Travel Spotlight

Love Letter to Hawaii

The first time I traveled to Hawaii, our Maui-based friends took my husband and me to a secluded beach frequented mostly by locals. People were sprawled on towels, toddlers waded in the shallow water, and teenagers body-surfed. Suddenly, a collective murmur arose, and faces turned to the horizon. We stood up, eyes straining, and just made out a row of columns of white mist, the telltale sign of a pod of whales passing in the far distance.

The whole beach exploded into action at once, everyone—young and old—sprinting toward the ocean. “Come on,” our friends yelled, and we joined the stampede, kicking up sand until we reached the water and jumped in. Still not sure of the goal of this group submersion, I opened my eyes underwater to observe my fellow divers, who now appeared as still as sunken porcelain figurines. I imitated their slow floating, held my breath, listened. And then I heard it: an unhurried call and response of high-pitched whistles. The watery conversation reverberated all around, melodious and syncopated; piercing, ancient and endlessly wise. The whale song came to us across miles of deep blue sea, and as long as we could bear the cold water, we rose quickly to catch our breath, went back under, listened in awe, felt our hearts shatter.

Besides the breathtaking experience of hearing humpback whales singing to one another beneath the sea, what I remember best about this Maui afternoon is the locals’ response. Surely everyone on the beach except us had heard these calls before—after all, everyone knew exactly what to do—but back on shore the excitement was palpable, as if we had all just shared this wonder for the first time.

Like many resort island destinations, Hawaii is saddled with a host of stereotypes, many of them kitschy—mai tais, leis, bright-colored shirts on pasty-skinned men. But devoted visitors and natives know that there’s something deeply spiritual and mythical about these islands, floating in the middle of the Pacific like a sprinkling of fairy dust some 2,500 miles from California, the nearest mainland area. Connection to the land and nature is not a cheesy marketing gimmick; it’s something that attuned tourists sense immediately upon arrival.

Each island has its own drama: the sharp incisions of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, the molten lava of Big Island’s Kilauea, the cascading waterfalls of central Maui, the big waves racing to Oahu’s northern shore. No wonder that Hawaiian mythology is full of deities, spirits and guardians embodying phenomena like the dawn, the sun, volcanoes, the sky. Experiencing nature here can be intense. All over Hawaii, even on built-up Oahu, are remote areas that are difficult to access, and on Big Island you can go from bikini to down parka during a short drive up Mauna Kea.

Can you fly to Honolulu and simply drop down on a pretty beach for a week? Of course, and many visitors do. But venturing beyond the beautiful resorts—which include some of the country’s most acclaimed—is key to fully experiencing this special destination. Book a hiking trip with a guide who knows a secret way to Kauai’s best waterfalls. Snorkel or scuba dive on a lesser-known reef teeming with wildlife. Take a helicopter over to see why it’s called the Big Island. (Indagare can help reserve these and many other special one-off tours.) Above all, include some local spots in your itinerary, whether it’s a beach or a town that’s off the beaten path or a business run by passionate islanders who work hard to be based in paradise.

Aloha, a greeting used in complete earnestness by locals, connotes much more than welcome or hello. It derives from Proto-Polynesian, and its meanings include love, affection, peace and presence. The word may be overused—as the state nickname, for instance—but if you travel with eyes and ears open during your Hawaiian journey, you will have many moments in which you sense its true significance. We felt it standing on that Maui beach, watching the whale spouts disappear into the distance. We, as guests to the island, had been welcomed to share this experience, and everyone had emerged from the water feeling deeply connected not only to the natural world but also to each other. We stood on the shore together in awe and, a little, in love.

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