The islands of Hawai’i have always been a magnet for those seeking to ‘decompress’. Beyond the bustling shores of Waikiki, there’s something about Hawai’i’s warmth and its geographical isolation from the American continent that attracts those searching for balance; a remedy for the frenzy of daily life.
As one of the most stressful years of my life draws to a close, the opportunity to release, reorient, and reconnect in front of a tropical sunset is all too welcome. Consequently, I soon find myself on a calm voyage of reflection in Kaua’i and Moloka’i, two of the lesser-visited islands of Hawai’i.
The cottages in the small town of Waimea provide an ideal base for my first few days in Kaua’i. My accommodation bills itself as “a nostalgic glimpse into the simple life found at a sugar plantation”. This proves irresistibly appealing to my Generation Y traveller’s spirit: valuing connection and authenticity above all. As I lie back in my claw foot bathtub, I can still smell the fragrant plumeria outside the bathroom window and I know that I’ve come to just the right place.
The next morning, strong winds cancel my sailing trip to the Na Pali coast. Instead, I venture out to Hawai’i’s own version of the Grand Canyon — Waimea Canyon — to gain some perspective. I feel like an insignificant speck as I gaze out over the seemingly endless chasm sculpted by millions of years of erosion. This natural marvel is 16 kilometres long and nearly a kilometre deep. Geologically fascinating, it was formed not just by erosion from Waimea River, but also by the disastrous collapse of the volcano that created Kaua’i.
I pull over every so often and walk short distances to lookout points. However, I have been advised by several people that it’s worth driving all the way to the end of the road, where there’s one final lookout facing the coast. When I reach it, I am spellbound: nothing had prepared me for my first sight of the Kalaulau Valley. The green ribs of the Na Pali cliffs rise from the ocean with a reptilian magnificence. It’s easy to see why this dramatic stretch of coastline was chosen to represent Isla Nublar in the movie Jurassic Park.
It is a stark contrast when just a few hours later I arrive at Polihale.Kaua’i’s main road forms an almost complete loop around the island, interrupted only by the impassable Na Pali cliffs. Polihale is the near-deserted beach at the southern tip of the ring road. It’s a pothole-ridden thoroughfare that I later learn is not covered under my rental car insurance policy. But it’s worth it — for 11 kilometres of golden sand and an imposing rock face on the northern end that foreshadows the even greater cliffs beyond. Not many tourists make it to Polihale, but those who do stay for the whole day. Unlike the majority of Hawai’ian beaches I’ve visited, there’s nowhere to buy food or supplies, which is exactly the kind of desertion that I was hoping for on this trip.
The following morning, my sailing trip goes ahead. From thenwater, the cliffs lining the coast resemble moss clinging to a corrugated roof. The Pacific Ocean, uninterrupted from Taiwan nearly 8000 kilometres to the east, is battering the coast with forceful swells. Every few minutes, my peaceful resting place on a trampoline-like piece of fabric stretched out over the water is interrupted by a particularly determined wave sweeping over the boat and drenching me. I can tell that lunch is nearly ready, as the aroma of hearty Kaua’i beef on the grill begins to overpower me. Despite the tumultuous water, I couldn’t be calmer.
When I drive to the northern side of the island the following day, I’m surprised by the number of wild chickens roaming the otherwise ordinary streets. I later learn that there are thousands of them in Kaua’i. En route, I stop briefly in the friendly seaside town of Kapaa for a burrito from an unassuming roadside stall. The fish is perfect and tastes like it was caught that morning. Having learned about Kaua’i’s penchant for sustainably farmed local meat and products, I can imagine it probably was.
If the wild chickens and roadside stalls of Kaua’i are a glimpse of Hawai’i’s past, the even smaller island of Moloka’i is full immersion. Tourism just isn’t part of the Moloka’i vocabulary, and that’s the way the locals want to keep it. So the island attracts a different kind of visitor — one who doesn’t mind that the population is barely double their high school, that there’s only one option of accommodation, or that the occasional gecko may find its way indoors.
I realise that Moloka’i isn’t set up to cater for typical holidaymakers when I discover that the number one activity for visitors is a mule ride to a leper colony. Not exactly something one would see in Oahu. But that’s what I love about Moloka’i: there is no attemptto manufacture a brand for tourism. The people of Moloka’i live exactly how they want to live — in fundamentally the same way as they did 50 years ago. Visitors are welcome to observe, and are even invited to participate, but they are expected to learn about the history of the land, not just to sun themselves on its gorgeous beaches.
One lifelong resident who fiercely protects the legacy of Moloka’i, calls himself Anakala, which means ‘Uncle’ and is a sign of respect for Hawai’ian kupuna (elders). Over the top of his T-shirt and flip flops, Anakala wears a red patterned Hawai’ian robe, traditional beaded jewellery, a bone carving, and leaves draped around his neck. Anakala explains why the people of Moloka’i don’t believe in development: “We believe the land has to breathe.” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “If it doesn’t, it will die.” In his right hand, he holds a large conch shell, the kind used to trumpet warning. With his left hand, he gestures vividly as he speaks about the old life in Moloka’i.
After the Hawai’ian Kingdom was overthrown in the 1890s, it became illegal to speak the language or practice the traditional culture. Hawai’i remained a territory of the US for 60 years, until it finally became the 50th state in the shadow of the Second World War. Anakala gestures around at the glade we’re standing in. He explains that this sacred valley used to have a school, and when he was a student the teachers would sometimes defy the rules and teach the Hawai’ian culture.
In 1946, when Anakala was just a young boy, disaster hit Moloka’i. He begins to choke up as he tells the small crowd that has gathered to hear his story, but he fights the swelling emotion with a determination to finish. The tiny fishing village and taro farms of the Halawa Valley were devastated by a large tsunami. From his place on high ground, Anakala watched his home and way of life destroyed by rampant waters. The school was never rebuilt.
Anakala is the only remaining survivor of the tsunami in Halawa Valley. His burden to share the history is evident as he implores me to honour the story of this sacred place, then returns to his home, leaving his son-in-law to guide the small group to Ma’oula Falls in the heart of the Valley.
Sean, our guide, leads us into a green wilderness where he appears to know every tree, rock and animal intimately. The trail is scattered with purple java plums and scarlet surinam, shaped like bulging Chinese lanterns. Sean points out a tiny brown snake that looks like an earthworm. I would have walked past it. Likewise, dozens of tropical fruit trees I’d never have noticed. With a hunter’s knife he slices breadfruit, mountain apple, and lilikoi — which is like a yellow passionfruit — growing wild along the narrow dirt path.
After an hour and a half walking under a canopy of trees, we reach the majestic Ma’oula Falls. I walk to the water’s edge, and balance on a large rock, just gazing at the tumbling water, and pondering. It occurs to me that I came here to release, reorient and reconnect. And I have. But I thought it would happen in front of a tropical sunset, and I missed the point.
By continuing the Hawai’ian tradition of oral history, Anakala and the people of Moloka’i have not only taught me about their home, they’ve reminded me why I became a travel writer in the first place: stories. Stories have an incredibly important role to play in keeping cultures alive. They bring history to life and create a contextual framework that helps the next generation to understand their place in the world. In my busy Western life, too often. I rush from one thing to the next, rarely taking a moment to rest and reflect. It’s no wonder I lose my sense of context.
On the smaller islands of Hawai’i, by keeping close to the land and its stories, the locals retain a sense of place and perspective. And I think that’s what makes the spirit of the islands so magnetic for those of us who need to rediscover our own.
Sign up for our email newsletter.