Hawai'i: On Hawaiian time

By Lisa Haynes

Lisa Haynes discovers Hawaii is much more than a surfer’s paradise.
Haleakala National Park.
Haleakala National Park.

It's 6.20am and I'm standing in freezing fog, teeth chattering, rubbing my hands together.

And then the sun slowly breaks. We're 3048m up on the summit of Mt Haleakala in the National Park in Maui for the daily sunrise ritual. It might be the traditional E'ala'e chanting or the elated reaction from the crowd, but the atmosphere feels euphoric as the beams of light slowly illuminate the spectacular mountain range.

First shock to the system: Hawaii is infinitely more than just a surfer's paradise.

Each of the eight main islands has its own distinct character. We begin our Hawaiian hop in perhaps the most developed, O'ahu. Expecting palm trees and sandy beaches, I'm taken aback to find myself surrounded by high rises, traffic jams and designer super-stores in Waikiki on the south shore.

Our host hangs a fragrant lei of white jasmine and firecracker tulips around my neck- like a badge of honour after a three-flight journey.

"Aloha. You're on Hawaiian time now. Not late, just later," Kainoa says, ordering a round of tropical mai tais. It has just gone 12.30pm and he covers the table with local dishes:
huli huli chicken, lomi-lomi salmon and ahi poke raw tuna.

Hawaiians are charming and have big personalities. We are smitten with our driver, Brandon, who picks us up from our hotel wearing the customary lurid palm tree shirt and provides running commentary on the islands, talking over the relaxing hum of slack key guitar on the radio.

Wildlife at Turtle Bay.
Wildlife at Turtle Bay.

We drive an hour north from Waikiki to Kualoa Ranch and hit tropical storms as we travel through lush, dense rainforest.

We prepare for a cinematic flashback as we board jumbo open jeeps at Kualoa Ranch (kualoa.com), dubbed movie set valley. Hundreds of blockbuster movies and TV shows have been filmed in the 1619ha site and we slow down to observe signposts pointing to edge-of-seat moments and take pictures. I step into Godzilla's giant footprint, pose with iconic signage for Jurassic Park, and inspect Lost's plane crash site.

It's poignant to hear Pearl Harbor was also filmed at the ranch. During World War II, the cattle and horse pastures became a real-life airfield for shelter and defence for the US military.

Our next stopover is another film location. Turtle Bay is the only resort on the north shore of O'ahu and the unforgettable setting for Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The two-hour Kamehameha Highway scenic drive to the tip of the island boasts dominating mountains to the left and a blue Pacific backdrop to the right. We see cliff jumpers at La'ie Point launching themselves into the waves, just for fun.

Our journey is prolonged by the temptation to stop off at almost-deserted coves and roadside stalls selling cold coconut juice, fresh pineapples and bright straw bags. Brandon then takes the ultimate detour. We pull up at the famed Kahuku shrimp trucks and join the long queue for portions of hot juicy prawns smothered in garlic or lemon butter.

The welcoming Wai'anapanapa State Park.
The welcoming Wai'anapanapa State Park.

It is at spectacular Turtle Bay, with its roaring ocean frontage, that we realise surfing is practically a religion here. Rows of boards are stacked up in varying heights and countless rashie shirts sit drying outside the hotel's surf school - wetsuits are deemed unnecessary in the warm water.

It's only fitting that I have my first surfing lesson in nearby Kawela Bay, a secluded lagoon that's pretty tame by surfing standards.

Dodging coconut shells and roaming cockerels, our instructors from Hans Hedemann run through the basics on the sand - preferred foot forward, paddling lying on your belly and - the tricky bit - how to successfully transition to an upright position and stay there.

During winter, spots like Waimea Bay, Ehukai Beach and Sunset Beach on the north shore are meccas for pro surfers, drawn by monster waves of 12m or more.

This stretch of coastline - dubbed the Seven Mile Miracle - can transform into a car lot loaded with waxed boards if there's a good swell.

Soaking up the laid-back north shore culture, we potter around charming surf towns, like Haleiwa. From art galleries to "Grass Skirt Grill" restaurants and souvenir stores, the promenade of shop fronts looks like a rainbow paint explosion.

Hawaii's answer to Mr Whippy, the popular Matsumoto Shaved Ice store frequented by the Obamas, is the real tourist magnet.

Queues run out the door for the menu of 30-plus radioactive-looking flavoured syrups. I slurp on the Hawaiian signature combo of pineapple, coconut and banana - adzuki beans optional!

It takes 35 minutes to fly from Honolulu to Kahului in Maui, a perfect opportunity to absorb Hawaii's varied landscape from a height. The postcards featuring surf and palm trees only tell half the story - add desert, mountains, rainforest and volcanoes to the paradise picture.

After our epic 3050m Haleakala sunrise, we explore upcountry Maui, where we sip pineapple wine at Maui's Winery, toast lavender scones at the breathtakingly beautiful Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm and gorge on cheese at the Surfing Goat Dairy.

But it's not until I take the road to Hana, along Maui's rugged eastern coastline, that I really appreciate Hawaii's diversity.

The 83km drive is a series of bendy roads, narrow one-land bridges and hairpin turns, but the incredible, unspoilt views make the travel nausea worthwhile.

Everything gets greener and wetter with every kilometre. The 1830m of lush, green rainforest is divided by ferocious waterfalls, fuelled by the driving rain as we climb higher and higher, passing rainbow-striped eucalyptus trees and mountain apple trees.

After what feels like hours, our driver announces we've made it to Hana and windswept bright African tulips form a welcoming red carpet into the Wai'anapanapa State Park.

There's more ceremonial action on our last night when we get to experience a traditional luau at Lahaina.

Our leis are reinstated around our necks and we are entertained by hula dancing and traditional oli chanting honouring the land. It feels like the Hawaii you might see in old movies. We indulge in the five-course Polynesian feast and drink mai tais while reminiscing about our adventures.

Lisa Haynes was a guest of Go Hawaii.

- Spy.co.nz

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