The best way to get the full experience of Hawaii, from its lava landscape to its amazing marine life, is by air, land and sea, writes Isabel Conway.
Northern Star, our 65ft long Catamaran is all lit up like she’s on fire in the bright early morning sunshine as we try to outrace the competition, but we’re no match for the quick as lightning pod of dolphins streaking alongside us.
The fashion models of the aquatic mammal world, these graceful slender “spinning” dolphins off the Hawaiian island of Kauai are the picture of elegance and style. They skim, as if choreographed through the cobalt blue crystal clear waters of the Pacific, winding in and out along their underwater ‘catwalk’ before vanishing from sight.
Magical moments like these – we have already notched up an impressive tally over a couple of days here and on Oahu, two of the six Hawaii islands open to tourism we’re visiting – turns my jet lag and disarrayed body clock still battling against the 7,000 mile plus journey to the other side of the world, into a worthwhile trade off.
Blazing orange and red sunrises and sunsets, monstrous surf waves, swaying palms, sugary white beaches, Mai-Tai cocktails, Elvis Presley strumming a ukulele, serenading a swaying dancer with hair as long as her hula skirt, these are my mind’s eye images of Hawaii.
That picture postcard idyll is pretty accurate. Visitors are indeed welcomed with ‘aloha’ (Love, honour, peace) and the ‘lei’, a handcrafted garland of beautiful fresh tropical flowers is draped about our necks, not once but several times. The only disappointment is Honolulu’s unromantic metropolis of high rise ugly condos, towering sixties era hotel blocks and traffic congestion in the capital of the 50th state of the US on the island of Oahu.
Formed over six million years ago, Kauai is the oldest, most northerly of the main Hawaiian Islands and rates at the top of most travellers wish lists to the volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, five hours by air from the nearest point on the US mainland.
During our whistle stop visit we’ve already admired Kauai’s spectacular pristine landscapes by land and air, with ATV’s (alternative terrain vehicles) amid dense rainforest wilderness.
A helicopter tour of the entire island, looking down on extra-terrestrial gorges, valleys and cliffs, including the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, requires deep pockets ($275pp with highly experienced Island Helicopters). Look at this as a marvellous once in a lifetime experience, soaring above Waimea’s gargantuan chasm of ancient lava rock that is 10 miles long and over 3,500 feet deep, before following the famous Na Pali coastline. Kauai has starred in numerous movies from Lost and The Descendants starring George Clooney to Jurassic Park. Much of the latest Jurassic New World movie in cinemas from this summer was also shot among its awesome vistas.
Today we are exploring Kauai from the sea, admiring dramatic cliffs, sea caves, isolated beaches, searching for aquatic wonders, including humpback whales and green sea turtles, plus a stop to snorkel from Captain Andy’s Northern Star catamaran.
“We can arrange everything except the weather,” explains our captain, delivering a safety drill with an update on our lunch and snorkel cruise with a free bar that will open “once we have all you snorkelers out of the water”. The five-hour snorkelling cruise around Kauai’s Coast priced at $179 is deemed good value by passengers, some of whom have done it before. Today’s crowds are told that due to strong trade winds the sea conditions are unsuitable for our planned cruise up the spectacular Na Pali coast.
Suddenly I realize just how exposed we are here in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean here in Polynesia. A more protected route, sailing up the east side of the island is the alternative on offer with the prospect of almost certainly seeing a “humpback whale or two playing and jumping”.
Bad sailors may feel queasy in the swell, warns our skipper, pointing to “the fun corner” at the back of the Northern Star. “Aim for distance and stay on deck, the worst thing you could do is go and lock yourself in the toilets below; remember we’ve ways of making you feel better.”
Before we even depart the harbour of Port Allen, a young Chinese woman in a full length quilted coat with her hood up turns pistachio ice-cream green. “I think I will be sick,” she moans, “I want to do the trip for the snorkelling and views but I hate being on the sea, I’m frightened.”
Later, having survived the “fun corner”, normal colour restored, she happily skips down the steps with snorkel and flippers to discover an underwater paradise after the catamaran is tied to a underwater anchor. But her boyfriend has turned deathly pale and after his awkward plunge into the swell, the deckhands recognise another weak swimmer and help him out of the water.
Snorkelling on Hawaiian coral reefs is renowned. But sadly we don’t hit the jackpot at this location, where only a handful of tropical fish and a few clumps of brain coral are viewed. I have to battle the rip current to reach the boat’s platform steps while a little green sea turtle a short distance away seems to also have its work cut out also swimming against the swell.
We sunbathe and listen to our perfect musical backdrop “What a Wonderful World” sipping chilled white wine, toasting our good fortune, chatting to strangers. Then there’s a sudden heave-ho and rush across the deck as a humpback whale is spotted in the distance. Smart phones and cameras are grabbed and a few lucky snappers manage to get a photo of the massive tail slap that drives a wall of water into the air, a sound that can be heard for miles.
Every winter more than 10,000 humpbacks make their way from Alaska to mate, give birth and nurse their young in the warm waters of Hawaii before migrating back in late spring to Alaska’s food-rich waters where they feed and replenish their blubber in preparation for their next “vacation” south.
Based for a few nights at Hawaii’s most famous beach resort Waikiki on Oahu we enrol on a surfing crash course. Luckily it’s the calm side of the island with all the major pro surfing competitions happening up north where mountainous waves roll in from November until April.
The other not to be missed experience while visiting Oahu is a visit to legendary Pearl Harbour, less than an hour’s drive from downtown Honolulu where on December 1941 more than 350 Japanese planes launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting US pacific fleet, drawing America into WW2.
A huge battleship USS Arizona took a direct hit and sank in less than nine minutes with the loss of 1,177 men, whose average age was 19. She lies beneath the water close to where we stand marked by a memorial archway. The sky has turned steel grey and a light drizzle of rain falls as we tour Pearl Harbour’s hulking USS Missouri battleship nicknamed the ‘Mighty Mo’. She is the size of three American football fields equipped with guns each of which weighs more than a NASA space shuttle and is able to fire to a distance of 23 miles with a margin of error of only four feet.
The permanent exhibition inside the vessel tells how ‘Mighty Mo’ was tossed around like a cork during a hurricane in these same Pacific waters, extraordinary considering her size, but true – and certainly food for thought on our later Catamaran cruise plying the Pacific.
- A trip to Hawaii is a big spend but if you’re dreaming of a true once-in-a-lifetime trip look no further. See www.GoHawaii.com/UK. The rewards are worth the investment, with romantic pristine tropical beaches, stupendous volcanic landscapes and great diving and snorkelling in heavenly weather for much of the year. Life is lived outdoors so active travellers will love the chance to hike remote paths, fish, horse ride, take roller coaster off-road ATV vehicles through back country, learn to surf, and zipline down mountains and over rivers. More than 90% of native flora species in Hawaii is found nowhere else. The islands have a fascinating history, culture and the mix of Polynesian and Asian influences to its food scene makes for an exceptionally tasty and often exotic cuisine. From grilled fresh shrimps ($15 for a large plate) from Giovanni’s shrimp truck in the north of Oahu to farm to table Hawaiian high cuisine at 12th Avenue Grill in Honolulu or the beautiful colonial setting of Gaylord’s restaurant at Kilohana on Kauai, you’ll find something for all tastes and budgets.
- The Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) direct flights between Dublin and San Francisco and Los Angeles, with another new route to Seattle imminent, is the most convenient with frequent onward connections to Honolulu, the gateway airport to all the islands. Two-destination holidays, exploring San Francisco, LA and Seattle combined with a trip to a couple of the islands of Hawaii packaged by Irish US specialist tour operators are a perfect option also. Look online or contact your local ITAA travel shop. United (www.united.com) flies daily from Dublin via its US hub (Newark) and onwards to Honolulu prices from €1374.94 return.
Where to stay
On Oahu, Isabel stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort that has over 90 shops and 20 restaurants, lounges and bars, situated right on the island’s best known beach with magnificent sea views, free hula entertainment and a weekly fireworks show. (www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com) A seven-night stay starts from $1,799. On Kauai she stayed at the luxury oceanfront Grand Hyatt Resort & Spa overlooking a picture postcard bay and chalk white sandy beach at Poipu. Seven-night stay from $3,150 (https://kauai.grand.hyatt.com)