Hawaii, You had me at Aloha

By C. W. Ellis

Waterfalls thread the rainforest-green mountains along the road to Hana.

Hawaii is literally dreamy. Even after my vacation ended, I would find myself, in that space between sleep and wakefulness, floating in the islands’ vivid sensorium of bright colors, rich fragrances and lush flavors. Hawaii is more than a beach vacation, and each island has its own vibe. Oahu, home to cosmopolitan Honolulu, Pearl Harbor and world surfing championships; the Big Island of Hawaii, its volcanoes spewing forth new land from the center of earth; Maui, a dramatic contrast of forest and desert, mountain and sea; and Kaua’i, the Garden Island, a laid back paradise of roadless rain forests and canyons, home to hippies and celebrities.


I always make it a point to drop by the best hotel in town for a drink or a bite to eat, a good way to see some of the classic history of a place. I caught a glimpse of old Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian, the grand dame of Waikiki beach built on land owned by King Kamehameha.  The Pink Palace of the Pacific, built in the 1920s by the Matson steamship line, launched tourism in Hawaii.  Trade winds cool the open-air lobby and Coconut Lanai where I sank into a wicker chair.  Hope, Crosby and generations of Hollywood royalty vacationed here, their vintage photos on the walls. A black sand beach contrasts with the white breakers of the blue Pacific, just some of the gorgeous scenery you find on the road to Hana on Maui.

While in Waikiki I learned surfing’s equivalent of cross country skiing: stand up paddling, a Zen-like practice of standing on a surf board as you paddle around with an oar.  To heal those overworked paddleboard muscles, I had a traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage.  Its techniques are handed down in the family through the generations, and I found a practitioner at the Moani Lani spa at the Victorian-era Moana Surfrider hotel.

Hawaii is a locavore’s paradise, its varied climate zones ideal for growing everything from tropical fruit to grass-fed beef.  Restaurants and hotels outdo each other with creations featuring locally sourced ingredients. The Royal Hawaiian chef Jon Matsubara was one of the founders of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement and he’s been instrumental in taking local agriculture to a new level.

 The Big Island of HawaiiPink flamingos and a banyan tree lend a tropical air to the lobby of the Westin Maui Resort on Kaanapali beach in Maui.

 Kilauea is one of the Big Island’s active volcanoes, and she’s very active these days.  Molten lava was flowing into the sea on a daily basis until a few months ago.  I missed the big show, but expert guides from Hawaiian Forest & Trails outfitters took me through Volcanoes National Park pointing out the unique lava formations, and ecology of the place, secret sinkholes and how to make ritual offerings at the sacred Pu’u Ulu crater.  Thanks to a helicopter tour, I was finally able to fulfill a childhood wish and see molten lava, a cherry red flow that had just surfaced.  


Hawaii may not be in the South Pacific, but you’ll find South Pacific on the outer island of Kauai, where the movie was filmed.   I caught sight of the musical’s mythical Bali Hai from the lobby of the St. Regis Princeville resort, sipping The Royal Hawaiian hotel in Waikiki, one of Hawaii's original resorts, is set in a coconut grove that belonged to the Hawaiian royal family.  cucumber-pineapple juice and snacking on gourmet samosas as I gazed slack-jawed at the green knife-edge ridges rising from Hanalei Bay.

 I had to get closer, so rising early on a dry Saturday I took a four-hour round trip hike on the Kalalau trail in the Na Pali wilderness, some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth.  The trail hugs rain-forested cliffs above crashing surf as it winds to Hanakapei beach.  Amazingly, some locals were jogging it barefoot.


The two-lane highway to the tiny town of Hana offers the ultimate road trip with hundreds of hairpin turns and scores of single lane bridges. The views: waterfall-threaded mountains diving into a sapphire Pacific edged in white, giant breakers crashing against black lava.  Tiny roadside stands sell smoothies and banana bread, the only fast-food joints you’ll find along the way.

 Whales spend the winter months in the shallow waters between Maui and the islands of Molokai and Lanai.  You can see them from Kaanapali beach, or better yet, from one of the many whale-watching tours.  Kaanapali beach also has some of the best snorkeling right off Black Rock where a sea turtle swam with me.

Hawaiian music is alive and well, and I caught Grammy winner George Kahumoku Jr at the weekly slack key guitar concert and jam session he hosts just north of Kaanapali. 

Hawaiian Airlines will be offering new non-stop service from JFK to Honolulu beginning June, serving free in-flight meals in coach by celebrity chef Chai Chaowasaree.  After 9/11, Hawaiian Airlines gave free R&R flights to 600 recovery crews that worked Ground Zero. 

It’s part of what Hawaii is most proud of: the Aloha Spirit.  Experience it when you go, take it with you when you leave. 

Curtis Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Manhattan. He works in broadcast and print, and his writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, TIME magazine, the London Independent and the Chicago Tribune. He’s ridden luxury trains in India, traveled Che Guevara’s trail in Cuba, taken a pilgrimage with Civil Rights era icons in the American South, and traced the roots of blues music with a Rolling Stone, among other things. Reach him at curtis.w.ellis@gmail.com

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