I didn’t want to go to Hawaii the first time; I got coerced. Why go where everybody else goes? Why go to a cliché of ukuleles and leis? And then, of course, I found out the truth, so the 20 or 30 times I’ve returned have been entirely my idea. I start to feel it, a craving, like that hour before Thanksgiving dinner, and know it’s time to buy a plane ticket. Time to smell ti leaves and watch the skies for pueo, the local owl species.
But even after so many visits, what I mostly do is hang out on Oahu—eating kalua pig at the restaurant I love on the North Shore and letting my friends take me to overlooks that most tourists never see, the vast ocean spread out like a jigsaw, the waves the lines between puzzle pieces. Or the Big Island—losing myself in the volcanoes, looking for where the earth bleeds fire between patches of pahoehoe and a’a lava formations.
And so I make a simple resolve: to mix a trip of places I know and love with places I’ve never been. Ten days, four islands.
Which turns out to be like going to four entirely different worlds.
Moving from island to island in Hawaii is both surprisingly easy—inter-island flights leave about every 10 minutes—and a major pain in the butt if you don’t like to fly.
I don’t like to fly.
The original Polynesians moved around by boat, and for reasons of my own, I’ve spent the past five years looking at traditional canoes all around the Pacific. So I want water. The problem is, thanks to local politics and a relatively obscure law known as the Jones Act, Hawaii is without an inter-island ferry system. So that means a very, very small cruise ship run by InnerSea Discoveries: 100 feet, 25 other passengers, somebody else to do the cooking. I’m OK with that. And I’m really OK with an itinerary that puts me back on two islands I know well—the Big Island and Maui—and two I’ve never seen before, Lanai and Molokai.
Traveling to the Big Island is always like going back to an old friend. Or maybe two friends, since the opposite halves of the island are so different: the wet, jungly Hilo side and the dry, almost stark Kona side, where about all that grows is coffee on very tiny plantations (two acres is a pretty big outfit) and flowers roughly the size of serving platters that seem to be there just for the fun of it.
My traveling companion, Daz, sees the convertible at the rental place, and I know we’ll be doing the Big Island topless. I was here last year; she hasn’t been since she was a teenager, but it takes no time at all to agree on what to do: Head south, towards the last thing Captain Cook saw. Stories vary, but we can be sure of this: There was a scuffle, and Cook came out on the wrong side of it. The man who had sailed more of the globe than anyone else had his final view of the world at the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay. And when we get there, I think that’s not a bad last thing to see: an arc of cliffs protecting the land while spinner dolphins live up to their name, catching sunlight and turning their reflections into corkscrews, wild as Daz’s hair as we drive the highway with the top down.