may, with permission, swim in the pond at the base
of Kulaniapia Falls, a 120-foot-tall cascade about
three miles from Hilo on Hawaii Island.
Hawaii — If you arrive here on a moonless night, you can
hear the water before you can see it rushing to seek its
lowest point, as water always does. At first, it sounds
like a hose that’s been left on, but as you try to track
down the source, it begins to sound like a horrendous
water main break.
appears seemingly out of nowhere: Kulaniapia Falls, not a
public works disaster but an aquatic masterpiece that
tumbles over itself on its 120-foot drop to the pool
below, spilling 50 bathtubs’ worth of water in a minute
if it’s not raining, about 10 times that much if it is,
which it often is on the Hilo side of Hawaii Island.
vegetation hid these falls. Once that greenery was cut
away, the cascade became the centerpiece of and the
soundtrack for the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls.
This is a
different kind of resort, not the marble-bathed,
Frette-linened, chilled-air kind of lodging you frequently
find in the islands. Want pampering? No problem, but here
it is nurture by nature. It’s the gardens filled with
bamboo and orchids, the early morning sun glinting off
Hilo Bay below, the feeling of being free from artifice as
you stroll down a country lane lined with macadamia nut
there is the water, a kind of liquid worry bead. For one
occasional group of guests, that is part of the allure of
this place, which is more than just a resort. For some of
them, it is a last resort.
early 1990s, Lenny Sutton bought the 22 acres sight unseen
that are now home to the inn.
good ‘mana,’ ” he said, using a term that often
refers to an energy or power that can result in good.
resort came to be what it is today is a tale of a lot of
hard work, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of, well,
you decide what the word is once you know the story.
wife, Jane, and their children moved here because the
place had, as they like to say in real estate, potential,
but it took vision to see what that was.
were so overgrown that only the top 12 feet were visible.
There were no buildings, only the land and the water —
the big falls, three smaller falls and the stream into
which they flow.
began its hospitality life as a four-room
bed-and-breakfast. “We raised our kids there,” Sutton
hospitality is a calling — and he had been for years a
Caribbean charter boat captain — it’s also a 24/7
commitment, no weekends, no holidays. Christmas morning
was never the bound-down-the-stairs-before-dawn Hallmark
card for this family.
always cooking breakfast for the guests,” he said.
inn comprises the Residence (four rooms) and Harmony House
(five rooms), Jade Cottage (sleeps two) and the Pagoda
House (sleeps four and has a kitchen). There are glamping
tents up the road at the 20-acre farm that can be booked
through Airbnb (from $89).
is part of the package at the inn (fruit, breads, cold
meats, cook-your-own waffles, juices, coffee) and can be
eaten on the balcony of the Residence, where the falls
could easily rock you back to sleep, if there weren’t so
many other things to do.
things are fairly recent additions. In 2015, Sutton was
retirement age and perhaps ready for a
not-seven-day-a-week job, so he put the place on the
Christophe Bisciglia, whose mile-a-minute mind had plowed
mostly fertile land in the tech industry. Now he was ready
for what he called a “legacy asset” that enabled him
to be part of and contribute to a local and larger
community. By chance, he stumbled on the inn. It wasn’t
quite what he thought he wanted, but when he saw
Kulaniapia (said to mean “heavenly power”), he knew
this was it.
want to buy the inn outright. Instead, he wanted to
partner with Sutton as he learned a new industry. In the
end, as it often does, life gave Sutton what he needed (a
partner to ease his burdens), not what he thought he
wanted to create new revenue streams by introducing
adventures — hikes in a nearby lava tube, stargazing,
and rappelling and ziplining the falls — for the guests.
To do so,
he needed someone who could train a staff to guide the
Black, a Maui resident and a Utah native. He had decades
of outdoors experience as part of credentials that also
included military service and serving as a correctional
interested, but his motivation wasn’t money. He wanted
to find a way to honor his son Darby, a military veteran
who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and suffered from
post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that in 2015 he
is part of a deadly pattern. In 2010, about 22 vets a day
killed themselves, according to an estimate in a 2012
Department of Veterans Affairs study. Some scientists and
medical personnel dispute the numbers, but no one thus far
has disputed the problem.
That is how
Brian, Lee, Christian and Jim, under the leadership of
Dave Black, came to be at the Inn at Kulaniapia in August,
the second group of a still developing program for vets
scarred by war. Airfare, lodging, meals and activities are
This is no
free lunch. Slaying the dragons of memory takes as much
grit as the military service that created them — and
would do the same things as the other guests but in their
own group. They let me join them on a lava tube hike at
Kazumura Cave in Pahoa, about 25 miles from the inn.
It’s on private property, but Sutton is friends with the
owner, who has granted permission for the inn’s tours.
then an inn staffer, led the group through a small opening
into the cave, which was formed at least 500 years ago.
Some of the mile or so hike is along smooth lava (“pahoehoe”)
and some sharp (“aa”).
we needed to crouch, and sometimes the ceiling was 30 feet
tall. The path was wide and then it was narrow. One
embankment required a skitter up a rope — skitter for
the guys, grappling and groaning for the generally
at one point, turned off our flashlights and helmet lamps,
and held our hands in front of our faces. At least, I
think they were in front of our faces. It was the blackest
black I’ve ever experienced. Was this the dark night of
the soul? If so, where was the illumination that is
supposed to follow?
much farther, it turned out. There was light — not at
the end of the tunnel, which goes on for more than 40
miles — but at a “skylight,” an opening through
which roots from ohia trees dripped and, based on bones
found, animals apparently fell.
Black had urged us to stay hydrated. I was more focused on
staying upright. I took Brian’s arm, afraid I would
fall, petrified I would embarrass myself.
I made it up the final ladder and out. I spent the rest of
the day swaddled in ice packs.
morning, I ran into Jim, who was a paratrooper in Vietnam
and has two artificial hips, two bad knees and two fused
ankles. He noticed I was limping and asked why I hadn’t
turned back. I said I couldn’t lose face, not in front
of this group.
He told me,
not unkindly, that I should never let anyone’s opinion
determine my course of action. Of course not, I said, but
it was also my job.
slightly and nodded.
I took a
safer position on the breakfast terrace as the group
prepared to rappel the falls. (Few guests have failed to
complete the rappel, and one of those was an octogenarian,
Bisciglia told me.) These guys weren’t going to chicken
out. One by one they made their way down, as though they
did so every day.
Part 2 was
to have been ziplining from the falls to the pond, but the
forecast called for thunderstorms. Mission aborted. The
rain started coming down in sheets.
home,” one British guest remarked, “we call this
sunshine turned into a flash flood, so I hunkered down
until it passed, then joined the guys that evening to hear
the stories of what had brought them here.
hours, they told of broken relationships, drinking, drugs,
always depression, often despair and usually enormous
confusion. Sometimes they had to walk away from the
conversation. Sometimes they gutted it out and told what
ripped their hearts out and still messed with their minds.
them had lost friends, some of whom died in combat; others
by their own hand.
day on the farm, they planted trees to honor their fallen
comrades. Holes were dug, and words were summoned to
remember their friends.
I heard “S.O.B.” spoken as tenderly.
patted back into place, rain now gently falling, the men
turned and walked away to begin a new chapter in their