Hawaii: Catching the rays

By Leena Tailor

An erupting volcano challenges the sunset for Leena Tailor's attention.

There's something different about Hawaiian sunsets. Photo / Thinkstock
There's something different about Hawaiian sunsets. Photo / Thinkstock

I have a burning question.

It's just after 6pm in Honolulu and like every other tourist lining the beaches, boardwalks and restaurants of Waikiki Beach, I'm indulging in another spectacular ocean sunset.

The first was from a pier perched along the white sand where we stumbled upon the perfect viewing spot. About 20 people are gathered here, fingers glued to cameras, while a local strums Hawaiian tunes on his ukulele. As the final glitter of florescent orange dissolves into the ocean, the small crowd erupts in applause with one woman declaring, 'Yay! We made it to a Hawaiian sunset,' mentally ticking it off her bucket list.

The second was from the middle of the sea, aboard the Star of Honolulu, where a deck full of lobsters are abruptly abandoned as diners flock outside to witness the blazing horizon blend into a shimmering sea of gold, dotted with paddle boarders, surfers and sailboats.

The third was from the Top of Waikiki - a revolving 20th floor restaurant offering happy hour specials at sunset for those coming early enough to nab a spot.

From up here, the sinking fi reball paints the sea dazzling shades of amber.

There's something different about Hawaiian sunsets. They're not blinding. There's no squinting involved. It makes it extremely difficult to tear one's eyes away, so by day three I'm wondering how locals don't go blind with the daily temptation to watch the beauty unfold, or whether tourists leave Hawaii with a squint.

Curious, I consult my optometrist cousin. "I'm not sure why it wasn't blinding, but if you stare at it for even five seconds that's really bad," he replies. "And sunglasses won't help. Look up solar retinopathy." Google informs me this is common damage to the retina, usually from staring at the sun.

Harmful it may be, but local eyesight appears to be fine, with every optometrist store I walk past virtually empty. As for visitors, sipping Mai Tais while soaking in sunset views becomes a natural part of the daily schedule. Night after night, the sky show is met with applause from holidaymakers, whether it's couples enjoying romantic getaways or friends huddled on the beach taking new Facebook photos.

O'ahu has plenty else on offer for adults taking a break from families, jobs or impending winter.

For first-timers, the tourist hub of Waikiki Beach is the natural starting point. The buzzing beach strip, a blend of Miami's South Beach and Surfer's Paradise, offers an endless waterfront line-up of big-brand hotels. If it's adult time you need, Hotel Renew is a peaceful haven. Barely a minute's walk to the ocean, or dining and shopping precincts, the 72-room designer hotel was the work of Jiun Ho, who wanted to create a "marriage of sexy chic and casual coastal".

From here, popular tourist attraction Pearl Harbour is about a 30-minute drive away. You can catch a shuttle, but go early as the memorial attracts long queues. What started as another sunny Hawaiian morning in 1941 was forever tarnished with the words "Tora Tora Tora" - meaning the Japanese had achieved complete surprise with their attack on the naval base, an attempt to prevent the US Pacific fleet from interfering with their military actions in Southeast Asia.

The attack saw 2390 Americans killed, many injured and 21 vessels sunk or damaged. The USS Arizona burned for three days, eventually sinking, and now serves as a tomb. Visitors are escorted by boat to an eerie viewing platform overlooking the wreck. The surrounding patches of oil are harrowingly described by survivors as "tears of their comrades".

The site is also an active reef where hammer-head sharks flock to give birth in the summer and divers can explore the ship's remains.

Back at Waikiki, Aqua Zone runs diving sessions for beginners. Within seconds of anchoring, a monk seal peeks out of the water, but as we descend 30-feet into the ocean I'm more enamoured by the giant sea turtles, carelessly floating past. One-metre wide, the friendly creatures aren't fazed when we parade around them for silly photos.

We also come face-to-face with spotted eagle-rays, octopus and sponge-crabs, a sight which takes me back to the lobster dinner on our cruise the previous night.

From the minute we're ushered on-board, past a Hawaiian band and up to a table with personalised place-names, it's clear this will be a memorable evening.

I happen to wander past the kitchen and stop short at the sight of endless Maine lobsters; I'm told the kitchen serves an average of 448 daily. The best bit is that the charming waiters help de-shell the creatures, making eating them as classy as our surrounds.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar is another sunset dining spot with a menu reflecting the Japanese cuisine common throughout Hawaii. The melt-in- your-mouth Shrimp Dynamite - tempura shrimp soaked in garlic masago aioli - is a must-try.

For a more casual vibe, a few bucks and a 20-minute walk will get you a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch of meat, macaroni-salad and rice at the Rainbow Drive-in.

If tourist hotspots make you dizzy and it's seclusion you crave, the Hawaii Island Retreat on Hawaii Island's stunning North Kohala Coast slows down the pace dramatically. It takes a winding gravel road to get to the gorgeous entrance lined with fan palms and pom-pom trees, but once you arrive it's like entering your own sanctuary. On one side a forest of pine trees overlooks the ocean where I spot a whale within seconds, and on the other a valley lined with tropical trees (cloves, lychees, avocados - you name it) is home to sacred "peace-giving" stones. They include a fertility stone, which women struggling to conceive have fl ocked to.

"Do you hear from them afterwards with good news?" I enquire, to which owner Jeanne grins and proudly nods yes.

This is not a place for families. Rooms don't have televisions, radios or WiFi and the aim is for people to connect without modern gadgets.

Food, such as the fresh pawpaw and pineapple served at breakfast, is grown on-site and even contributes to bathroom amenities such as the passionfruit shower gel. By the time I'm finished bathing, I'm ready to embrace the back-to-basics vibe, letting my hair dry in Hawaiian heat and even heading out for dinner sans-makeup.

With a massage therapist, infinity pool, 20 hectares of land to explore, the cute nearby town of Hawi and even luxurious yurts for those who want more of a "glamping" experience, there's no reason to leave.

Still, if you're going to make the trip to Hawaii Island you will get asked, "Are you going to the volcano?" That would be Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanos. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters runs various tours, like the two-hour 'Big Island Spectacular' .

From up high the diversity of the land is mesmerising as we soar over rolling NZ-like greenery, rainforests and waterfall-lined valleys one minute, and post-apocalyptic plains dotted with dead trees the next.

But it's the volcano which everyone is itching to see.

Kilauea started erupting in 1983 and hasn't stopped.

As we hover over the crater, blobs of glowing crimson bubble beneath us, while in the distance, spitting steam indicates it's one of those lucky days where we'll get to witness lava flowing into the ocean.

While it's not the gallons of liquid gushing into the sea which I imagined, the murky patches of red against turquoise water forms a rare and enthralling sight.

You can get dangerously close to lava, our pilot Greg informs us, adding that in the past 30 years around 30 hikers have gotten too close.

If your schedule allows, Kilauea appears at its finest at dusk, according to locals. It' s the one thing that could tear your eyes away from those glorious Hawaii sunsets.

CHECKLIST

Where to stay: Hawaii Island Retreat.

Volcano tours: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.

Oahu links:
Hotel Renew
Star of Honolulu
Aqua Zone
Sansei Seafood Restaurant Sushi Bar
Rainbow Drive-In
Top of Waikiki
Pearl Harbour

Leena travelled to Hawaii courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

- Herald on Sunday

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