Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hawaiian Roundup

My apologies for not blogging lately--reason to be explained shortly. By way of catch-up, a few notes from the rest of our week in the fiftieth state . . .

Monday 11/28: Ever wonder what a theme park created by Mormons would be like? Me neither. But if you ever get to wondering, head to The Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie on the north shore of Oahu. (These are just two of the many consonant-impaired proper names for which Hawaii is famous. In fact Mary-Jo and I heard a legend while touring one of the botanical gardens about a princess named O'o'a'a, which if the rules of Scrabble were a little more flexible would be a great way to unload some of those extra vowels one accumulates.)

Anyway, the Polynesian Cultural Center turns out to be a series of Disney-like "lands" (they call them "villages") each representing a different South Pacific culture--Fiji, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, Aotearoa, and so on. (Stumped by Aotearoa? We imperialists call it New Zealand.)

In theory, I don't doubt that each of these islands (or archipelagos) does have a distinct culture, but you couldn't tell this by the dumbed-down version presented in Laie. In each "village" a show is offered, consisting primarily of ukulele tunes, lots of drumming, and many demands that the tourists show their enthusiasm with loud responses to questions like, "Are you having fun today?" Otherwise, the "cultures" were represented by basically identical thatched-roof huts, woven straw mats, and "educational" displays of framed two-dollar posters depicting local birds and fishes.

Our friendly hosts, performers, and culture-demonstrators were mostly students at the nearby Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University, for whose benefit the entire park was created--no kidding. In fact, brochures and signs around the park urge visitors to tour the Mormon college's campus (trams run frequently), during which "the basic beliefs of the religion will be explained." If this wasn't enough to make the whole experience feel a trifle creepy, there was the "missionary village" portion of the park, whose history display gave seemingly excessive prominence to the role of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in civilizing Oahu.

After two and a half shows (including Tonga and Samoa, as I recall), Mary-Jo and I made our escape, happy that we'd resisted the temptation to buy "V.I.P. (first-row) seating for the world famous night-show Horizons: Where the Sea Meets the Sky." That would have kept us in the park for another four hours and given our hosts that much longer to work on their plan for converting us.

Wednesday 11/30: From Oahu we flew to Kauai, an island we'd never visited before. What a change from bustling Honolulu. Kauai is only semi-developed, resembling (according to more experienced travelers) the Hawaii of forty years ago.

It's also wildly varied. Near its center is a jungle that gets more rainfall than any other spot on Earth (four hundred inches in an average year, fully seven hundred inches last year). Along the west shore is the famous Na Pali coast, where a long series of four-thousand-foot-high ridges cloaked in deep green foliage plunge straight down into the churning waters of the Pacific.

The north features Hanalei Bay, lush haunt of surfers, artists, former hippies ("Puff the Magic Dragon" and all that), and millionaires--its Princeville resort is one of the poshest I've ever seen, decorated with marble sculptures and tapestries seemingly designed to make the place look like a refurbished castle from medieval Avignon. (Mary-Jo and I scraped together our nickels to pay for lunch sitting beside the infinity pool.) The east coast is built up, with towns like Lihue and Kapa'a featuring one shopping center after another (and some mean traffic jams).

Mary-Jo and I stayed on the south shore, where the sun is most consistent and the beaches are most friendly. But we drove almost everywhere during our week on the island, and hiked and kayaked into some places cars can't reach. The most dramatic: Polihale State Park on the west coast. To get there, we drove past the end of Highway 50, down five miles of rutted bone-jarring dirt road (please don' t tell our car-rental company), to a tiny parking lot separated from the ocean by sandy shrubs and a high dune. Scale the dune and you find yourself sharing seventeen miles of wide, sun-hammered beach with half a dozen other humans, while some of the biggest and scariest waves you've ever seen batter the shore.

Feeling a little under the weather (made worse by the vertigo-inducing intensity of the sunlight) I laid face-down on a towel while Mary-Jo walked north along the sand until she began to shimmer like one of those bedouin warriors seen from miles away on the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. By the time she got back I was so dizzy I thought she was a mirage or a houri out of some mystic vision.

On a slightly different note, no account of Kauai would be complete without mentioning the wild chickens, who are almost everywhere--hanging out by every park, beach, shave-ice stand, and hidden waterfall in the friggin' island. Amazingly, we're told they are neither native birds nor descendants of the wildfowl first brought to Hawaii by sea-faring Polynesians 1,600 years ago but rather children of domestic chickens released from captivity when Hurricane Iniki ripped open their coops in September, 1992. (Our kayaking tour guide Bryson said he calls Iniki "Hurricane Freedom.") The other common bit of lore we heard is that Kauai chickens can't tell time--which is why the roosters crow not just at dawn but all day long.

For me and Mary-Jo, "Tiny Bubbles" and the roaring of the surf will always have to compete with Cock-a-doodle-do as the music of Hawaii.

Much more to be said about Kauai, but I'm running out of steam (still a bit jet-lagged). Oh, and why didn't I write while we were there? Because Internet access in our hotel room would have cost $14.95 per day. Somebody send Sheraton the memo about how information--like bloggers--wants to be free.

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