Hawaii has much to offer to the water sport enthusiast. It however took me a week of tramping through Maui to realize I like the mountains more than sunny coastlines. While I truly enjoy the waves and absolutely love snorkeling, the novelty can wear off pretty quick. I’d still take backpacking through a mountain range and enjoy the daylong Hiker’s High any day over beach-combing.
My wife and I flew to Maui, Hawaii for a week’s vacation in the summer of 2015. We zeroed-down on Maui among other islands since it is known to have some of the best beaches in the Hawaiian archipelago. Besides, Maui isn’t as cacophonous as the island of Oahu while still offering better tourist infrastructure than the other Hawaiian islands. The famed ‘Road to Hana’ was another alluring factor in our picking Maui over the others.
Five hours on a plane from San Francisco and we got down at the Kahului airport on a windy day. It was warm and breezy the day we landed. The swaying palm trees and the moisture laden ocean breeze instantly puts you in the island spirit. Living in Northern California, I dearly miss the opportunity to frolic in natural water bodies. The freezing waters of the Northern Pacific is no place to get your ocean fix. But now in the sunny tropics of Hawaii, I couldn’t wait to rush into the waves.
A False Start
As it happens more often than you’d like, nature takes her own course, not usually in alignment with your plans. As we got into our rental car and hit the road, we soon ran into a roadblock caused by a wildfire in the nearby hills. Law enforcement officers and fire fighters were out minding the traffic and fighting the wildfire. Choppers hovered in the skies spraying barrels of water on the blazing hills. With no alternative route to get to our accommodation, we took a detour to the nearby Baldwin beach. I immediately changed into my beachwear, ran into the waters and had my first fill of the Hawaiian waves. The waters were colder than I had thought.
We got back on the road after about an hour on the beach, only to run into the same roadblock again. The wildfire continued to sweep through the hills and the cops weren’t ready to lift the roadblock yet. Disappointed with this setback and stuck in long lines of stranded cars, we resigned to waiting it out. Traffic moved an inch every few minutes. After about an hour, we pulled over to the side of the road to catch a nap. When we both woke up, it was past midnight and we found the traffic all cleared out. We drove to our AirBnB, our holiday spirits ever so slightly deflated.
Sun, Sand and Snorkeling
Over the next few days, we made up for the disappointing start to our vacation by snorkeling at West Maui’s famed beaches – Kaanapali, Kapalua, Hamoa, Napili and others. Our AirBnB was by the Napili beach and a paved walkway from the property led right up to the ocean. We were excited the very first morning when we walked to the beach and found a Turtle lounging in the sand. The turtle blended in well with the surrounding rocks and it took me a while to realize it was actually the state’s celebrated Green Sea Turtle. The shy creature wriggled away back into the sea soon after.
Green Sea Turtles are a common sight in the Hawaiian waters. Although they’re gentle, docile animals, it takes a while to get used to sharing the waters with them. I was intimidated with the imposing size of these monsters and hesitated getting into the waters whenever there was one swimming nearby. My wife, Akshata, had her own share of turtle troubles. She and I were snorkeling in the tepid waters of the Kapalua beach and happened to spot a Green Sea Turtle swimming with her baby nearby. Akshata immediately turned about and fled back ashore. I continued to paddle around and lost visual of mama turtle and her infant. A couple minutes later when I changed directions, I was taken aback when I found the baby turtle within a few feet from me. Knowing that the kid’s mother couldn’t be too far away from her child, I panicked and swam away to join my wife. I couldn’t get myself to grow comfortable swimming alongside the Green Sea Turtle throughout my stay.
Besides turtles, Maui’s ocean floor was rife with corals and colorful fish. Some of Maui’s beach waters are renown for their deep visibility and they did not disappoint. As you dunk your head under the surface of water and stare down through your snorkel mask, a colorful aquascape in high definition unfolds underneath you. Schools of tiny fish going about their business, solitary bigger fish meandering through corals and the occasional needlefish curiously swimming by, make for a captivating experience. I was only content after I finally spotted the Hawaiian state fish that goes by the name – Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa. How’s that for getting your tongue tied?
Injuries and Setbacks
We paid the price for our indifference toward sun protection as we went about enjoying the beaches. Three days into the trip and after plenty of shirtless snorkeling in the waters, I came down with raging sunburns. The mild sunscreen that we mindlessly dabbed onto ourselves was no match for the Hawaiian summer sun. Our burning bodies put the brakes on our exploration and we learned to slow down and be more respectful of the elements.
To add to my misery, a stupid rookie mistake I committed while snorkeling set me up for some major suffering. Inspired by all the snorkelers around me dive deep down into the water, I went on to emulate these folks and swam down about 20 feet. As I descended headfirst, a piercing pain steadily grew in my ears and forced me to swim back up. Having never heard of the technique of Ear Equalization, I was in agony the next few days with acute pain in one of my ears. Ear clearing is a very important technique and ignoring this might lead to some real damage to your ear drums. This ordeal turned out to be another one of my hard learned lessons. Here’s all you need to do to equalize your ears – Close your nostrils with your fingers and exhale. You’ll feel your ears stiffening up. You keep doing this as you dive down into deeper waters.
Over time, I’ve developed a distaste for commercial nonsense that gets passed around as must-sees/must-do’s. Pre-packaged experiences and passive visual sightseeing that doesn’t engage you physically are among my top pet peeves. And Hawaii sure does have its share of the tourist laundry list.
- Eating a bowl of Hawaiian Shaved Ice
- Sitting through a Luau Evening
- Road To Hana Drive
- Offshore excursions
We had a snuba and snorkel offshore excursion planned at Molokini, a waterlogged crater a few miles off the central coast of Maui. Snuba diving is a crossover between snorkeling and scuba diving and is well suited for someone wanting to try out scuba diving but doesn’t want to commit to a certification process yet.
It was a windy day and the waters were very choppy. Akshata came down with a bout of sea-sickness and backed out of snuba. I donned my snuba gear and went diving with a small group along with our dive-master. I was delighted to find myself very comfortable being underwater. Our dive-master guided us around and pointed out a variety of aquatic flora and fauna. He then grasped a little Octopus from under a rock. He passed the Octopus on to me and I held the little guy in my hands for a while, a wee bit nervous as the baby Octopus wrapped his tiny tentacles around my fingers and squirmed. I then passed him back to my dive-master and he let him back where he found him.
Offshore excursions might be great for serious adventures like scuba diving. However, for milder activities like snorkeling, I don’t think the experience justifies the price. Sure, you might get to enjoy richer marine life offshore, but Maui’s coastline offers enough opportunities to have just as rich an experience. Add to the negatives the scheduled progression of the day. As you’re taking it all in and enjoying yourself, there comes the call for the tourist herd to march back into their ride so everyone can hurry to the next planned stopover. I just can’t complain enough about outings bound by rigid schedule.
Road to Hana is a worthwhile drive and has great pit stops along the way. The one we immensely enjoyed was the Waianapanapa black sand beach toward the end of the drive. I had the time of my life at this tiny beach laden with coal-black sand and pebbles. The winds were very forceful the day we were there and I frolicked in the huge waves, diving beneath the base of these swells to escape their powerful breaks.
There’s also a cave near the beach that holds a pool of cold freshwater. I excitedly got into the frigid waters and quickly got used to the cold and swam under the overhanging cave walls. I’ll fondly remember my first ever cave swimming in that little hole.
These destinations aside, the drive to Hana was alright. There are vista points and waterfalls spread out along the way but not very many hiking trails. The road can get crowded too, what with this drive being on the must-do list of most visitors.
Having witnessed the breathtaking beauty of places like the Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and Alaska, a tropical destination doesn’t invoke in me the same sense of joy. Scuba Diving isn’t something I have gotten into yet, so I don’t believe going on expensive beach vacations just to snorkel around and lay about is something I would want to do often. I’m glad I got some first-hand perspectives on the overly exaggerated tropical vacation. Places like The Bahamas and The Caribbean no longer figure in my bucket list. The next time I turn to Hawaii, it’ll be with some Scuba Diving or Surfing goals in mind.