A real Moana experience in Hawaii: Aulani, Disney Resort & Spa and Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach

Fun fact: Moana is the first Walt Disney animated feature this century to take its heroine's name. The studio has bestowed this honour upon only a handful in its 80 years of production. Even Elsa and Rapunzel, those Frozen and Tangled megastars, fell short of eponymity.

When you see the new blockbuster, which has just hit Australian cinemas, it's no surprise. Moana, a spirited Polynesian teen who takes to the high seas alone to save her island people, is easily the most indomitable female ever to sing a Disney ditty. She's also the best travelled, crossing thousands of miles of mighty Pacific in her voyaging canoe. Her name means "ocean" in most Polynesian languages.

While other Disney heroines have mere fairytales, Moana's epic saga combines ancient Polynesian creation legends with a chapter of history regarded by many oceanic scholars as the greatest human adventure of all time.

About 800 years ago, Polynesian wayfinders in handmade wooden canoes navigated a swathe of the Pacific roughly the size of Russia. With just the stars, currents and winds to guide them through this vast unknown, they repeatedly located tiny islands separated by thousands of kilometres. In an age when we use Google Maps to find the local takeaway, that's an almost inconceivable achievement.

In the movie, Moana, daughter of an island chief, discovers her stay-at-home people's ancestors were those heroic star voyagers. Against her father's wishes, she obeys the call of the ocean to set sail, save her ailing island and restore her voyaging heritage. Along the way, she teams up with the demigod Maui, who teaches her to navigate. The movie's Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, is a comedy version of the deity who in Polynesian mythology lassoed the sun and raised the sky so the Pacific Islands could flourish.

A chapter of history regarded by many oceanic scholars as the greatest human adventure of all time.

In Hawaii, where there's an island named for him, legend has it that Maui created the archipelago by fishing it up from the depths of the sea. History picks up Hawaii's story in the last millennium, when the Polynesian star voyagers discovered and settled the eight islands we know today. A young Hawaiian, Auli'i Cravalho, voices the Moana character, and she attributes her authentic performance to her own heritage. "Wayfinding is actually something that my ancestors did. It's not something that they just made up," she says. But the ties run deeper still. Moana's quest to restore a lost voyaging tradition has special significance for Hawaii.

On a visit to the islands you will encounter canoes – or wa'a – everywhere; in pictures, models, surfing the waves on Waikiki beach. Canoe iconography is as ubiquitous here as the palm, the plumeria flower and the ocean itself, and currently more prominent than ever with Moana intensifying worldwide interest in star voyaging.

Follow the canoes, and they'll lead you on an intriguing voyage to Hawaii's real life Moana story. The best place to strike out: Disney's very own Hawaiian resort.

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is on Oahu's leeward coast at Ko Olina, about an hour's drive west from Honolulu. The 840-unit property on 21 oceanfront acres is imbued with star-voyaging lore. Disney imagineer Joe Rohde, himself raised in Hawaii, designed its Maka'ala lobby with soaring vaulted ceilings to echo a traditional Hawaiian canoe house. On the building exterior, one of three giant bas relief sculptures by Harinani Orme depicts an outrigger canoe on the ocean with celestial bodies above. Maui is up there too, in Orme's 15-storey-high mural depicting his heroic creational feats. The more you look, the more canoe elements you find: a paddle embedded in the tower facade; an outrigger canoe cascading water in the children's outdoor play area. Even the resort's logo is based on a curved canoe house.

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Had this property not been completed five years before Moana's release, you'd assume the movie was its inspiration. But in the Maka'ala lobby you'll find Aulani's real muse, eight feet tall, timber and draped in ceremonial lei.

This prize exhibit is a one-sixth scale model of a voyaging canoe, and a story plaque introduces you to the real, 62-foot, twin-hulled vessel it represents. Hokulea is her name, known well in these islands – and beyond.

Back in the 1970s, Hawaii's voyaging legacy was almost extinct. Sceptics were claiming that rather than purposefully discovering the islands, the ancient star voyagers had simply drifted off course and happened upon them by chance. Proving otherwise seemed impossible – the last voyaging canoe had vanished about 600 years before, and so too had the old navigational skills.

The only way was a long shot. A group of Hawaiian anthropologists, artists and sailors built a 62-foot Polynesian voyaging canoe – a fully functioning replica of those of old – and in 1976 they set sail without charts or instruments on a 5000-mile round trip between Oahu and Tahiti. Upon Hokulea's twin hulls rested the heavy burden of proving Hawaii's entire origin story.

She did it in three months, and her achievement inspired a cultural renaissance: a Hawaiian language revival in schools, and a renewal of dance, chant and artistic traditions that still thrive, along with the art of star voyaging, today.

Since then, Hokulea has sailed by the stars (not even an iPhone is allowed as aid on board) over 140,000 nautical miles, teaching the values of sustainability along the way. She is currently on the final leg of a five-year worldwide expedition covering 47,000 nautical miles, 85 ports, and 26 countries, spreading her message of care for "island Earth". When she returns to Hawaii in June 2017, a hero's welcome awaits for the beloved vessel known as "mother ship".

Joe Rohde and his imagineers spent time aboard Hokulea as inspiration for Aulani's design and, as a mark of respect, the Hokulea model was installed last year for Aulani's fifth anniversary, accompanied by a $US5000 contribution to The Friends of Hokulea.

At the time, Rohde said: "We wanted to celebrate the great canoe tradition of Hawaii, because these canoes are at the very heart of what makes Hawaiian culture Hawaiian. Without these canoes there would be no Hawaiians at all. They express the highest form of artistry, engineering, symbolic meaning, purposefulness and social co-operation that Hawaiian culture stands for. In particular, we wanted to celebrate the Hokulea, the canoe that awakened the Hawaiian cultural revival in the 1970s and continues today."

Another resort with voyaging in its very bones is Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach. The immersion begins as you enter through a Polynesian canoe house. Suspended from the towering ceiling is Hoaloha, a restored, century-old koa wood canoe.

The desk is backed by a 36-foot mural of 18 Pacific island canoes, created by the late artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kane, who founded and designed Hokulea. The hotel's suites boast the names of constellation stars – one of which is Hokulea – and were named and blessed by members of Hokulea's Polynesian Voyaging Society crewmembers.

Outrigger has supported Hokulea since her beginnings and this long friendship allows guests special access to the hallowed boat and her crew. In the quarterly O Ke Kai Series at the hotel, crewmembers participate in free workshops about traditional Hawaiian canoe building and its surrounding culture. They're often accompanied by live music, and locals always join in.

Talk to them, and you'll understand their deep attachment to Hokulea. As Nainoa Thompson, Hawaiian voyaging elder and PVS president says: "The canoe makes us strong in mind and spirit – close to our culture."

This is Moana's story, too, and it's why the movie has been selling out cinemas across the islands since its release. Perhaps it was written in the stars, because this renewed affirmation of Hawaiian voyaging heritage coincides with Hokulea's homecoming from her most epic voyage yet. When she sails into Oahu on 17 June, the celebrations will be huge and heartfelt. Hokulea is Hawaii's Moana and, together, the two are ensuring 2017 is a new chapter in history year for Hawaii and its voyaging tradition.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/hawaii

gohawaii.com

FLY

Hawaiian Airlines flies daily to Honolulu from Sydney, and until March is sometimes using Moana-themed Airbus A330 aircraft on the route, with the movie characters decorating the fuselage and entertainment and merchandise in the cabin. See hawaiianairlines.com/Moana

STAY

Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, 92-1185 Ali'inui Dr, Kapolei; rooms from $US469 (see resorts.disney.go.com); Outrigger Reef on the Beach, 2169 Kalia Road, Waikiki; rooms from $397, (see outriggerreef-onthebeach.com).

Amy Cooper was a guest of Aulani: a Disney Resort & Spa and Outrigger Resorts

SEVEN MORE WAYS TO FOLLOW THE WAVE

A Moana character has joined Aulani's classic Disney line-up of Mickey, Minnie and friends. She appears daily around the resort, and joins the nightly Mo'olelo Fireside Stories with resident storyteller "Uncle".

Aulani's activity centre, Pau Hana Community Hall, features Uncle's Kahaki Canoe Race, where you can learn about voyaging culture, build your own canoe and take it onto the ocean for a fun, family-friendly race.

On Wednesday and Saturday evenings at Aulani, the Ka Wa'a ("the canoe") luau celebrates voyaging culture with live storytelling, music and traditional Hawaiian dance.

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Oahu, is an endlessly engaging showcase of Polynesian culture where you can virtually sail aboard Hokulea from Tahiti to Hawaii. The 45-minute planetarium program Wayfinders: Waves, Winds, and Stars was produced in collaboration with the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The Polynesian Cultural Centre on Oahu's North Shore is home to Iosepa, a 57-foot, double-hulled, working voyaging canoe. Twice a day, native islanders give a special presentation in Iosepa's halau wa'a (canoe house) sharing the story of how their ancestors braved deep-ocean voyages.

Travel the open ocean in a traditional sailing canoe with Island Sails Kaua'i, Hawaiian Ocean Adventures on Oahu, Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Adventures on Maui, and Kona Boys on Hawaii, the Big Island. They all offer immersion in the tradition of Polynesian navigation, amid Hawaii's pristine waters and marine creatures.

The 4200-metre summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii houses the world's largest astronomical observatory. It's one of the best spots on the planet for stargazing, and experts will teach you about the constellations as you watch through high-powered telescopes.

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