Monday, February 07, 2005

Notes from Paradise (Simplicity, Part 3)

So where were we? Hawai'i, that's where--specifically, the Big Island (Hawai'i); more specifically, the southwest side of the island, referred to as the Kona Coast. About eight years ago my parents purchased a time-share condominium just south of Kailua-Kona, the main town on that part of the island, and they've been traveling there for a few weeks every January ever since. Each year, they invite one or more of their nine children and their families and grandkids to come along for a week or so; as I mentioned, because my schedule doesn't leave us free time once the school year starts it was a real scramble to make it possible to join my parents when our turn rolled around. But this was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up, and somehow we made it work. We flew into Honolulu on Oahu on January 21st, caught a flight to the Big Island the next morning, and spent the next 9 days enjoying paradise (allowing for numerous hours wasted dealing with a baby who adapted both slowly and loudly to the time change). If you're interested, you can find more photos than you can shake a stick at here. It was a glorious, glorious vacation.

Everyone always likes recommendations, so here are ours. 1) Pick up a copy of The Big Island Revealed; as a friend who'd been to Hawai'i recently and recommended this to us wrote in a e-mail, it's worth its weight in gold. (The rest of the recommendations assume you're staying on the west side of the island; if you're not, or if you're visiting a different island, I can't help you.) 2) Hit a beach or two in Kohala, the northwest coast; we recommend Hapuna or Mauna Kea. 3) Learn to snorkel or scuba dive, and hit Kealakekua Bay, Kahalu'u Beach, or Pu'uhonua o Honaunau; we swam at the first two, and saw numerous sea turtles, tropical fish, and some rare eels. 4) Do a luau; we really liked the one at the Royal Kona Resort. 5) Hike around Volcanoes National Park--it's a great place to explore (though keep your expectations low; for all you know, some really spectacular stuff will happen on the day you leave Hawai'i). 6) Swing by South Point and the black sand beach at Punalu'u; fascinating scenery worth the look. 7) Don't overcrowd your days--take some time to sit back, look at the sky, watch the surf, enjoy locally grown fruit (better pineapples then I've ever tasted here on the mainland) and smell the coffee (literally: the hillsides above Kona are crowded with tiny little coffee plantations, and the smell of the coffee beans is particularly aromatic on early morning drives). It's paradise, after all. (For some more specific, food-centric recommendations, check out my friend's blog entry here.)

Of course, I can't help but turn practically every event in my life into some occasion for philosophical speculation, and Hawai'i was no exception. Years ago, when Megan was only one, Melissa and I had the opportunity to leave our little girl behind and go on a cruise through the Caribbean. We visited St. Maarten, Barbados, Antigua, Martinique, and more. Beautiful weather, wonderful beaches, great food. We didn't like it. We didn't like being hustled from place to place by the boat's schedule; we didn't like visiting ports whose local economies had been so overwhelmed by the impact of tourism that exploring the island was for all practical purposes restricted to a couple of well-worn paths (St. Maarten was probably the best exception to this); and most of all we didn't like not having Megan along with us. We decided, long before we'd even reached the halfway point, that the sort of vacations we enjoyed were the ones which gave you the opportunity to get somewhere and stay there, go grocery shopping and check out the lay of the land, learn some history and some people's names, and so forth. Someplace that can be, for however short a time, a home away from home, with the sort of openness that allows you to carve out a space for your kids and everyday life. I suppose almost any locale can function as such, though some places are so crowded, or so worn down economically, that it's just not feasible to visit them outside the programmed, limited, existing tourist infrastructure (unless, of course, one chooses to move there to stay, in which case the question dramatically changes). In Hawai'i though, at least on the Big Island, it's very feasible indeed.

Of course, that's not why my parents chose to purchase a condo there; they liked it because of the weather (almost never more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit, almost never less than 65), the scenery, and the golf (that's my dad's criteria). But I'm so grateful they did, and not simply because they have enough money left over to enable their children and grandchildren to join them every once in a while. I'm grateful because, in visiting them there, Melissa and the girls and I get to see a lot of open and undeveloped and beautiful land, and a lot of people who have found their own little corner of paradise and go about their daily lives keeping it that way; in short, a gorgeous and still relatively simple place. People drive slow (the roads are two-lane, and often not good), the shopping options are limited, and you either conform to the environment or head back to Honolulu (or the mainland). Sure, I'm painting with a broad brush here: there are plenty of pricey resorts all over the island, and they deliver food and entertainment and services with all the speed and efficiency that one might expect from a complex tourist economy. Land prices have skyrocketed along the coast, and homes are springing up all over the place (my parents have been going back there long enough that they can rattle off all the changes without a second thought). And yet the socio-economic stakes, so to speak, are still pretty small. Head up from the coastline, into the forests that cover the hillsides, and you've got farmers and ranchers and fishermen living day to day, ex-hippies and local Hawaiians rubbing shoulders with long-time Japanese immigrants and various European refugees, any one of which you're likely to bump into on the beach or at the one big Costco up the road where most everyone shops at least once a month or so. It's a remarkable place, possibly the most multicultural non-urban environment I've ever encountered, and one in every way inviting to people who are looking for a vacation that will allow them to step off the road and find their own pace for a while, rather than rush even faster to get it all in.

As I said, there are probably near endless opportunities for these kind of breaks, if you look for them. For an uncle of mine, it's my grandfather's old cabin, a rustic place in the woods north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. For a fellow I knew at Catholic University, it was a little town on the Chesapeake Bay, where he could watch the sailboats on Sundays and grab some local grub. Folks around here talk about going up into the Ozarks and going fishing at Norfolk Lake. While there are any number of ways one vacation spot might be placed against another in a kind of simplicity sweepstakes, the best places all share something in common: they're aren't constructed, primarily, as destinations, but rather remain livable places that one can, with a little effort, slip into and find one's own way for a time.

That "slipping in," I suppose, might be a point that could be turned against me here: what are the costs of getting into and staying in the place, in terms of up-front cash as well as the impact on the aforementioned socio-economic environment? Am I just repeating the otherwise elitist line "go somewhere before everyone else does?" Perhaps--but hopefully only partly. Yes, the money involved in "slipping in" to Kona-Kailua runs quickly into the thousands of dollars, especially when you're flying with kids. And it's not like the condo owners are doing their own landscaping. Every location I suggested above is significantly altered by the investment which vacationers represent, and surely there are hierarchies perpetuated by that: those that can travel, and those who can't; those who serve the travelers, and those that are served. But I wonder if it wouldn't be the case that more could travel, and more could find their own place where they could in turn be served, if those who do travel and seek service would scale back--not necessarily in distance and expense (hell, go to Ireland if you can afford it; I'd love to visit there someday), but in the spatiality of one's plans. Avoid the resorts and the packaged tours; instead, break out the maps and guide books and focus on the walkways and marketplaces and parks. Sure, we're all going to splurge here and there, but no one needs kalua pig every night. Put the kids in the car and drive (though not at Christmas!); pick up what you need along the way; and if you end up a long way from home, try to make yourself at home nonetheless: you may find the folks around you making your living part of theirs. (I'd take the girls swimming late at night at the pool at the condominium, and found that frequently locals--kids and grandkids and friends and hanger-ons of employees--showed up to swim at the same time; somehow I doubt that was the case at the Four Seasons up the road.)

The planned and deeply entrenched destinations of the modern tourist economy, it might be argued, are more populist because they're available to more people--a trip which can be streamlined is a trip that can be cheapened (hence cruise ships packed to gills, with cabins shrunk to the size of a bed, shower, and TV set). I'll grant that some places might well just be destinations simpliciter, and it's condescending to expect anyone to treat them otherwise. Who am I to dump on the bus tours to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Tunica, after all? Sometimes a working person just wants to not do the dishes for a while, right? Sure. But I suspect that, more often than not, your average traveler is going to go further, see more, and even get more rest, when they choose not to do it all, or have it all delivered to them in some complicated way. As generations of backpackers have discovered, trains and hostels have their own rewards. So does traveling with kids, or going back to the same place year after year, or relying on the fruit stand guy for dinner recommendations rather staying someplace with an all-night concierge. I don't know when, if ever, we'll visit Hawai'i again. But I do know that not a small part of the beauty of the place was found in the fact that, having arrived (no simple matter, I admit), the island wasn't waiting on our hand and foot. It was doing its own thing, going about its own business on its own clock--which frankly, gave us the encouragement we needed to turn off our own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We used the same author's _Kauai Revealed._ Excellent. Best guide book I've ever used. 

Posted by jbbuhs