Hawaii is geographically similar to the other Pacific islands I have written about but as it is also an American outpost it has special appeal for those of us who like a fix of American culture every now and then. In the case of Hawaii, the American fix is also served with a dollop of Polynesian culture.
We spent 12 days in Hawaii during a January 2011 family vacation. While the island of Oahu is the main game when it comes to Hawaiian tourism its sister islands also entice with their own attractions. So to get the most out of our vacation time we spent five days on Oahu and also enjoyed a one week cruise to the islands of Maui, Hawaii (the Big Island) and Kauai.
I had never been on a cruise previously and frankly the idea didn’t hold a great attraction for me. Homogenised adventures shared with 3,000 other people limit the scope for unique experiences. But a cruise did hold out the prospect of conveniently visiting three Hawaiian islands within a week without the hassles of constantly packing/unpacking/waiting around airport lounges. The timing was right too because our teenage daughters were at that age where my wife, Agnes, and I could leave them to their own devices on board while we were left to ours. We could then meet up during the day to do some island exploring.
Being Australian, we’re keenly interested in beaches and swimming. Surprisingly, many of the beaches on Hawaii are not as appealing as they first appear; not even Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. The biggest beach hazards are submerged lava outcrops. As hardened lava is very coarse stubbing your toe or scraping your foot against an outcrop can be intensely painful.
In the particular case of Waikiki beach it’s not only rocky outcroppings which reduce its appeal; stretches of the beach are also too thin to lay yourself out on while other areas have a steep fall off. The water may only be waist deep but one step further and the sand has disappeared and you’re forced to tread water or drown. This can be particularly hazardous for those walking their young ‘uns into the water.
There are still great beaches to be found near Waikiki, however. Our family’s two favourite spots are an easy car ride just outside Honolulu.
Hanauma Bay is a partially collapsed crater with calm clear water that makes for idyllic snorkelling amongst coral and fish.
For those who want a bit more excitement and wave action there’s Halona Beach Cove. It’s only a few kilometres up from Hanamau Bay but a bit of effort is required to scale down to the beach from the highway.
The narrowness of the cove forces the water to rush into the shore making for excellent body surfing conditions. And due to the geography of the cove you can jump off the not-too-high cliffs into the water where you can begin your surf back into shore. For me, though, I quite enjoy making my way offshore by diving under the oncoming waves.
Agnes and I “discovered” this cove on our first visit to Hawaii in 1987. Subsequently I have learned that it is the site of the famous beach scene in the movie From Here To Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. I can’t vouch for the cove as a setting for making love but I can vouch for it as a swimming site. Halona Beach Cove ranks as my favourite swimming spot. Anywhere.
If hiking is more your thing then you may like to take a vigorous walk up to the cusp of the Diamond Head Volcano crater which overlooks Waikiki. Agnes and I headed out one morning without benefit of any instructions and just followed our noses to the volcano.
We began walking from our hotel at the furthest end of Waikiki until we found the tunnel providing passage to the inside of the crater.
After crossing the crater we cautiously climbed the narrow stairs and averted a few other dangers
before finding ourselves at the top of Diamond Head with Waikiki spread out below us.
The heavy influence of American culture on Hawaii means some Polynesian experiences have been “Disneyfied” and are less than authentic. For example, I found our luau experience to be just too glitzy and slick. Not only did the show’s professional sheen come at the expense of authenticity but intimacy was also sacrificed as hundreds of people were crammed together. I much more preferred the down-to-earth Melanesian luau lunch we had in New Caledonia. (See my Noumea post.)
But if you do crave some intimate surrounds I can recommend the Beach Bar at the Moana Surfrider hotel. Evening cocktails at this bar was one of the most idyllic experiences I have ever had. I don’t have any pictures but imagine a warm night, cocktails illuminated by torch and candle lights and a Hawaiian band performing soft Polynesian songs which mix with the sound of gently overlapping ocean waves. Magical.
And with that scene lingering in your minds I’ll move the narrative over to the cruise and the other Hawaiian islands we visited.
To begin: the cruise started off well on yet another balmy Hawaiian night allowing us to indulge in more cocktails. We imbibed on the deck as the boat set sail.
Our first morning broke sunny and warm as we docked at Maui. The conditions were perfect for driving the Road to Hana in a rented Mustang convertible.
In my books the Road to Hana is one of the great drives of the world, right up there with the similarly ocean-skirting drives of America’s Big Sur and Australia’s Great Ocean Road. As the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words” but I couldn’t even use a thousand words to come anywhere close to describing the Road to Hana’s beauty, so I’ll just let these pictures display what I cannot adequately describe.
Our second day on Maui was more leisurely as we took in a swim at Wailea Beach.
The looming volcano across the bay made for a dramatic backdrop but the turbidity of the water at Wailea made me nervous about those lava outcrops. And I was also concerned about what kind of sea life may be delving unseen below, just waiting to have a taste of me.
HAWAII (aka THE BIG ISLAND)
The next stop was the island of Hawaii, alternatively known as the Big Island. This is the go-to island for those with a fascination for volcanoes. A drive around the island will lead you to:
sulphur fumes rising up from the bowels of hell
wastelands where roads have had to be blasted open and re-paved after having been cut off by lava flows
a lava tube tunnel
a black sand beach where you can swim and/or acquaint yourself with the resident turtles.
Our third island stop was beautiful Kauai.
In Kauai’s hinterland you’ll find Waimea Canyon. It is advertised as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific supposedly by Mark Twain, even though there is no record of him ever having visited the area. No matter, it is still a beautiful destination.
Kauai is also the home of the rippling Kaanapali Coast. Witnessing the Coast will require either a time consuming hike (time being something we didn’t have a lot of), a plane excursion (I prefer to avoid small planes no matter the attraction) or a cruise ship (something which we just happened to be on).
The ship’s passage along the Kaanapali Coast held us in thrall with its stunning views.
As we gaped at the Coast there was a touch of melancholy in the air because we knew this was the final cruise experience before the ship started heading back to Honolulu.
I must admit that cruising the Hawaiian Islands was good fun. We could go onshore during the day and party on board at night. Partying did backfire on Agnes one night though when she was the unlucky victim to be plucked out of the audience during a Hawaiian dancing show. Our daughters and I almost wet ourselves from laughter because of Agnes’s obvious extreme discomfort at being the centre of sustained attention .
Although Agnes would not agree, that night alone was almost worth the price of the cruise. Her performance is still replayed regularly in our family conversations.
The ship’s entertainment is what you might expect for such a venue. Namely, entertainers who have been bypassed by the “big time”. There was the pop band which had a moderately successful single 30 years ago and has been trading off that success ever since. Then there was the comedian who started out on the comedy circuit with others, like Tim Allen, who are now enjoying successful Hollywood careers; and here he is stuck on the cruise boat circuit.
On the last night on the cruise there was an extravaganza stage show featuring senior cruise staff proclaiming in song their love and appreciation for us, their passengers. As we made our way out of the auditorium the staff even provided us with an honour guard for one last thank you. Kinda nice but pretty schmaltzy.
We didn’t really think that we had burrowed into the crew’s hearts as deeply as they proclaimed but it still struck a discordant note the next morning at how brusquely we were dealt with at breakfast by the staff. Somewhat akin to “Here’s your toast and coffee, now scram!” I appreciate that the crew was under pressure to ensure everyone was off board quickly so they could prepare the ship for the onslaught of a new set of passengers within a few hours. But maybe they shouldn’t have laid it on so thick the night before. Or perhaps it’s just my naivete about cruise ship etiquette.
Overall, I have still not been seduced by the allure of cruise vacations but I did enjoy the convenience this one provided of visiting three islands. So I could consider cruises in the future– but only where the ship is a convenient conveyance and not the main game itself.
As for visiting Hawaii again, there are things still on my list that I have not seen, including, believe it or not, Pearl Harbor. (We have attempted to tour the Harbor previously but the wait was too long.) I would also like to delve deeper into Hawaii’s history by visiting the island of Moliki and the site of its former leper colony. And I am still to experience the thrill of a morning bike ride down a Maui volcano.
But as I write this we are in the middle of a Canberra winter. And as I sit here with the heater on and bundled up in my winter woollens the desire I have most of all is to get back to Hawaii because it would be so damned pleasurable to rent a condo for a month or three and sit out winter.