During the shutdown, I got what I can only describe as a continental version of island fever. A world traveler, I found myself confined to one city. I tried to get by mentally with thoughts like, “well, I live where people GO for vacation” and “let me explore my own city as if it were new.” That only worked for so long. When just heading up the road to Los Angeles felt like a full-blown getaway, I knew my world had gotten uncomfortably small.
So when my friend suggested we head to Maui, I didn’t exactly object. Ironically, for all of my travels, I had never been to one of the most popular destinations on the globe, and for the same reason one hears when they hear “Maui.”
“Oh, but it’s so touristy.”
In general I agree. I like to be a little off the beaten path myself. However, it’s worth noting that a place doesn’t become touristy because it sucks. You’ll note no one has this complaint about Des Moines. The lush landscape, the varied climate and reef-filled, crystal clear water are known worldwide.
Arriving at the Maui airport is, itself, interesting. The airport is a very open structure, so the first thing you feel when you step off the plane is that famous Hawaii air, which is a big contrast to most airports which are usually over-conditioned to the point of uncomfortable sterility.
The air is warm and humid, and constantly teases you with rain that may or may not come. What’s noteworthy is that climate elements that are normally considered unpleasant somehow work in this environment.
After getting a somewhat “lived in” rental car, we were off to Kihei. We had several hours before we could check into our rental condo, so our first stop was the beach at the Lava Fields south of the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Reserve.
A seemingly endless mass of once-molten lava solidified into a field of black jagged rocks lined with miles of fencing. There are jagged remains of a once violent explosion with the flow to the ground clearly visible. Descending from the mountain you can actually see the route the lava would have flowed before ending at the rugged coastline as perfect blue water crashes against the calm. The mass of lava surrounding us brought to mind the dichotomy of how such violence and chaos could yield such a peaceful setting.
A quick roadside change into shorts, and we were officially on vacation. A woman once told me that while places like France or China are trips (implying work). Conversely, Hawaii is a VACATION. Though I had never thought of it that way before, I’d never forgotten the distinction since. A little travel weary and mellow, we found a flat space on the rocks to take in the calm Pacific and let the damp air light ocean spray kiss our skin. As we stared at the endless water as it reached the horizon, we began to let Maui “do it’s thing.”
The island cast its magic spell on us. We were on vacation.
The early morning start in California, coupled with the travel hit us long before we could check into our rental, so a parking space and some sodas led to a beachside nap in the rental car. Interestingly, we were surrounded by many SUVs and vans that we learned also serve as AirBNBs on this island. Apparently, a van in Maui is still better than a house anywhere else.
Careen into Destiny
Simply driving on parts of Maui turned out to be quite an adventure itself. Particularly en route to the remote parts of the wet side of the island, describing a road as one lane is a generous description. The views, however, are worth the drive even at its most treacherous. Highways 340 and 30, while less than 40 miles, took over two hours driving at the edge of sheer cliffs and towering masses of rock and jungle.
The stress of the drive is compounded by the locals who are both used to the roads and are clearly put out by the number of outsiders who travel them. We were frequently tailgated before being passed aggressively in places one should not pass another car. Granted, us California folks are used to 8 lane mega-freeways and surface streets the size of some interstates, so to us the aggression of the drivers was off-putting to say the least.
This is not to say I didn’t understand the locals‘ disdain for tourists. This understanding was compounded by the Mercedes RV going the opposite direction, where the height difference was the only thing that kept our mirrors from colliding while our own tires rode dangerously close to the massive drop to our right. We encouraged them to turn around, as we’d already traversed many curves and tight spaces that we were sure the RV would be unable to manage. I’m sure countless other large vehicles have blocked the roads locals need for their daily lives.
The crunch of driving opened to the dry side of the island (and some actual room to drive), where we found ourselves in Lahaina for a much deserved lunch. Cheeseburger in Paradise is pretty much the letter definition of a tourist trap, though I was pleasantly surprised. The food and service were quite good, bucking the trend of touristy places which usually provide overpriced goods of low quality simply because they can.
Returning to the condo, I tapped away on my laptop while my boyfriend slept off his mai tai. We headed to the beach for a sunset. Clouds rolled over Macgregor Point while the windmills churned in the dewey evening air bringing a close to a successful day in Maui.
Reef me baby!
It’s not a trip to Maui without sticking your head in the water and getting a look at the colorful reefs and diversity of sea life. We headed to Little Makena Beach for some technically illegal sunbathing, and a few long swims to explore the reefs in the clear blue water.
Signs all over the island ask to not wear sunscreen or at least wear “reef safe” sunscreen, though many signs insist that no sunscreen is safe for the reefs. I instinctively agreed, very much to the detriment of the entire back of my body. Two swims of over 45 minutes each with my back facing the Maui sun, had some rather lasting effects, particularly on parts of my body that don’t often see the sun.
We explored reef after reef, taking in the variety of sea life; butterfly fish, banner fish, wrasses, one small friendly sea turtle and even a moray eel and a green pufferfish. We swam in human awkwardness, enrapt with these colorful, beautiful animals as they went about lives that probably seem so mundane to them.
The fish apparently are so used to humans that they barely scatter as you come by; yet another side effect of the mass of tourists that occupy this small island. At first I thought they were just used to us, but as I observed their ability to be well out of range in a very short time, I began to realize they aren’t afraid of us because they know underwater what the locals seem to know on the ground; this is our house, and you don’t belong here.
Back at the beach and catching some sun, I knew when I stood up that my English skin was going to complain about this excursion and my desire to respect the reef by going without sunscreen. The sunburn is another reminder that no matter how respectful, we are trespassers in the ocean. Notice that fish don’t get sunburns.
While I knew the plane ride home would be somewhat “itchy” at best, the sunburn and irritation was absolutely worth the spectacle of the wildlife that flourishes just under the surface.
We Just Click
More winding, twisting roads with the added bonus of rain brought us to Hana, and ultimately the Black Bamboo Forest. In a massive stroke of luck, the rain subsided just as we parked the car. This meant of course it was safe to take the “good” camera on the hike through the forest to the waterfall.
The forest seems to stretch on forever, and not long after setting out on the trail you are surrounded by massive bamboo plants, many of which are really black. The forest is so dense that you can see only a few yards in either direction, and the massive grass towers over the people, giving the perspective of what a ladybug might see in your front yard. Winds periodically pick up sending a cacophony of clicking noises echoing through the wild tropical growth.
A blessing and a curse for this island. The paradise of the ocean is a matter of public record, but what’s unexpected is the diversity of geography that exists in such a small area. Another draw that brings around 2 million people from around the world to crowd and occupy the place that only 160,000 call home. When there is a nearly twenty-fold influx of outsiders, one cannot be surprised that the locals, who live with the resulting pollution, crowding and high prices that result, are frustrated with our presence there.
We headed to our second meal at Ohana, a place we just happened to visit while waiting for our condo. The food is delicious (they have a killer mac salad) and the prices are reasonable…for Maui.
An unexpected guest at nearly every outdoor space are the chickens. No matter how beautiful the scenery, no matter how good the food, one thing that surprised me most about Maui is that no site has officially been visited until there’s a chicken involved.
The Doorway to Space
Much like one expects to be wearing, at the most, shorts and a t-shirt the whole time (optimally much less), one very much doesn’t expect to need a jacket. Of course, at just over 10,000 feet, no place is that tropical.
We lagged on the reservations required to see the sunrise at Haleakala, so we got a late start. Ears pop frequently as the winding road takes us from sea level air to a space above the clouds. The gleaming white towers of the observatory pocked the rugged landscape that is all but devoid of vegetation. Standing well above the dense clouds, Haleakala has an almost science fiction, alien planet feel.
On an oxygen-deprived dare, I dropped to the ground and did 25 push ups. a stupid trick to say the least, I poured myself into the rental car, nearly blacked out to descend the mountain for some well deserved oxygen.
No day is complete without a little emotional abuse from a local. At a friend’s suggestion we hit the Komoda Store and Bakery. Overpriced goods are just the norm here, so you can’t fault a business for overcharging customers. Upon entering a nearly empty bakery, we navigated the maze of racks containing rolls, donuts and other sugary pastries. Finally at the front of the line, I had the gall to step out of line to get a closer look at the display case, an action that earned me a quick reprimand. A little frustrated, we ordered a variety of pastries (to go of course), which we consumed in the car. I admit, for the price and the treatment, this “must not miss” establishment was not up to par.
Like all vacations, you know they must end, but do the days have to go by THAT fast? After such a long time with no travel, I was a little disoriented that we were packing, when it felt like I had just unpacked. As we were cleaning the condo rental and generating boarding passes on our phones, I couldn’t help it think “was it really over already? Was that really a whole week?”
Nearly 200gb of video clips assured that, yes, I had a whole week there and yes, it was time to go home.
As the beautiful island shrunk out of view leaving nothing but a view of the endless Pacific from the small airplane window, I settled into my iPad and some snacks. Far from satisfying my need for travel, my desire to add to my long list of “been theres” only grew.