Inches from my nose, a 12 foot manta ray gracefully slid up my face, arced backward … and came back for a second run.
Again and again, she swooped in, one time brushing my fingers. She was firm and slick. Like a hard boiled egg.
Somewhere above us, the 2,000 passengers of a nearby full-size passenger ship were no doubt planning their foray to the midnight buffet. We, on the other hand … the 28 of us off our cruise yacht along the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island … were doing something a bit more exciting.
American Safari Cruises Safari Explorer is not your grandma’s cruise ship with Vegas shows and food every two hours. Not to say we didn’t dine well. And exquisitely. But we were too busy with the water toys, the hikes, the horseback rides, the visits to lesser traveled islands. And also the ancient war canoe. But more of that later.
The manta ray show was beyond amazing. These kite shaped creatures eat tiny sea animals. The sea animals are attracted at night by light. So we were there, just off shore, with dive lights and hope.
“They don’t always come in,” said expedition leader Carl Faivre as we split into two groups, the snorkelers holding onto a surfboard above and the scuba divers settling on the bottom below. Beams of light criss-crossed the inky water like some crazy rock concert show.
And we were rewarded.
First it was one small ray, barrel rolling backward again and again and again. And then it was the big girl with a 12-foot wingspan, coming in to streak past our faces. One diver even got it on video. Proof for those non-believers.
And this was actually act two of our critter encounter. The previous day, a laid back one of snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding, included a spinner dolphin show. These dolphins are small … hardly 6 feet … but blazing fast. There must have been 50 of them in the water just yards from our Zodiacs. They jumped. They spun. They danced. Even folks with phone cameras got shots.
Mid week, we visited Lanai. While some went horseback riding, others golfed, tried ATVs. One couple went deep sea fishing and two of us dived the local caverns.
And then we went to Molokai, surely the cultural highlight of the trip. This is a sweet, laid-back island with only 6,000 people, not a single traffic light, movie theater or Starbucks and a strong feel for its Hawaiian past.
Island homes sit on stilts with pitched roofs. Fruit trees and chickens crowd front yards. It’s what you think Hawaii should be, but hasn’t been since 1950.
Four adventurous souls hiked the 1,700 foot vertical Kalaupapa Trail down to what was once the infamous leper colony. They toured the churches and learned the history. Six elderly people still live here full time, even though they are free to leave whenever they wish.
The rest of us visited a plumeria farm. Hey, stringing flowers for a lei is NOT easy. And we hit a macadamia nut farm, got to try our hand at crushing the nuts, bought way too much mac flower honey. Oh yes, and we also had killer coffee in town. Better than Kona coffee, even.
But the best of our time on Molokai involved Hawaiian culture. One night it was a pa’ina, a dinner of local historic food that included poi, lomi salmon, ahi poke, steamed pork and yes, squid at least half a dozen ways.
Another day, we spent in Halawa Valley with Lawrence Aki and his student Kawika Foster. Lawrence, 75 percent Hawaiian and surely looking like he stepped out of the pages of history, is the 50th generation of his family to own land in the valley.
“What we have to offer is special and is being lost elsewhere. We want to share our culture,” Lawrence told us one morning aboard our ship while, amazingly, a rainbow appeared overhead.
The next day we went to his home … Halawa Valley on the far east end of the island. It is a lush bowl carved into the folded hills with waterfalls at the back. Taro ponds sit next to a simple shack and the dozen tents of a group there for a cultural retreat.
Kawika explained how his people had learned to listen to the land … how before cutting a tree or fishing or even building a hut, they would ask the land for permission. Sometimes, he added, the answer was no.
“Close your mouth, open your ears and watch nature around you,” he told us. “If you stub your toe trying to move a rock, the answer is no. You go elsewhere.”
We walked the woods learning about plants, watched Kawika shred ti leaves to make a grass lei. One of our women tried her hand at harvesting taro. Hint … it’s hard and dirty. Taro grows in foot deep muck.
On our last day, we got to ride that war canoe. It’s a scaled down version of the massive ancient canoes built by Hawaiian kings. No metal, only twine holds things together (in the past, it was coconut husk fibers). Ours could hold 14 people in two canoes with a deck in between.
The crew let out the sail and we flew, heeling at a precarious angle while water drenched us all. It’s hard to imagine crossing between island chains this way.
“Looks like koa wood,” I said to Captain Timmy Gillom.
I knew the boat was hardly 40 years old and koa wood has been vanishingly scarce for decades.
“How did you ever get that much koa?”
“When the canoe calls,” Timmy said with an absolutely straight face, “There is an answer.”
And speaking of little miracles, there was the morning of our last full day.
The idea was to see sunrise at Haleakala crater. Unfortunately, this also involved getting up at 2 a.m.. And as we drove to the summit, it drizzled, then poured as we glumly looked out the widow of our van. Not even Barbara Bohonu, the ever cheerful spiritual and cultural healer we picked up along the way, could lift our spirits.
She chanted, asking permission for us to begin the climb and when we got to the crater, she chanted to greet the sun. And the rain stopped. And the mist backed off. But not entirely. Behind us, the full moon reflected off the droplets over the crater. Below, silver wisps of cloud threaded between the rocks. And overhead, a ghostly white arc formed. A moonbow.
But the show wasn’t over.
The sun eased up from the cloud bank … orange and pink and glowing gold. And as Barbara gave one last chant of thanks, a full rainbow of colors appeared on the other side, behind us.
Now I know why a rainbow is on the Hawaii car tag.
And yes, it was worth the 2 a.m. wakeup call.
If You Go
American Safari Cruises and InnerSea Discoveries – www.AmericanSafariCruises.com.The 145-foot, 36-passenger Safari Explorer is more a yacht than a cruise ship. This is luxury cruising, with 15 crew, a complimentary open bar, gourmet food and a well stocked supply of water toys which can be launched from the back deck. The ship is small enough for the schedule to be flexible, whether it’s stopping to watch spinner dolphins or changing its anchorage for calmest waters. Optional activities include mule rides to the former leper colony on Molokai, golf, deep sea fishing, scuba diving and helicopter sightseeing.
American Safari Cruises runs its eight-day, seven-night Hawaii cruises on the Safari Explorer from early November through mid-April. Rates range from $4,995 to $7,695 per person, depending on the size of the cabin. Next year, the company plans to bring one of its InnerSea Discoveries expedition ships to Hawaii, with a completely different, more economical itinerary that focuses on adventure.
They also offer trips to Alaska, Mexico’s Sea of Cortes and the Northwest’s Columbia and Snake Rivers.
— Photos and text by Yvette Cardozo