The many sides of Hawaii

A trip to America's island archipelago to discover the 'real' Hawaii throws up a conundrum – in a land of many cultures, what is 'real'?

7 mins

For six hours I had been struggling to get beyond the clichés. They'd been floating in and out of my consciousness since checking in at Los Angeles: visions of hibiscus shirts, Elvis with a ukulele, hips in hula skirts and Jack Lord on a hotel balcony cocking a gun.

I was gazing out of the window at a giant, dark-orange sun dropping into an inky ocean – dreaming of surfers and beach shacks – when the captain broke my reverie, announcing that we'd begun our descent into Honolulu.

Remoteness, expense and Hollywood have combined to make Hawaii a unique travel destination for Europeans. Thanks to Hollywood, we all think we know what's there; but thanks to the distance, almost none of us have ever been.

But now a weak dollar and more flight options have made visiting far more feasible, and I wanted to see this famous string of islands for myself. As the plane dropped and my ears popped, I strained for my first glimpse out of the window: a dark cluster, beneath wispy cloud, lost in an interminable indigo that stretched to the edge of the planet.

Aloha Americana

Outside Honolulu airport, it was clammy night. There were palm trees silhouetted against the black sky, but no visible clichés.

The shuttle driver was Palestinian; Bryan Adams played on his stereo. Mainland Americana flashed past us on the freeway: Mustangs, global brands in flashing neon, miles of high-rises and billboards. In my hotel room Larry King and David Letterman were on TV. I switched off and sirens lulled me to sleep. Police sirens.

In the morning the sun looked truly Hawaiian: thick, warm and softened by puffy drifting cloud. But the cloud was speared by white concrete towers: the Hyatt Regency, the Aston, the Sheraton. The streets were grids, lined with block-sized malls and dotted with yellow fire hydrants and big storm drains. If the locals weren't all Asian, it could be South Beach Miami.

Onwards to Maui

In the hope of something more traditional, I headed for the Bishop Museum, home to the greatest collection of Hawaiian artifacts in the world, and a treasure-trove of Polynesian culture and natural history. 

Here I got a first, fascinating insight into traditional Hawaiian life – but it was behind glass cases and in museum-sponsored study programmes. In search of the real thing, I decided to leave urban Oahu, and hopped on a plane for the short flight to the nearby island of Maui.

I'd heard from friends and guidebooks that Hana, on Maui's remote eastern shore, was Hawaii's most Hawaiian town. Until the late 1920s it could only be reached by boat or seaplane; the road there is still said to be slow and tortuous.

It looked far from it as I left the airport on a trademark American fast freeway, crowded with big Chevys and Dodge Rams. But then, as I rounded a headland that watched over a surging sea busy with windsurfers, the road shrunk to the size of a Cornish lane. It snaked its way up a forest-covered coastal ridge that marked the beginning of the steep lava folds of upland eastern Maui.

I wound and tumbled through little valleys and across rivers spanned by tiny bridges, and swerved past pick-ups built for far larger roads. As I twisted and turned, an ebony Pacific flecked with snowy foam was always with me. Mongoose and mynah birds darted and flitted across the road.

After three hours I reached a cluster of houses and a little church strung along a street quiet enough for birdsong. Here was Hana, nestled between the giant verdant mantle of Maui's fuming Haleakala volcano and a crashing sea. 

The beach road was lined with secreted driveways, obscured by casuarinas and leading to private holiday homes. But there wasn't a high-rise or burger bar in sight, and most of the faces looked native Hawaiian. That night it was the waves that soothed me to sleep.

A walk into history

The next day I took a gentle drive south along the Hana Highway towards Haleakala National Park, one of the world's wettest places. The forest here was lush and multi-coloured with dripping bromeliads; the road was cut by tiny streams and broken by bridges looking out over the Pacific on one side and plunging waterfalls on the other.

The most breathtaking was at the Oheo Gulch, where an arched bridge straddles a tiered canyon cascade. The water falls and pauses in pools, and falls again before flowing across rock to the sea.

A ranger sat in his hut on a slight ridge nearby. He was a wiry, tough little man, wearing serious-looking glasses and carrying a ream of folders. Dressed in the light khaki of the US Parks Service, he had a pen in his top pocket, a series of grown-up boy-scout badges and a nametag that announced him as Walter Pu.

"Hi Walter,", I said, holding out my hand. "I've been searching for the real Hawaii for the last few days and have yet to find it. Can you help?" It seems I asked the right question. His face cracked into a broad grin as he took off his glasses. His eyes were penetrating. "Follow me," he said, and he headed out the door.

We wandered along a series of little trails. "When I tell a lot of people that I love my job, they often miss the point," he told me along the way. "I'm not here because I love being out in nature – though of course I do love it. My family have been here since long before national parks or white men came. I see my work not merely as a park ranger but as a sharer of Hawaiian knowledge and a protector of the land."

Breathless spirituality

We reached a little clearing where Walter showed me a full-size replica of an original Hawaiian grass-house. The whole of the island was ringed with these houses before commerce came. He picked up one of dozens of little boulders that lay strewn all around, half buried in the grass. 

"These rocks, they circle the island, too. They were all brought here by someone. Here's a bit of wall – maybe from someone's home, or maybe a sacred site. When people came here from the mainland it was all levelled – ploughed under for sugar cane or cattle, tended by people brought from Asia. We Hawaiians didn't want commercial agriculture – we used the land for sustenance and couldn't see the point in commerce."

"You know what we call people who act like that?" he asked. "Howlies: It comes from the word ha ole; without breath or soul. Both that word and aloha come from the Hawaiian word for breath – ha. When we used to greet it would be literally by coming so close that our noses touched and we would take in each other's breath. This is aloha – sharing of spirit, love. Foreigners wouldn't do this so they were 'without breath'."

Over the next hour or two Walter walked me through the forest, telling me stories about pre-colonial Maui, explaining how land was divided vertically so that all clan groups had access to the island's resources, from watershed to planting and fishing sites.

He talked about Hawaiian spirituality and how, without a written language, history was preserved orally and ritually through hula. We finished our walk at the pools I'd seen from the road. The sun was golden on the hills, the area free of people. It felt as sacred and pure as an empty cathedral.

"These pools were once a sacred site for bathing. Polynesians would come to cleanse both body and soul by swimming here," explained Walter. I hope that some people still get a sense of that when they come here today.

There is no real Hawaii

Reluctantly leaving the sacred pools of Haleakala behind, I flew on to my final destination: Kauai, the oldest of the islands in the main archipelago. The location for numerous Hollywood film shoots, Kauai's dramatic landscapes and low population offered my best chance, I reckoned, of discovering real Hawaiian wilderness. 

From the island's small-town capital, I headed for a kayak trip up the Wailua River on the east coast. A light paddle through clear water, and soon trees and verdant hills stretched all around. The tropical sun danced on the water and the gentle wash of that trade-wind breeze kept me cool.

After an hour we reached a little cove and a sandy bank where we pitched our kayaks and followed a trail through towering rainforest to a 40m-high waterfall set in lush greenery. It felt primeval. "Sure," said my guide. "Jurassic Park was filmed here."

In the afternoon I headed up into the mountainous interior with wisecracking geologist and science guru Chuck Blay. There were chickens everywhere.

"Just one of Hawai's myriad non-native species" Chuck smiled wryly. "Chickens tell us one thing – there is no real Hawai" he proceeded, switching into professorial mode. "They're just one of thousands of invasive species that have been shaping and changing these islands since long before the white man."

"I'm going to show you some real Hawaiian forest," he told me.

And we wandered half an hour down a misty path into a stand of lichen-covered, ancient elfin trees. "These are  kona trees," he explained. Once Hawaii was covered in them. But they were pretty much all chopped down for wood and war canoes before Europeans even arrived, killed by the native Hawaiians (who are from Tahiti by the way), along with a fair few species of giant flightless water birds.

"All that lush rainforest you saw in the Wailua Valley comes from South America and Australia. The wildlife is from everywhere. Maui is thick with mongoose brought to kill the rats that came before Cook, but mongoose are diurnal and rats nocturnal, so the rat population kept growing and Maui lost a whole load of native birds.

"Only the geology is original," he concluded, proceeding to reveal how the chain of islands formed like a giant conveyor belt punched through by seeping and exploding volcanoes.

A blend of spirits

The next day I hiked along the Na Pali coast, on a steep trail along forest-covered cliffs. The coast plunged into the Pacific for almost a kilometre, cut by fast-flowing rivers that formed dramatic waterfalls inland.

From viewpoints I saw whales blowing and turtles surfacing for air. The non-native trees were filled to bursting with non-native songbirds. I stopped to pull a wild – and originally Central American – guava from a tree and paused for shade in a grove of ethnically Asian & mangoes. Everything was beautiful; everything was peaceful and abundant.

Later that evening, I tracked down some native Hawaiian music played by Doug and Sandy (two mainlanders) on a slack-key guitar (brought here by Mexicans) and a ukulele (introduced by the Portuguese). The gently lilting, sad swing of the music was like the trade winds that wash over Hawaii.

As it gently lulled me I wondered: what really is Hawaiian? Perhaps it is that greatest cliché of all: aloha. The islands' gentle spirit and life force, it nurtures and transforms everything that comes here – and it was working its magic on me.

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