Thursday, April 28, 2011



Sorry to resort to the default opener, but my husband and I just took a week's vacation at our president's birth place, and I don't mean Kenya. It was a syncopated vacation. We started with a couple of days in Oahu in order to see Pearl Harbor. Then, we moved on to the Big Island, to swim in the ocean and chase my lava dreams. We drove too much and chilled too little, but of course we're glad we went. I am too pressed for time to craft a chronological chronicle here, so I've thrown together an archipelago of impressions instead.

Thinking about making a trip to the Aloha state? Don't buy the Frommer guide. We usually like that series, but this time, the writer phoned it in. I suspect he sat on a beach chair on Waikiki beach with a lap top and cribbed from a pile of rival guides. Thanks to this book, we drove half way around Oahu to see some "spectacular" surfing beach that turned out to be border-line ugly, and frequented by tweekers and shiftless young men with really loud car radios. Frommer's surrogate also induced us to eat in a couple of lousy Waikiki restaurants and book rooms at a lodge with three weeks worth of dirt on the floor and a major mildew problem. Meanwhile, the guide doesn't even mention the dramatic rocky surfer beaches, with natural hot springs, that we discovered on the Eastern Puna region of the big Island.

If there's one thing I despise, it's a beach full of high rises. The degraded environment in Waikiki gives me the same sad feeling I get from watching neurotic, incarcerated animals at the zoo. My husband knows this and felt compelled to point out, before, during and after our Waikiki stay, that he had only brought me here so I could see Pearl Harbor. Waikiki was sunny but shabby. Like Miami Beach, it has definitely seen better days, but whereas Miami has a certain dangerous edge, all Waikiki can muster is a faint melancholia. We strolled down the artificial beach (that's right, all that velvety sand is imported), stopped for the requisite umbrella drink, and walked back. There were as many locals on the beach as there were tourists. Lots of big bellies, bad sunburns, blurry tattoos and bikinis on broads who had no business wearing them.

Waikiki is a party town, and a group of party animals were camped in the room directly above us. We waited until 2 am before finally calling security to shut them up. The following morning, when I went to shower, I noticed a faint cigarette smell. I wondered whether our upstairs neighbors had been smoking in the bathroom and briefly considered narking on them so we wouldn't be tagged as the couple who violated hotel policy. I should have tattled. When we returned that evening, we were greeted by a stern form letter informing us that "Evidence of Smoking" had been found in our room, and we would be subject to a $200 fine. My irritation index instantly went from zero to a hundred. Letter in hand, I marched downstairs to talk to the manager, who was too busy talking to the cops. There were six police cars parked out front, and they hadn't come to take us away for evidence of smoking. A psychotic street person had wandered into the hotel unnoticed, taken the elevator to the fourth floor and commandeered the tiny swimming pool. He was now standing in the water fully clothed, with a wet towel on his head, howling at the moon. I don't know how many men in blue it took to get the poor guy out of the water, but I'm pretty sure someone got wet.

Every American should make a pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor once in their lives, preferably after a brief review of the historical context. It helped that my husband had made me sit through Tora Tora Tora last year, although at the time my daughter and I were debating whether to rechristen it Bora Bora Bora or Snora Snora Snora. (What can I say, we don't like war movies). Still, it's impossible not to be moved by the Pearl Harbor exhibits, staffed with friendly vets from the Korean and Viet Nam wars. Seventy years after she was shot down with 1177 men on board, the submerged USS Arizona still weeps oil. You can tour the battleship USS Missouri and visit a Bowfin submarine, both marvels of old school mechanical engineering. One thing I learned from the various exhibits was that Dr. Seuss started out as a political cartoonist, and by today's standards, his drawings of the Japanese are about as racist as Nazi propaganda depictions of Jews. As for the Japanese, there were quite a few of them touring the site and I had to wonder what they were thinking. After all, they did pull off the biggest surprise attack in history.

With its ukeleles, mellow song stylings and gentle rhythms reminiscent of ocean breezes, Hawaiian music has its charms. But there is something terribly wrong about an island arrangement of John Denver's "Country Road". I think it's the part about the West Virginia Mountain Highways...

The Kohala coast is a lot less costly when you stay in Waimea: You can access the beach in twenty minutes, without shelling out for a luxury resort. Just beyond the outskirts of town is the main entrance to the 160 year old Parker Ranch, one of the nation's largest ranches. 35,000 head of cattle graze the vast Parker lands. The ranch's last individual owner, one Richard Smart, lived up to his surname by leaving his holdings, including an extensive art collection, in trust to support healthcare, education and charitable giving for the region. Cattle ranching is not the ranch's only source of income. Visitors can book a 3-hour horseback tour of the hilly lands at the base of Mauna Kea. Or they can go on a big game hunt. $3,500 buys you the Grand Slam, a two-day hunt for wild boar, "meat pig" (as opposed to the meatless kind?), feral goat and something called "wild cattle" - probably the same breed as that crazy laughing cow. Since we're more used to hunting for things like car keys, cell phones and reading glasses, we did not answer the call of the wild.

The cow town of Waimea has a unique charm, like the old TV series Northern Exposure only with better weather. Waimea appears to be home to an eccentric or three. The town tranny, a dead ringer for Renee Richards, likes to have coffee at the restaurant next to the lodge where we stayed. We noticed her two mornings in a row, lingering over the local paper as she twisted a synthetic auburn curl around her manicured index finger. In the evening, we ate at the Pakini Grill, which the sign outside described as the "Best Restaurant in the world, according to our mother." Mom, or maybe grandma, greeted us at the door. She was a tiny little white haired Island lady in a floor length brown print mumu and a ridiculous pair of glasses with a giant 2011 jutting from the top of the frames. When I asked about the eyewear, the old girl explained that she's trying to set a world record by wearing a different pair of outrageous specs each day. (Like most crazy things people do to get into the Guiness book, there is no previous record to break here). With tourists and regulars providing a steady supply of preposterous eyewear, Mom-or-Grammy is approaching 1000 uninterrupted days of new spectacles.

Mostly, we ate on the cheap, but we did manage to get in a couple of polar opposite fancy meals. The first dinner was at Merriman's in Waimea. The chef was a militant locavore, a concept I can embrace, and the menu detailed the source of all the ingredients. Unfortunately, green beans were not only local and in season, they were apparently the only available vegetable. We had an appetizer and a main dish each, and all four came with large quantities of barely cooked haricots verts. Beans with eel. Beans with scallops. Beans with lamb shank. Beans with Mahi Mahi. By the end of the meal, we had a bad case of bean there, ate that. We didn't order dessert - the words vanilla bean killed what was left of our appetites. The other fancy meal, we enjoyed on our last day, at the Kilauea Lodge in the town of Volcano. The lodge was founded by Albert Jeyte, the German former makeup artist from the 80s TV show, Magnum PI. Like many cast and crew members from that Hawaii-based series, Herr Jeyte couldn't bring himself to return to the mainland after the network pulled the plug on the program. So he married a local girl, bought an abandoned Y.M.C.A. summer camp and turned it into a delightful bed and breakfast. Mr. Jeyte then put himself through a Parisian cooking school and now serves up continental food with a Teutonic flair, and decidedly un-locavore ingredients. As in South African Lobster (who traveled 3 times as long as we did to reach Hawaii) and antelope schnitzel (I swear, I kid you not).

I am married to a gentleman of Irish descent with an aspirin-white complexion. He doesn't tan: he broils. That means we can only go to the beach for so long - maybe ten minutes – before seeking shade. So instead of plopping our butts on one patch of sand, we spent a day driving around Oahu, marveling at the variety of beaches. Lanikai and Kailua beaches on Oahu, where the Obamas vacation, had beautiful white sand and calm, swimmable waters. On the Big Island, we loved the beach near the Marriot on the Kohala coast, shaded by palm trees and featuring two ancient fish ponds where the native Hawaiian people practiced aquaculture centuries ago. But the best part about the Kohala beach was that it was sea turtle nesting season. The eggs were buried in the sand, and the parents were playing right off shore - no snorkeliing equipment necessary. I plan on blogging about these serene creatures in greater detail soon.

Remember Rush Limbaugh's hawaiian heart attack scare? He praised the excellent care he received, and was embarrassed to learn that the island system is somewhat, er, socialized! As far as the mind-body connection goes, I'd say many Hawaiians have a permanent case of the Aloha spirit. The locals call everybody "my dear," smile a lot and often sing to themselves. Other than the melanoma risk, all that sunshine seems to have a positive effect on people's health - unless they have fallen prey to the ongoing meth epidemic. Talk about trouble in paradise! We saw several large, frightening anti-meth posters outside of bars, restaurants and gas stations. We also noticed a good deal of public awareness communication about type 2 Diabetes, not surprising in light of the dangerous native diet. Shrimp trucks, barbecue wagons, shaved ice mobiles – there is fantastic street food everywhere, all of it heavy on the sugar, hot sauce and animal fat. We enjoyed sweet short ribs, plump shrimp sauteed in excessive amounts of garlic butter, creamy cold slaw drenched in mayonnaise, buckwheat macadamia pancakes with coconut's a wonder we didn't end up in the ER with Rush.

I wish I didn't have to diss a sensible, green technology, but the cistern system at the Kilauea Lodge had noise issues. It rains every day in the town of Volcano, so outfitting the inn with cisterns must have seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, the metal pipes collecting rainwater on the roof of our room magnified the drip drip dripping of the rain – not all that soothing at 3 a.m. Being half way to Japan, we also couldn't help but worry about radioactive precipitation. Fortunately, our bathroom was equipped with a water cooler. Besides my politically incorrect quibbling about the water system, I loved the Kilauea Lodge - just ask for a room away from the cisterns.

Call me naive, but here's what Fromer, or his slacker ghostwriter, would have us believe: "Since Kilauea's ongoing eruption began in 1983, lava has been bubbling and oozing in a mild mannered way that lets you walk right up to the creeping flow for an up close encounter." Now, if you read this, wouldn't you think you were going to see some fireworks? I am a volcano freak, and witnessing volcanic activity, preferably including lava, is at the top of my bucket list. The first time we were on the Big Island, nearly 18 years ago, we couldn't do too much exploring. Our son was an infant and my husband was hobbled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. This time, I was convinced we were going to see rivers of molten rock hitting the sea in a giant cloud of steam. We did not. Volcanoes National Park, with its coal black lava fields, steam vents, craters and lava tubes, is worth the trip regardless. We drove all the way to the bottom of the chain of craters road, which ends abruptly where it was cut off by the latest lava flow. Sunset was imminent, and we took a lonesome, mystical hike across the lava beds to a sacred site, marked by petroglyphs, where the ancient Hawaiians ritually buried the umbilical cords of their newborns. (This tradition, still practiced by a few indigenous folk, is intended to keep the baby from harm and promote longevity). Night had fallen by the time we got back to the park entrance, but I was not ready to leave. The manager at the Kilauea Lodge had told us that one could see Hale Mau Mau, the smaller crater within Kilauea's summit caldera, glow in the dark at night. My hungry husband was less than enthusiastic when I begged him to take me back to the park's Jagger museum, on the giant caldera's edge.
- There won't be any glow.
- Oh please, oh please. I just have to see.
- I'm telling you, there won't be any glow.
- Can't we just SEE? If there’s no glow, you can say I told you so.
- Alright, I'll take you, just so you can see that there isn't any glow.
He took me, bless his heart and there WAS a glow! The gas cloud that hovers over the crater reflects light from the lake of fire below, and after dark, you can see a pink cloud hovering over Hale Mau Mau. That little detour turned out to be a big sacrifice on my husband's part. In the tiny town of Volcano, restaurants stop serving when they feel like it. The door may say nine, but the chef says no. We ended up driving 30 miles round trip to find a McDonalds. But McFood poisoning was a fair trade off to see the evening glow over Hale Mau Mau. Just enough of a tease to make me want to come back the next time Kilauea acts up.

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