Steve and Monika’s Hawai’i
Aloha, SSR colleagues! Here is the promised second installment of “our” Hawaii. This time, we focus on the second Southernmost island, Maui, and its closest neighbors, Lanai and Molokai. A fourth, smaller, island, Kahoolawe, is also part of this group of Hawaiian islands; however, Kahoolawe is not very accessible because, until recently, it was a U.S. military target site! An inter-island ferry operates between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. These are the only islands in the Hawaiian chain with this service (a current court case has stopped the “Superferry” that proposed service between Oahu, Maui, and Kauai). We have only been to Maui and Molokai, so our own experiences may be perceived as somewhat limited; nonetheless, we have well-traveled friends who are always happy to share their experiences and offer advice.
Maui is my favorite island. It has what I love most about Hawaii—gorgeous, high mountains running straight into the sea. It is also the best place to see whales. These sights, and the experiences that accompany them, are most accessible on Maui.
Whale watching. Whale watching is excellent on Maui because the waters between Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kohoolawe are only 300 feet deep, which is the preferred depth for pregnant females. It is said that 80% of the world’s humpbacks calve near Maui. Unfortunately, the end of May is not a good time to see the whales; it is late in the season and humpbacks are on their way back to Alaskan waters. Few (if any) boats go out at this time of year. If you do go for a tour, however, you may see dolphins, seals, and other marine life. The last time we were on the whale-watching tour, we saw a rather big dorsal fin moving through the ocean—and not that far from the shore!
Snorkeling. Maui offers unique snorkeling opportunities. Molokini, located approximately 2-½ miles off Maui’s south coast, is an extinct volcano that is now designated a State Marine Life and Bird Conservation District. You can see its crescent shape from the airplane when approaching Maui. Boats for Molokini Crater snorkeling leave from various locations. The most popular departure spots are in Lahaina and Kihei, and all snorkeling gear is available for rental. Snorkeling in Molokini is a very different experience from cruising a reef near the shore. It is really more like an open ocean adventure because of the depth and because you go into the water directly from the boat. Molokini is a famous Maui attraction, and although it is likely that many tourists will be in the vicinity, there is enough space for everyone (assuming you are not afraid to swim away from the boat). Fish are plentiful, and the reef is nice. On the return trip from Molokini, most boats stop at Turtle Reef, which is close to the Maui shore but still far enough out to feel like open ocean. There are so many turtles at Turtle Reef that if you did not see one in Molokini Crater, you will definitely meet one here! I actually preferred snorkeling at Turtle Reef because it was wilder.
Scenic Drives. The most famous scenic drive on Maui is the “Road to Hana.” It is mentioned in almost all tourist guides. Personally, I was rather disappointed with the experience. Sure, there are many waterfalls, and the panorama along the road is truly beautiful, but what I remember most is a long line of cars on the road, moving rather slowly, stopping every half mile (or more often) at major lookouts, with groups of camera-toting tourists jumping out to take pictures of another waterfall, another rainforest view, another exotic tree, then getting back in the cars, driving a little more, and again stopping and taking photos…. I loved much more another drive—the drive along the coast from Lahaina to Wailuku. Actually, I should not recommend this drive to you, as part of the road is described as “rough,” and rental car agencies do not want you to go there. But...it is not really that bad. The views are beautiful: ocean below and mountains above. You will not see many people. The road is narrow and windy, so it is necessary to drive carefully. There are parts of the road where only one car can fit; since there is no place to turn, when two cars meet one of them must back up (sometimes for quite a distance).
I was with Monika on this drive, sharing part of this burden. Once, when she was at the wheel, she saw some cows on the side of the road and jumped out to say hello. The cows looked up…then jumped over the guardrail on the side of the road and disappeared down the hill! I have never seen cattle so fluid. I guess grazing on Maui’s slopes gives them a little extra something.
There is one other drive that I have never taken but imagine it can be interesting—at least I have heard it is so from other people. This is a drive from Hana down South to Makena, which is once again partially marked as a rough road.
Lahaiana. Lahaina is the largest town on west Maui. It is one of the most popular historic towns, and once served as official capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Lahaina started as a small Hawaiian fishing village. Then it became a center of the whaling industry. Now, it is a charming tourist mecca, full of life both day and night. Along the main street are a variety of stores, galleries, and restaurants. Many of the restaurants have a wonderful ocean view. From December through April, whales can be seen from the dinner table. Lahaina is also famous for its ancient banyan tree planted in the nineteenth century. Under this huge tree, which stands 60 feet high and spreads over a 200-foot area, local folk display and sell their arts and crafts.
Haleakala. This is one of my favorite places in all of Hawaii. Haleakala is the third highest mountain in the Hawaiian islands, with a peak of 10,023 ft. Like Mauna Kea, Haleakela has several observatories on it, including one that the University of Hawaii just completed (my nephew, a graduate student here, was part of this effort—Hawaii really draws family!). But, unlike the peaks on the Big Island, Haleakala is very accessible, and you do not get altitude sickness when you drive to the top. The drive is very enjoyable. You begin at sea level and climb to 10,000 feet in about 30 to 45 min. During most of this time, you are in the “Upcountry,” which is basically gently sloping pastures with free-range cattle roaming around looking for food. Haleakala’s slopes are very gentle; when looking at the mountain from the ground, one is much more impressed by its girth than its height. The mountain’s expanse provides plenty of space for people to live…and for cattle ranches. There is a special sense of community among those who live in the Upcountry. It is very different from life on the crowded beaches of Maui, which are full of tourists coming and going. Life is different here: for one thing, it is usually much cooler than the rest of the island because of the altitude and the clouds. Upcountry people are not dressed for the beach.
On the way up Haleakala, the signs are clearly marked so it is difficult to get lost. You should look for “Haleakala National Park.” The entire top of the mountain is a national park, with all the accoutrements that come with this designation (including an entrance fee!). On the way is a lovely little restaurant, the Kula Lodge, at which we always stop to have lunch. It has a stone fireplace in the entrance to the dinning room, and the seating area has a full window with a panoramic view of Western Maui. On a clear day you can see the beaches from here, and you are already about 4,000 ft high (and already chilly!).
You can also visit the herb and flower garden accessible from the restaurant’s lanai. There is also an art gallery and farmers’ market.
Once you get back in the car, you make your last turn in and enter the pastures. From this point on, there are no more houses, although you will still see free-range cattle. The slopes are wide and open, and the road is a crazy zig-zag all the way up. Occasionally, you will pass a group of people riding bikes down the mountain. A popular tourist attraction here is a bike tour that takes you in a van up the mountain and provides a bike for you to coast all the way down. We have never done this, although I have a cousin who was training for an Iron Man competition and he rode his bike up Haleakala—but that is another story…. What we love about this drive is the closeness to nature and the absence of civilization. You can stop along the way and walk in the pastures, take pictures, and look around. Sometimes as you make this climb you will pass through a layer of clouds, just like we all do in airplanes, but in slow motion, to emerge in the bright sunlight.
Then, all of a sudden, you enter the park. You still have a way to go (about 4,000 additional feet in elevation), but the terrain is suddenly very different. There is very little grass and only a few shrubs; soon, there is nothing growing—only lava rock. You feel like you are on the Moon! It is a very different world on this peak. If you are lucky, you will see nene, the indigenous Hawaiian goose descended from the Canadian goose; the two are similar in color, but the nene has a much shorter neck, and its body is thicker with feathers to keep it warm. Its feet are not as webbed, either. You may also see ring-necked pheasants, which were introduced for game hunting, and a local quail that runs in family units just like the familiar, much more colorful California quail.
At the very top of Haleakala is a nice parking area and a shed built by the National Park Service, which provides information about the surrounding sites. You can often see the peaks on the Big Island from here, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai. But, if the weather is clear, what is most impressive is the crater on the Eastern slope. Geologically, Haleakala is just beginning to erode, and you can see a crater littered with small cones of recent (e.g., only thousands of years ago) eruptions and filled with lava rock. Several hikes are marked out that go into the crater, but we have not yet been able to take any of these.
Finally, many people come to Haleakala in the morning to watch the sunrise. This is apparently very spectacular. We have never done this, since it requires rising at about 3 am to make it to the top and when you get there, it is quite crowded. Actually, I like to do the opposite. I very much enjoy going up to Haleakala at night (the park is open 24 hours) to see the stars. On a clear night, the light pollution does not reach the summit, and you can see the Milky Way and not only Orion’s belt, but his bow and arrow. The thousands of stars visible from this summit make the trip well worth it.
Like Lanai and Kahoolawe, Molokai was part of a large island millions of years ago that included what is now Maui. The islands are very close together, and you get spectacular views of neighboring islands from Maui (and Molokai and Lanai) because of it. Once, on a particularly clear day after I had first moved to Hawaii, I stopped at an outlook on Oahu from which you can often see Molokai; but on this day, we also saw Maui and Lanai. It was a very rare sight for the middle of the day, and I got into a conversation with a local man who was awed by the sight, himself. He said that it gave him the feeling of not being so isolated to be able to see these islands, and he remarked that people who lived on Maui have this pleasure every day. This is true. Every time I have been to Maui, I have seen these other islands clearly, but only rarely from Oahu.
We have only been to Molokai once, but it was a spectacular weekend. We rented a Jeep, and did we ever need it! Molokai has the dubious distinction of housing the leper colony, Kalaupapa, on its northern shore. It was built here because of its isolation. Molokai has the highest sea cliffs in the world, sheer faces that reach almost 5,000 feet straight up from the sea. Kalaupapa is a small peninsula on the coast in the middle of these cliffs. You can hike down, but it is long and treacherous, and you must have permission. Molokai is a little different from the other islands in one respect: you need “guides” to go on many hikes. These guides are supposed to protect the natural environment of the island by making sure people obey the rules, but the system is subject to a lot of abuse. We did not take advantage of their service when we were there.
The Jeep ride to the top of these peaks is rough. There is only a dirt road, which is nearly impassible at some points. At the top, you can hike around a large bog that has a boardwalk around some parts. There are very few people up there! It is a haunting site, though. At the top of this mountain is a pit that was used to measure tree logs for ship masts. The alii (rulers) of the ancient Hawaiians forced the commoners to cut down trees to sell to the Western and Eastern worlds for ship masts in the 19th century. It was said that the work was so hard that the workers cut down every sapling they could find so that their children would not suffer their fate.
Molokai also has some interesting historical features dating to before Hawaii was discovered by the rest of the world. Hawaiians were skilled fish farmers, and you can still see large stone walls extending far out into the sea of the shallow Southern coastal beaches. These stones were carried from the other side of the mountain by extraordinary human chains handing the stones back and fourth, like a fire brigade.
Most of Molokai is very, very local, with few welcoming tourist attractions. You are really on your own, here. But, we had the best hamburgers we ever had anywhere on this island at the local pizza joint! On the Western end of the island, though, is a burgeoning upper-scale tourist industry centered around one of the longest beaches of Hawaii. Here, we found a small shop owned by a man who builds kites, and he taught our older son how to make his own.
This small island used to be owned completely by Dole Plantations; it is now an up-scale resort area. Many of our friends enjoy stealing away from the kids to spend a romantic weekend on this island, and I know of several small meetings that were held there. Monika and I have not yet been there, and may not go, as we prefer the more natural “escapes.” However, it may be worth the trip. Lanai has a very characteristic crescent shape that is easy to identify from the air. On whale watching trips, we have often seen humpbacks jumping near the Lanai coast, with its Eastern cliffs in the background silhouetting these aquatic giants. So far, though, this island is a mystery to us.