By Sarah Sekula, published in New York Resident
When visiting the Hawaiian islands, the options are endless. It’s a good thing I have a plan — three weeks, three islands, three ways.
Big Island: Cruising the High Seas
I arrive on the Big Island on a warm, January afternoon to discover whale-watching season is in full swing. I’m talking 8,000 humpbacks are on sabbatical from Alaska, and I am about to be surrounded by them. In other words, I booked a 7-night cruise with American Safari Cruises, and, coincidentally, I have a front-row seat.
Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long to see them. While at sunrise yoga the next morning, I spot spouts of water in the distance. And it doesn’t end there. By day three we witness a 20-minute display of male whales showing off for a female. This continues long enough for us to snap some pretty incredible photos. The best part is, since we are cruising on a 36-passenger yacht, we don’t have to stick to an itinerary. When we happen upon an amazing feat of nature, we stay put.
“The bigger ships don’t always slow down for the scenery,” says expedition leader Nitakuwu Barrett. “We listen to see what guests like and cater to that.”
On the last day, I am lounging on the upper deck when I notice the inflatable skiff carrying six cruise-goers. Two whales swim right next to them. It was sheer luck they surfaced so close to the boat; dumb luck on my part for not partaking in the skiff ride.
Yet, I don’t have to pout for long, a whale swims under the yacht and comes up for air near the stern. Now, I am within feet of this majestic mammal, who likely weighs in at 50 tons. Needless to say, it is the perfect end to the week.
Maui: Tranquil Escape
After the cruise, I shift gears to discover the unpolished side of Maui. Little did I know when I decided to stay on the eastern side of the island that I’d get to zip along one of the world’s most gorgeous drives: the road to Hana. That’s 1,617 curves and 54 one-lane bridges to get to the remote town of Hana.
By remote I mean, my expansive sea ranch cottage at Travaasa Hana has no television, no clock. Just the crashing of waves and the occasional cow mooing in the distance. You see, Travaasa Hana is one of the few all-inclusive resorts here. And it’s touted as an experiential travel destination, which suits me well.
“Hana lends itself to really interesting experiences,” says Mark Stebbings, Travaasa Hana’s general manager. “It’s priceless Hawaii; one of the things we try to do here is keep it real.”
My day begins with hatha yoga, at the open-air studio facing the ocean, with a light breakfast afterward. By 10 a.m., I’m learning the art of coconut husking. Soon after, I picnic on Hamoa Beach and opt for a lomi lomi massage. Later, I chow down on mahi mahi while listening to live ukelele music. Each night I am blissfully exhausted and thrilled to snooze with the balcony doors open.
Kauai: Into the Wild
The last leg of my Hawaiian escapade is Kauai, the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian islands and the most isolated. Just imagine the jungles of Jurassic Park, and you’re picturing Kauia’s North Shore. That classic film, and dozens of others like Raiders of the Lost Ark and South Pacific, were all filmed in the area.
My friends and I opt for a half-day hike along the Kalalau Trail. Much to my dismay, however, as we drive from Kapaa to the northern part of the island, the sky is a foreboding gray. The bloated clouds squeeze out fat raindrops. Fortunately, by the time we arrive at the Napali Coast Wilderness State Park, though, the deluge stops. Within the first ten minutes of trekking, we spot a rainbow.
The 2-mile hike to Hanakapiai Beach shuttles us through ethereal rain forests with view after view of the fluted sea cliffs. Here, I splash gleefully through rust-colored puddles, scramble up small waterfalls and traipse along the topsoil left mushy by the recent rain.
I’m so fascinated with the all-encompassing beauty — from the neon green moss to the gentle breeze wafting through the mango trees — I have to remind myself to look to my right every few minutes for a peek at the welcoming turquoise water below. All the while, I glance up at the collection of weathered mountains, perpetually wrapped in clouds. This is, no doubt, very high on my list of all-time favorite hikes.
After about 45 minutes on the crumbly terra-cotta trail, we reach a small river crossing, where we leap from boulder to moss-covered boulder. And there it is. Hanakapiai Beach, perfectly flanked by volcano cliffs and lava-rock boulders.
To sum it up: These wide-open spaces are completely untouched and exactly what they were intended to be. If ever there were a place begging you to savor the tonic of nature, this is it.
Having completed the hike, I was already contemplating ways to head back to the island to conquer the rest of the 11-mile trail. Kauai has that effect on people. It just keeps beckoning you back long after you’ve left.