Spotlight on Hawaii

by eons contributor on April 25, 2008

Hawaii is a feast for all five senses, intoxicating locals and visitors alike with its perfumed flowers, magnificent tropical scenery, exotic birdsong, fresh Pacific Rim foods and the sun-kissed ocean. Here we feature ten of the finest Hawaiian experiences.

Visit a volcano

There are few places on earth where humans can get a glimpse of what’s inside our planet; Hawaii is such a miraculous place. All of the Hawaiian Islands were created over eons by molten lava bubbling out of the earth’s crust to form pyramids rising from the ocean floor and above the sea when the rock cooled. Since the first tourists arrived soon after the Yankee clipper and whaling ships came in the 19th century, visitors have been mesmerized by the sight of liquid fire pouring down the side of a mountain. Kilauea volcano, on the island of Hawaii – now familiarly known as the Big Island – still offers up oozing lava sliding downward into the sea. Designated a national park in 1916, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is today the state’s foremost natural attraction, where visitors at a safe distance can watch the earth create itself. Because volcanoes keep their own schedule, sometimes the lava erupts in fiery red streams; sometimes it’s just a trickle of molten rock and a lot of steam. To research the timing of Kilauea’s past eruptions, get a hint of where and when its next one might occur, and find out about other Hawaii volcanoes such as dormant Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, also on the Big Island, and Maui’s Haleakala volcano, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has a new website, http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/kilauea/update/main.html. Haleakala National Park (www.nps.gov/hale) is the primary natural attraction on Maui, and extends from the summit of “House of the Sun” all the way to ‘Ohe’o gulch, known around the world as the misnomer “Seven Sacred Pools” on the windward side in the Kipahulu district. There are 27 miles of hiking trails in the crater, as well as two camping sites and three rustic cabins that can be reserved (by lottery selection) at least three months in advance. Astronauts train in this moonscape inhabited by rare “nene” flightless geese and home to the elusive silversword plant. There is no comparable experience to watching a sunrise from the summit of Haleakala mountain.

Watch the whales, swim with the dolphins

From December through April, Hawaii is a “nursery” for humpback whales that migrate 3,500 miles from rich summer feeding grounds in arctic Alaska to give birth in warmer waters. All winter, these endangered mammals can be spotted “dancing” on their noses as their tails wave above the ocean, blowing water through their air hole, leaping completely out of the waves, and slapping their flukes on the surface for what looks like the sheer fun of it. Up to 3,000 humpbacks weighing as much as 80,000 pounds apiece cruise around all the islands, preparing their babies for the return trip north. The best whale-viewing is in the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary created in 1992 around Molokai, Maui and Lanai, but whales can spring to the surface anytime, anywhere, and are visible from all shorelines and beachfront accommodations as well as aboard whale-watching and snorkel cruise boats.

The Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui offers more than a dozen whale-watching trips a day to support its non-profit research. Other species, including pilot, sperm, and false killer whales, cruise island waters year-round. Most of their sightings are along the calmer Kona coast of the Big Island, where 25-year veteran whale researcher Dan McSweeney often drops a microphone over the side of his cruise boat to let his whale-watching clients also hear the leviathans “sing.”

Visitors whale-watching off the coast of Lanai also may get the thrill of swimming with sleek, leaping dolphins that like to “hang out” with snorkelers at Hulopoeo Beach. Judged by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, “Dr. Beach,” as 1997’s best beach in America, the area is included in the protected marine reserve and is one of the few places on Lanai considered generally safe and calm for viewing gaudy tropical fish in shallow tide pools. The only watersports outfitter on Lanai is Trilogy Lanai Ocean Sports. Snorkelers at Hulopoeo often find themselves surrounded by pods of leaping spinner dolphins, which seem as curious about the creatures in masks and fins as we are about the silver-skinned marine mammals famous for their “talking” and rescues.

Kalaupapa

Molokai is the least visited of Hawaii’s main islands, and the least impacted by tourism and commercialism. It also offers one of the state’s most memorable experiences – a visit to the Kalaupapa peninsula, reached via small plane, on foot or by mule ride. Kalaupapa has become synonymous with the leper colony established there in 1866 by King Kamehameha V. Leprosy was greatly feared because at that time it was incurable and was believe to be very contagious, a myth later dispelled when research proved it was spread only by repeated contact. The term “leprosy” was outlawed by the Hawaii Legislature in 1981, when the illness officially became known as “Hansen’s Disease,” to honor Dr. Gerhard Hansen, a Norwegian who, in 1873, discovered the germ that caused it.

Kalaupapa National Historic Park has human relics dating from 1,000 A.D., and is located in one of the most spectacular natural settings in Hawaii. Hiking the nearly three-mile trail down to the peninsula is not for faint hearts; there are 26 switchbacks between the trailhead at 2,000 feet above sea level, and the terminus at Kalaupapa. Descending takes about an hour; climbing back up can be a three-hour effort, and a hiking permit is required. Most visitors arrive either by scheduled light plane flights, or on the backs of sure-footed mules used to traversing the sometimes heart-stopping trail. Upon arrival at Kalaupapa, resident tour guide Richard Marks(See list of tours) who has survived Hansen’s Disease, invites visitors aboard a yellow school bus for an excellent overview of the scenery and history of what was once known as “The Place of the Living Dead.” The tour includes the life story of Roman Catholic priest, Father Joseph de Veuster, best known as Father Damien, who has been nominated for sainthood. Father Damien gave up a privileged life in Belgium to inspire the creation of a clean, united community of new houses, schools and churches. The priest who brought hope to thousands of ailing outcasts died of Hansen’s Disease in 1889, at age 49. Father Damien’s St. Philomena Church, a crafts shop and a museum are open to visitors with official guides. If you have only one day Molokai, visit Kalaupapa on a mule.

Waikiki

Waikiki Beach is the gaudy, noisy, crowded, hectic two-mile heart of Honolulu. From ancient times through the days of Hawaiian royalty up until this morning, Waikiki has attracted visitors and locals alike to sun themselves on its world-famous golden sand, frolic in its gentle, lapping waves, and float contentedly in its aquamarine waters. Waikiki attracts five million visitors a year from around the globe, and offers something to delight every one of them: world-class shopping, ethnic foods, five-star hotel rooms that cost as much a night as a down payment on a car, free double-rainbow mornings and pastel sunsets you’d swear were painted on the sky.

Handsome beach boys can teach you to ride a surfboard, paddle an outrigger canoe, sail a boat, and keep you from drowning, all in the same day. Some evenings there are free big-screen movies on the beach, other times some of Hawaii’s finest musicians jam it up on ukulele and guitar. Waikiki is full of surprises: craft fairs, street vendors, outdoor cafes, a reasonably priced trolley car to take you up and down the boulevards.

Patrolled by good-natured Honolulu police on bicycles and horseback, Waikiki Beach is where the action’s at, day or night, for tourists who want to people watch, catch a wave, eat sushi-tacos-saimin-sate-hamburgers, catch a fish, experience a hotel luau, and toast the good life with an exotic cocktail sporting a paper umbrella and an orchid floating on top. Besides boasting one of the most perfect beaches in the world, Waikiki also offers nearly guaranteed year-round sunshine. Don’t miss what all the fuss has been about since Mark Twain sailed into town and pronounced Hawaii the most beautiful necklace of islands “anchored in any ocean….”

Take a hike!

Every island has hiking trails ranging from gentle to straight up, from treeless volcanic rock to tropical rain forests, from easily accessible to nearly impossible. From a remote bamboo forest bordering ‘Ohe’o Gulch in Haleakala National Park’s Kipahulu district, to the accordion-pleated green folds of Kauai’s Na Pali coast, to Diamond Head’s dry brush-covered summit looming above Waikiki, hiking trails offer an intimate look at the islands’ unique flora and fauna while offering unforgettable views not discovered any other way. On Oahu, the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club allows visitors to join members on scheduled hikes through wilderness still left on the state’s most populous island. Kauai is a backcountry paradise for experienced outdoors enthusiasts; join the local Sierra Club chapter for group treks ranging from easy to “are you kidding?” in Kokee State Park. The most arduous hike is along the historic Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali coast, a protected state park. The ancient footpath is for experienced hikers only — in some placed it narrows to less than a foot on the side of cliffs more than a thousand feet above the ocean. Slippery in rain and prone to flash floods, many Na Pali coast hikes require permits available only on a limited basis. For casual walkers, there are plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs on public beaches, in state and national parks, and along paved trails such as the three-tenths of a mile blacktop path from the Hotel Hana-Maui parking lot up to a cross raised in memory of the hotel’s founder, Paul Fagan.

“Ono Grinds”

Hawaii’s multi ethnic population makes for a mixed plate of favorite foods; sushi and sashimi from Japan, Portuguese bean soup, pad Thai, Vietnamese pho noodles, Chinese dim sum, and Hawaiian poi are available most everywhere. Good food – “ono grinds” as the locals say – are an important ingredient for a successful Hawaii vacation, and an essential spice for friendship and goodwill among the local population. An unwritten rule in rural Hawaii is that anybody who’s hungry may pick a ripe banana and eat it as they go on their way. Lilly and Chuck Boerner’s Ono Family Farms on Maui is at the forefront of the organic food movement. Lilly conducts tastings and tours of their 50-acre, fourth-generation farm where nearly 100 varieties of GMO-free fruit, coffee, chocolate, and vegetables flourish.

It’s tough to get a bad meal in a place where ahi — yellowfin tuna — goes from the ocean to the plate in the same day, where wild papayas and mangoes simply fall off the trees for critters to eat, where tomatoes, corn, strawberries and salad greens grow year-round. Every culture has its holiday delicacies; the Japanese-American community gives blemish-free persimmons grown in upcountry Maui at Christmas time; haupia, a coconut-cornstarch candy, is a favorite at Hawaiian children’s birthday parties; glutinous rice “mooncakes” are special treats for Chinese New Year. Local weddings and funerals that attract hundreds of guests mean extended families work days to make sure everybody gets plenty to eat and there are leftovers wrapped in tinfoil to send home for those who couldn’t make it.

Whether you’re dining at the most famous and expensive restaurants, such as Mama’s Fish House on Maui or Michel’s on Oahu; Kauai’s favorite burger joint, Duane’s, on the way to the north shore; Grandma’s, a chili-with-rice-and-Spam Maui institution in upcountry Keokea; the Kamoi Snack-N-Go on Molokai, famous for its sweet potato Icee floats, or Nori’s Saimin and Snacks across from the Hilo Lanes bowling alley on the Big Island of Hawaii, there is great food everywhere or you to sniff and sample.

Patriotism

Since December 7, 1941, the waters of Pearl Harbor have been sacred to generations of Americans. On that “day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, the harbor has been the resting place of the USS Arizona, which sank in nine minutes after it was bombed in the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War II. A grave to 1,177 Marines and Navy sailors, the battleship is now a national memorial visited by millions who take free U.S. Navy launches to the site. There is a visitor center jointly manned by National Park Service and naval personnel that includes historic and personal information about the attack, Pearl Harbor, the sunken ship, and those who served and died aboard her.

But perhaps the most moving moments spent at the graceful memorial that spans the Arizona’s sunken hull are those in which visitors silently contemplate the oil bubbles still leaking from the engine room. It is less and less common to see World War II veterans at the memorial, but some still come to pay tribute to fallen friends, and every year on the anniversary of the ship’s loss a few survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack still gather to share their tears. Companion visits to the Arizona are trips to the nearby USS Missouri Memorial and up the hill to the National Cemetery of the Pacific, familiarly known as “the Punchbowl” because it is located inside an old crater. The Missouri came to Pearl Harbor in 1998 to become a historical “bookend” to World War II; the Japanese surrender was signed aboard the battleship.

The USS Bowfin, a World War II submarine nicknamed “the Pearl Harbor Avenger” for its tenacious fight against the Japanese, also is open to the public. The casualties of three wars – World War II, Korea, and Vietnam – are interred in the national cemetery. Among them is war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was shot by a Japanese sniper on Okinawa in April 1945. At every one of these hallowed sites there are quiet places to stand, reflect and remember the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country

Party on!

Besides traditional Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, holidays include Buddha’s birthday (April 8), Girls’ Day (March 3), Boys’ Day (May 5), Samoan Flag Day in August, commemorative days honoring Hawaiian royalty — all sorts of “special” days to throw a party, dance, eat, go to the beach, and “talk story” with family and friends. A gentle climate and outdoor lifestyle means statewide and local festivals that include parades, picnics, athletic events and concerts are held practically every week of the year — see the Go Hawaii calendar. Aloha festivals honoring Hawaiian customs are annually observed on all islands and take up half of September and October. Tickets to the grandmother of all cultural festivals, the five-day Merrie Monarch Hula Festival held the week after Easter every year in Hilo are as scarce as hotel rooms at the same time in the same place. Other festivals salute pineapples, slack key guitars, ukuleles, trees, surfing, coffee, taro, jazz, and even narcissus. Festivals aren’t just an excuse to play hooky from work; they also pay tribute to the people and things that matter to locals. The “May Day is Lei Day” tradition is about the giving, receiving and crafting of flower necklaces as tokens of love and respect; to give and receive a lei helps perpetuate the spirit of aloha.

Hawaii’s host culture: A cultural renaissance builds on a royal heritage

Hawaii’s Polynesian heritage is the underpinning of all human occupation that followed the outrigger canoes carrying the first settlers in the vast triangle between Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. Hawaii’s exact occupation date is not known, but artifacts dating from 400 A.D., have been found. Descendants of the islands’ first occupants established separate kingdoms, lived as hunters and gatherers, and developed strict rules of behavior enforced by warrior kings and legendary queens. When English Capt. James Cook sailed over the horizon by chance in 1778, the Industrial Revolution overwhelmed Hawaii’s Stone Age culture and the islands went on world maps, bringing the first tourists.

Hawaii’s rigid rules system that bound its society together began to crumble with the death of King Kamehameha I in 1819 and the arrival of New England missionaries the following year. Just 73 years later, reigning Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned by the missionaries’ prosperous descendants who were supported by U.S. marines. The sovereign nation of Hawaii was annexed as an American territory in 1898, an illegal act Hawaiians still mourn and protest.

Cultural and historic sites such as Iolani Palace, Bishop Museum (www.bishopmuseum.org), the Queen Emma Summer Palace, and the Royal Mausoleum are easily accessible on Oahu. Hulihee Palace, as well as Imiloa, a center that explores connections between the science of astronomy and its link to Hawaiian culture, is located on Hawaii Island. Throughout the state, sacred temples and archeological preserves are open to the public, and should be considered sacred sites that must be treated with utmost respect. Today, as Hawaiians aggressively reclaim their rich heritage in a Hawaiian Renaissance of language, art, music, and political activism, visitors who listen closely to the islands’ native people will learn much from their wisdom.

Stop and smell the plumeria

Because flowers bloom on nearly every kind of tree, shrub and hedge, and even sprout from the top of wooden fence posts, wearing and sharing gorgeous blossoms is one of Hawaii’s most delightful customs. Stroll anywhere, day or night, and your olfactory system will be on delicious overload. Local women customarily tuck a fresh flower behind an ear, even if they’re just going to work or to the beach; a bloom behind the right ear signals they’re single, and married if it’s behind the left one. Fresh flowers are de rigueur on any occasion, given to men as well as women. Most Hawaii gardens are created, and certainly augmented, by treasured “cuttings” shared by good friends. Flowers are shipped daily by air from Hawaii to global markets, the biggest share of a multi million-dollar agribusiness that includes culinary, craft and cosmetic applications.

Besides their monetary value, sniffing, wearing and giving flowers is fun. At Ali’i Chang’s Maui lavender farm, wandering around his purple hillside is a perfect morning or afternoon in upcountry Kula. From simple purple blossoms he’s created lavender honey, soap, shampoo, scones, meat seasoning, eye pillows, and anything else he can stuff or infuse. Chang hosts daily farm tours, tea parties, and garden classes beloved by Mauians who consider his Monet-like setting a “must see” for visitors. Commercial farms growing and shipping orchids, tropical flowers such as anthuriums, heliconias and ginger, and exotic palms are found on every island, but to see a wide variety in one place visit any farmer’s market or shop the flower stalls in Honolulu’s Chinatown.

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