Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits – Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]

Cruise Line Adds Photography- And Biology-Themed Sailings

Photography And Biology

Travelers can know more about biology and photography by sourcing knowledge in a variety of ways. Online research leads to entire websites devoted to teaching us both. Locally, area colleges and universities will have lab-grade biology experiences as well as hands-on classes on photography for all ages and abilities.

Still, nothing quite beats the thrill of capturing an image of a bear in the wilderness.

This winter, adventure travelers into marine biology or photography can choose a themed cruise catering to their interests aboard 36-guest Safari Explorer or 86-guest Safari Endeavour. InnerSea Discoveries and sister-line American Safari Cruises has added themes to ten Un-Cruise sailings in the Hawaiian Islands and Mexico’s Sea of Cortés.

“Themes bring together people with common interests and adds one more benefit for booking these dates,” said Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Themed cruises come in every shape and size, bringing together like-minded travelers to spend up-close and personal time with a star of their shared addiction.

The new Un-Cruise photography- and marine biology-themed cruises come with an expert guest host along for the ride. Special presentations will be held on the ship or ashore and passengers are free to interact with the host throughout the voyage.

Kids in Nature departures are for families traveling with kids 12 and younger. The expedition team gears the program to a variety of ages and activity levels with a focus on educating. Hiking excursions, kayaking trips, skiff explorations and snorkeling all provide hands-on learning in a fun environment. Active explorations in nature and wildlife sightings engage all ages.

2013 Theme Cruises in Hawaii
Jan 5 – Photography and Whales with Flip Nicklin, highly-regarded whale photographer.
March 9 and 30 – Kids in Nature, a focus on spring break departures for the whole family.
April 6 – Photography with professional photographer/world traveler Peter West Carey.

2013 Theme Cruises in the Sea of Cortés
Jan 12 – Marine Biology with La Paz resident Rodrigo Rocha Gosselin, a local with passion about conservation and nature.
Feb 16 – David Julian, a 30-year veteran professional photographer.
March 16 – Ellen Barone, traveler, freelance writer and photographer.
March 30 – Marine Biology with Giovanni Malagrino, an oceanologist and professor of marine biology.
March 9 and 23 – Kids in Nature, spring break departures for the whole family.

Safari Explorer sails seven-night cruises between Hawaii, the Big Island and Lana’i with two days of activities on Moloka’i. Flexible yacht itineraries focus on explorations of four islands: Lana’i, Moloka’i, Maui and Hawaii.

Safari Endeavour sails Luxury Adventures round trip to La Paz, Baja, Mexico. While the sailing may be themed, an unstructured itinerary explores hideaways such as Isla Espíritu Santo, Isla San Francisco, Bahia Agua Verde, Los Islotes and Loreto.

In the Hawaiian Islands and the Sea of Cortés, guests can be as active as they like and activities include trekking, kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and skiff excursions. On-board naturalists provide interpretation on guided excursions ashore and at sea. The unstructured itinerary allows time for viewing wildlife such as whales and dolphins.

Sound like fun? Passengers aboard the Safari Explorer got the opportunity to jump in and swim with a whale shark last week as we see in this video:


[Photo Credit- Flickr user FelixR]

Vagabond Tales: Setting Sail For The Most Remote Place On Earth

There is a bit of contention with regards to where exactly the most remote place on Earth actually is.

Most lists you encounter will feature the usual suspects such as the island of Tristan da Cunha, the village of Ittoqqortoormiit (Greenland), the Svalbard archipelago (Norway) and McMurdo Station (Antarctica). Just last month we published one such list right here on Gadling.

Nevertheless, in every one of these lists there is one place, which is always conspicuously absent.

No, it’s not the town of La Rinconada, Peru, a mining outpost, which sits 17,000 feet up on the slopes of a permanent glacier. That’s usually on there too. Geographically speaking, the world’s most isolated landmass is a place known as…

Hawaii.

Wait. What? Hawaii? There are over 4 million visitors a year to the island of Oahu alone. I can watch a bad movie on the airplane, take a nap, and I’m there. How is Hawaii remote?

While many of the places mentioned above may be unique in their inaccessibility, technically, the Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated populated landmass found anywhere on the planet, with the closest point of continental land being 2,400 miles away (California).

Given the fact that Hawaii is accessible, I surmise, must be the reason it never makes the list of places, which are “remote.”

What if, however, you set out to experience one of the least accessible places in all of Hawaii. The foremost outpost in the world’s most isolated island chain? A place where there are no hotels, no roads, or really any trails. A place you cannot fly to, drive to, or barely even walk to. What sort of remoteness exists out there?

That was the question in everyone’s mind as we set sail for the north shore of Molokai on a catamaran loaded with surfboards, beer and a number of lingering unknowns.

To begin with, there are a number of factors, which contribute to Molokai’s north shore being so remote.

For one, most of the north shore is occupied by vertical slabs of foliage, which collectively form the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Created by the collapse of the eastern Moloka’i volcanic caldera, the force of the landslide was so strong that rubble from the seismic event was jettisoned 120 miles north along the ocean floor – the last 80 of which were actually uphill. Though geologists estimate this cataclysmic event to have occurred 1.4 million years ago, as recently as 1999 a massive avalanche of rubble cascaded down from 2,500 feet in elevation, which was strong enough to create six new acres of land.

Whoa.

Exploding over 3,600 vertical feet directly from the sea, the cliffs render the majority of the coastline inaccessible to human landfall. In fact, there are only three access points along the entire coastline, which could potentially provide places to land – Pelekunu, Wailau and Papalaua valleys.

One of these would hopefully provide a safe anchorage, but which, however, we still didn’t know.

The other issue with accessing the northern coastline of Moloka’i is that the waves are almost always too large to approach the island safely. During the winter months the surf can frequently be in excess of 30 feet, and in summer the 30-40 knot trade winds whip up wind swell, which reaches 12-15 feet and turns the shoreline into a cauldron of whitewater.

To put it simply, rarely is there a calm time to be back here.

Which is why when the weather forecast starts calling for light southerly winds and just enough surf to warrant packing boards, you find your closest friend with a boat, buy the grocery store out of beer and set sail for one of the most remote – and beautiful – places on Planet Earth.

To reach the north shore of Molokai from neighboring Maui you first must cross the 9-mile Pailolo Channel, a Hawaiian word, which means “crazy fisherman” and references those who are crazy enough to fish the channel in the throes of her roughest seas.

With the favorable weather on this particular trip, however, crossing the Pailolo is scarcely a challenge and the island looms larger with each passing moment.

The first indicator you’ve successfully crossed the Pailolo is when you round the backside of Moku Ho’oniki rock, an offshore promontory, which was actually used as a bombing range during World War II. Looming a mile offshore of mainland Moloka’i, “Moku” is now a seabird sanctuary above water and a popular scuba location due to the scalloped hammerheads, which circle below.

With fishing lines trolling the deep waters we adjust our heading to point towards Halawa Valley, a deep cut in the mountainside many historians believe was the site of original Moloka’i settlement sometime around 650 A.D.

Despite being the island’s first settlement, however, Halawa today is still sparsely inhabited. The handful of families living in the valley subsist mostly off of the land, and generators provide what little electricity is needed. For traditional visitors to Moloka’i Halawa Valley also marks the end of the paved highway; unless you have some boots or a boat, Halawa is going to be the end of the road.

Putting Halawa in the non-existent rear-view mirror we change tacks again and venture further into the little known. With each passing whitecap my excitement strengthens, the sound of waves slapping hulls being the only barrier to silence.

Onward we sail beneath towering promontories and past valleys, which open like gaping green time portals. Two of the valleys – Wailau and Pelekunu – feature lean-to shelters on the sandy shorelines where local families will occasionally spend entire summers.

Up until the early 1980s Pelekunu Valley was actually home to a handful of year-round residents. There are no quick jaunts to Costco back here, and no paying at Starbucks simply by swiping your iPhone. Living back here means living off the land. Pigs and crops provide nourishment on shore, and fish are gathered from the expansive blue sea. Flowing streams provide a source of fresh water, though rain is also gathered from showers, which pass on the breeze. A throwback to the ancient Hawaiian ahupua’a system of land division, all that is needed for survival is contained in this narrow segment of summit to sea.

The one thing missing, however, is modernity, a parallel reality, which now renders the valleys vacant.

With the sun disappearing behind the crest of the towering cliffs we set about searching for the evening’s safe anchorage, somewhat of an oxymoron given the area’s usual conditions. Blessed with southerly winds, which place us in a rare lee (the northeasterly trade winds in Hawaii blow 85% of the year), we find a patch of sand large enough to drop anchor and close enough to shore to surf the nearby break.

The anchor is set and one of us jumps in to ensure its dug in properly. The water is 50 feet deep and the sun is getting low. We joke that it feels sharky, with the only problem being that no one is joking. We didn’t come this far, however, to not enjoy the water. Boards are unlashed and a spear gun unsheathed, and the crew sets to work on enjoying the playground.

An hour later, with 30 waves surfed and a two-pound to’au (blacktail snapper) lying on the deck of the ship, more beers were cracked and the sun bade her final farewell over a western horizon rendered invisible by the height of the towering cliffs.

Behind us the 1,650-foot column of water known as Papalaua Falls kept a watchful eye over the campsite as sunrays were swapped for a ceiling of shooting stars.

Isolation historically has been used as a form of punishment, with authorities choosing to banish souls to the known fringes of the planet. From this vantage point, however, with favorable breezes and a gentle north swell, it’s my genuine hope to stay enveloped in the moment and never be forced to go elsewhere ever again.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Museum Month: Kalaupapa National Historic Park And Leper Settlement, Molokai

kalaupapa national parkSome people – me, for instance – tend to skip museums when traveling in favor of fresh air or outdoor recreation. It’s always a treat when I can combine the two, especially because I’m fascinated by indigenous cultures. Though not considered museums in the strictest sense, National Historic Parks, Monuments and the like often do have buildings, exhibits, or relics with educational materials that provide a museum-like experience. When I can combine that with some physically challenging activity, it often makes for an incredibly rewarding day.

While relatively few visitors ever make it to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, located just off of Maui’s western shore, its fame is global due to its tragic history. From the mid-19th century until 1969, thousands of islanders afflicted with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) were forced into isolation on the Kalaupapa peninsula on the northern shore. A smaller settlement also exists at Kalawao, on the eastern side. Today, Kalaupapa National Historic Park receives thousands of visitors annually, who come to pay tribute – and satisfy their morbid curiosity – to a tragic episode in Hawaii’s turbulent history.

Molokai’s North Shore is covered in dense rainforest and has the world’s highest sea cliffs, which tower over 2,000 feet. These geographical features made Kalaupapa the ideal location in which to displace lepers, often by cruel methods such as tossing them off of ships, which sometimes resulted in fatalities. The forcible removal of native Hawaiians from their ‘aina – family and land, which are at the core of their culture – devastated generations of islanders.

%Gallery-155196%father damienCritical to the development and notoriety of the settlement was the arrival of Joseph De Veuster, a Belgian missionary better known as Father Damien. Although not the first missionary or caregiver at Kalawao and Kalaupapa, it was he who turned the colonies into a place of hope, rather than exile and death.

Father Damien spoke Hawaiian and established schools and other educational and recreational projects. He developed a water system, expanded St. Philomena Catholic Church, and became a source of comfort to residents. He died of Hansen’s Disease in 1889, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Although a cure for Hansen’s Disease was discovered in the 1940’s, most of the colony chose to remain at Kalaupapa, as it had become a tight-knit community. Today, only a, uh, handful of elderly residents remain, keeping alive Kalaupapa’s legacy by talking story with visitors and relatives alike.

The National Park Service established Kalaupapa as part of its system in 1980 (previously, it was a National Historic Landmark, the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement). While somewhat pricey and challenging to get to, it’s worth a visit if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian culture and history.

You can get to Molokai year round by either regional air carriers or ferry via Maui. To enter the Park, state law requires a permit from the State Department of Health, and no children under 16 are permitted. All entries are booked and must be prearranged through Damien Tours (808) 567-6171, which is endorsed by the National Park Service (there is also a Father Damien Tours out of Honolulu, but I can’t speak with authority to its quality).

Two excellent ways to gain entry to the park – via prior reservation – are by hiking the 3.5-mile trail or on muleback. Kalaupapa Mule Tour has been a park concession since the early 70s, and I highly recommend the ride if your butt and legs are in good shape and you don’t have a fear of heights. It provides a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, but be prepared for insanely steep, narrow trails and brutal switchbacks. Whether you hike or ride, please be sure to do an honest assessment of your physical abilities beforehand; another option is to do a flightseeing/ground tour. There are no medical facilities at the park.

[Photo credit: Flickr user University of Hawaii – West Oahu; Father Damian, Wikipedia Commons]

Five must-do adventures on Maui

Any trip to Maui from the mainland incurs a bit of jet lag. Once that subsides, and the Mai Tais have been sipped, its time to get out and discover all the adventure the island has to offer. Maui has over 120 miles of coastline and offers endless opportunities for water sports such as kayaking, diving, snorkeling, surfing, paddle boarding, and kite surfing. Land-based adventures usually involve hiking or cycling. The island is incredibly bike-friendly with bike paths found on most major thoroughfares. Some visitors even take to the air in small aircraft to see the island from above.

Helicopter tour of Maui and Molokai

No trip to Hawaii is complete without a helicopter tour. Magnum P.I.’s TC was the king of the island choppers back in the day, but now it’s Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Blue Hawaiian is the only operator serving all four major islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. The tours of Maui are unparalleled, and for those who have never had the experience of flying in a helicopter, the eco-star and a-star class choppers offer a smooth ride. Watch the weather forecast (almost always the same) and ensure there isn’t a strong rain forecast.

If it’s jaw-dropping scenery you want, use Maui as your jumping off point and tour west Maui and Molokai by air. The waterfalls of Molokai drop over 3,000 feet to the ocean and have been used by Hollywood in such blockbusters as the Jurassic Park series. This tour lasts nearly an hour and takes the flier over west Maui and to the sparsely populated island of Molokai. Once there, the pilot will hover over immense waterfalls, slide up into the crater, and follow an ancient river meandering from the summits. Remnants of the huge man-made fishing ponds used for centuries by the locals can be seen from the air. Tour prices start at $138.95 per person.


Bike down Haleakala

By far one of the most popular adventure excursions on Maui is the bike ride down the 10,000 foot-high Haleakala. This is the larger of the two volcanoes on Maui and certainly the most visited. The upper portion of the mountain is protected as part of Haleakala National Park.

Starting early in the morning, and I mean 3 AM early, descenders are picked up by the tour companies and hauled up the slope in vans. Those who try this need to remember that the summit is near 10,000 feet above sea level. Early morning temps can drop into the 30s. Dress appropriately by wearing layers and don’t forget the sunscreen. Once the riders descend through the cloud layer they’ll find themselves humming down the twisty roads at high speeds in the blazing sun.

Several companies offer these trips and most offer very similar services. Shopping around will win you the best price. Many bikers end their trip in Paia a funky little town on the coast with a decidedly bohemian feel. Celebrate your accomplishment with a brew at one of the local haunts and get some hippie-watching in.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user gabriel amadeus)

Learn to stand-up paddle board

It’s easy to get the fever to be on a board once you’ve driven any stretch of coast in the Hawaiian Islands. Watching surfers catch a wave and ride its crashing edge in to the shoreline will have you asking yourself, “Could I do that?” Surfing takes quite a bit of dedication and practice, however, and a much quicker way for the land lubber to sprout sea legs and get up on a board is to try the sport of stand-up paddle boarding.

The sport is true to its name in that it requires a board, similar in shape to a surfboard, and a paddle. The paddle has a crooked end and is used to steer the rider – no fancy footwork needed. Decent balance is a must though. Finding your body’s center over the board and getting the paddle in the water as soon as you get up are the keys to this sport. Lessons are offered at Makena Beach and Golf Resort in Wailea. The lessons are given by staff members who adore the sport and have the patience of a saint. A one-hour lesson will cost $60 and will have even the most uncoordinated up and paddling by the end.

Take a boat to Molokini for world-class snorkeling

Snorkeling off the coast of Maui is a popular activity. There are many places to rent snorkel gear around the island and locals are willing to share some of the hot spots. “Turteltowns” are the name given to areas near the shore where turtles come to feed on plant life growing on the rocks. Be forewarned, snorkelers must keep a distance of at least ten feet from sea turtles at all times or they risk a fine of $10,000!

To get the most out of your snorkeling experience on Maui though, it is best to take a snorkel tour to the small island off the coast, Molokini. There are several companies offering this service. Or if someone in your group has boating experience the best way to go is to rent your own boat. There is only one company that rents boats to tourists on Maui and that is Sea Escape Boat Rental. They rent a Glacier Bay 2240sx which can accommodate 6-7 people. It helps to share the $140/hour price for rental. The snorkeling off Molokini is phenomenal. Huge schools containing hundreds and even thousands of fish team around its rocky shores each day. Sea turtles frequent the island and so do snorkelers. Arrive early to avoid the choppy waters that tend to flare up in the afternoon. Expect a crowd but spend most of your time on the right and left side of the crescent-shaped part of the island. This is where the fish like to hang out and do their thing. With Sea Escape you pay for your own fuel and snorkel gear is an extra $10 for each set.

Hike the hidden waterfalls on the road to Hana

Driving the road to Hana is a rite-of-passage for anyone living on or visiting the island. On the eastern side of the island, Hana gets much more rain than the western side and stays lush and green for most of the year. It is also on the steeper side of Haleakala which means dramatic dropping landscapes full of waterfalls. Hana is known for being remote — so remote, in fact, that getting there takes the better part of a day. There are serious restaurants, and Oprah decided to buy a home there. When you have to get away from the misery of being a gazillionaire you might as well do it in paradise.

The road to Hana is a twisted roller coaster ride along a rough coastline. There are several places where the road narrows to one lane and traffic has to yield in order for everyone to get through peacefully. If you get car sick easily, stay away. If you don’t have trouble with car sickness, and you want to see sweeping panoramas of undeveloped tropical coastline, hit the road. During the course of the drive you’ll find that there are several spots to stop and pull over. Many of these pull-outs have trail heads that lead to magnificent overlooks and to tucked-away waterfalls. Some are well marked, and some are not marked at all. The guidebook Maui Revealed devotes a section to the Hana Highway and uses mile markers to guide the driver to each of the sweet spots.

Maui isn’t a place that can be seen in a matter of a few days. It takes at least a week to adjust to the time difference and to the slow pace of island time itself. To really get the feel for Maui get out on the water, roads, trails, and into the skies to see what lies beyond the fences of the resorts. You’ll have plenty to talk about in the hot tub that night for sure.