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 irst, 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.

Sud­denly it ap­pears seem­ingly out of nowhere: Ku­la­niapia Falls, an aquatic mas­ter­piece that tum­bles over it­self on its 120-foot drop to the pool below. For years, veg­e­ta­tion hid these falls. Once that green­ery was cut away, the cas­cade be­came the cen­ter­piece of the sound­track for the Inn at Ku­la­niapia Falls.

This is a dif­fer­ent kind of re­sort, un­like the usual ones. It’s the gar­dens illed with bam­boo and or­chids, the early morn­ing sun glint­ing off Hilo Bay below, the feel­ing of be­ing free from ar­ti­ice as you stroll down a coun­try lane lined with ma­cadamia nut trees.


In the early 1990s, Lenny Sut­ton bought the 22 acres sight un­seen that are now home to the inn.

“It had good ‘mana,’ “he said, us­ing a term that often refers to an en­ergy or power that can re­sult in good.

How the re­sort came to be what it is to­day is a tale of a lot of hard work and lit­tle bit of luck.

Sut­ton, his wife, Jane, and their chil­dren moved here be­cause the place had, a real es­tate, po­ten­tial, but it took vi­sion to see what that was.

The inn be­gan its hos­pi­tal­ity life as a four­room bed-and-break­fast. “We raised our kids there,” Sut­ton said. It’s also a 24/7 com­mit­ment, no week­ends, no hol­i­days.

To­day, the inn com­prises the Res­i­dence (four rooms) and Har­mony House (five rooms), Jade Cot­tage (two rooms) and the Pagoda House (four rooms and has a kitchen). There are glamp­ing tents up the road at the 20-acre farm. Break­fast is part of the pack­age at the inn.

Those things are fairly re­cent ad­di­tions. In 2015, Sut­ton was of re­tire­ment age and per­haps ready for a not-seven-days-a-week job, so he put the place on the mar­ket.

En­ter Christophe Bis­ciglia, whose mile-aminute 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.

He didn’t 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.


Bis­ciglia 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 guests.

En­ter Dave Black, a Maui res­i­dent and a Utah na­tive. He had decades of out­doors ex­pe­ri­ence as part of cre­den­tials.

Black was in­ter­ested, but his mo­ti­va­tion wasn’t money. He wanted to ind 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 killed him­self.

Darby Black 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.

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 pro­vided.


The vets 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.

Ethan Hodek, 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, the hike is along smooth lava and some­times sharp.

Some­timeswe­need­ed­tocrouch,and­some­times the ceil­ing was 30 feet tall. The path was wide and then it was nar­row.

We stopped at one point, turned off our flash­lights and hel­met lamps, and held our hands in front of our faces. It was the black­est black I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

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.

HodekandBlack­hadurge­dus­tostay­hy­drated. I was more fo­cused on stay­ing up­right.

With help, I made it up the inal lad­der and out. I spent the rest of the day swad­dled in ice packs.

The next morn­ing, I ran into Jim, who was a para­trooper in Viet­nam and has two ar­ti­icial 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.

He smiled 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 two was to have been zip lin­ing from the falls to the pond, but the fore­cast called for thun­der­storms. Mis­sion aborted. The rain started com­ing down in sheets.

For two hours, the guests told of bro­ken re­la­tion­ships, de­pres­sion, often de­spair and usu­ally enor­mous con­fu­sion. Some­times they had to walk away from the con­ver­sa­tion.

Most of them had lost friends, some of whom died in com­bat; oth­ers by their own hand.

The next day on the farm, they planted trees to honor their fallen com­rades. Holes were dug, and words were sum­moned to re­mem­ber their friends.

Earth pat­ted back into place, rain now gen­tly fall­ing, the men turned and walked away to be­gin a new chap­ter in their jour­neys back.

“Mana” in­deed.

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