Travel News

Aloha spirit

Richard Cooke searches for the road less travelled in Hawaii, island-hopping from Oahu to the Big Island, Lana’i and Maui, and finds there’s more to this Pacific oasis than grass-skirt clichés and Barack Obama. Just don’t take the rocks.

The Hawaiian language hasn't contributed many words to English, but the most recent addition is one of the least likely - wiki. It means 'quickly', and must be one of the least used words in the state. Hawaii has never been in a rush about anything. While the rest of the world was carving itself from Gondwanaland, Hawaii spent millions of years pressing 'snooze' on the geological alarm clock. Rest of the habitable world settled? Future Hawaiians were happy to go last. Armed with a benign stereotype, Australians abroad always feel like ambassadors for relaxation, but compared to Hawaiians we're as uptight as mittel-European bureaucrats on a bulk clipboard-buying junket.
Hawaii's late start (it was also the last US State) makes it seem fresh and unfinished. While Tuvalu and Venice secede to the rising sea, Hawaii's islands are still growing. Culturally, just about everything we think of as 'Hawaiian' is, in fact, a ring-in brought by the invaders, traders, sailors and God-botherers who have nuisanced the islands over a couple of centuries: ukuleles (Portuguese sailors); muu-muus (Protestant missionaries); and Hawaiian shirts (Chinese merchants using material from Japanese kimonos). Even Madam Pele - goddess of volcanoes and fire, and a kind of mascot for the state - is an import who supposedly dug her home here after fleeing Polynesia.
There's often talk of the 'new Hawaii' or the 'real Hawaii', but in a place constantly reinventing itself the old Hawaii was the new Hawaii as well, and the real Hawaii wasn't always Hawaiian. The state has pushed well past the cliché of grass skirts and faded 1970s feature wallpaper and proved its innovation in cuisine, which combines Japanese, American, Portuguese and indigenous elements. Barack Obama's fortunes have also boosted the profile of the only place in the world where he's celebrated as the first Hawaiian-born president, rather than the first African-American one.
There may not be a 'real Hawaii', but there is another, less travelled one away from Oahu. It can be found on the other islands - Kailua-Kona, Lana'i, and Maui. You'll have to go beyond the refrigerated leis of Honolulu airport on Oahu to Kailua-Kona, which everyone calls the Big Island, and Pele calls home.
If the Hawaiian islands are children, geologically speaking, Big Island is the fat, unruly toddler of the family; restless and given to tantrums. Less than a million years old, it has five volcanoes, most still active. The highway from the airport runs through fields of barren, hardened lava created by an eruption back in 1801. It's a strange, alien landscape that - if you're hungry enough - becomes endless varieties of chocolate: mudcake and Aero bars, piles of Milo and shattered Ferrero Rocher.
While there are tufts of fountain grass and the odd sandalwood tree on the Kona side of the island, the other side is lush and green. A legend explains this: Pele took a handsome chief as her lover, and they had a kind of pre-nup agreement, dividing the windward and leeward sides of the island between forest and desert. From the road, it's a mystery why resorts congregate at the edge of this tropical Mordor - until you see the black rock meet the magnolia sands of the Kohala coast.
Right on the beach is the Four Seasons Hualalai at Historic Ka'upulehu, a hotel laced with lava rock that combines the modern with the traditions that made the place a seat of Hawaiian royalty. The ancient anchialine pools interwoven with the resort teem with fish, just as they did when they were tended for Hawaiian nobles centuries ago. The hotel farms the fish of royalty - a type of threadfin called moi - and has changed at least one tradition for the better: commoners wanting to eat it are now served it in a five-star restaurant instead of being punished by death.
Most visitors gravitate to the beaches or the pools, but the strange beauty of the upland has its own attraction. We're taken through the foothills of the Hualalai volcano by our guide, Oliver. Climbing on hard lava, the surface feels spongy and loose. Oliver stops suddenly. "That wasn't like this the other day," he says, pointing to a maw of rock that has either moved or opened, or closed - he can't decide which. We stare at it for a moment in silence. "Well, I'm spooked," Oliver says. "Do you know about the rocks?"
Any concierge or postman in Hawaii can tell you about the rocks, which are mailed back to hotels in their hundreds, wrapped in tales of woe and with strict instructions on where to put them back. The superstition began when park rangers, sick of people taking stones from the islands, told tourists that taking rocks angered Pele and brought bad luck.
When Mark Twain visited 150 years ago, he dubbed the Kilauea volcano "the kingdom of desolation". Since then, the volcanoes have been busy: destroying ancient sites, curling fingers of lava to within a few miles of Hilo Bay and, rather inconsiderately, destroying the visitors' centre dedicated to their appreciation.
Keen to see more of the eruptions without risking a lava bath, we take a flight with Blue Hawaiian helicopters over the blasted landscape. This is Mars or Tartarus, some place apart, where curtains of volcanic smoke, ash and steam - a concoction called 'vog' - pour out of the Pu'u O'o vent. As we pull up through the clouds, the peak of Mauna Kea is showing its first covering of desiccated snow for the season. A few intrepid locals even 'ski' here, sliding cardboard and McDonald's trays down the thin powder, a liftless run that the fallen could call 'Pele's cheese-grater'.
The flow of lava changes day by day, sometimes running solely through the underground 'plumbing' out to sea. But today we are lucky - the plumbing has sprung a leak. We follow the trail of lava out to sea, where a vast funnel of vog towers above the meeting place of fire and water. Lava cools and shatters, sometimes exploding, the intense heat creating a ring in the water. We are watching land being created, and so are some other spectators, or "idiots" as the pilot calls them, sitting just outside the ring of fire on a catamaran, well within range of one of the methane explosions or flying rocks that periodically pepper the Pacific.
But 'idiot' is a relative term. Just a few months ago, a pro surfer called CJ Kanuha paddled his board across 93-degree water to within seven metres of the ring of fire. The wax melted off his surfboard, and his legs were scalded, but he survived intact. "It was an amazing feeling to get so close to the power of the lava from the volcano," Kanuha told newspapers later. Before heading out, he had left an offering to Pele on the beach.
After the explosive mountains of Kona, anywhere seems quiet, especially if that anywhere is the Pacific crags of tiny Lana'i. Even Hawaiians say it's "very relaxed". The population of about 5000, who make do with three paved roads, relied on pineapples for their livelihood until recently, when dwindling returns pushed the economy towards tourism.
There are two premium resorts on Lana'i, and those in need of paparazzi-proof surrounds often book both (Bill Gates was married here). One is the lavish villas on the persimmon-coloured coastline of Manele Bay, where the sifted sands fall under the shadow of Sweetheart Rock. Further up the hill, through Lana'i City (which must have a claim as the world's smallest), is the Lodge. If you can imagine an alpine chalet built by the British Raj and then taken over by a Bond villain with a pineapple fetish, you're some way towards picturing this ostentatious building (the largest wooden structure in Hawaii). It's a place of not one but three croquet lawns, horse riding, clay-pigeon shooting, an orchid greenhouse - even an authentic Devonshire tea, which stumbles only on the unshakeable American belief that scones are a type of biscuit. Even here, however, Pele makes a cameo, with the venison served for dinner scorched at the table on a hot lava rock.
During the short ferry ride to the neighbouring island of Maui, we are escorted by a school of flying fish, silver flashes that skim over the ripples in our wake. On the way into Lahaina harbour, we pass a long, slow, curling wave, bobbing with surfers, one of the few catchable breaks on this side of the island and a great place to learn to surf. On the North Shore are the brutal surf breaks of legend, such as the infamous 'Jaws', which is swelling to five metres on our arrival.
"This was once the whaling capital of the Pacific," says our driver, JT, as we pull through the town, "full of sailor bars, brothels and a handful of missionaries with their work cut out for them." Pods of humpbacks now pass through unharmed, and Lahaina has become one of the world's best whale-watching destinations. The only hunters who come here now are after celebrities - shake a palm tree on Maui and a paparazzo may fall out. There are weddings that bring fleets of helicopters after them, and fleets of copycats - it seems people can't resist the lure of the islands to get 'Just Maui'd'.
Opening out onto a panorama of paparazzi-free palm trees and turquoise sea, the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea is so luxurious that even the rival Hilton clan stay here instead of the eponymous hotel down the road. It features two restaurants (one with a menu by Wolfgang Puck), a compelling collection of local art and a spa that specialises in Hawaiian massage.
The reefs off the hotel teem with fish, and there are many different ways to explore them - by scuba diving, snorkelling or even outrigger canoe. We opt to take out a paddle-board. For the uninitiated, paddle-boarding is much like surfing, except that instead of falling off a surfboard you fall off a bigger surfboard while holding a paddle. JT tells us people have paddled all the way from Lana'i to Maui, but by "people", he means "record big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton" and by "sometimes", he means "once". Rob, our paddle-boarding instructor, helps lower expectations by falling off.
When we return to land, Rob turns to us and asks, "Have you guys heard about the rocks?" Rob himself wasn't a believer until one fateful day when he "took a rock from a place nearby called the Iao Valley. When I got back to my motorbike, it wouldn't start for a whole hour. I crashed it the next day." Rob's insurance company wouldn't pay out, and he had to hitchhike home from hospital, with a broken shoulder, in the rain.
"A few days later, I was having a barbecue with these guys, and they started talking about the rocks, saying it was bad to take them, especially from powerful places. This one guy said, 'The worst place to take them from is the Iao Valley.' There were bloody battles there, human sacrifices. I told them what I'd done, and they said: 'Bra - put the rock back!'" Rob did, and his run of bad luck ended, with the insurers paying out the next day.
If you do take a piece of Hawaii away with you in your heart, just make sure it's small enough to mail back.