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Friday, February 23, 2018

Relief: A Trip to Maui

Sometimes things don't go our way. Work is crazy, the weather sucks, it's dark, cold and gloomy and spring seems so far away it doesn't feel we'll live long enough to see it. What do you do when that happens? Eat more? Binge watch Breaking Bad (again)? Pull the covers over your head and set the alarm for April?

After the October fires, Mark was buried in non-stop fire recovery at work and getting more and more exhausted and irritable. He was stressed and over-tired, and it was quickly turning into depression and hopelessness. The only thing that seemed to cheer him was talking with our friends about upcoming camping trips, but the earliest of plans were for May of 2018, a whole 6 months away. We needed something more immediate, something to look forward to, somewhere warm and sunny and relaxed. The remedy was obvious.

Hawaii's state fish

Calling the Hawaiian Islands paradise might seem like a cliche, but only to those who've never been. It is without doubt the most relaxing and enjoyable place I have ever visited. A year round temperature range of 72 to 85 degrees, surrounded by warm ocean water and coral reefs teaming with tropical fish. Sleeping with the windows open and feeling the trade winds blow over you as the sound of waves lull you to sleep is truly the best way to relax. Sure, it's expensive, but every now and then there is nothing else that will do.

Once we made up our minds to go we sat down and made reservations late one December night in a frenzy of web searches and adrenaline that ended with a high five and sigh of relief (pro tip: never book your flight until you've reserved a rental unit, that was a nailbiter!). Oh, and a condo on the beach in Maui for early February.
Hawaii Checklist:
Dog sitter
Airline tickets
Airport parking
Rental car
Rental condominium
Rental snorkeling gear
Snorkeling excursion to the island of Lanai

As soon as the details were settled, the anticipation set in. Mark set a countdown clock on his computer at work and sent me screenshots twice a day. We debated getting a new underwater camera. We toyed with getting new swimsuits. We were packed two weeks before our departure. It seemed to take forever, but the day finally came. We took off for the airport at 4:30 on a Saturday morning, where we made it in time to have the ceremonial over-priced Bloody Mary at the airport bar before our plane loaded.

We spent a glorious week tooling around the island of Maui in our rented jeep, visiting all the best snorkeling spots we had found on the last trip and finding new ones, always finishing the day at Ululani's Shave Ice shop for some frosty treats. We went out to dinner a few times, but mostly cooked for ourselves on the shared barbecue grills at the condo (food there is very expensive, and a nice dinner out for two with drinks and dessert can easily put you back $200).
Food trucks are another option.
This one was excellent; a full day of snorkeling makes for a hungry belly.

Although the Big Island of Hawaii is our favorite, we chose Maui because of the proximity to the humpback whales. Every year between January and March, hundreds of humpback whales go to Hawaii to have their young and raise them until they are big and strong enough to go to feeding grounds in Alaska and the Bering Sea. It's an incredible sight to see the whales breaching and tail slapping, right from the beach. We saw them from above out the airplane window on our flight in, watched them from our condo's lawn, heard them "talk" while snorkeling. It's amazing, exciting and humbling to see these giants out there, especially up close from a small boat.

Snorkeling is really our main pursuit when in Hawaii. Mark is SCUBA certified and has been diving in the frigid waters off our coast since he was a teen, but that experience is nothing compared to the tropical waters of the South Pacific. The water is clear and warm, the fish are more colorful and plentiful, and come on, sea turtles? whales? How can you beat that? We grabbed a quick breakfast and were on the beach most mornings by 8:00am, donning our fins and masks and running into the surf. We came away with hundreds of pictures; I won't bore you with all of them, but here are a few:

An eel hunts for lunch in the reef.
The reefs around Maui are teaming with fish. Every day we saw something new.
These urchins actually eat into the coral, creating weird patterns.
Convict fish
A Spotted Moray eel tries to intimidate the camera
A Boxfish wanders around
Mark chased this White Tipped Reef shark trying to get a better photo.
He assured me they weren't too dangerous.
I guess he was right, since he still has all his limbs.
We found this large conch laying on the reef floor.
It looked like something had torn it from it's moorings, but the snail was still inside.
Here's the view from the top.
Green Sea turtles were everywhere. Being a protected endangered species, you're not supposed to bother them. That said, they have really bad eyesight so sometimes they swim right up to you. I was once rear-ended by one — scared the crap out of me.

A little video of a curious green sea turtle that swam by us. Listen carefully and you'll hear the humpback whales talking in the background:

We splurged on a boat trip around Lanai, the closest in the Hawaiian island chain to Maui. Lanai is much less crowded, and has some stunning sea cliffs and coral reefs surrounding it. The only way to get there is an expensive plane ride (or private jet), ferry, or one of these excursions. Although the wind didn't cooperate that day, we did get in some snorkeling and a front row seat to the whales.

See below for a short video taken from the boat. Sorry for the shaky camera work; the boat was tiny, the whales enormous, and the water rough:

The wind was really blowing that day. It made for a rough ride but dramatic photos.
The sea cliffs on the west side of Lanai are beautiful.
The north side of Lanai has many WWII ships that were intentionally grounded here when no longer needed.
The front of a concrete Liberty ship that broke free of it's moorings and ended up here.

The back. You can see how the waves have broken away the concrete, leaving the rusting rebar exposed.

About halfway through our trip, we received an email with a surprise message. We were being gifted a helicopter tour, something we had thought about doing before but could never justify the cost. Our excitement was confirmed from the moment we sat down in the front seat, the closest to a bird's eye view of the island you can get.

Our pilot Dylan was so laid back we worried he might be medicated. I think living in Hawaii will do that to a person; even Mark was relaxed about everything, including two trips during which his motion sickness could have been a real buzz kill (he was fine by the way, thanks to Bonine).

Our trip included a ride through the canyons of north Maui, then up the coast of Molokai. On our way across the channel between islands, we saw more whales and Dylan lowered and circled the helicopter so we could get a better look.

Although it is an expensive excursion, if you can swing it I highly recommend it. It really is a view of Hawaii you can't get any other way.

Dylan was kind enough to take our picture together.
Of course, the helicopter photobombed us.
Taking off from the Kahului heliport.
It was cloudy, but it made for a more dramatic photos.
The cliffs of Molokai are the tallest sea cliffs in the world,  some up to 3900'
Molokai is also home to a 25 mile long coral reef. Since the island is sparsely populated and gets comparatively few visitors, the reefs are in pristine condition. We are planning our next Hawaiian adventure there.
We landed on the north shore of Maui. Here Mark is talking with pilot Dylan about helicopters. Mark came away from this trip with a new goal: get a helicopter pilot license. God help me.
Here's a little video from the trip, flying along the cliffs of Molokai's north shore:

There are other things to do that don't involve swimming. We spent one rainy day walking around the Maui Ocean Center, a nice little aquarium. While it's geared for kids, we learned a lot talking with the workers about the difference between urchins types and asking about some of the fish we had seen snorkeling.
Of course Mark had to risk life and limb again, but made it out unscathed.
Maui Ocean Center
We also spent some time walking around the Kealia Pond Refuge. In the winter, this natural pond fills and attracts migrant birds and native shore birds. There's a new walkway that leads out across the pond, getting you closer to nesting sites and the birds themselves. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
The boardwalk had benches and information panels built along the way.
Black crown night heron hunt for small fish in the stream leading out to the ocean.
These white egrets are not native to the islands, but they're ubiquitous around Maui. You see them following the gardeners as they mow the lawns around the resorts, picking at the freshly mown grass for insects. It's amazing more don't get run over, they follow so closely.
The pond was full from all the rain Maui had gotten in the last few weeks.

We were rained out one day so we decided to take a little road trip to the Iao Valley State Monument. When I say rain, what I really mean is RAIN. Hawaii is surrounded by warm ocean water, and when the trade winds don't blow in their normal fashion, the clouds suck up moisture from the ocean and gather right over the island, where they unleash a torrent of water. The volcanic soil doesn't hold a lot, and the steep mountains funnel everything back down to the sea. The streams became rivers, the roads flooded over, and it was chaos that morning. But it was warm so it didn't stop us from running around in our shorts and t-shirts, giggling like school children. It also didn't hurt that we had rented a relatively high clearance jeep, so driving through the ever deepening puddles in the road was not a problem.

Iao Valley has a sad history. It was here that King Kamehameha fought a battle with the ruler of Maui. He brought a huge army and cannons, which he used to kill so many of the opposing forces the bodies dammed up the stream as the women and children watched from the cliffs above. Kamehameha eventually won, taking over control of Maui and eventually the entire Hawaiian island chain.

It's a pretty park, with gardens and demonstration plantings of taro. There's a little covered hut at the end of the trail in case you get caught in a rain storm. We made good use of it this trip.
There were waterfalls in every crevice of the park.
The streams were more like rivers that day.
The ravines of the valley were filled with rain clouds
The gardens, a little waterlogged.
Taro, up close
The Iao Needle

This trip was probably the most necessary thing we've ever spent hard earned money on. By the time we boarded the plane home we had shed every worry that had seemed so overwhelming when we left; Mark had plans to become a helicopter pilot, I had the outline of a roving bakery business going in my head and we were ready to sell the house and move to the islands. Perhaps not realistic, but a dream that will (hopefully) sustain us until the next time we make it back to the Hawaiian Islands.

A hui kaua (until we meet again)

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