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Hawaii stirs sense of wonder, offers of adventure

courtesy of bella english/globe staff

The author hang gliding over Maui.

To tell you the truth, I never much cared about visiting Hawaii. It’s so far away. It’s so expensive. For tropical beaches, the Caribbean is closer and cheaper. No, I’ve preferred to put my limited travel budget toward more exotic places with different cultures. Hawaii is so . . . American.

But then a couple of things happened. I saw “The Descendants” and fell in love with the gorgeous setting and music, not to mention George Clooney (again). And my sister and her husband had arranged a time-share on the island of Kauai: Would we like to meet them there with a free place to stay?

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In late March, after an endless Boston winter, my husband and I arrived in Hawaii for about 10 days, the first few spent by ourselves on Maui. It didn’t take long to figure out that my preconceptions were misconceptions. Where else in America can you visit a foreign culture? (Please, no Jersey jokes.)

Hawaiian natives have their own language, history, and customs that have nothing to do with the Mayflower or Plymouth Rock. We learned about the Polynesian kings and queens whose lives are still celebrated and palaces still standing. We ate the unofficial state dish: poi, or pounded taro root. It must be an acquired taste. We listened to the melodic pidgin spoken by longtime residents. Some few still speak the Hawaiian language, whose alphabet has fewer letters than ours. We didn’t hear one person on either island we visited say “thank you,” except tourists. It’s “mahalo,” which we quickly adopted.

Most of all, we learned about the “aloha” vibe, which is kindness, happiness, a joyful “whatever” spirit, as befits people living in the tropics surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.

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After 13 hours in the air from Boston, it seemed impossible that we could still be in the United States. Before I left, I inadvertently told people that I was going to be “out of the country.” But within a few minutes of leaving the Kahului Airport on Maui, there was a Krispy Kreme shop, with the “hot doughnuts” sign lighted. Yes, we stopped.

Maui tends to be more expensive than the other islands. Gas was $4.16 a gallon. We’d booked a room at the Paia Inn on the northern side, which can get rainy and is therefore cheaper. The small town of Paia (pronounced pa-EE-ah) looks like a laid-back movie set that time passed by. You feel that John Wayne could come walking through a saloon door.

But the characters here aren’t cowboys. They’re surfers: lots of tank tops, bare feet, cars with surfboards atop, people with surfboards under arms. One deeply tanned guy wearing bright surfer jams asks us for spare change. My husband pulls out $10 and hands it to him. Later, I chide him for giving it to a healthy surfer dude. He replies: “The poor guy. It costs a lot of money to surf on Maui!”

People don’t tell you that it rains in Hawaii, a lot. But our experience on both Maui and Kauai was that the showers pass quickly. And driving to various parts of the islands is a lesson in micro-climates. It might be pouring rain, and a half hour south, it’s dazzlingly sunny.

Each morning in Paia, we stopped at Mana Foods to stock up on supplies. The health foods grocery with nooks and crannies meanders all over the place and has good prepared foods, tons of nuts and grains, vitamins and beauty products, and a great assortment of Hawaiian chocolates, coffee, and soaps. A down-home Whole Foods with better prices.

One day, we took off for the town of Hana, about 40 miles east of Paia, on the Hana Highway, known as the most beautiful and famous road on the islands. Though only 40 miles away, we were warned that it would take us two hours to get to Hana. The two-lane road, cut through the mountains, is a feat of engineering, with dozens of one-lane bridges, hundreds of switchbacks, and not a single stoplight.

But the surrounding rainforest is lush with banana, bamboo, and palm trees, and there are lookouts that feature spectacular ocean and mountain views. Waterfalls punctuate the green backdrop, some so high they’re just tiny white ribbons. We stop at Wai’anapanapa Park and hike down to the volcanic black sand beach with caves and an active blowhole.

Our real destination is the Hana Airport, where we are meeting Armin Engert, who owns Hang Gliding Maui. Engert has flown and instructed on the “trikes,” as the three-wheeled motorized gliders are called, for 20 years. He zips you into a leather suit and sits in front, one person snugly behind him. We get up to 3,500 feet, close to the mountainside with steep waterfalls, which I can now plainly see and hear. The seagulls have nothing on us.

From high above, we glimpse the black sand beach, the jagged coastline, and the dense jungle canopy. As we head back, Engert cuts the engine and we glide silently. Lower now, he points out a humpback whale. Suddenly, there’s another, then three abreast and then 4, 5, 6 — 7! — whales. We’re at 150 feet and practically on top of them. A whale-aholic, I’m ecstatic. That night, I order a cocojito — a brilliant mix of coconut juice and rum, lime, and club soda — and toast the humpbacks.

There’s more where they came from. It’s whale season in Hawaii, and the endangered humpbacks are here to mate and give birth before returning to Alaska. The next day, my husband and I head for the Pacific Whale Foundation in Lahaina for a two-hour boat trip with 50 others. Within a couple of minutes, we see several whales. They’re hard to miss; we’re told they weigh about 90,000 pounds and are the length of a school bus, with lungs the size of small cars. They’re also showoffs, spouting, breaching, and slapping the water with their fins and tails. We spot a newborn riding on its mother’s nose.

We’re there on Prince Kuhio Day, a statewide holiday celebrating the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii who was later the Territory of Hawaii delegate to the US Congress. For the occasion, there’s traditional music and dance in Banyan Tree Park, aptly named since one Banyan tree has somehow spread its massive trunks and branches to cover the entire park. Seeing is believing.

Too soon, we’re on a 45-minute flight to Kauai, known as the Garden Island. That’s the good and the bad news: like Maui, its lushness is due to rain. In fact, the rainiest spot on earth is right in the middle of the island. Mount Wai’ale’ale gets more than 400 inches of rain a year. In 1982, a guide tells us, it rained 688 inches here.

The local newspaper informs us that a veteran hang glider and his passenger — on a “trike” identical to the one we took a few days earlier on Maui — were killed when they crashed into a mountain.

Again, we’re staying on the north side of the island, in Princeville. Near our condo, there’s an “ALBATROSSX-ING” sign, and we will see one of the endangered birds. Most days, we head south in search of sun, and find it. My favorite is Lydgate Beach Park in Wailua. There are a couple of “pools” here, formed by surrounding boulders, and snorkelers abound. A word about the Pacific: It’s wild. The waves are unceasing, the riptides fickle, and even die-hard surfers don’t dare go into some spots.

I also love Shipwreck Beach on the South Shore near the Hyatt, a long sandy stretch with great surf. To the left is a high cliff that a couple of young men are jumping off. I hike up, shoot some photos, and hike down. I couldn’t jump; I’d ruin my camera, not to mention my life. Another favorite photo from this day: hula pie. It’s a towering slab of macadamia nut ice cream in an Oreo cookie crust with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream. Insanely great.

Friends back home have told us to have a sunset drink at the St. Regis in Princeville, which is within walking distance of our condo. The Coco Mai Tai’s are $16 each, but we’re paying for the front-row view of the mountains and ocean as the sun slowly sinks, one of the loveliest sunsets I’ve ever seen.

We’ve booked “The Best of Kauai,” an all-day excursion with native guide Domi Ragsac, a third-generation sugarman until the sugarcane industry died out because labor was cheaper in Brazil. Domi teaches us Hawaiian words and takes us to some of his favorite spots, including “native food” for lunch, where the macadamia nut pancakes are addictive.

We end up at his home, where we are introduced to his pet boar, 350-pound Omar. Domi says that because Hawaii is so expensive, he and his friends hustle with two or three jobs. Indeed, later in the week, we see him at a luau. He’s the emcee.

Our “best of trip” list includes a private plane ride. Our pilot points out the spot where Harrison Ford jumped out of a plane in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and the 3,300 acres of coffee fields, making it the largest coffee plantation in the United States. We fly over Waimea Canyon, 3,000 feet deep and known as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”

The pilot tells us about the mysterious island of Niihau, 17 miles offshore, where the native population of about 150 lives without electricity. The island has been in the same family’s hands since 1864, when it was purchased from King Kamehameha V for $10,000 and the promise to preserve its ecology and traditions. Few outsiders are allowed on this “forbidden island.”

One can’t write about Kauai without mentioning the wild roosters and hens. They’re everywhere, strutting down the beach, pecking outside the grocery, messing in people’s yards, crowing and clucking in parking lots and on cars. We were awakened before dawn every single morning by them. Shops sell rooster memorabilia, and I bought a magnet that said: “In Kauai, why do the chickens cross the road? Because they own it.” We were told that in 1992, a category 5 hurricane hit the island, and the fowl flew the blown-down coops, found one another and spread like wildfire.

A word on luaus. True, they’re tourist traps with tons of people literally pigging out. But the show, with traditional music, hula and fire knife dancing, tells the story of Hawaii’s history and is impressive. We also went to “South Pacific” dinner theater performed near the shooting location of the classic 1958 musical. The buffet is just fair, but the music excellent, the lead role of Emile de Becque played by the longtime head of the music department at Kauai Community College.

Our last day on Kauai, my sister and I took a hula lesson. Hey, it was free and hilarious.

In 10 days, we never heard one person mention Hawaii’s native son, but we did see plenty of Obama souvenirs, from can openers to bobblehead dolls. I bought one of him with a surfboard and another of him playing the ukulele, two of Hawaii’s favorite pasttimes. He appears much happier than in press conferences.

I was tempted to buy a ukulele in Hawaii, and when we returned home, I did. Although I’m driving my husband crazy with repeat playings of the five songs I know, including, “Grandma’s in the Cellar,” I told him it was either that or hula dancing. That, he said.

I figure I’m showing real aloha when I play “Froggy Went a-Courtin’.’’

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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