Aloha! Dream Assignment: Hawaii

Originally published by PSC Publications

Break out the flowered shirts and the suntan lotion. Forget Minot and China Lake. This PCS is sending you to the land of palm trees and the hula – Hawaii! The tropical paradise is one of the top vacation destinations in the world, and you’re gonna get to live there!

Hawaii is a hot spot in more ways than one. The islands are all leftovers from volcanic activity deep below the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Hawaii Island, also known as The Big Island, still has active volcanoes.

The chain of islands is about as isolated as a place can be. It’s about 2500 miles from California and 4000 miles from Japan. That guarantees that the in-laws won’t visit every weekend. Oahu is more-or-less in the middle of the chain. Although it only accounts for about 10% of the state’s land mass, it holds 80% of the population and is undeniably the economic center of the state. By comparison, Hawaii Island is two-thirds of the state’s land mass but has only 15% of the population. (If you want to really be considered a local, by the way, call Hawaii Island The Orchid Isle.)

Although the word means, “The Gathering Place,” Oahu wasn’t the population center before the foreigners found it. Honolulu was a swampy little village and Waikiki was a neutral ground where the local chiefs hung out, enjoying the beaches, babes, and ocean breezes.

That all started changing when a British merchant vessel discovered the entrance to Honolulu harbor. Perfectly sited and well-sheltered, the massive harbor provided shelter for as many ships as could sail into it, then as now.

As the mid-Pacific crossroads, Oahu has a cultural mix found nowhere else, except perhaps at the United Nations. However, on Oahu, the people actually try to get along, and usually succeed. Politics and opinions tend to reflect Asian, Hawaiian, and Pacific concerns, not American or European, which takes some getting used to if your last assignment was CONUS or Europe.

The cultural communities are diverse and active. The Hawaii Arts Directory lists French, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Intertribal, Asian, Portuguese, and Japanese ethnic associations. The festival schedule includes the World Hula Competition, an international film festival, a jazz festival, American Indian Pow-Wow, and a Pacific Island Taro Festival. Afro-jazz, Arabesque, ballet, country-western, and square dance groups all thrive. There is even the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in Honolulu. No one will tell if they wear kilts or plaid hula skirts.

The multi-cultural influences are everywhere. Many people have adopted the Japanese custom of removing shoes before entering a house. Hawaiian words are part of the local vocabulary, and there’s often a smattering of Asian and other Polynesian thrown into the mix, too. Grocery stores carry staples that most Americans have never even heard of, much less know how to use. Never fear; cookbooks and cooking classes abound. The US contribution to the culinary mix is the popularity of southwestern cuisine and barbeque – but with decidedly Polynesian influences. A little wasabe powder in the “Q” makes the hottest habanero taste as bland as a “lite” beer.

Hawaiian music is everywhere, and it’s almost as diverse as the food. The traditional music includes chants used for ceremonial and religious purposes and the old songs written and performed in Hawaiian. Hapa Haole is the music heard at luaus. Think Don Ho and the stuff your parents love. Instrumental guitar and ukelele music fall somewhere in between. Contemporary Hawaiian musicians write jazz and rock with traditional overtones. Keep and ear open for Jawaiian – Reggae with a Hawaiian touch.

Most of Hawaii’s supplies are imported. That means the harbor and shipping are the islands’ lifeline. As a result, the South Shore, which includes Honolulu ad the port, is the most developed and congested part of the island. That’s where many of the military installations are located. Schofield Barracks, at the edge of the central plain, is considered part of greater Honolulu.

In some ways, that part of the island isn’t much different from being on the mainland. There are a lot of housing developments, shopping centers, and businesses. The traffic is rotten during rush hour, with the exception of Waikiki. The traffic there is rotten all of the time. The Waikiki Trolley service runs three different lines through Honolulu that provide regularly scheduled service which gets folks around town without the headache of actually driving. It’s not faster, just less frustrating.

Driving on the rest of Oahu is not all that difficult. Most drivers are very laid-back and courteous. Road Rage hasn’t made it across the ocean yet. It’s hard to get lost on Oahu, since there aren’t all that many roads once you leave Honolulu. The Pali Highway and Likelike (pronouced Lee-kay Lee-kay) run from Honolulu to places on the Windward side. They both tunnel through the Ko’olau Mountains. Rush hour can mean spending a lot of time inside the shaft. A really pretty drive traces the southeast coast on the Kalani’ana’ole Highway.

Three Interstates cover much of the island. One links the Leeward coast with Honolulu; one joins the city and the central plain; and (when it’s finished) the last will connect with Kaneohe Marine Base on the Windward side.

Yes, they are Interstates. OK, why are there Interstates on an island?

The answer is money. To build the roads, the state needed federal money. The only way the feds would cough up the cash was if Hawaii used the funding system for Interstates. So the roads had to be called Interstates. That’s a source of ongoing amusement to the islanders.

Once the household goods are unpacked and the car has arrived, it’s time for a little reconnaissance work – touring all of the places friends and relatives will expect to see when they visit. Guidebooks and the newspapers cover the major museums and attractions, but to feel like an insider, try some of the lesser-known things.

One of the least commercial examples of the best-known Hawaiian traditions is staged every Saturday and Sunday night at Kapi-olani Park in Waikiki. It’s the sunset torch lighting and hula show. The local county and city governments sponsor it. There are at least a dozen places that hold luaus complete with hula dancers, fire-eaters, and floor shows every night – all with varying degrees of authenticity.

Friday nights offer Honolulu’s answer to the street party. It’s the strolling hula dance that rotates its way down Kalakaua Avenue past the shops and restaurants from 8-10 PM. Lots of fun, with the dancers stopping – purely by coincidence, of course – in front of the stores that help sponsor the dance.

Honolulu’s Chinatown started about the time George Washington was being sworn in as the first President. During the day, meander through the shops and stalls filled with medicinal herbs, fresh fish and produce, and mounds of leis in every color. Some locals will warn that nighttime is not always the best time here, though. Treat it with some caution and go with a group, just like visiting the downtown of any other major city after dark.

Waimea Falls Park is definitely not in any city’s downtown. The park overlooks the biggest surf in the world. Visitors can stroll through the extensive botanical gardens and tour exhibits of traditional arts and crafts. They can also watch divers afflicted with too much testosterone dive 60 feet into the pool formed by the falls that give the park its name.

Going off-island to see Hawaii’s other attractions is almost a requirement. Getting from island to island means flying. There are several inter-island air services. Some of them offer packages for frequent flyers, although they are targeted mostly for tourists. Prices are hard to quote. They all depend on schedules and when reservations are made. Just don’t plan on hopping down to the Big Island for a day trip on a regular basis.

Hawaii Island is probably what most people want to see, if they ever get tired of the beaches on Oahu. That’s where the volcanoes are. It’s also where the rain forests, the desert, and the tundra are found. The Orchid Isle has 12 distinct climatic zones, not exactly what’s expected of a tropical paradise. It’s possible to shuffle through desert sands in the morning, get a lungful of mountain air in the afternoon, and stand in the glow of molten lava at night.

The volcanoes are what most people come to see, though. There are three active volcanoes on the island, although only one, Kilauea, is active all of the time. Several towns on the volcano’s slopes were destroyed in the 1980s when its lava flow oozed through them. Volcanoes National Park encompasses both Kilauea and the other active volcano, Mauna Loa, which erupts every five years or so. Mauna Loa rises to a height of 13,677 feet. Its sister mountain, Mauna Kea, is a tad bigger, topping at 13, 796. There is snow skiing on Mauna Kea, by the way.

Military members can stay at Kilauea Military Camp, a resort located on the brink of the volcano. Cabins are for rent, with a range of sizes and amenities, including one with a whirlpool. Rates are based on rank. The camp also offers a whole set of day tours and overnight packages.

Maui is still only moderately developed. It’s known for its lush forests and jungles. This is the place to go for dedicated eco-tourists. Tour outfitters lead hiking safaris through the guava and eucalyptus groves and past 60-foot waterfalls. Even experienced hikers are smart to go with a guided group. They’ll get better information about what they are seeing and have a lot less chance of getting turned around and lost. Independent hikers are advised to leave information at trailheads or outfitters and, if possible, to carry a digital phone with them.

They’re not going to find dangerous animals on the trail, and Hawaii has no snakes. But everyone will get to know the gecko. This little lizard is everywhere. They’re Hawaiia’s answer to gnats. If the kids miss the family pet while it’s in quarantine, maybe they’ll adopt a gecko (or two or five). The critters have inspired a lot of jokes and cartoons. There’s even a website called “How to Recycle a Dead Gecko.” It’s nothing vulgar or distressing (use them as hooks for shower curtains, for example), just a good-natured way of keeping this minor annoyance in perspective.

After all, this is Paradise.