I’d put off a visit to Hawaii for many years, thinking that all it had to offer was the crowded beaches of Waikiki or corny lounge singers performing “Tiny Bubbles”. I could not have been more wrong, and I’ll always be grateful for the day when I finally discovered the Hawaiian Islands and for the fact that I’ve been able to return to them many times since.
I first visited the Big Island of Hawaii in 1994 and spent a total of 10 days there. I enjoyed swimming and snorkeling in the warm, clear waters, visiting ancient Hawaiian historical shrines, and touring coffee and macademia nut farms on the Kona side of the island. I then took the “forbidden” drive across the “Saddle Road” (Car rental companies back then warned that the road was off limits and that if you broke down up there they would not come and rescue you!) This narrow road climbs across barren patches of ancient lava flows and through emerald green pastures into the desolate lava fields that lie in the “saddle” between the island’s two great volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It then winds back down into the lush tropical greenery of the Hilo side of the island. By far my favorite part of this first visit was seeing the active lava flows of Kilauea that travel down its slopes and spill into the ocean in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. After a hike of 30 to 45 minutes, visitors were able to view lava breaking through the surface and slowly flowing toward the sea, and experiencing that has spoiled me for any fireworks display I’ve seen since. I also felt a strange pull to the mysterious Puna District, where thick jungle overhangs the narrow coastal road, turning it into a green tunnel that is periodically broken by silvery-gray lava fields that paved over the jungle in eruptions past. This trip made me wonder where Hawaii had been all my life, and resulted in my returning again and again, eventually visiting all of the major islands and making a pilgrimage back to the islands once or twice a year.
I’m often asked which is my favorite island, a question that is akin to asking a parent which of their children they like best. What I’ve noticed about Hawaii is that no matter which island you visit, you always know you’re in Hawaii: the sweet smell of the air, the vegetation, and the feeling of calm and well-being that envelops you are common to all the islands. However, each one does have a very distinct aura to it as well, some unique facet that none of the other islands can provide. That being said, Maui is the place where I feel most at home. I prefer to stay far from the crowds in sun-drenched Kihei and south Maui in favor of the island’s more remote northwest corner at Napili Bay, 10 miles north of Lahaina. Here there are more clouds, a more cooling breeze and refreshing rain showers that often launch rainbows. I can easily spend 5 or 6 hours a day floating and snorkeling in gentle Napili Bay, where turtles frequently pop up a few feet from my air mattress to say hello, and I can stare up at the changing patterns of the clouds that blow across the skies and gather at the base of the nearby island of Moloka’i’s mountains across the channel from Maui.
Maui offers so many things to do: from driving the winding road to the sleepy village of Hana, to visiting gorgeous “Big Beach” or the secluded and clothing optional “Little Beach” at Makena, to climbing the island’s giant dormant volcanic peak, Haleakala, to taking snorkel and sailing trips, visiting a winery, or enjoying amazing food at places like Star Noodle in Lahaina, Paia Fish Market in Lahaina or Paia, Honu in Lahaina (don’t miss the chowder!), or Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop in Olawalu. For a memorable but expensive splurge, go to Mama’s Fish House in Paia, an expensive, but wonderful place to dine in the open air right by the ocean with somewhat less stratospheric prices for lunch.
For a great adventure, brave the road that winds along Maui’s northwestern coast from Kapalua to Kahului. This route has some stretches of one lane load where you must be vigilant to oncoming traffic, but take it slowly and enjoy the spectacular scenery. Plan to stop in the tiny village of Kahakuloa, which is about the half-way point along this road. When you arrive in the village you will be assailed by gaudy pink and lime green shacks purportedly selling the “best banana bread on the planet”. Don’t believe them and don’t stop for the children who will try to flag you down with free samples of bread that costs upwards of $5 a loaf. Instead look for the Lorraine’s Shave Ice sign, and drive down the long driveway to the home of Lorraine and Guy Kana.
Born in this village, Lorraine has been making the island’s best shave ice and banana bread for years. She has a wry sense of humor and loves to tease her customers as she points out landmarks visible from her property, or shows them various plants and flowers in her yard. When she shows visitors small, Venus fly-trap-like plants that grow in her yard and close their leaves when touched, people ask what they are called, and her deadpan reply is, “Cheap entertainment!” Meanwhile, she serves up cones of shave ice, slices of banana cream pie, chocolate covered bananas, and banana bread: plain, with mac nuts, or with chocolate chips. Lorraine’s bread is delicious, costs about half of what you’d get out on the main road, and rumor has it that local kids have sometimes purchased her bread and sold it out on the road for a higher price! Get it from Lorraine herself and experience a fun visit that will bring you back again any time you return to Maui. And please tell her that Matt sent you!
From Maui it’s a short boat excursion to neighboring Lanai, which features pineapple fields, golf resorts, a dramatic coastline and even Shipwreck Beach, a graveyard for a number of ships that wrecked along the island’s coral reefs. You can also do a day trip to Moloka’i, where you should visit the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula, a spectacularly beautiful place with a dark past: it was the place where in the late 1800s those with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) were banished and abandoned to live out their final days.
The oldest island in the Hawaiian chain, and the farthest northwest is Kaua’i. This island has perhaps some of the most beautiful scenery in the state and films like South Pacific and Jurassic Park filmed scenes on Kaua’i. The northern coast between Princeville and Hanalei is particularly scenic and if you continue on to the end of the road you can start a dramatic hike along the famous Na Pali Coast.
On the other side of Kaua’i you’ll feel as if you somehow returned to the mainland and stumbled across the Grand Canyon; Kaua’i features Waimea Canyon, often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. There is also a fantastic view of the Na Pali Coast – for those not up to the long hike – from the Kalalau Valley Lookout Point.
Finally, no trip to Hawaii is complete without a stop on Oahu. Honolulu is an exciting city with great cuisine ranging from delicious seafood at Nico’s Pier 38 on your way in from the airport, to generous portions of comfort food at M.A.C. 24/7 in Waikiki, to warm malasadas at Leonard’s bakery or delicious guava pancakes at Cinnamon’s in Kailua. The beach at Waikiki may be crowded, but it is beautiful, and safe for swimming, especially if you have children. While on Oahu a visit to Pearl Harbor is a pilgrimage that all Americans should make at least once to pay tribute to those lost in that terrible attack. For pure relaxation, a 20 or 30 minute drive over to the windward side of the island brings you to simply stunning beaches at Kaneohe Bay, Kailua and Lani Kai, all great for kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling and with far fewer people than you’d find at Waikiki.
To me, Hawaii is a dream vacation spot. It has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, a near-perfect climate, dramatic scenery, active volcanoes, mouth-watering cuisine, history, fascinating cultural sites and traditions, and an active art and music scene. (You can hear the best of Hawaiian music in my radio show podcasts of Catchin’ a Wave).
I don’t think I’m ever as relaxed or as deeply content as I am when I’m in Hawaii. The islands change me. They soothe me and take away the frustrations and stresses of everyday life. They remind me of the beauty of nature and how much joy simple things can bring us: a double rainbow, a basking seal or curious sea turtle, a vibrant flower blossom, the changing colors of the sea, sunsets and moon rises that leave me speechless. I honestly feel that I am a better person when I am in Hawaii. I hope that all of you feel the desire to experience Hawaii will have the opportunity to visit the islands and to fall in love with them as I have. But be careful. Once Hawaii is in your heart, you will feel a yearning that doesn’t stop until you return to her again.