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Sailing to Hawaii -- Part I

Author: travelmel (More Trip Reviews by travelmel)
Date of Trip: October 2006

What goes up must come down, and that trip was easier, naturally (about 20 minutes as opposed to an hour and a half). Halfway down I spotted the Miata in the parking lot, which looked like a one of those miniature toy cars, and I felt really proud for having tackled this tourist favorite. And really thankful for the air conditioning I was about to crank up.

Lunch that day was well earned. I had spied a handful of packed shrimp stands the day before on my drive along the coast, and long lines are always good signs in my book -- so I set out in the same direction for roadside eats. The bright red shack at Romy's Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp, Inc. caught my eye. The menu is simple: Each platter comes with rice and your choice of prawns or shrimp -- all caught fresh daily, right on site -- cooked in your choice of a variety of sauces like garlic and sweet and spicy. I brought my buttery garlic shrimp over to one of the picnic benches and dug in; it isn't a very neat meal (the saucy shrimp are cooked shell-on), but delicious, and an outdoor sink with soap is set up for washing your hands afterward.

After a final zip south along the coast with the Hawaiian breeze whipping through my hair, and a spin through the palm-tree-lined streets of Waikiki, it was time to say aloha to the Miata. Then I boarded Pride of Hawaii to start the cruise portion of my trip.

Hot Times in Hilo

When faced with a volcano, the instinctual response should be "run for your life," right? Well, not on this trip....

Kilauea, on the "windward" or eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island, has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983. (Science aside, many Hawaiians believe Kilauea to be home to Pele, the violently tempered goddess of fire.) In 1990, from April through December, lava from Kilauea -- in Hawaiian, "spewing" or "much spreading" -- buried the town of Kalapana, a former fishing village; the red-hot lava cooled into black rock, which marks what's now mostly a ghost town.

From Pride of Hawaii's shore excursions roster for Hilo, the first port of my cruise, I chose Kilauea Two Ways: a visit to Kalapana followed by exploration of the Kazumura Cave system -- the longest cave in the world -- underneath the volcano.

My tour group of 10 was driven by van to Kalapana, a subdivision with no water or power. The town's name has even been removed from road signs. The few remaining families that had beachfront homes now have lava-front homes -- but they are lucky to have homes at all. This lava is interesting business; in this town that was all but destroyed, there are a handful of buildings that were spared when the lava flow diverted or split in such a way that they did not catch fire. According to Tammy, our guide, diehard residents still live in these houses (one is even a bed and breakfast), even though they are surrounded by desolate, blackened ground, and drive all-terrain vehicles over the lava rock to get to and from the market, etc.

We walked over the lava rock to the edge of the water, a trek that took about 15 minutes. The beach that exists now is made up entirely of black sand, formed by ash. Tammy told us that an elderly woman (who's since passed on) would walk over the lava rock toward the beach every day and plant coconut trees in the ashy black sand in an effort to add color to the area. She wanted to see her town move on -- and now there is much life sprouting above the destruction, which I found both eerie and comforting.

For the second part of the excursion, we drove to another area of the island where Phil, a bearded eco-guide who looked more like a rock star than a spelunker, took us down into a damp, dark cave system that is actually a series of lava tubes inside Kilauea. Yes, we were in a cave beneath one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, equipped only with hardhats and flashlights. "If it starts getting warm in here," he joked, "just let me know!"

Luckily, the chill lingered. We wore gloves and were not allowed to touch but could view the different stalactites and stalagmites formed by old lava flow, as well as swirling whirlpools frozen in time -- once lava cools it stops in its tracks so that you actually see ripples and, in some places, the path it was taking before it hardened. Up on land, in fact, there are spots in the lava rock where pineapples had gotten stuck as the flow went from scorching to solid, leaving permanent indentations.

My day of volcanic activity, so to speak, was capped off back onboard Pride of Hawaii with the evening sail by Kilauea, a staple of Hawaiian cruise itineraries -- akin to glacier viewing on Alaskan or South American voyages. At approximately 9:45 p.m., we approached the volcano on the starboard side. In the pitch black of night, you could see the glowing lava exploding as it hit the ocean, and off to the right of the cone, what I thought were houses lit up in the hillside were actually pockets of lava peeking through crevices in the gigantic mass of rock that makes up the volcano. The ship then spun around for portside viewing.

The Big Island, already the largest Hawaiian island (twice the combined size of the others in the chain), is still growing because of the lava that continues to pour out of Kilauea. In fact, over the last decade Kilauea has formed over 500 new acres. It is one of the few places on earth where landmass is being created -- and I got to watch it happen with my own eyes.

According to volcanologists, Kilauea's flow currently shows no signs of stopping.

Snorkeling on Maui

For our stop in Maui, I booked NCL's Molokini Crater Snorkel excursion, which is a marine preserve and one of the top dive and snorkel sites in the world -- Molokini is actually an extinct volcano. Its crescent shape provides protection from waves and powerful currents, and the back wall drops up to 300 ft., offering clear, spectacular views.

I have to say, though, that even though the famed Molokini Crater is the most popular snorkel spot on Maui, I had a better run at Turtle Arches, the second snorkeling stop on my excursion. I spotted two huge Hawaiian green sea turtles, and went on an informal "tour" with one of our boat guides who was happy to point out species of fish indigenous to Hawaii -- including ones that change sex, ones that change color and an obsessive compulsive cleaner that acts as a "car wash" to other fish who literally line up to have slime sucked off their bodies.

Continue reading Part II.

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