Making the Most of Maui
by Risa Weinreb
The snorkeling that morning had been incredible. A three-foot-long eel emerged from its hiding place in the rocks and then swam across the bottom, undulating like a green chiffon scarf. Later, what looked like just another mottled clump of coral sudden sprang to life. It was a medium-size octopus, which danced from one part of a submerged boulder to another, amazing us with its color transformations: white, pearl grey, burgundy red, speckled.
But as the Zodiac headed back to Lahaina Harbor, we still held great expectations. Would they be there?
Conditions weren't promising. Although the sea -- a luminescent sapphire -- remained flat, it was getting late and the wind was picking up.
Suddenly, Ted's face lit up as he started humming a few bars from the Mighty Mouse theme --"Here he comes to save the day!" "There!" he pointed. But I only saw white froth off the rocky point outside Lanai's Hulopoe Bay.
But the sea foam increased, came nearer -- and within seconds, the Zodiac was surrounded by a pod of over 100 spinner dolphin. They arced through the water, powered by vigorous thrusts of their tails. Several came within a fin's breadth of the boat, effortlessly riding the bow wake; the retinue included a mother and baby. One dolphin leaped into the air and did the characteristic rotation that earns the species its name. I felt like I was cast in a nature documentary on the Discovery Channel.
People come to Maui for many reasons. Long, golden beaches. Sunny Lahaina, the former whaling port that now bustles with boutiques and restaurants. Haleakala volcano, with deep, cindery terrain that looks so out of this world, astronauts used it as a training ground for moon-walks. But Maui also encompasses deserted grottoes and remains of heiaus (shrines) where ancient Hawaiians worshipped and sacrificed to their gods -- if you know where to look. As a travel writer, I've been privileged to visit this gorgeous isle about once a year for the past dozen years. I had seen sunrise from Haleakala, and flown in a helicopter through an impossibly narrow valley to hover above a silvery waterfall. On this trip, I wanted to experience a different perspective on the island's natural beauty -- Maui "unplugged," so to speak.
Which is how I found myself on a windless morning casting off from Lahaina, the sun illuminating clefts in the West Maui Mountains and the Lahaina storefronts. I was aboard the Maui Nui Explorer, embarking on a snorkeling cruise to Lanai.
"That's the biggest Zodiac I ever saw in my life," I remarked to Craig, the captain, as I boarded.
"That's because this is one of the largest Zodiacs ever built," Craig explained. Because of its ocean-racing hull, the boat was amazingly stable. There were also major concessions to creature comforts: in plain talk, the vessel even had a user-friendly head.
"We don't want to just educate you about what you see -- we want to get you really excited about what's out there," explained Ted, our naturalist guide for the morning. Because we were swimming alongside a naturalist, we could learn about the different creatures as we saw them, instead of queuing for plastic fish charts when we got back on the boat. "That's a hawkfish," said Ted, pointing out a lurking brownish creature. "It's an ambush predator -- it lies in wait for its prey." We also saw an amazing array of butterflyfish tattooed in psychedelic patterns: false eyes, convict stripes, polka dots.
As we swam over a clump of lime-green coral, Ted told us to listen. I had always assumed that the slight crackling noise I often heard while snorkeling was caused by water lapping against my eardrums. Instead, Ted told us, the sound came from tiny shrimp feeding on the coral.
The east coast of Lanai is sculpted with cliffs and sea caves. We drifted the Zodiac into the mouth of one large cavern, disturbing a flock of brown noddies who squawked complainingly into flight. As we drifted over the bottle-green water, I thought how the scene could have taken place any time over the past 1,000 years.
I have always been fascinated by Jean-Francois de Galaup, the Count of La Perouse, the gifted -- and ultimately unfortunate -- French navigator who landed in Maui in 1786. La Perouse, in fact, turned up in all sorts of places. A plaque at Carmel Mission commemorates his visit to the Monterey Peninsula in 1786. In 1788, he sailed into Australia's Botany Bay, arriving scant days after the First Fleet. After a six-week sojourn in Australia, he continued his voyage of Pacific discovery -- and was never heard from again.
Since I had long admired La Perouse's exploits, I was excited to visit the broad, beautiful bay named for him just south of Wailea on a guided walk with Hike Maui.
When Ken Schmitt started Hike Maui in 1983, he ran "one -- maybe two" hikes a month. Now he offers up to five hikes a day, to varied, off-the-beaten-path locales. "We get a wide variety of hikers on our trips," Ken told me. "Mostly people who want to get back to nature." Although Ken himself would not be leading the La Perouse hike, I would be accompanied by J.J., an ethnobotanist and marine biologist; and Judy, a specialist in whales and dolphins.
Located below the southwest flanks of Haleakala, La Perouse Bay dazzles with its contrasts: cobalt water, the green-giant hulk of the volcano, and fields of jagged, black 'a'a lava -- remnants of a 1790 lava flow, the most recent in Maui's history.
We started our hike at 7 A.M. next to a jade-green cove, salt spray freshening the air. Fragments of white coral poked among black lava rocks like skeletons. I thought of the Hawaiian name of the locale: Keone 'Oio -- "sands of the bonefish."
J.J. stopped as we hiked over a lava outcrop pocked with shallow depressions. Here, ancient Hawaiians had sharpened their stone adzes, he said. Thanks to J.J.'s commentary, other seemingly random piles of rocks took shape as mementos of history. A platform of ile'ile (smooth stones) had been the floor of a dwelling; other walls had formed a canoe shed.
We headed inland to the Hoapili Trail, a 17-mile coastal path dating back to the 1500s. The footing was rough as we trekked over humps, lumps, and chunks of lava, some the size of bowling balls.
But now we were coming to the "dessert" part of our expedition: snorkeling along the coast. Judy led us along a barely discernible track that zagged around massive rifts and gaping cavities in the lava. It looked like the set for some Doomsday movie.
After 15 minutes, we came to a circular bay where water flashed an iridescent blue -- no wonder the spot is called the "Aquarium" or "Fish Bowl."
Schools of silvery mullet flicked left and right; a half-dozen Moorish idols cruised by at a time. At one point, a striped fish with neon-blue lips hovered less than six inches from my mask: a humuhumunukunukuapua'a, Hawaii's state fish.
"The first thing you do when you get to Molokai is take off your watch. You eat when you're hungry and you go to bed early because you've been outside all day," a local once explained to me.
Although Molokai is (along with Lanai) part of Maui County, its dawdling pace differentiates it from its jet-set sibling. Relaxation almost seems a civic duty: the first thing you see when you drive out of the airport is a sign that says, "Aloha -- Slow Down." Old Hawaii is alive and well here: 50 of the residents have native Hawaiian ancestry.
The western third of the island -- some 54,000 acres -- belongs to Molokai Ranch. Celebrating its centennial in 1998, the ranch is still a working spread, running over 7,000 head of cattle.
In January 1997, the Ranch opened its Paniolo Camp guest accommodations: think of it as Club Med, Hawaiian style. A whole passel of activities -- from mountain biking to hula lessons -- are included in the room rate, along with ample meals served family style in the pavilion.
Accommodations are cleverly unique. I stayed in one of the "tentalows" -- cabins of crisp, white canvas built up on wooden decks. Although all the initial accommodations are along a ridge stippled with Cooke pines, Kaupoa Camp opened adjacent to a double-crescent, white-sand beach in early 1998.
Decor is simple, but you're very far from roughing it. There's a solar-powered lamp over your comfortable queen-size bed so you can read at night. The separate bathroom has a flush toilet and shower, complete with solar-heated hot water. At night, the heavens opened with a million stars and I could see the twinkling lights of Windward Oahu across Kaiwi Channel.
The next morning, I headed out for some guided sea kayaking along Molokai's south coast. As a neophyte paddler, I appreciated that the route is one way: we put in, paddled with the wind, then got driven home by a shuttle van. The voyage was beautiful, the sea a glistening patchwork of blues.
"You may have heard about paniolos -- Hawaiian cowboys," a ranch staffer had said to me. "But here, you can live like a paniolo." Horseback riding is one of the ranch's most popular pastimes -- they even offer roundups and rodeo competitions.
I rode off with Bobby Joe Carlton, an Oahu native who had traveled from California to Texas showing championship reining and cutting horses. I was impressed to hear that he had also worked as a "bull chaser" -- rodeo clown -- alongside the legendary Leon Coffee.
Vona, a big-boned, white quarter horse, was my mount. We trotted up Umikupala Ridge, flushing francolins (like partridges) from the tall grass as we passed. Everything from the pine-fringed mountain tops to the sapphire-blue sea belonged to Molokai Ranch, Bobby Joe said.
In keeping with its low-key lifestyle, Molokai also offers charming bed-and-breakfasts. I stayed at one of the most beautiful: Kumu'eli, located in lush, eastern Molokai. The property is run by David and Dorothe Curtis, who have lived in Molokai for 25 years.
David, an architect, designed the house himself "in harmony with the setting -- oriented with the sun, wind, views, and nature around us." A exquisite lap pool extends amid a botanical bonanza of palms, plumeria, and an African tulip tree with unusual orange blossoms.
They have just one guest room, located across the deck from the main house so it's very private. In the huge bathroom, I luxuriated in the sunken soaking tub and large, walk-in shower.
I enjoyed talking with Dorothe, an expert about Molo-kai history who has written books for the Bishop Museum and National Geographic. She also is a wonderful cook, and I gobbled up her ginger muffins and grapefruit jelly, made from citrus grown in their own grove.
The name Kumu'eli means "to explore for the source," Dorothe explained. I realized that the name matched my quest on this trip to Maui and Molokai -- to connect with the earliest, truest spirit of the islands.
Adventures in Maui and Molokai can be arranged through:
Maui Nui Explorer, (800) 852-4183 or (808) 661-8787. Four-hour snorkel cruise (includes lunch) is $65 per person.
Hike Maui, P.O. Box 330969, Kahului, HI 96733; Phone: 808-879-5270; Fax: (808) 876-0308. Hikes $70 to $110 per person.
Molokai Ranch, Phone: (800) 254-8871; Fax: (808) 552-2330; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.molokai-ranch.com. Rates: $185 to $245 per person per day, including accommodations, three meals, and most activities. Horseback riding may cost extra; call for details.
Kumu'eli Farms Bed & Breakfast, P.O. Box 1829, Kaunakakai, HI 96748; Phone/Fax: (808) 558-8284; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: http://www.visitmolokai.com/kumueli/. Rates: $75 per night (single or double).
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Hawaii."