Invitations don’t get better than this: the chance to explore the Hawaiian islands courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Europe. Ashamedly I have to admit that pre-trip my knowledge of Hawaii was limited to a few surfing movies & the original Hawaii-5-0, a limited understanding of the significance of the WW2 events in Pearl Harbor and loud shirts and Mai Tai cocktails.
So armed with a box set of Winds of War to gen up on my Pearl Harbor history and while away the 22 hour journey, I flew to Honolulu via New York with the group invited by Hawaiian Tourism Europe. Many hours later we exited the open-sided terminal to soft tropical breezes and a dramatic background of concertina- mountains and palm trees and drove through Honolulu City, the capital of Oahu Island to our hotel on Waikiki Beach. On reflection the most similar place I can equate to Waikiki would be Copacabana Beach in Rio: both are buzzing cities with infamous beaches lined with high-rise hotels and mountain backdrops, however Waikiki comes with late-night designer shopping and less of a language barrier.
The following morning, with body clock out of sync, a stroll along Waikiki was in order – I wasn’t the only one up early, there were the ubiquitous surfers congregating off-shore and families taking their first dip of the day.
We headed off to historic downtown Honolulu, which has a gentle colonial air to learn about the history of the islands and their creation of the monarchy in the early 1800s – essentially King Kamehameha the best warrior won. We visited Queen Emma’s Summer Palace and then continued to the scene of a great battle, the Nu’ana Pali lookout with its towering cliffs and spectacular views over the North Shore of Oahu.
Nu’ana Pali lookout and views over the North Shore of Oahu
Once through the tunnel, the island took on an entirely different character: The North Shore is less developed and rural, mountains omnipresent, simple beach houses, shrimp trucks, pineapple plantations, tropical beaches and lush forests. This is the setting of countless movies including Jurassic Park. However there was one notable thing missing: surfers. During the summer months the water is eerily calm, and it was hard to imagine the thundering crash of waves that return to the islands in November, calming down again in April.
We visited the Polynesian Cultural Center which takes visitors on a tour through Polynesia, from Easter Island to Tonga with the highlight being the incredible 3D movie of the Hawaiian islands complete with water effects which gave us a taster of what else was to come. We returned for a delightful dinner at Morimoto at the Modern Hotel, the first of many superb meals including one the following night at Azure at the Royal Hawaiian using the bountiful seafood from the pacific.
My history lesson continued the following day with a visit to Pearl Harbor – an absolute must-do on any visit to Oahu. Operated by the Pacific National Parks, the site comprises four different exhibits: The USS Arizona Memorial is the most popular, but there is also the USS Bowfin Submarine, the USS Missouri Battleship and the Pacific Aviation Museum and I could easily have spent the day exploring them all. I was staggered by the destruction that the Japanese reeked on that fateful day in December 1941 but also how the US Navy managed to resurrect all but two of the 22 warships that had been so severely damaged.
Pacific Aviation Museum
From Honolulu it was a 45 minute flight to Maui. As we drove through sugar cane plantations, with mountains on both sides and arrived at the golden sands of the coast, sun setting we all noticeably relaxed, slowed our pace and felt in a vacation mood. I swam the following morning in the gin clear ocean feeling a little bit smug.
I hired a car to head to Wailea on the South-Western coast of Maui where the most exclusive hotels are located such as the beachfront Four Seasons Maui and Fairmont Kea Lani and the lovely boutique Hotel Wailea in the hills above. The road hugging the coastline was excellent albeit slow and the scenery was a distraction with mountains to one side and tantalising glimpses of white beaches and gentle surf through the trees to the other. Maui is a great place to learn to surf and to pack a picnic and explore, but away from the main resorts don’t expect beach service, sun loungers and restaurants.
While I took to the road some of the group took to the skies by helicopter to explore the dramatic landscape of the neighboring island Moloka’i. Photos revealed jaw-dropping images of towering cliffs dropping into the ocean, majestic waterfalls and deep green valleys. In the evening we attended a Lua – a folklore show and dinner which I would recommend for a hula fix .
Our pace diminished further with a day trip by ferry to Lana’i which departed from the quaint colonial harbor of Lahaina. 45 minutes later we docked with fellow day trippers: golfers, sport-fisherman and hunters and headed for the Four Seasons at Manele Bay. We were rewarded with the site of hundreds of dolphins who come to the calm waters to sleep.
Four Seasons at Manele Bay
The hotel is beautiful: 22 gardeners tend to the stunning tropical gardens, there is an outpost of Nobu, two golf courses, beautiful pool & spa and gentle walk down to the beach. Lana’i gives you a glimpse into the Hawaii of yesteryear, rural and undeveloped: current population 3000. In its heyday it was one of the world’s biggest producers of pineapple but that demised thanks to high transport costs.
The island was recently bought by Larry Ellison of Oracle and plans are afoot to improve the islands infrastructure and make It self-sufficient. One of my favorite moments was sitting on the deck of the only coffee shop in Lana’i City (a somewhat ironic name) supping a delicious cup of Kona’s finest watching the community come and go.
Katie in Lana’i City
Dis N Dat Shop
In contrast to its sleepy exterior, Lana’i offers a wide choice of activities: from the aforementioned golf and sport fishing, to snorkeling and diving, horseback riding, tours of the island by ATV (all-terrain vehicles) and clay pigeon shooting and archery.
Aside from the two Four Seasons hotels, there is also a charming plantation inn, the Hotel Lana’i which has been tastefully restored, has a delicious restaurant and cozy rooms offering a taste of old Hawaii.
For the return journey to Maui, we joined one of the huge Trilogy catamarans and after a severe buffeting tucked into soothing cocktails and sunset from the rooftop restaurant of the Lahaina Fish Co. Lahaina itself was a fun little town, many of the frontier-style buildings dating from the early 1900s when whaling was the islands main source of income have been transformed into boutiques, surf clothing shops and casual restaurants.
The huge Trilogy catamarans
A day of adventure. A quick 30 minute flight into Hilo on the East Coast of Hawaii’s Big island then before we knew it, we were being guided towards open-sided helicopters for our flight with Paradise helicopters over the world’s most active volcano Kilauea.
Not being either the best flier nor good with heights, the first 10 minutes or so were spent in a mild state of panic, but the sheer beauty of the landscape below was a brilliant distraction and it literally flew by too quickly. The initial journey is over the rainforest which covers much of the east of Hawaii, and then there is nothing but black lava, punctuated by patches of trees, roads and even remains of houses that hadn’t been destroyed by the last big flow in 1983. Our pilot was determined for us to feel the heat, and swooped down to look for areas of molten lava. We returned to Hilo via the Rainbow Falls National Park, a series of waterfalls tumbling down through the rainforest, not realising that we would be flying over them again later that day.
Once on terra firma we were whisked off by Kopohokine Adventures through Macadamia nut plantations to their zip-line course. Having been pretty terrified by the 100% Adrenalina course in Costa Rica, my fears were challenged for the second time that day, but the team were brilliant, equipment was top-notch and being able to fly by with a friend on the line beside was a bonus and brought out the competitive side in everyone. The scenery was gobsmacking and the highlight was zipping at 30mph on the minute-long line over the same series of waterfalls that we’d seen from the helicopter.
Zip-line through Macadamia nut plantations
After lunch, we drove across the island to be rewarded with more scenic surprises. The road gradually rises over the high mid-point of the island, the saddle between the Maunaloa & Maunakea Volcanoes to an altitude of over 2000m. The scenery was desolate, windswept and beautiful and reminded me of the Atacama Desert in Chile. It then gave way to black lava-fields all the way down the coast. Big Island can justifiable boast being an island of contrasts.
Between the Maunaloa & Maunakea Volcanoes
I took to the road again to have a look around the stylish Mauna Kea hotel which boasts one of the island’s best beaches and then to the Four Seasons Hualalai: its lush tropical gardens and golf course an oasis in the middle of the dramatic black lava fields. The Four Seasons has an exceptional range of facilities and would be brilliant for couples and families seeing a luxury retreat.
Four Seasons Hualalai
In the evening we donned shorty wet-suits and boarded the Fair Wind catamaran for the short sail around the coast to an area just offshore where Manta Rays come to feed. Getting into dark water illuminated by a few floodlights and clinging onto the floating raft was eerie in itself and then out of nowhere appeared the enormous shadows of the Mantas! Over the next hour they mesmerized with their underwater dances, performing somersaults inches away from us – a really humbling experience.
Swimming with the Mantas
The following morning a drive past beautiful ocean homes took us to Kailua Village a relaxed seaside town which was once the home of the Hawaiian royalty and now famous for being the start point for the world’s most competitive Iron Man competition. Today it was the location for the Queen Lili’oukalani Long distance outrigger canoe races with boats from all around the world competing.
Queen Lili’oukalani long distance outrigger canoe
We visited the Kona brewery where to sample their excellent range of craft beers such as Longboard Island lager and Pipeline Porter and then onto the historic Kona Coffee Farm, a living museum where they produce some rather delicious beans.
Longboard Island lager and Pipeline Porter
The island seemed to give us the perfect send-off with a spectacular sunset accompanied by a final Mai Tai at the stylish Rays on the Bay at the Sheraton Kona.