» Hijacked by history in Hawaii
Hijacked by history in Hawaii
Source: Art Wager/iStock

Hijacked by history in Hawaii

Expecting palm trees and beach days, this first time visitor is bowled over by Hawaii’s culture.

It was my first trip to Hawaii and instead of topping up my tan, which was the plan, I copped a sneak attack of something I was not expecting from the palm-lined tropical islands. And. I. Loved. It. It started when…

I met a god

Highway to the Danger Zone blasts through my headset as the chopper takes off, amping me up more than I already am, which is a lot because I’m already two coffees deep (lesson one: Hawaii makes excellent coffee) and heading towards a volcano.

I’m on Hawaii’s Big Island (which confusingly is called Hawai’i) checking out Kīlauea – the world’s most active volcano which had been low-key simmering for 35 years until it blew its top in May 2018. Engulfing land, evaporating lakes and gassing forests, it also destroyed the validity of every single map on earth by adding 283 hectares of new land to the world. No longer erupting, the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park reopened in September welcoming visitors back to check out the old and new land.

Hijacked by history in Hawaii
Source: Paul Zizka Photography

Our pilot Ester chops through puffs of cloud over forest, black beaches, white surf and emerald blue water towards the eruption site. We fly down closer to see a line of fissures blowing white steam out from gaps in the crusty solidified lava, which looks as though a giant has squeezed frozen Cottee’s Ice Magic Chocolate everywhere. But giants are for fairy tales – this is the doings of a God.

According to mythology, sitting snug as a bug in Kīlauea is Pele; goddess of fire, creator of Hawai’i. Known for her competitiveness and jealousy this sparky one flares up when she has love affairs, when humans aren’t worshipping her properly or when she is annoyed at her sisters, whom she fights with regularly (sometimes kidnapping their boyfriends). Hawaiians are therefore always ready to bounce, or take in community members should Pele get annoyed.

And thus it began: a history and culture hit when I least expected it. First in a chopper, and next when …

I rode a horse through an ancient kingdom

Leaving the steaming goddess in my rear-view mirror I drive through the town of Hilo (birthplace of the hula) travelling north along a palm-lined coast through tropical jungle and sandy bays of the islands east-side towards the secluded Waipi’o Valley – also known as the Valley of the Kings.

You can hike, bike, drive and even camp where the Hawaiian chiefs once royaled, but why be basic? I’m there to see it on a horse named Camel. I’ve never been a fan of horses, since I nearly lost an ear to an angry pony when I was 11, but ole mate cracks a cool pace through the fresh water streams, dodging the bigger stones as she (or he? I didn’t check) takes me on a jungle journey into what looks like Jurassic Park. My guide points out house deposits (the wild avocados are huge), cascading waterfalls and ancient burial caves – the whole valley is an archaeological site. Camel pulls over to bite an umbrella-sized fern at the base of the 700-metre tall cliffs that fortify the valley and yep I’m in the most beautiful (and gassiest) royal palace.

Hijacked by history in Hawaii

I slept by a temple

I leave the lush east (where it rains 300+ days every year) and head west to the consistently sunny, more resort-y side of The Big Island with its sandy yellow beaches, green coffee farms and laid-back hippy villages. “We have amazing weather all year on this side – the only time we know it’s winter is when it’s surf season,” says Rolinda, a historian taking me on an archaeological walk of the clifftops by the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay.

Over 4000 cultural sites are within 15 kilometres of the hotel and she points out the remnants of a community kitchen, canoe house, sleeping house and temple between us and the foyer. Rolinda talks with her hands with mucho gusto about King Kamehameha, the man who unified the Hawaiian islands into one nation, and Queen Lili`uokalani, their last reigning monarch. The biggest surprise for me is the European history of Hawaii, kicked off by Captain Cook – the first white man Hawaiians had ever seen: they thought he was a god, realised he wasn’t, and killed him.

The history here is cool, but the water is not. It’s ridiculously warm and it’s unsurprising both surfing and stand-up paddle-boarding originated in Hawai’i. I jump in the bay beside the hotel, unsure if I’m warmer in or out of the water, and after dinner watch small groups of tourists swimming here with manta rays, the bright moon reflecting off the last waters Captain Cook ever sailed.

Hijacked by history in Hawaii

I discovered a forbidden island

I wave goodbye to The Big Island, and fly to Oahu. I take the road west to the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina and get ready to dunk in the four pools, spas, sandy lagoon and rock my bikini. The Tan Plan ends again when I see the hotel program, chockers with cultural ceremonies, lessons, performances… and a polite gent I see sitting in the foyer. His name is Lokahi and he runs Ni’ihau Shell workshops, teaching his family’s tradition of shell-jewellery making. “One small piece can take a week, you have to be patient,” he says as I fumble threading a tiny shell. I see the price tag of a necklace beside me and squawk: $4,200 USD. What the?

Hand-picked from the beaches of his home of Ni’ihau – also known as The Forbidden Island – the shells can only be found on this privately owned, virtually untouched isle. With only 70 full-time residents, outsider access is almost impossible (withouta special invite it’s never going to happen), thus making the shells rarer than hen’s teeth – think of them like ocean diamonds. “My aunt spent 30 years collecting the right shells to make a necklace that sold for $30k,” he says, finishing off my earrings. Laying by the infinity pool that arvo, my Forbidden Island jewellery in my lobes, I know what it’s like to feel like a millionaire.

A hula champion showed me the door to the afterlife

La’akea Perry leads the way up a dirt track winding along a dramatic lava shoreline between the rugged mountains and crashing waves of Ka’ena Point State Park. The clouds are rolling in over the stark landscape and it feels as though we are on our way to the end of the world. When we arrive at a beach of dead coral that looks like human bones scattered around the black lava boulders, La’akea points to a big one jutting over the sea – “That is Leaping Rock where souls jump to depart to the afterlife. This is a very spiritual place”.

Highly respected hula teacher La’akea trains weekly with his award-winning hula team (they must be the fittest people on the island – the regime includes tree climbing and running underwater with rocks) and shares the love of his culture and dance through workshops at the Four Seasons – one of which takes place at Ka’ena Point. La’akea drops to his knees beating his drum and busting out a deep chant, while his student – our second guide – begins to dance. Moving his body like a warrior doing a karate-Pilates ballet, I start sweatin’ a little completely unprepared for the manliness of the traditionally male hula. Detailing the beauty of the west side of Oahu, this particular dance is a love-letter to the island, and a description of the journey Pele’s sister took to Ka’ena Point as she searches for the boyfriend Pele kidnapped (Pele then killed them both). I don’t even feel the rain falling on my face as we leave the beach, still mystified as we hike our way along the cliff tops again heading back to reality… aka the hotel.

My final night is spent in Waikiki eating at fancy restaurants and walking the shopping strip and only now does it feel like I am in America. Not your typical island holiday, the rich culture of Hawaii is still strong and thriving, and I have never been so glad to be hijacked by history in my life.

Hijacked by history in Hawaii

Photography by Rebecca Andrews and iStock.

GETTING THERE

Hawaiian Airlines is Hawaii’s largest and longest serving airline offering almost 160 connections daily to various airports on the outer islands, as well as internationally with direct flights to Australia. hawaiianairlines.com.au

WHERE TO STAY

Hawaii (The Big Island):

Grand Naniloa Hotel in Hilo: grandnaniloahilo.com

Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay: marriott.com

Aqua Aston: aquaaston.com

Oahu:

Four Seasons in Ko’Olina: fourseasons.com/oahu

Alohilani Resort in Waikiki: alohilaniresort.com

Sheraton Waikiki in Waikiki: marriott.com

FURTHER INFORMATION

Hawaii Tourism Oceania: gohawaii.com/au

Waipi’o on Horseback: waipioonhorseback.com

Greenwell Coffee Farm: greenwellfarms.com