Island hopping adventures in the Aloha State
By URIEL HEILMAN
For the uninitiated to Hawaii's pleasures, the Aloha State conjures up images of sun, sand, and surf, verdant hills, luaus and leis.
But as I discovered on my Hawaiian honeymoon, there's a lot more to this remarkable archipelago of islands than beaches, cookouts and the iconic flowery necklaces tourists get at the airport.
On my trip to Hawaii, my wife and I went cantering on a horse through rolling fields on an 11,000-acre ranch with views of distant mountaintops poking through the clouds, hiked through a frigid moonscape on a 10,000-foot volcano, went barreling through dense undergrowth to a hidden lodge on the edge of a cliff, sat at the mouth of the "grand canyon" of the Pacific, paddled a kayak through rice paddies reminiscent of Vietnam, and warmed our hands in sulfurous steam vents on one of the world's most active volcanoes.
We spent a weekend on an organic eco-friendly guest house powered by the sun, stocked with food from an adjacent garden and run by a sweet-hearted Jewish woman, and found peaceful sanctuary at a secluded inn on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. We also spoiled ourselves at a luxurious oceanfront condo in Maui where we could see dolphins frolicking in the water, slept in a cabin nestled in the rainforest in a town called Volcano, and holed up for a Shabbat at a windswept, secluded resort on Kauai where a policy of no phones and no TV made for a sweet honeymoon.
And though we swam, snorkeled, surfed and snoozed, we learned that Hawaii is not just for honeymooners, surfers and the super-rich. It's also a place for families, adventurers, back-to-nature environmentalists, coffee lovers, science geeks and cowboys.
There's so much to do on the islands it's hard to figure out where to start -- or finish. Even for the experienced planner, Hawaii presents something of a challenge with its bewildering array of not-to-be-missed attractions.
So here are a few gems my wife and I stumbled upon to help you sort through the clutter.
The most important thing to do when you first get to Hawaii is depressurize from your long plane ride and detox from your overscheduled life.
With plenty of hidden snorkeling spots, secluded beaches and relatively quiet resorts, Maui's Napili Shores make for a perfect place to get your feet wet.
We stayed in an airy beachfront condo at the Outrigger Napili Shores, (www.outrigger.com, 800-OUTRIGGER), a beautiful seaside resort located in a quiet neighborhood just before the point on one of Maui's coastal roads where the series of hotels and towns gives way to uninterrupted beach and unspoiled countryside.
Though we explored the area a bit, we spent most of our time at the Outrigger acclimating to island life the Hawaiian way -- with our shoes off, our feet in the water and our dreamy eyes cast on the ocean before us. We spotted dolphins one evening during dinner on our veranda, watched the sun set over the neighboring island of Molokai and lazed by the pool debating whether to cook dinner in our well-stocked kitchen or on one of the nearby barbeques.
After a weekend of R&R, we were ready for some adventure. So we headed over to Maui's north shore, on the other side-the island is shaped like two attached circles-and spent a day driving the famed road to Hana, a windy coastal road flanked by cliffs and unbroken ocean on one side and dense jungle, towering waterfalls and the occasional quaint town on the other side.
We spent the night at a wonderful inn on the road to Hana, Cliff's Edge, (www.cliffsedge.com, 866 262-6284), a two-acre estate hidden deep in the tropical fauna on a cliff 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean. At night, we went for a swim in the saltwater pool, warmed up in the hot tub, and stared at the stars while listening to the waves crashing below.
Isolated from the resort strips elsewhere on the island and with just one or two other lights visible in the distance, we felt we had Maui all to ourselves at Cliff's Edge. It was a nice thought to hold onto as we drifted off to sleep later that night in our king suite, listening to the pitter-patter of a passing rain shower on the stones outside.
In the morning, a breakfast of fresh fruit appeared on the patio table outside our suite, providing a much-appreciated tropical energy boost to our very un-tropical day ahead: a hike among the 10,000-foot "craters" of Haleakala National Park, a volcanic mountain whose peaks resemble a moonscape. The air atop Haleakala was thin and cold, but the views were spectacular. Many visitors to Halekala get to the mountain before sunrise, then watch the first rays of the day strike the multicolored earth 10,000 feet in the sky.
We didn't quite make it for sunrise, but we did find ourselves atop Haleakala at sunset after a hike that took our breath away, literally, and we were forced to take the hairpin curves down the mountain at an extremely cautious pace. Next time, I promised myself, I'd ride down on one of the bicycles tour companies provide so that tourists can cruise through multiple climactic zones on their own two wheels -- without even having to pedal.
The Big Island
For many travelers who make the long trip across the ocean to the earth's most isolated island chain, this is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a volcano in action, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii's Big Island.
Though we weren't fortunate enough to see lava actually flowing on our visit to the park -- we caught no more than a glimpse of an orange haze in the distance at dusk, right before a rain cloud rolled in and obstructed our view -- we were awestruck by the steam vents, hardened black lava and petrified trees that stand as evidence of the volcano's power to shape the earth. Along Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters road, which are among the park's most popular and easy-to-see areas, signposts point out the places and times where lava crossed the road: May 1973, February 1984, May 2003.
We hiked, peered, posed for photos and marveled at the strange surfaces, sights and smells in the park, and when the day was done we were more than ready for a restful night's sleep. Aside from the park lodge -- which, though it has an incredible view of a massive lava-filled crater nearby, smells of sulfur because of its proximity to the still-steaming volcano -- the only place to stay near the park is in the nearby town, called, of course, Volcano.
We stayed in the Hapu'u Forest bungalow at the aptly named Inn at Volcano (www.volcano-hawaii.com, 800 937-7786), a luxurious bed-and-breakfast that makes for a splendid place to put up your feet at the end of the day. Our delightful little cottage in the woods had a living room with a fireplace (it gets cold at night at elevation 4,000 feet), a porch, a cozy bedroom and a fantastic shower with its own waterfall and a floor-to-ceiling view of the rainforest out back. Beware of peeping Toms!
After two days of Volcanoes National Park, we were ready to move on. At this point, most tourists head straight for the airport, skipping the rest of the island. This is a mistake. The Big Island has stunning variety to offer: coffee farms and hick towns, sea kayaking and exotic black-sand beaches, organic farms and cowboy country.
We sampled a bit of everything, mixing snorkeling in the bay at Kona to braving the waves on the east side of the island to hiking to a black-sand beach through the wilderness of Waimea's canyons.
One day, when we tired of the water, we headed up to high country for a horseback ride at 4,000-plus feet on an 11,000-acre ranch with some 6,000 head of cattle (do the math!). It had been years since I'd last gotten on a horse, but with rolling fields and breathtaking views of mountains, ocean and the peaks of Maui in the distance, the Ponoholo Ranch on Kohala Mountain was a great place to get back in the saddle.
Sitting a top a horse is a great way to tour: You're at one with nature, you have an elevated perch from which to take in the views and you're engaging in sport without having to really exert yourself -- perfect for a vacation. We rode with patient and affable guides from Paniolo Adventures (email@example.com, 808 889-5354) who took our mixed-skills group of 10 or so through open pastures while offering riding tips and interesting facts about the island and their lives.
And when the fields leveled out a bit and we got the go-ahead, we were able to ride our horses the way they're meant to be ridden. I hollered in glee as I dug my heels into my steed, turning our casual stroll into an exhilarating run. Moving rapidly across the field as I bounced atop my horse, I couldn't resist the urge to let out a big ol' "Yeeha!" as I cantered toward the ranch.
Once we reached the ranch, I wasn't quite prepared for how my thighs would feel after the dismount. Ambling bow-legged to the car in the parking lot, my wife and I decided it was time to relax a little and take a break from our non-stop vacationing.
"Time to honeymoon," she said.
It was Friday afternoon shortly before Shabbat when we reached our next stop, an eco-friendly organic guest house called Serenity in Hawaii (www.serenityinhawaii.com, 808 775-1614) near the funky local town of Honoka'a, on the east side of the Big Island.
Surrounded by natural wonders on all sides, it's no surprise that Hawaii abounds with ardent naturalists, environmentalists and organic devotees -- many of them transplants from the mainland. Some have decamped to the islands to escape the rat race; others simply are drawn to Hawaii's intense beauty and laid-back lifestyle.
Bob and Anita Crawley, who run a guest house out of their home for vegetarians and yoga practitioners ("or those who would like to be," as their brochure says), seemed to be a little but of both.
During our stay in their warm guest house -- a large, spacious room below their home -- Anita, a transplanted Jewish California, plied us with vegan delights from her Buddhist passions and Jewish victuals from her Jewish heritage. One evening we found a delicious tofu vegetable dish in soy sauce on our doorstep, and the next afternoon there was a sweet noodle kugel in its place. For breakfast, we had fresh passionfruit, guava and bananas picked from the garden out back.
Despite their deep commitment to an organic lifestyle -- the earth-friendly home runs on solar power, the porch is made of recycled material, LED lights brighten the driveway and the soap is organic --the personable Crawleys are not fundamentalists: The guest house at Serenity in Hawaii has a nice flat-screen TV, a luxuriously welcoming bed and super-comfortable chairs. There were also quite a few little Buddha statues around the room, but I had the foresight to put them away while I recited my Jewish morning prayers. No reason to throw off my Jewish karma there.
Known as the Garden Island, Kauai is Hawaii's smallest major island but, by our count at least, its most fantastic. In just 500 square miles, Kauai has magnificent green mountains, desert-like canyons, red earth, lush jungle, sunny resorts, towering waves and the rainiest spot on earth (though we noticed on our trip that Maui, too, boasts this feature).
Kauai's landscape has been featured in such films as Jurassic Park, Outbreak and Lord of the Flies, and it truly looks like something out of the movies. The most satisfying thing to do in Kauai is to see, and on foot is the best way. We spent most of our time in Kauai hiking.
We hiked the "Grand Canyon" of Hawaii, Waimea Canyon in Koke'e State Park, a one-mile-wide, 10-mile long canyon that's more than 3,600 feet deep. We hiked the jungle-like Kalalau Trail on the Napali Coast, an area of the island reachable only on foot, picking and eating guava fruits along the way. And we hiked through rice paddies near Hanalei in a spot that looks like it could be in Vietnam (in fact, it has been used as a set for Vietnam by filmmakers).
We also kayaked down the Wailua River with Ali'i Kayaks (www.aliikayaks.com, 877 246-2544) on one of the only navigable rivers in Hawaii, ditching our kayaks at one point for a two-hour hike to a hidden waterfall. The end point was a little disappointing-there are much more impressive waterfalls less than an hour's drive from Manhattan-but the mangoes we picked up along the way were delicious.
Kauai is round, but the coastal road that runs around the island is not a complete circle. There's an 11-mile stretch along the Napali Coast with no road at all, which helps preserve the remote nature of the areas where the road ends on either side of Napali.
Hanalei Colony Resort and Spa (www.hcr.com, 800 628-3004) is located at one such end. To reach it you have to drive past the last town on Kauai's north short and over a series of picturesque one-lane bridges until you reach the serene, green bluff on which Hanalei sits.
We stayed in a two-bedroom condo with ocean views on three sides. Singing Kabbalat Shabbat as the sun set and Friday turned into Sabbath, we wondered if Moses would have come here if God had split the Pacific, rather than the Red Sea.
Hanalei is about getting back to nature, and to basics. It is by no means rustic-our condo had a full, kitchen a huge living room, a porch and access to a pool-but it's not meant to be a hotel. Hanalei has no phones, no TV and housekeeping only once every three days. At night, the only lights you see are the stars in the sky. Sometimes, that's just the way you want it.