveal itself to me ― one that was far from the tourist hotels.

On a grassy terrace above Kauai's Ke'e Beach, as a setting sun turned the sea to liquid gold, I discovered a Hawaii few visitors ever see. Hula dancers in grass skirts and shell leis, moving to the beat of drums and the cadence of a chant, gracefully acted out the story of a long-ago canoe voyage from Polynesia to Hawaii.

Watching the dancers, I began to wonder: Is a ceremony like this simply an isolated remnant of a vanished past, or does a genuine Hawaiian culture still exist?

The image of those dancers on a ledge above the sea still haunts me. On this trip, I've decided to go beyond the beach and trek up into those misty hills in search of the real Hawaii. At the airport, I jump into a taxi bearing a bumper sticker that reads simply, "Live aloha." I don't know what that means, but I'm about to find out.