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Sailing to Hawaii

Author: travelmel
Date of Trip: October 2006

It didn’t really hit me that I was going to Hawaii until my second flight of the day — after the haul from Newark to Salt Lake City and boarding my even longer connection to Honolulu. On this leg, flight attendants wore aprons in bright floral patterns, and all announcements began with “aloha.” The scenery probably improved, too, but seeing as I was smack in the center of the plane in the very last row with no window, we could have been over Germany and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I was here to spend a few days on Oahu and then a week cruising the other islands on NCL’s Pride of Hawaii. I planned to get a rental car for my two days on Oahu from Hertz’ new “Fun Collection,” because when else would I drive a convertible sports car? I also set out looking for adventure, including my very first surfing lesson (because, hey, when in Hawaii…).

Driving in Paradise

Hawaii is a dream to explore via rental car. The islands are beautiful and easy to navigate, and since you are in the U.S., there’s no need to worry about quickly memorizing new traffic laws or driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

I reserved a car from Hertz’ new Fun Collection ahead of time via their Web site, and after picking up my baggage at the carousel, a shuttle van took me right to the check-in counter, where I was given the keys to a white Mazda Miata.

Tip: Unless you are traveling alone with one small bag, do yourself a favor and ask for something with more trunk space (like the Ford Mustang or Toyota Solara), or arrange to pick up your speedy, sexy car after dropping your stuff off at your hotel. Try as I might I could not fit my standard rolling suitcase in the anorexic backend of the Miata, so it sat shotgun (wearing a seatbelt, of course)!

Top down and radio tuned to a station playing Hawaiian melodies, my boxy traveling companion and I set off from Honolulu toward the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. Instead of taking the freeway through the center of the island, as the GPS on my cell phone suggested, I consulted the map I’d grabbed at the Hertz counter to find a more scenic route from the Waikiki Beach area to the North Shore.

All along this route are scenic lookouts and beaches where you simply pull over, park your vehicle next to other rented Jeeps and sports cars, and take pictures or simply sit and enjoy the scenery. The most memorable part of the drive, which took me several hours, was stopping just before sunset at a quiet, deserted stretch of beach. As the sun dipped behind the palm trees and below the water, the entire sky turned pink and then purple — as if just for me. Snapshots didn’t do it justice, and I wish I’d viewed my first Hawaiian sunset through my own eyes, and not a viewfinder.

The Turtle Bay Resort is one of very few places to stay outside of Waikiki Beach, and is a full-service resort featuring pools, golfing and water sports. It was an easy choice; though hotels are notoriously pricey in Hawaii, Turtle Bay was running a special rate of $199 throughout the month of October. That rate and a surprise upgrade got me a comfortable room with a balcony. Cool tidbit: The property is designed in such a way that every single room has an ocean view.

After my long journey and road trip, I was interested in simply getting settled in and then heading downstairs to 21 Degrees North, a contemporary restaurant with Hawaiian fare fused with international flavors, for a relaxing dinner. I asked to be seated outside on a patio lit with tiki torches and washed with island breeze. I started my meal with a salad of local organic greens with pineapple balsamic dressing, Maui onions, Hawaii-grown tomatoes and goat cheese crusted with macadamia nuts. Dinner was a delicious Moi filet — a meaty fish that is native to Hawaii, resembling salmon in texture but a white fish in taste — wrapped in nori, served with jasmine rice, bok choy and a yellow coconut curry cream.

I passed on dessert, unusual for me, but my waiter made sure to slip me some chocolate truffles with my bill to take back to my room as a nightcap….

A View to Die for (Almost Literally)

After checking out of Turtle Bay in the morning, I drove back to Waikiki where I’d be spending my last night before boarding Pride of Hawaii — this time via the freeway, past the Dole pineapple plantation (which I regret not stopping at). I dropped off my bag at the Marriott and set out for the day’s adventure — climbing Diamond Head.

The mountainous Diamond Head crater, flanking Oahu’s southeast coast, is one of the island most famous landmarks, the byproduct of a volcanic explosion that occurred some 500,000 years ago. Ancient Hawaiians called it Laeahi, which translates to “brow of the tuna”; early British sailors mistook the glistening calcite crystals embedded in the lava rock for diamonds, and gave Diamond Head its incorrect name in the 1800’s.

The cost to park and climb the 540 ft. is $5, and after locking up the Miata I set off toward the initial trail. The Diamond Head State Monument opens at 6 a.m., and that’s a cooler, less crowded time to climb. When I arrived at 10 a.m., the sun was not exactly blazing — but it was the start of a hot day and I could already feel beads of sweat moistening my forehead. The .7-mile hike begins with a paved trail that leads to a series of relatively steep and often uneven and rocky switchbacks (there are railings to hold on to) up the side of the mountain. Though there are a few lookout/rest points, there’s not much to the trail itself.

Two steep staircases are about two-thirds of the way to the top — and this is about where I thought I was going to die or at least get violently ill. It wasn’t a fear of heights or even sensitivity to the heat, but sheer exhaustion. Okay, so maybe it was the heat, too. After the second, narrow flight there’s a small dimly lit tunnel (a former World War II bunker) in which I literally sat on the ground panting. I knew I was close to the top, because people that passed my makeshift seat shortly came back in the other direction, sweating bullets, all promising the same thing: “It’s worth it!”

Eventually I made it to the top (a few staircases later) and it was worth it — only four or so people can be on the actual summit at a time, and there is absolutely nothing blocking your panoramic view of the vast blue Pacific Ocean, glittering Honolulu skyline and sandy shores of Waikiki Beach. It almost felt unrealistic, as if I had stepped into an aerial view postcard or 360-degree video clip taken by helicopter. (That might have been the heat getting to me.)

Travelers of all ages and ranges of physical fitness can and do make the climb — young and old, scrawny and plump. The key is being able to pace yourself. Avoid the mid-day period when temperatures, and crowds, soar. There’s little shade, so wear a hat and sunscreen, and take a bottle of water (mine was warm as soup by the time I made it to the top, but I was still grateful to have it).

What goes up must come down, and that trip was easier, naturally (about 20 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half). Halfway down I spotted the Miata in the parking lot, which looked like a one of those miniature toy cars, and I felt really proud for having tackled this tourist favorite. And really thankful for the air conditioning I was about to crank up.

Lunch that day was well earned. I had spied a handful of packed shrimp stands the day before on my drive along the coast, and long lines are always good signs in my book — so I set out in the same direction for roadside eats. The bright red shack at Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp, Inc. caught my eye. The menu is simple: Each platter comes with rice and your choice of prawns or shrimp — all caught fresh daily, right on site — cooked in your choice of a variety of sauces like garlic and sweet and spicy. I brought my buttery garlic shrimp over to one of the picnic benches and dug in; it isn’t a very neat meal (the saucy shrimp are cooked shell-on), but delicious, and an outdoor sink with soap is set up for washing your hands afterward.

After a final zip south along the coast with the Hawaiian breeze whipping through my hair, and a spin through the palm-tree-lined streets of Waikiki, it was time to say aloha to the Miata. Then I boarded Pride of Hawaii to start the cruise portion of my trip.

Hot Times in Hilo

When faced with a volcano, the instinctual response should be “run for your life,” right? Well, not on this trip….

Kilauea, on the “windward” or eastern side of Hawaii’s Big Island, has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983. (Science aside, many Hawaiians believe Kilauea to be home to Pele, the violently tempered goddess of fire.) In 1990, from April through December, lava from Kilauea — in Hawaiian, “spewing” or “much spreading” — buried the town of Kalapana, a former fishing village; the red-hot lava cooled into black rock, which marks what’s now mostly a ghost town.

From Pride of Hawaii’s shore excursions roster for Hilo, the first port of my cruise, I chose Kilauea Two Ways: a visit to Kalapana followed by exploration of the Kazumura Cave system — the longest cave in the world — underneath the volcano.

My tour group of 10 was driven by van to Kalapana, a subdivision with no water or power. The town’s name has even been removed from road signs. The few remaining families that had beachfront homes now have lava-front homes — but they are lucky to have homes at all. This lava is interesting business; in this town that was all but destroyed, there are a handful of buildings that were spared when the lava flow diverted or split in such a way that they did not catch fire. According to Tammy, our guide, diehard residents still live in these houses (one is even a bed and breakfast), even though they are surrounded by desolate, blackened ground, and drive all-terrain vehicles over the lava rock to get to and from the market, etc.

We walked over the lava rock to the edge of the water, a trek that took about 15 minutes. The beach that exists now is made up entirely of black sand, formed by ash. Tammy told us that an elderly woman (who’s since passed on) would walk over the lava rock toward the beach every day and plant coconut trees in the ashy black sand in an effort to add color to the area. She wanted to see her town move on — and now there is much life sprouting above the destruction, which I found both eerie and comforting.

For the second part of the excursion, we drove to another area of the island where Phil, a bearded eco-guide who looked more like a rock star than a spelunker, took us down into a damp, dark cave system that is actually a series of lava tubes inside Kilauea. Yes, we were in a cave beneath one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, equipped only with hardhats and flashlights. “If it starts getting warm in here,” he joked, “just let me know!”

Luckily, the chill lingered. We wore gloves and were not allowed to touch but could view the different stalactites and stalagmites formed by old lava flow, as well as swirling whirlpools frozen in time — once lava cools it stops in its tracks so that you actually see ripples and, in some places, the path it was taking before it hardened. Up on land, in fact, there are spots in the lava rock where pineapples had gotten stuck as the flow went from scorching to solid, leaving permanent indentations.

My day of volcanic activity, so to speak, was capped off back onboard Pride of Hawaii with the evening sail by Kilauea, a staple of Hawaiian cruise itineraries — akin to glacier viewing on Alaskan or South American voyages. At approximately 9:45 p.m., we approached the volcano on the starboard side. In the pitch black of night, you could see the glowing lava exploding as it hit the ocean, and off to the right of the cone, what I thought were houses lit up in the hillside were actually pockets of lava peeking through crevices in the gigantic mass of rock that makes up the volcano. The ship then spun around for portside viewing.

The Big Island, already the largest Hawaiian island (twice the combined size of the others in the chain), is still growing because of the lava that continues to pour out of Kilauea. In fact, over the last decade Kilauea has formed over 500 new acres. It is one of the few places on earth where landmass is being created — and I got to watch it happen with my own eyes.

According to volcanologists, Kilauea’s flow currently shows no signs of stopping.

Snorkeling on Maui

For our stop in Maui, I booked NCL’s Molokini Crater Snorkel excursion, which is a marine preserve and one of the top dive and snorkel sites in the world — Molokini is actually an extinct volcano. Its crescent shape provides protection from waves and powerful currents, and the back wall drops up to 300 ft., offering clear, spectacular views.

I have to say, though, that even though the famed Molokini Crater is the most popular snorkel spot on Maui, I had a better run at Turtle Arches, the second snorkeling stop on my excursion. I spotted two huge Hawaiian green sea turtles, and went on an informal “tour” with one of our boat guides who was happy to point out species of fish indigenous to Hawaii — including ones that change sex, ones that change color and an obsessive compulsive cleaner that acts as a “car wash” to other fish who literally line up to have slime sucked off their bodies.

Caffeinated on Kona

When we docked in Kona, I was struck immediately by how different it was from Hilo — even though it is on the very same island. Hilo felt industrial at the pier, and arid and almost desert-like outside the city; Kona on the other hand is lush, damp and green (and one of the few ports we pulled into where there wasn’t a Wal-Mart sign gleaming on the horizon). The rainforest environment, in fact, supports the region’s booming coffee business.

Finding a good cup of coffee was my business for the day. Kona coffee is one of the best known varietals of coffee in the world, and is hitting the mainstream market as a major trend with convenience stores like Wawa, Quick Chek and 7-Eleven offering 100 percent Kona java or at least blends (though those generally contain only 10 percent Kona coffee). Hawaii is the only U.S. state growing coffee, and the plant isn’t native but was brought there from Brazilian cuttings in the 19th century by an American missionary.

Kona Coffee Then & Now is a standard bus tour, and the shore excursions desk actually called to make sure that I really did intend to book that particular one; it did, I must admit, stick out like a sore thumb amid the hiking, surfing and other assorted adventures I’d booked. But a day of good old fashioned sightseeing was in order — and I was eager to learn more about one of my favorite beverages.

The “then” portion of the excursion found us at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm. The seven-acre working coffee farm still operates as it did in the early 1900’s by first generation Japanese immigrants; artifacts on the property ranged from a traditional Japanese bathhouse to the dinged tin cans children wore around their necks as they set about harvesting coffee beans. I know I learned something new: Coffee beans are grown inside of a small red fruit that’s called a cherry; we were encouraged to pick cherries up off the ground or off trees, and squeeze the white beans out of the sticky pulp (the beans do not turn the signature coffee brown color until they are roasted).

The “now” was a visit to the Bay View Farm, which uses a modern mill to sort its beans and produce its coffee. Our driver recommended we wait until this last stop to by coffee to take home, and I was grateful to him for the tip. There were several varieties and flavors to taste and purchase, and the shopkeepers were happy to grind beans for you on the spot. I fell in love with dark chocolate covered peaberries, rare whole beans that are less bitter than the standard split seed from coffee cherries. Since I’ve been home, I’ve already ordered two more bags of chocolatey peaberries via their Web site!

Unlike many of the other ports on this itinerary, which are simply starting points for adventures further inland or along the coast, Kona boasts a very walkable pier-side village with stores and restaurants for those of us who like to shop and eat in town. Even though it had started raining, I spent the window between the end of my excursion and “all aboard” exploring. If I had more time, I would have toured the nearby Kona Brewing Company — but instead settled for a bottle of their crisp Fire Rock Pale Ale and a burger at Lulu’s, an eclectic second-floor open-air eatery facing the beach.

Mud Madness

The Mudbug & Waterfall Safari wasn’t my first choice for day one in Kauai. In fact, I’d booked a beginner’s scuba lesson … but it was canceled due to lack of participation (i.e. I was the only person who’d signed up). The whole point of the Mudbugs, which was the must-do recommendation I got when I polled the shore excursions staff, is to drive an all-terrain vehicle through puddles of muck and get really filthy. I wasn’t digging it. Plus, the tour has to be booked by two passengers — one driver, one passenger.

Well, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got teamed up with — get this — the shore excursions manager. Apparently, he’d never done Mudbugs, but all of his (mostly male) colleagues thought driving an ATV to get doused from head to toe in mud was a barrel of fun, and here was a passenger traveling alone who needed a Mudbug buddy. “You have to do it!” they peer-pressured me. The clincher? “You’d pay just as much to get covered with mud at the spa.” I couldn’t argue with that logic.

So there I was in my newly purchased Crocs water shoes, an oversized T-shirt and camouflage pants supplied by the tour operator, goggles, and a helmet — harnessed into a completely open ATV with the shore excursions manager at the wheel. He gave me a wicked grin. “This is going to be fun!”

Well guess what? It was fun! A caravan of 10 Mudbugs set off for the 11-mile ride through thick vegetation (this part of Kauai was the backdrop for parts of the original “Jurassic Park”) toward a Maui waterfall. I saw the first mud puddle up ahead and as we sped toward it I forget I had goggles on and instinctively closed my eyes … but not my mouth. So not only did I not see anything but I also ate dirt. Ugh.

For the next, much larger puddle, I remembered to hold my lips together and my eyelids open with imaginary Krazy Glue. The mud literally enrobed the vehicle in a big brown shockwave and suddenly I was completely drenched — hair, skin and my very fashionable ensemble. I was warned that would be the case, but I didn’t expect to be laughing and whooping it up. Once I was dirty, it didn’t matter how big the puddles were or how fast we hit them; in fact, the bigger and the faster, the better! At the waterfall, we were able to rinse off in a beautiful but cold pool … and then drove back the same we came, getting gross once again (the driving downpour that had begun made even bigger, muddier puddles).

Even though we rinsed off in our bathing suits under outdoor shower heads, I had to wash my bathing suit and my hair three times back onboard before the water stopped running a dingy rust color.

Guess playing in the dirt is not just for kids anymore.

Surf’s Up

Surfing was hard. Really, really, really hard. I wasn’t very good at it, and throughout the day I kept saying to myself, self, what were you thinking?

The excursion, Poipu Beach Surfing Lesson, was the last of my trip. An instructor from the Aloha Surf Shop met me and three shipmates as we exited our tour van, and led us to a spot on the beach where boards were set up for the on-land part of the lesson. He assured us that even at the furthest point we’d be going that day, we could stand up and our heads would be above water. The first step would be to lie flat on our stomachs on our boards and paddle out. Once we got to where he wanted us to be, he would physically turn our boards around for us, lead us into a good wave and yell “stand up!” when it was time to, well, stand up. At that point, in two swift motions (any more, and you’ll surely lose balance), you were to push yourself up on your hands and feet as if doing a push-up — and then hop up, arms stretched out, in the center of the board. The secret to stability, we find out, is keeping your gaze on a fixed point on the beach. We practiced a couple of dozen times in the sand, which seemed easy enough, and then carried our boards down to the beach for the real deal.

I have to admit I was not having any fun in the beginning. Even though I grew up in New Jersey and spent summers at the beach with my parents, I’m not an ocean lover. I’m a city slicker. But I gathered up all my courage, and my board, and went racing into the icy cold Pacific Ocean like some deranged Gidget wannabe … and got knocked over by the first big wave, swallowed what seemed like a gallon of salt water, and felt miserable. I couldn’t heave my ample bottom up onto the board to paddle out, and felt miserable. I drifted down toward the nearby Marriott by the current, and felt miserable. How was I ever going to get to the “two swift motions” if I couldn’t even paddle out toward the instructor? I retreated to the beach in shame.

The instructor would not let me sit it out (and boy, did I try). He walked out of the water and literally pulled me up off my duff. Now that I am dry and safe, I am grateful to him for pushing me to get back out there, even though I wanted to die of embarrassment at the time. He was incredibly patient with me and promised (or at least convinced) me that it was hard even for buff him to swim out that day because the current was unusually strong. He grabbed hold of my board, swam me out and got me positioned in such a way that I actually did get picked up by the oncoming waves — and was suddenly zipping along at breakneck speed! With the roar of the waves I could barely hear him screaming “stand up!” behind me, and when I tried I of course plunged directly into the water. Proceeded with a second assisted swim-out. Teetered off again.

I wiped out again and again, but each time it was less frightening — I actually started to laugh and hurry back out rather than gasp and recoil in terror. Just before it was almost time to call it a day, I finally rode a wave to the beach on my knees. I knew if I tried to get up on my feet again I’d wipe out, so I didn’t — I so badly wanted to experience the rush of making it all the way back to the beach (and it was awesome!). Before you can really grasp the fact that you’re actually “surfing,” it’s over. It’s really hard to put it into words. All I can remember thinking as I literally flew toward the shoreline was “all that is between me and billions of gallons of rushing water is a long skinny piece of foam.” Crazy.

How did my shipmates do? We all enjoyed our fair share of wipeouts, but it must be said they did a much better job than I with what should have been basic — paddling against the current for example. They also were able to stand on their boards, and make it back to the beach upright! I probably won’t go surfing again unless I lose a few pounds (my upper body ached for two days from paddling and carrying the board down to the shoreline) … but I think everyone who can swim and is relatively physically fit has to give it a go. Oh, and bring $10 for the photo — even if you look ridiculous (as I did) you’ll want to buy it.

Note: Only four people signed up for this tour on my sailing, and because the current was so strong, that worked out to our favor — the instructor was able to give each of us (especially me) personalized attention. The maximum amount of people taken for each session is 12, and he admitted that with the unusual water conditions, that might have been too many. Participants must be at least 8 years old and able to swim.

Going Home

After spending my last day in Honolulu paying my respects at Pearl Harbor, I boarded my flight home with a big box of pineapples and a camera bag full of high-resolution memories. I would sail this ship and trip again in a heartbeat. I just wish the flight wasn’t so long….

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