Sunday, December 23, 2012

Maui: Snorkeling at Last

Our hunt for the perfect snorkeling spot didn’t bear fruit until our last day in Hawaii. A lifeguard suggested a place on Maui’s north shore, so we went hunting for it. Eventually, we rounded a corner and saw this perfect, calm, bay with sparkling clear water.


There was no obvious sign or parking lot, but we noticed some cars pulled off the road, so we parked with them. We then had to trek about a quarter of a mile through thick jungle along a poorly marked, unpaved path.


Soon, we came upon this ominous sign.


A little farther along the trail, we crossed a shallow ditch. Someone had made a narrow wooden walkway across the ditch, and painted this sign.


At the end of the trail was Honalua Bay; one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii, and one of the absolute worst beaches in the world. Here’s why:



Those rocks are the size of watermelons. Most of them are stable, but some rock when you step on them. Walking even short distances involved serious risk of a fractured skull. But the view was gorgeous. That’s the island of Molokai in the distance.


We donned our snorkels, masks and flippers and headed out into the bay. Almost immediately, I discovered that I had some sort of sinus condition that prevented me from diving further than 2 feet without excruciating ear pain.

So I handed off the camera to my wife, and I climbed back up onto the rocky beach. I reclined there for an hour or so in awkward discomfort with boulders poking at my internal organs. Eventually, my wife returned, ecstatic about the quality of the snorkeling in Honolua Bay. We headed back to the hotel to shower and change for our trip back to Orlando.

Here are some of the pictures my wife took.









Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Maui: The Walk of Shame

You may have noticed that throughout this chronicle of our trip to Hawaii, I only entered the ocean twice in two weeks. We had spent a great deal of energy searching for a calm, clear spot to snorkel, but only found rough, rocky shores.

We drove down the shore of Maui, passing through a lava flow at the base of Haleakala. You can see the cinder cone and the path of the flow.


We found a good snorkeling spot, but it was rocky and turbulent. A local surfer told us that we should come back in the morning when the seas were calmer. “This time of day, things can get kind of gnarly,” he said. It was the first time I had ever heard the word “gnarly” used in an authentic context, without mockery.


However, one of our drivers told us about a great snorkeling spot. “It’s at the end of Little Beach,” he explained, “But you might not want to go there.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s a nude beach.”

He went on to give us directions. “First you drive to Big Beach. At the north end, you’ll see a cliff extending into the water. Then, you’ll notice a bunch of hippies climbing a rocky little path up the cliff. On the other side of that cliff is Little Beach. The snorkel spot is at the north end of Little Beach, so you’ll have to do the Walk of Shame past all the naked people to get to it.”

We decided to give it a try.

We found Big Beach without too much trouble. And here is that cliff at the north end.


At the base of the cliff is the start of the steep rocky path to get over it.



From the top of the cliff, we had a scenic panoramic view of Big Beach.


We also had a somewhat less scenic view of Little Beach, which was covered with the bodies of about 200 naked gay men. Yes, that is one tiny detail our driver omitted. Oh, there was a sprinkling of grandmas and a few giggly 20-something tourists looking for a story to tell back home in Des Moines. But about 95% were gay men in couples or small groups. Some were boogie boarding or surfing. I would just like to say that it is fun to watch someone surf, but not if they are surfing naked in that squatting-crouch posture that surfers use.

We took the Walk of Shame, only to discover that the water was too rough at the north end of the beach for snorkeling. So we took the Reverse Walk of Shame. Climbing cautiously down the rocky cliff path ahead of us was a guy carrying four boogie boards slung across his back.

“Why four boogie boards?” I asked.

“I rent ‘em,” he replied.

What a genius. He does nothing resembling work all day, and gets to watch naked people to his heart’s content. He probably makes $100 a day, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Maui: Going Down

There are things that older tourists can do that are passive, even sedentary. Sometimes it seems ridiculous, riding on a bus to a destination, getting out, taking a picture, getting back in, rinse and repeat. If that’s what you want in this day and age, all you need is a big TV, a comfortable chair and a good internet connection.

We’re not like that.


We arranged for a company to drive us up the side of Haleakala volcano, to a height of 6,300 feet. The road is a dizzying series of switchbacks with long, steep straightaways.


We were given mountain bikes with no gears and disc handbrakes. If the bikes had typical clamp-style handbrakes, the driver informed us that “You’d burn through them before you were halfway down.”

Before we started to ride, we took a moment to admire the view, which was spectacular.


But once on the road, turning your attention away for even a fraction of a second would have meant spending the rest of your life on a respirator. I had no speedometer, but at times I felt as though I was going 50 miles an hour.

About halfway down, we stopped in the quaint little town of Makawao. It’s all shops and restaurants, but reminded my wife of the Old West. The thing that amused me was that this isolated little town halfway up a volcano in Hawaii had an absurdly disproportionate number of therapists, spiritual healers and alternative medicine practitioners.


A bit further down, we began encountering lavish private estates. This guy had a bronze horse adorning his front yard.


Our driver told us that Oprah Winfrey, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson all own homes on Haleakala, but I suspect that they were all at their spiritual healers that day, because we didn’t see them.

The trip ended in the cool little town of Paia, where we had a delicious fresh fish lunch and a beer, which completely healed my spirit.

Here’s a video of the ride, just under 7 minutes. We lost some of the best footage because the cold mountain air fogged up the camera lens. But it still gives you a sense of speed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Maui: Halfway to Hana

It came time to leave the Big Island and fly to Maui. We drove to the airport, returned the rental car, and told the shuttle driver the name of our airline. “Oh, you’re in the Commuter Terminal,” she chuckled. After passing the gates for the major airlines, we swung around between two hangars and were dropped off at this building, which was open on both ends. That explains the presence of the bird.


The airline counter was just an unattended plywood box with a telephone, and a sign reading “Pick up phone to check in.” I picked up the phone, and some person on the other end asked for our names. I gave them, and she said, “OK, you’re checked in.”

Eventually, our plane landed and taxied up to the fence. It was an 8-passenger single-engine aircraft, the smallest aircraft we had ever flown in. The pilot and co-pilot got out and unloaded the luggage of the arriving passengers. They appeared to be about 15 years old, and had these odd expressions on their faces that seemed to say, “I can’t believe we get paid to do this.”

We crowded into the tiny plane.


I was worried when this guy sat down.


When we landed in Maui, we drove to our hotel. It was immediately apparent that this island differed from the others.


Everyone we had spoken to prior to visiting Maui told us, “You absolutely have to take the road to Hana.” Hana is a tiny town in northeastern Maui that is accessible by a coastal road. The road is narrow and incredibly curvy, with dozens of one-lane bridges.


It’s also ridiculously scenic.



One of the reasons people make the drive is to see something called The Seven Sacred Pools, which is a series of waterfalls descending to the ocean. After a couple of hours of winding, nausea-inducing curves, we reached the halfway point and decided that those sacred pools couldn't possibly be sacred enough to be worth this drive, so we headed back.

There were lots of little turnoffs on the road, so we stopped at one and saw this Indiana-Jones-like gate.


Some people came out from behind it, so we climbed over a low wall and followed an overgrown jungle path.



We didn't know where we were going, but along the way, we found these unexpected warning signs.



We then came to this waterfall. See the guy on top? He didn't read the signs.


After hanging out at the waterfall for awhile, we continued the drive back, and found an ocean overlook. In that massive surf, you can just barely make out the sails of windsurfers.

We wanted to get closer, so we drove down to the beach. Look at these jagged rocks. I immediately lost all interest in windsurfing.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Big Island: Mantas

My wife is a Scuba diver (I am not). She had read about an activity run by dive shops on the Big Island, where you can dive with Manta rays at night. This is the kind of thing she absolutely loves, so she found a dive operator who could accommodate snorkelers as well as divers.

The day of the dive, we were sorting through our laundry in the hotel room, when she glanced at her watch and realized that we should have left for the dive boat 15 minutes ago. “We have to leave now!” she exclaimed, and we raced to the car.

I broke several state, federal and international driving laws, screeching through Kailua, flying down Queen Kaahumanu Highway, all with my wife shouting and lamenting the fact that we were going to miss the boat.

I swerved around a corner and skidded into a parking spot at the marina. We rushed to the dock, only to find the laid-back staff attending to other divers. “Sorry we’re late!” I blurted.

“Hey, no worries,” the captain told us.”This is Hawaii. Nothing starts on time. We would have waited for you.” As it turned out, we weren't the last to arrive. In no time, we were on our way into the sunset, watching Spinner dolphins fly through the air in the distance.


The dive crew gave us our instructions, assisted by a Manta ray puppet.


We were told that Mantas eat plankton. However, we were also told that plankton is not one species. Plankton is anything that a) is alive, b) is floating in the water, and c) does not swim very fast. It has nothing to do with size. In other words, while we were in the water, we were plankton.

However, we were in no danger, because Mantas have no teeth, no stinger and no spines. Plus, they can’t swallow anything bigger than a hot dog.

The dive crew also told us that sometimes, the Mantas don’t show up. We crossed our fingers.

We tied up at a buoy in a small bay along with other dive boats. There was an eerie glow in the water. The dive operators had installed lights on the bottom, 40 feet down. The lights attract plankton, which in turn attracts Mantas.


We had to don wetsuits, which ranks among the hardest tasks I have ever had to perform. It was like trying to enter a locked room through the keyhole.

The boats deployed surfboards with lights mounted through holes, shining down. The snorkelers hung onto the surfboard, and the divers descended to form a circle around the lights on the bottom.


The plankton was like snow, clouding the water. Small hot dog-sized fish darted around, apparently unaware of what was coming.


And then, like apparitions, the first Mantas showed up, spooky shadows on the fringes of our lights.


Soon, they were swooping in from every direction, performing loops and barrel rolls, gorging themselves on the minute organisms floating in the water. Some were huge, with 10-foot wingspans. I had a still camera and was able to get these shots.






For an hour we watched, breathless, as these huge animals flew by, often within inches of our faces. By the end, the plankton was gone and the water was clear as vodka.


Here is a video that my wife shot from the bottom, which I have edited down to about 6 minutes.

On the trip back, the sea had gotten a bit rough. My wife and I had taken Dramamine, so we hung out in the cabin with the crew on the trip back, laughing and eating snacks, while the rest of our group hunched over the rail on deck. I thought the experience was fantastic, but I suspect their memories will be a bit less wonderful.