We put Hawaii aside in our minds years ago, dismissing it as a destination for people who didn’t like to be as active as we did. Old people, we thought. Maybe corporate conventioneers. Let’s use our fit and functional years to climb steep paths and take 15-hour flights and sleep in tents and apply for difficult visas, we reasoned. Hawaii will be there when we can no longer do all those things, when we want to go sit on a beach with an umbrella drink in hand.
What changed? I don’t know really; all of a sudden, we just got an urge to see Hawaii. It helped that our adventuresome son had recently raved about his trip, our lively parents had loved the place, and so many of our energetic friends had returned multiple times to the islands.
So, no, we didn’t get old or lazy, but we did have two big birthdays to observe early this year and had narrowed our celebration spot to Namibia or Hawaii (slightly different choices, I know!). Hawaii won.
We’re so glad it did. And we were so wrong in our previous thinking. Maybe some people hang out on beach chairs sipping tropical cocktails for a week in Waikiki, but we were able to find more than enough to do on two of the lush, green islands that make up this chain of volcanic dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
We started on Oahu. With the main Hawaiian airport, skyscrapered Honolulu, jam-packed Diamondhead, and yes, clichéd Waikiki on its shores, Oahu was routinely dissed by many friends who gave us travel advice. It’s too urban, too touristy, too congested, many tsk-tsked. But a close friend who knows Hawaii well convinced us to head directly out of Honolulu upon landing and hightail it to the quieter North Shore. A little research turned up more hiking options there than almost anywhere else in the islands, and we spent four days in an area with very little of the built-up feel of the southern shore or the other islands with strips of resort hotels.
We passed our days on a series of coastal trails, among them a long, sandy stroll to the northern tip, Kahuku Point;
a rough, windy walk out to far-west Kaena Point;
and a pine needle-laden path to a huge, old banyan tree and on to a World World II pillbox near Kawela Bay.
We ate from a shrimp truck, a local sandwich shop, and a 68-year-old shave ice stand in surfer-town Haleiwa while we admired the surfboards (and a few surfers, too – sorry, J) standing up against many a brightly-painted building. We watched those colorful boards in action, too, at the Banzai Pipeline, where young and old alike unfolded their tanned torsos in the curl of a huge wave pounding toward shore.
Our next stop was the Big Island, this one recommended by many who had found the land mass the most ecologically diverse and the “real Hawaii,” as we heard more than once. The first claim was easy to prove: in the next four days, we drove from lava fields to verdant gardens to ranch lands to desert scrub to one of the most serene and stunning beaches we’d ever seen. And back again, more than once, through these variations.
As we had on Oahu, we sought out some small communities, like Volcano Village, a street of about ten buildings near Volcanoes National Park, where we stayed in an old YMCA camp-turned-inn. After last year’s eruption of Kilauea, the world’s most active and dangerous volcano, parts of the crater rim drive were devastated and the breathtaking lava lake at Halema’uma’u crater collapsed and drained, leaving a vast field of dried-up, smoking lava.
The effects of Kilauea’s huge 1959 eruption are still eerily visible as well, making the visit to the park both mind-blowing and a little disappointing (in spite of our good fortune that its federal employees had kept it open during the government shutdown).
We also particularly enjoyed tiny Hawi on the northern edge of the island, where we caught an impromptu hula performance by a group of senior citizens and ate at a kitchsy restaurant that was part of Hawi’s rebound from ghost-town status in recent years. Near here, we took our steepest hike of the trip, picking our way slowly down a pitched, root-strewn path into the Pololu Valley that started with this panoply of warnings:
We felt secure enough in our footwork (and stayed hard to the non-cliff side!) and were rewarded with a misty, black sand beach … and then the long climb back up and out. It was the workout we were looking for, and the views may have been the most remarkable of the trip.
A shorter down- and uphill trail took us through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just outside Hilo. Given its internet presence and lofty name, I expected a major tourist attraction but was very pleasantly surprised to drive in on a 1½-lane, S-curve road and find a magical oasis that was the result of one man’s 8-year effort to clear and replant this Onomea Valley hillside in the late 70s.
We had our nicest dinner of the trip in crisp and cool Waimea, Hawaii’s higher-elevation ranchland that felt a little bit Outback, a little bit Texas in its look and spirit. We made the drive from sea level to 3000 feet and back a couple of times, never tiring of the vistas in either direction.
On the Kohala coast, we happened upon the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, a 175-mile network of seaside walking paths that ran near our hotel. After hiking the section nearby, we re-joined the trail twenty miles down the coast toward Kona a few days later, where we wandered through Kekaha Kai State Park one morning.
We picked our way through clots of hardened lava for several long, hot slogs, rounding a corner every once in a while to a new viewpoint where, I must admit, I found myself saying “Oh, it’s just another beach.”
Nine days in paradise may have made me sound jaded, but Hawaii is far from ho-hum. There are so many brilliant flowers, so much ambrosia-like pineapple and other fruit, and so many postcard-perfect palm trees bowing down to white sand beaches that I can barely imagine the days when I thought it would be an uninspired destination.
I never really thought about the fact that I could stay in the U.S. and be in Polynesia at the same time, surrounded by South Pacific motifs and visages, Aussie and Kiwi accents, and signs and menus in Japanese, to mention just a few of the cultural treats throughout our travels. We made a point to try and see the “real Hawaii,” on two feet as much as we could, and we think we succeeded. We ate breakfast with barefooted surfers on the north coast of Oahu, had to nix a hike when the only parking was in a seedy neighborhood crawling with cop cars, and missed getting some musubi at a 7-11 when a guy out front decided to take his pants off, scaring us off.
But we also stayed at a couple of beautiful oceanfront hotels, watched the sun rise and set over palm trees and limpid seas, swam in the ocean, and drank coffee in a warm and breezy open-air restaurant every morning.
We spent our last day in … yep, Waikiki, and we loved the whole loud, lit-up place. J wore the Hawaiian shirt his dad brought back decades ago, I wore more sundresses in a week and a half than I have in years, and one day at the pool, wearing the pink and orange flowered flip-flops gifted by the hotel, I ordered my own tropical umbrella drink with no shame at all. Mahalo, beautiful state – we will be back for more!