We spent our last day on Oahu enjoying two of the iconic experience of the North Shore: waves and shave ice.
Everybody knows about the waves, of course: Oahu’s North Shore is the home of the famous Banzai Pipeline, a renowned surfing venue characterized by big, regular waves. And this season the operative word is “big”: waves have been measured up to 45′ (14m) from trough to peak. That is objectively ginormous, too big even for the pros to ride.
And now a word about the physics of wave riding. Every now and then you’ll see some goofy scene in, say, a science fiction movie about a tsunami, in which some stoner surfer dude rides, like, a hundred-foot wave. That can’t actually happen. Well, the wave can, but riding it can’t: you catch a wave by matching speeds with it, and a wave’s speed increases with its height. A wave that high would be moving like a fast car, and not even Michael Phelps could match his pace with it to shoot that particular curl. (If you ever watch a surfing competition with really big waves, you will see that they actually start by towing the surfers with speedboats to allow them to catch the waves.)
Anyway, the views were spectacular though on the day of our visit the biggest waves were a lot closer to 8′ (2.5m) than five times that, which still rewarded us with sights like these.
Our other activity, as I mentioned, was shave ice (it had to be food, didn’t it?). Everyone is familiar with shave ice (also called snow cones, though never in Hawaii), but Hawaii has raised it to an art form, with a dizzying array of flavors that ranges well beyond the familiar (e.g., Japanese yuzu fruit, or — I am not kidding – pickled mango). You find it everywhere, from dedicated shave ice stores to street corner pushcarts, and one of its most famous purveyors on the island is Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, which offers 38 flavors.
You choose three flavors (more or fewer if you want); they serve you a grapefruit-sized sphere of snow (and it is pretty much an actual snowball, with that compressed-fluffy consistency) divided into three segments with the appropriate flavored syrup poured over them. You can if you wish add condensed milk and actual ice cream as well.
You eat it with a combination of plastic spoon and a straw to suck down the dregs. I chose coconut cream + lilikoi (passionfruit) + root beer. It was wonderful. Do not judge me.
The next morning (Monday Feb 1) we flew to Kona on the Big Island to begin the main part of our five week stay. Things immediately started out with a glitch because it turned out that I had inadvertently selected the pickup point for our rental car to be a hotel down the coast (near our rental house, as it happens) rather than at the airport. However, this is what we have come to refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem”, the money in this case being given to a taxi driver to bring us to the correct venue.
One of the reasons that the Big Island is my favorite part of Hawaii that its geology and geography enforce a remarkable environmental and ecological diversity. You get a taste of this even as your plane lands in Kona and you drive away from the airport afterwards: Kona airport sits about 15 minutes north of town on a blasted lava plain, a rippling moonscape of seemingly frozen asphalt doted with sere, unhappy-looking yellow shrubs. It is stark and, looked at from a certain perspective, pretty, um, ugly; it is not hard to imagine a first time visitor driving away from the airport thinking, I though Hawaii was supposed to be nice. Which it is — very — but you have to have the patience, fortunately not too much of it, to watch the landscape give over to the anticipated beaches and palm trees as you head down the coast. (You never lose the lava altogether, though; it’s what the islands are made of.)
We got to our house mid-afternoon, and were more than pleased with what we found, a very attractive and spacious three bedroom duplex on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the latter a 15-minute walk down the hill. We also met up with our first visitors: our younger son and his wife, who will stay with us for about a week.
Our visitors, of course, are all here for much less time than ourselves, and so of course want to pack in as much Hawaiian quality time as possible during their stay, whereas given the length of our sojourn we may opt for a rather uncharacteristic more relaxed pace. But even so, there are some things that must be done on Day One as a matter or priority, and this includes snorkeling. The site we chose is well known as having the best snorkeling on the island, immediately adjacent to an ancient sacred Hawaiian site — and now a National Historic Monument – called the City of Refuge. In Hawaiian it is called (you might want to sit down for this) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. (Yes, yes, I know how to pronounce it.) Snorkeling aside, it has a remarkable history.
If you lived in ancient Hawaii you may have enjoyed the weather but you were constantly on guard against breaking any of about eight zillion kapu laws. Kapu means “forbidden” and is related to the English word “taboo”. Things that were kapu included looking at the king; allowing the king’s shadow to fall upon you as he passed by; eating a sacred species of fish; wearing someone’s clothing; and (for all I know) ending a sentence with preposition. And although the rules themselves were complicated, their application was simple, since basically everything carried the death penalty. Seriously. Look at the king? Death. Eat a parrot fish at the wrong time of year? Death. Wear white flip-flops after Labor Day? Definitely death.
A criminal justice system like that is an invitation to negative population growth unless you offer some kind of occasional out, hence the City of Refuge. A walled compound made of lava rock, situated dramatically on a spit of hard lava jutting out into the rough surf, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau offered a place of absolution if you could get there. Which wasn’t easy, since it is open only on the side of the roiling, rock-strewn sea and its back faces up against the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.
But if you did make it there, the priests would take you in and for a certain length of time variously put you to work and engage you in assorted cleansing rituals, the result being that once you had satisfied their requirements you were absolved of your transgression and free to rejoin society without fear of further retribution. Or at least until the king walked by again and you didn’t prostrate yourself fast enough and bingo, you were once again Dead Man Surfing.
The compound is dramatic and even a little spooky, dominated by the sound of the waves and decorated throughout with sacred symbolic carved statues that seem like reminders of the bridge between the sacred and profane.
It’s somehow fitting that the best snorkeling on the island is here, and though you are not allowed to enter the water from the grounds of the national park itself, there is a small access point, basically a public beach on lava instead of sand, only 100-200 yards away. Getting into the water is a little too exciting for novice snorkelers, as there is a very strong and ceaseless tidal surge that washes up over the flat algae-covered lava flows at water’s edge. You basically have to sit down on a slippery little natural lava shelf and let the next surge carry you away.
It is more than worth it, since the water here, though 10′-25′ (3m – 8m) deep, is clear and alive with colorful marine life: sea turtles, schools of yellow tangs, parrot fish and trumpet fish…. and of course, lots of humuhumunukunukuapua’a. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)
We snorkeled for perhaps 45 minutes, my enjoyment sullied only by the belated realization that the small weight in my right swimsuit pocket was my car keys. Twenty years ago this discovery would not have occasioned a second thought — they’re just keys, they won’t fall out and they won’t dissolve! — but in Anno Domini 2016 everything has a computer chip and I worried that the salt water would fry its little car-key-brain and that our rental car would no longer start. Which is exactly what happened.
A place of refuge doesn’t feel like a place of refuge if you’re &&%^*^% stranded there, and so the next two hours were spent arranging for a new (and dry) car key to be couriered to us by taxi from the Hertz desk at the airport, an hour north of where we were stuck. Kind of a bizarre end to the afternoon, although we got bonus irony points when the taxi driver carrying the new key turned out to be the same guy who ferried us to the correct rental car pickup location yesterday. So he now thinks we are idiots, which I cannot altogether rule out.