As the home of surfing, hula and the world’s largest dormant volcano, birthplace of Barack Obama and shave ice, Hawai’i claims to be like no other place on earth. If the recent renewed interest in Hawai’i is anything to go by, it seems New Zealanders agree. Bonita Burnett headed to Hawai’i to see what all the fuss was about.
As a first time visitor to Hawai‘i, I had no idea what to expect. My years of Magnum P.I and Hawai‘i 50 and then later, movies such as Jurassic Park, Pearl Harbour and 50 First Dates hadn’t given me much insight either. Wasn’t Hawai‘i just a longer flight to another version of the Gold Coast? Before I left, everyone I spoke to, without exception, gushed about their own experiences and how much they loved Hawai‘i. This was excitedly followed by assurances that I was going to love it too. New Zealander’s definitely weren’t this united in their feelings about the Gold Coast. So, what is it that makes Hawai‘i ‘like no other place on earth’?
After I disembarked from my Hawaiian Airlines flight and made my way to catch one of the many regular connections to Maui, two interesting things caught my eye. The first was the vending machines selling fresh flowers and leis. And the second was that the bathroom symbols for men and woman were in traditional dress. Now if that doesn’t already give you a big ‘Aloha, we’re so glad you came’, then what does? And I hadn’t even left the airport yet.
First stop for me was Maui, routinely voted as Best Island in the Pacific. Maui is made up of four distinct areas, all diverse and unique in climate, geography and culture – Central Maui, governmental and commercial centre; South Maui, the latest tourist offering along a sun-drenched coastline; East Maui, home to HaleakalÄ National Park and the famed HÄana Drive; and West Maui, the historic heart of the island and where I was headed.
Maui is big, a lot bigger than I expected. And although the island offers travellers many things, public transport isn’t one of them so get yourself a car to easily get around. I was quite nervous about driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road but some good old-fashioned eavesdropping in the airport gave me two very good tips – the driver should always be in the middle of the road (not the car, the driver… did take me a few seconds to work that out) and when turning right, keep it tight. With every tricky situation I faced from then on (round about anyone?), I kept those tips in mind and it worked like a charm.
There is another important ‘must do’ in the car department when you pick up your wheels. If you get asked if you want to upgrade to a convertible (if you haven’t already), the only answer should be an emphatic YES! Preferably, a Mustang convertible. One of your best memories of Hawai‘i will definitely be driving along the coast with the top down, the wind streaming through your hair and a glorious blue ocean for as far as the eye can see running alongside you. It will also give you a lot more street cred when surrounded by a few Harley Davidson’s at the traffic lights.
After 40 minutes of easy driving (did I mention that the speed limit is in miles?), I pulled up at the stunning Hyatt Regency Maui in KÄ‘anapali. Although very impressed at my driving prowess so far, I was more than happy to hand the car over to the welcoming valet at the Hyatt. I had a famous Maui sunset and a cocktail or three to find. In ancient times KÄ‘anapali was the playground of Hawaiian Royalty and as you walk along the gorgeous three-mile beach, it’s easy to see why. This strip of coast is also famous for whale watching, as from December to April every year, the Pacific Humpback Whale comes home to breed and give birth.
I had an early morning whale watching tour booked to meet these gentle giants ‘face to face, flipper to flipper’, so after a quick dip in one of the amazing pools at the resort and only two cocktails as I watched the sun go down, it was off to bed for me. As I strolled back to my room through the beautifully landscaped gardens (complete with penguins, black and white swans, cranes and flamingos), the crashing waves in the background and a gentle breeze, I thought to myself that I might quite like this Hawai‘i.
On a very quiet boat ramp in the dawn light, with not a boat in sight, the three of us that had shared a cab turned to watch it drive off. So we got onto what you do in America every time you meet a stranger, you find out where they are from of course! It wasn’t long before there was a small gathering of people, at least implying that we were all in the right place… or in the wrong place. But, still no sign of the boat. Not a problem, there was more establishing of where everyone was from to be done.
At last, a big rubber dinghy with Cane Fire II on the side came into view – our ride had arrived. We were lucky to have the expertise of Mark Ferrari, a whaling expert from the ‘Center for Whale Studies’ onboard with us and once we got going, it became pretty obvious just how fortunate this was. I was ashamed to realise just how little I knew about the whales and hungrily took in what Mark had to tell us. Turns out though, even with all the research done over the years, Humpback whales still remain very elusive to us and much of what they do and why is a mystery. Grey areas include why the males sing, why they travel away from Alaska to give birth and most amazingly to me, how they mate as no human has ever witnessed this before.
We had hardly hit the water before we came across our first ‘competitive’ group of two males and one female plus calf. How it works with whales during this period is that a female, usually with calf in tow, is followed by a group of males all vying to be her ‘primary escort’. Loosely, that translates into being in the best spot to mate with her when she decides she is ready… all speculative of course. Mark told us that sometimes the females would use the boats as a barrier between them and the males to get a bit of breathing room. But ultimately, wherever the female goes, the males will soon follow.
We soon came across another group of three males and one female plus calf. They were much more accommodating to us tourists, even swimming under the boat at one point. The clear water made them very easy to spot but for something so large, they sure move fast. And that is one of the main reasons why studying them is so challenging – if the whales aren’t interested, they are out of there quick smart. Captain Steve dropped a hydrophone overboard and it was amazing to hear some singing. Researchers have suggested that as most of the male singers are smaller, they probably haven’t succeeded in a ‘competitive group’ and are singing the blues! Although we spotted one other group, we weren’t quite lucky enough to see any of them breach (dive out of the water) but there was plenty of fluking (when their tails flip out of the water) to be had. By law, the boats have to remain at least 100 yards from the whales at all times but as Mark said, you only really ever get a very small taste anyway, as all the action is happening underneath the water.
After two hours out on the big, blue ocean following whales, my inquisitiveness was piqued. Luckily for me, Whale Quest Kapalua, a celebration of Maui’s most famous visitors, was being held at the Ritz Carlton. After a look around the exhibits, I joined one of the documentary sessions that had me laughing one minute and teary eyed the next. I left with substantially more knowledge about and respect for these great creatures of the ocean and have definitely joined those that now believe we must do everything we can to preserve them for future generations.
If you get a chance, visit Kapalua. I loved it from the minute I drove in through the pine trees. There is plenty to keep you entertained with two golf courses (one features in the PGA tour), three white sand beaches, a whole bunch of walking tracks and of course, plenty of boutiques and galleries if shopping is more your thing. I was disappointed that I never got to try their latest exciting initiative, a state-of-the-art zipline at Kapalua Adventures. I will have to go back just for that. And for another very tasty breakfast at the Ritz.
Next stop for me though was Maui’s historic jewel, Lahaina. Once playground of the Hawaiian aristocracy and later centre of the Pacific whaling industry, the town became a National Historic Landmark in the 1960’s. Serious restoration of its many historic treasures began and today, there are more than 30 lovingly restored sights such as the Old Prison, the Seaman’s Hospital, the Old Courthouse and Pioneer Inn. The Inn is well known for its fantastic breakfast and is a good option after some early morning whale watching. The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either. Head to Front Street where all the action can be found, no matter what the time of day. While I was there, a band was playing and the small market of local arts and crafts was bustling with tourists and locals alike. I got myself a shave ice, settled under the colossal Banyan tree in the main square and simply absorbed the atmosphere of this happening little town.
Who could go to Maui and not experience a traditional hula and feast? So off to Old Lahaina Lu’au I went. I could hear the strains of a ukulele as I approached and was met by a beautiful hostess who welcomed me with a flower lei and frosty Mai Tai. A very handsome warrior then lead me to my seat at one of the tables along the small outdoor theatre. Until dinner, you can either sit at your table and enjoy the sunset and company, or have a look around and visit the array of local artists selling their wares. You can even have a photograph taken Hawaiian style to remember your evening. After the ‘imu’ opening, dinner is served in the Hale’ei (eating house) and includes plenty of traditional fare like Kalua Pua’a (pork), Poi (root of taro plant) and Ahi Poke (yellow fin tuna) as well as local favourites such as the Island Crab Salad and Maui Style Mahi Mahi. But it was once we had all eaten our fill that the real entertainment started with stories about Hawai’i’s history and mythology told through a series of beautiful songs and hula. Welcoming, genuine and beautifully executed, it was easy to see why this lu’au gets such rave reviews and remains a firm favourite with travellers.
But, after an all too short stay on Maui I was off to O’ahu and the bright lights of Waikiki. O’ahu is nicknamed ‘The Gathering Place’ and is the hub and heart of Hawai’i. Made up of Waikiki and Honolulu, Windward Coast, North Shore, Central O’ahu and Leeward Coast, are all unique and offer travellers something different. The best way to see all the island has to offer is by picking up a Go O’ahu Card. The cards come in 1,2,3,5 or 7 days and gives you access to a wide array of activities that suit not only first time visitors, but those who have also been before. I can highly recommend the Pearl Harbour and Honolulu City tour and there was at least a dozen other activities that caught my eye that I was keen on doing. Plus, the card allows you to use the Waikiki trolley that has some great routes already set-up depending on what you want to experience, namely shopping, historic or scenic.
Whatever your reason for visiting, spoil yourself and check into the absolutely stunning HalekÅ«lani. As I walked into my room and the shutters were thrown back, I audibly gasped… Waikiki and Diamond Head were at their glittering best. On the perfect spot along Waikiki, you can either escape to the pool or private beach or within a short stroll, be right in the middle of all the action. HalekÅ«lani translates into “House Befitting Heaven” and a more apt description could not be made. You will find it tough to leave your oasis of tranquillity but force yourself you must because on this island, there is a lot to see and do.
But first things first, let’s check out the shopping! Admittedly, the New Zealand dollar has been stronger against the Greenback before, but credit cards generally have no problem talking Louis Vuitton, Coach or Sergio Rossi. The shopping is sensational along KalÄkaua Ave. And if you get tired of pounding the pavement, you don’t have far to go to find a cute café, Starbucks or funky bar to have a break. And if you need a refreshing dip, the ocean is just across the road. I was in Hawai’i for Valentines Day and had something very special lined up, a dinner at the renowned Chef Mavro.
Chef George Mavrothalassitis and his team have high expectations to live up to as they are the only restaurant in Hawai’i to be awarded the AAA Five Diamond Award and listed in Gayot’s ‘Top 40 Restaurants in the U.S. 2008’. Chef Mavro specialises in wine and food pairing; each dish is carefully considered using local seasonal ingredients and then the wine is added, perfectly complementing every flavour of a dish. Standouts for me were the Grilled HÄmÄkua mushroom, macaroni gratin and the Kurobuta Pork ‘a lais Malais’. Pure perfection. And the wines, oh my goodness, the wines… heavenly from beginning to end. But don’t take my word for it, go and experience it for yourself. You will absolutely agree with me that Chef Mavro is truly magnifique!
And still on the subject of food, after a superb meal at Orchids, HalekÅ«lani’s wonderful oceanfront restaurant (fantastic Mai Tais, try one if you get a chance), I was sitting on my ‘lanai’ overlooking an azure ocean and sipping a(nother) glass of wine. As I watched a few die-hard surfers still out on the water, I thought to myself it is easy to see why Hawai’i remains such a firm favourite in Kiwis hearts. What is there not to like? It’s one of those great destinations that has something for everyone – couples looking for romantic walks on the beach and breathtaking sunsets, families looking for plenty of activities to keep the kids amused, singles looking for sun during the day and cocktails at night, girly weekends with lots of shopping or boys’ weekends with plenty of fishing… the list goes on and on and on. It’s a diverse, exciting and entertaining place to be. Most surprising to me was the rich and interesting history of the islands and I can’t wait to get back to check out Maui’s HÄna Road and HaleakalÄ National Park and O’ahu’s North Shore. Back in New Zealand, staunch supporters (so pretty much everyone really) are now telling me that it’s the sort of place that gets better and better every time you go. So, Aloha Hawai’i from me for now… but only until next time.
Weather in Hawai’i is very consistent, with only minor changes in temperature throughout the year. There are really only 2 seasons in Hawai’i: summer (from May to October) with average daytime temperatures of 29.4ºC, and winter (from November to April) with average daytime temperatures of 25.6º C. Temperatures at night are approximately 6-7ºC lower.
It is advised that you book your car before leaving for Maui.
Whale watching: www.captainsteves.com
Go O’ahu Card: www.gooahucard.com
For further information, visit Hawai’i’s Official Tourism Site or see your local Mondo Travel agent.