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Hawaii, the Unique State
Sugar cane has vanished as a Hawaiian crop; Dole owns the only remaining pineapple plantation. More profitable coffee is grown instead.
A thousand years before Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain the Polynesians were using the stars, winds and ocean currents to navigate the vast Pacific. Sturdy vessels carved from tree trunks and rigged for stability carried these courageous pioneers to new homes on distant tropical islands.
What is it about Hawaii that captivates us? Its luxuriance of green? Its spiky mountain ridges that remind us of lizards' spines and the flanks of camels? Its blue-green seas? Its melange of nationalities? Its grinning surfers?
Hawaii is a fascinating mix of all of these. And Hawaii is like no other American state. These are a happy people who smile at you on the street with the greeting "Aloha!" One woman clasped me to her bosom and announced that she was 86 years old and a real racial mix; her mother was Portuguese, her father was half-Hawaiian and half-Chinese. In Hawaii she is not at all unusual.
After the arrival in 1819 of American missionaries (who soon became first-class businessmen), Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese laborers flooded the islands to work in fields of sugar cane and pineapple. Today sugar cane has vanished; Dole owns the only remaining pineapple plantation. More profitable coffee is grown instead. Tourism dwarfs all else, probably because Hawaii's temperature remains relatively constant, in the 70's, throughout the year. Over six million visitors arrived in Hawaii during 2011 despite the prevailing financial recession. In this balmy climate one doesn't mind the frequent light cloudbursts that keep the land wet, fruitful and blazingly green.
photo by Louise Roberts Sheldon
Giant carved wooden figures representing the Kite-surfer flying high at Kailua Beach, Oahu.
We planned a week-long cruise stopping at four of the larger islands, followed by another ten days in and around Honolulu on the island of Oahu. But, first on our agenda was a visit to Pearl Harbor on December 7, the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese attack in 1941. A film of actual events proved deeply moving to the silent crowd made up of many Japanese and Chinese, as well as visitors from mainland U.S.A., like ourselves. On the cruise and throughout our visit to Hawaii we encountered the same unusual mix of people and marveled at the beauty of the young Asians. At Pearl Harbor we were saddened to learn that human remains are still being extracted from the wreckage of U.S. ships.
We had never before taken a cruise for pleasure. Our ship, The Pride of America, all 81 tons—14 decks, 4 swimming pools, 14 restaurants, with 946 crew members serving 2,138 passengers—operates smoothly and efficiently under Norwegian hegemony. The ship itself reminded me of a skyscraper lying in the water on its side! But it was wonderfully comfortable.
We approached our cabin (which was of the lowest category) with trepidation. Could we possibly squeeze two mammoth suitcases plus a double bed and ourselves into a 10 by 13-foot space? Amazingly, we did! Cupboards and closets crafted into corners were commodious, and provided more than sufficient space for our clothing. Our cubbyhole of a bathroom was ingeniously designed and gave us plenty of room to shower.
We explored every niche of the huge vessel, getting valuable exercise as we trudged from our nest in the bow to restaurants near the stern. Meals were mostly tasty and well prepared. One evening in the ship's vast auditorium we enjoyed a musical show of dances from various South Pacific cultures, including Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand. The show seemed superior to any Hawaiian luau we had witnessed. Among the passengers relishing these delights were many Americans ranging from retired folk like us to ecstatic honeymooners. The week-long cruise among the islands leaves Honolulu every Saturday afternoon, traveling at night, so that during the day we could visit the islands.
photo by Louise Roberts Sheldon
Tropical fish and coral are in a tank at the Maui Ocean Center.
The Pride first docked at Kahului on the island of Maui, a favorite haunt of mainland Americans. Here we had arranged for a rented car as at other dockings. Despite the only violent rainstorm of our visit, we easily found the Maui Ocean Center on the island's windward, or western, coast. Fortunately for us that raging day, the center is constructed completely underground. Its many showcase tanks contain a wide variety of tropical fish that swim in Hawaiian waters. Our favorites, "the Raccoon Butterflyfish" and "the Moorish Idol," dazzled in bright yellow and black. Hammerhead sharks and undulating rays cavorted in a large tank. This marine center is well worth the visit.
On daily boat trips visitors can listen to whale songs from below while witnessing their activity on the surface.
Later the rain ceased and we drove on to the quaint town of Lahaina, once a whaling port, but now an internationally known art center. Under a stout banyan tree, whose 20 trunks stretch to the ground, painters and woodcarvers hawked their art. Lahaina sparkles with fun and games, like the Goofy Foot Surf School. Today the town is also famous for whale watching. On daily boat trips visitors can listen to whale songs from below while witnessing their activity on the surface. Wild dolphin-watching, snorkeling and stargazing on ocean waters are diverting alternatives.
On Haleakala, we were introduced to the Nene, Hawaii's state bird, which apparently evolved from off-course Canada Geese.
Maui is as famous for its flowers as it is for its pristine beaches. Descending through the clouds from Maui's mighty dormant volcano Haleakala, we stopped for lunch at the Kula Lodge. Here we found not only an excellent meal but gardens of blazingly colorful flowers. A bouquet of stunning "Royal Family of Proteus" blossoms resembles nothing you've seen elsewhere, and will last in your home for weeks. On Haleakala, we were introduced to the Nene, Hawaii's state bird, which apparently evolved from off-course Canada Geese. This valiant, if somewhat smaller, creature strutted about ignoring us.
photo by Louise Roberts Sheldon
A portion of the great Akaka Falls grace the rain forest on Hawaii, "The Big Island."
On Hawaii, the archipelago's largest island, we set out from the city of Hilo to view the Akaka Falls, an awesome sight, cascading in torrents into the dense vegetation of the rain forest. The U.S. National Tropical Botanical Garden, created in 1964, offers a paradise of unusual blossoms from Brazil to Malaysia alongside endemic Hawaiian plants. On the shore we found surf crashing around two great rocks that in Hawaiian lore stand for two lovers who sacrificed themselves for their people. Frequently we ran into similar reminders of Hawaii's interesting pre-U.S. history.
From Hilo we drove up to the world's largest, active volcano, Mauna Loa. Its summit at 13,677 ft. over the ocean floor is inaccessible, as it blows its top every three or four years. On nearby slopes, Kilauea Caldera proved to be a vast crater under which magma (molten rock) rises to a deadly reservoir ranging from one half to three miles beneath the summit. Around us columns of steam and poisonous fumes belched from vents in the scorched landscape. Today occasional earthquakes and what vulcanologists call "inflation" of the volcano herald possible eruptions on the summit. What a contrast this deathly, bleak scene is to the rampant greenery we'd seen on this and other Hawaiian islands! That evening, as The Pride of America slipped away, we passed a vast cascade of glowing, molten lava, hissing its way into the sea. Don't think this is the last volcano in the Hawaiian chain! Loihi, to the southeast, is an active submarine volcano, slowly rising from the ocean floor to create eventually another island. In future eons, vulcanologists assure us, more will surely follow.
photo by Louise Roberts Sheldon
Giant carved wooden figures representing the Hawaiian god Ki'I face the sea.
Off the town of Kailua-Kona we were brought to shore by tenders, as this small harbor cannot accommodate the behemoth Pride of America. Here the Hulehea Palace of the Hawaiian royal family resembles a quaint Victorian residence constructed of lava, coral and native hard woods. The first church on the Hawaiian Islands is the Mokuaikaua built for Reverend Asa Thurston in 1820. It incorporates large chunks of lava into the design of a clapboard New England-style building. In our rented jeep we set out for Puuhonua o Honaunau, a national historic park restored to the scene prior to 1700. This sanctuary, surrounded by a huge wall of lava rock dating from 1550, was a place of refuge for defeated warriors who were otherwise put to death. Two ferocious carved wooden guardians, the giant god Ki'i, glare out over the area. If local law was broken, the penalty was severe, for in return, the god might cause volcanic eruptions, tidal waves or earthquakes.
Also on "The Big Island" Captain Cook, who is credited with the discovery of the islands, met an untimely death at the hands of local natives when he tried to retrieve a stolen boat.
On Thursday we arrived at Kauai, the northernmost island in the chain and the oldest. Kauai has had the most geological time to create perfect white sand beaches. We scanned the sea from every possible height in a vain effort to catch sight of the roughly 1,200 humpback whales that come to mate and give birth to calves conceived the year before in these waters. Through 3,100 acres of former sugar plantations, now devoted to coffee growing, we headed for Waimea Canyon, which turned out to be well worth the drive, a stunning sight of reddish rock cliffs, striated by time and green growth. The rock cleavage can be viewed from many miles of hiking trails. Eventually, as water carves its way through rock, the island of Kauai will be split in two halves. Today Mount Waialeale, to the east, is considered the wettest place on earth with an average rainfall of 460 inches a year.
That there was much international interest in Kauai in the 19th century is indicated by the remains of a Russian fort that dates from 1817, when Hawaii was known as the "Sandwich Islands," named for the British Earl of Sandwich. During the U.S. Civil War a Union vessel hid nearby in the Wailua River to escape from the Confederate ship Shenandoah. A pleasant stopover is Kilohana Plantation, relic of Kauai's historic sugar plantation on 26,000 acres, established in 1888. The plantation railway still chugs around the exotic farm which has become a rum distillery.
Back in Honolulu after our cruise we decided to visit the North Shore where a major surf competition had just been held. At Haleiwa we gazed in wonder at waves well over ten feet, where experienced surfers handle the big rollers with the practiced skill of professionals who earn up to half a million dollars in competitions. Ekuhai Beach is famous for "the deadliest wave in the world," and is known for its "perfect, heaving top-to-bottom barrels." We struggled to comprehend the surfers' lingo: "pipeline" is the breadth of the wave; "perfect, heaving top-to-bottom barrels" refers to the wave itself. Surfing in Hawaii has many forms today, including body surfing, boogie-boarding, windsurfing and stand-up paddle board. I think we saw most of those.
But our most exciting day occurred when we visited old friends from Maryland whom we ran into accidentally at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. Near their rented home we watched from the beach at Kailua where a wild wind had churned the bay water to a light green color almost whitened by the gale. Yes, this is the windward side of Oahu beyond the Pali mountains. Here windsurfers were out-raced by "kitesurfers" using rectangular sails that rise high in the air, driving them at fantastic speeds and occasionally lifting the surfer high in the air as well. There were about 30 of them whirring by us. We wondered how they failed to crash into each other! Down at the end of the bay on that particular day, President Obama was taking his vacation on one of Hawaii's most beautiful beaches.
For ancient Hawaiians surfing was a religion that formed a large part of the social culture. Creating surfboards of special woods was a serious ceremony, with the largest boards reserved for Hawaiian royalty.
During those last days we wandered the crowded streets of Waikiki, admiring its elegant shops. We dined extravagantly at some of Honolulu's excellent hotel restaurants by the sea, such as the Outrigger's Shore Bird, the elegant Halekulani's Orchid and the new Otani's Hau Tree Lanai. We lunched at the long-famous, well-situated Turtle Bay Resort. We found Iolani Palace, home to Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani. We visited the Bishop Museum, which sheds much light on the Hawaii of pre-U.S. days. Here native Hawaiians in ancient garb explain their customs and history in fascinating monologues and chants. We devoted another two days to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which has not only a fine collection of Western art, but very interesting rooms devoted to Polynesia and special exhibits of Asian arts.
As yet, the current recession affecting mainland U.S.A. has not seriously impacted the Hawaiian economy, where the cost of living remains high. There is still every reason to visit our country's most unique and, arguably, most beautiful state.
Louise Roberts Sheldon, formerly of Ruxton, Md. and now living in Arizona, has written for a variety of national magazines and has published two books, a collection of stories and a novel set in Morocco.
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This story was published on January 13, 2012.