Thursday, October 11, 2012

Once on this island

Up until last week, I had never been to Hawaii. To say I wasn't prepared for how I would feel about this place, and how this island would effect me, is a helluvan understatement. It's almost other-worldly, the way you just sort of exhale into a different life there.

In Hawaii, life is simple. Even for residents - the kama'aina, as they are called - life is different than it is here on the mainland. They approach work as work, and then they leave it behind in favor of surfing, spending time with friends or just enjoying the beautiful place they call home. How could you not love it here?

From the moment we got off the plane, I could feel myself sort of melt into a feeling of peace. We checked in to the Princess Kaiulani, walked into our room and were greeted with this view:
Our view from the lanai at the Princess Kaiulani.
I can't think of anything in the world more beautiful than watching the ocean roll toward the shore! So incredibly pretty. That night, Dad and I wandered down to Duke's Canoe Club for dinner. We were shone to a table right up by the railing, overlooking the Pacific. I, however, forgot my camera, so I have no proof of this.

I've wanted to go to Duke's ever since Jimmy Buffett recorded the song "Duke's on Sunday", about eating here on a Sunday night. And here I was, at Duke's, on Sunday; life is perfect.

It was about that time when I realized the island was tickling all my senses. I ordered seven-spiced ahi tuna, and MAN, was it delicious. Pan seared perfectly, it was like butter ... seriously. So there we sat, tasting amazing food, looking out onto the beautiful ocean, hearing the waves roll in and island music wafting up from the beach, smelling the combination of plumeria, Coppertone and salt, and feeling the tradewinds dance across our skin. Almost, but not quite, sensory overload. Instead, it was a complete delight. I could have sat there forever.

But alas, I could not. The next day was a full one, starting with a run at 6:30. I found my way down Kalakaua Ave to Kapi'olani Park, running toward Diamond Head. What an incredible experience! I've never been a vacationing runner before; I've always just taken a break from exercise, but this time was different, and completely perfect. I loved running there.

When I got back to the hotel, it was time to shower, have breakfast and head to the Polynesian Cultural Center. Along the way, we stopped to take photos. Dad was a great sport, letting me hop out a couple times along the way so we'd have photographs of the journey.
On our way to the Polynesian Cultural Center.
I absolutely love this photo; the lonely boat, just hanging out ... it reminds me of the simplicity of Hawaii. It was such a pretty drive, I snapped tons of photos. (Eventually I'll get them up on the Facebooks; for this post, I just wanted to include one photo per day.)

The Polynesian Cultural Center, or PCC, was really cool. Dad arranged for us to have a guided tour through the islands of Samoa, Aotearoa (or New Zealand as we call it today), Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii and Tahiti. Each area is represented with an activity (such as starting a fire in Samoa or dancing in Tahiti and Hawaii). So interesting and educational; heck, before that day, I had no idea New Zealand was considered a Polynesian island! So we walked all over the complex all day, watching a dude from Samoa open a coconut and climb a palm tree, playing with sticks in Aotearoa, eating poi (or avoiding it) in Hawaii and learning about drumming in Tonga. It was a jam-packed day!

We had dinner in the Prime Dining buffet, which included lots of American fare and some island favorites as well. After dinner, Dad and I wandered around shopping, and he ran into Kap, one of the demonstrators from Samoa who is also an artist. Kap had some of his prints for sale in the shop, so Dad bought three of them. They will look so cool when they are framed and hung in the house.

The night ended with a presentation of the show "Ha: Breath of Life". The story was told through music and dance, and most of the lyrics were in Hawaiian. It was easy to follow the story, though; pretty much consisted of "The Lion King Goes Hawaiian". Don't take my [extremely funny] jokes to mean that the show isn't good; it's great! Absolutely beautiful. Again, each island was represented, and we were re-introduced to a lot of the concepts we learned about during our tour that day. The show ended with fire dancers! So awesome.

My second morning on Waikiki Beach meant another opportunity to go for a run. This time, I ran along the path on the ocean side ... good choice! Hearing the water along the way fueled me forward. There are lots of runners in Hawaii, and they all greet each other; just another culture difference. They seem so happy! I loved being one of them.

That morning, I needed to do a little errand running to have one of Dad's prescriptions filled, and then it was off to Pearl Harbor. What an amazing place. (Did you know it's a national park?) We relaxed a great deal in the park until it was time to catch our shuttle across to the memorial. When we got there, everyone was rather quiet, taking in the space and the enormity of what had happened there. After all these years, oil still leaks from the sunken battleship, making its way to the surface. Floating above the water in an iridescent glow, it seems to take on a life of its own, reminding us of the sacrifices made by the men who remain below.

We headed back to the hotel to clean up and get ready for dinner; it was time to return to Duke's. This time I remembered the camera, so I could surf up shots like this:
The view of the sunset from Duke's Waikiki.
Dinner consisted of mahi mahi, a mai tai ... and hula pie for dessert. (It should be noted that, with the exception of one night, Dad and I split dessert.) It was, without a doubt, heaven's most perfect meal. (But then, anything at Duke's is pretty much like that.) On the beach at Waikiki ... it's paradise.

We shopped a bit after dinner. I stopped at Na Hoku and got myself a souvenir - a sterling Hawaiian slipper pendant. I'd been looking at them for a few years, at the location in Schaumburg, but it didn't seem right to buy something from a Hawaiian jeweler in the Chicago 'burbs, so I waited. I haven't taken it off; I love it. It serves as a touchstone to a place where I felt in perfect sync with life.

The next morning brought our last full day in Waikiki. I got up for a run, and then prepared to hike Diamond Head. And by "prepare" I mean "I hadn't the vaguest idea how to prepare." Dad stayed behind at a bench, and I made my way to the crater ... and started to climb.

And climb.

And CLIMB. As I came closer to the summit, I faced a choice: the steep 99 steps through a tunnel, or the easy, rambling steps that wound around the side. I took the hard way; it seemed more adventurous. And when I reached the top, I was greeted with the most amazing sight. The view from atop Diamond Head - 560 feet higher than when I began - is breathtaking. I will never forget looking down and thinking, "I did that." Amazing.
From the top of Diamond Head.
I was, of course, starving when I got back down by Dad, so we had some lunch. Shortly after that, it was time to head to the airport; we were taking a helicopter tour! It was awesome; I loved seeing Diamond Head from the air. It was incredible to see what I had just climbed from this perspective; totally different! I loved being able to do this with Dad; it was completely cool to hang up there with him. About halfway through the tour I began to get a serious case of motion sickness. This made it a lot less fun, but that was okay. I kept taking photographs because it was so pretty, regardless of how crummy I felt! We saw a gorgeous green valley between mountains, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Pearl Harbor and even some sea turtles from the air. Amazing!

When we were done, I (carefully) climbed out of the 'copter and (miraculously) did not puke. It felt so good to be back on solid ground! Airsickness took me totally by surprise. I took Dramamine before we went up, and still BAMMO, it got me! But as soon as it hit, I was better. And ready to get cleaned up. And eat dinner. :)

We walked down to the Cheesecake Factory for a simple dinner. I had fish tacos; Dad had something beef. While not the most adventurous place, the food is always good ... and the dessert is rich and perfect. Dad let me choose, and I ordered banana cream cheesecake. So good! As our waiter was bringing me coffee, he said to Dad and I, "The coffee's on the house tonight." I asked why, and he said, "In this job, it's easy to become robotic. And when people like you come in and make me smile, it reminds me that I'm alive."

That was cool. Truth is, Dad and I were just being Dad and I. We talk, we engage, and we enjoy learning about people. It's a family trait, I think. If you're willing to listen, you can learn so much! That guy - I can't for the life of me recall his name - made my day.

That happened a lot in Hawaii, people making my day. The people there ... my Lord, I love them.

Another new day dawned, so it was time to take my final run along Waikiki Beach. We were leaving the Princess Kai and heading to the leeward side of the island (away from Diamond Head), to the resort area known as Ko'olina, to spend four nights at Aulani, the new Disney Resort and Spa. So we packed up, had breakfast, and headed west.

Our first stop was due to road construction. When a bridge is out, GPS is no help. We had to stop and ask for directions, and then we were on the way to the Dole Pineapple Plantation. Dole Whip, get in my belly! We took the train ride (the Pineapple Express; so cute!) and wandered around the gardens. Then we got back in the car to head to our true destination, Aulani.

Here's where I start getting a little choked up. This place was so incredibly beautiful. It felt so completely ... Hawaiian. The hotels along Waikiki Beach were pretty much one and the same; so similar, and lacking in any distinction from a Chicago hotel. Don't get me wrong, I loved every moment there, but this? This was something different entirely. We were welcomed into the O'hana (family) and instantly began to feel like we belonged there.

We had dinner at 'Ama 'Ama (named after a Hawaiian fish featured prominently in the song, Hukilau). I had grilled lehi (a deepwater silver-mouth snapper that I would marry if I could) with veggies and potatoes. It was the most delicious meal ever.

And that's not including the gorgeous sunset.
The first sunset at Aulani, seen from our table at 'Ama 'Ama.
The following day, I ran along the path by the cove. Turns out, it runs about a mile and a half along four separate yet similar coves through this entire resort area - including three wedding chapels, two resorts besides Aulani, several restaurants and a yacht club. Gorgeous! After my run, we had a bite for breakfast and headed to the pool.

Where I proceeded to experience absolute heaven. Ahh ... this is living!
Me, poolside. Oh, how relaxed!
We sat in our little chairs by the pool and read, listened to music, and rested. Eventually we pried our butts out of the chairs and got into the lazy river ... it was lazy awesome! Dad even let himself relax a little, and he really seemed to enjoy the lazy river. We laughed our way around, the funniest point being when he tried to steer me into a waterfall and ended up steering himself into it, instead.

That night, we went to the luau at Paradise Cove. I am not including a link here, because the place sucked my will to live. Bad organization, horrible food. The venue and entertainment (with the exception of the emcee) were great, but not good enough to make up for the pain of the rest of it.

Eventually, we escaped not-Paradise cove and headed back to our little place in paradise. Breakfast at 'Ama 'Ama? Don't mind if I do.

I had an omelet with everything. Dad had two eggs, sausage, potatoes and toast. We shared an incredible view.
The view from breakfast at 'Ama 'Ama.
Ridiculously beautiful.

That afternoon, I headed off to Laniwai, the spa at Aulani, for a Lomilomi massage. This is a traditional Hawaiian massage, and it is wonderful. When you go, ask for Chuck. He will change your life, for serious.

The staff at Laniwai asks you to arrive an hour before your appointment, so you can relax in the Kula Wai - the outdoor hydrotherapy garden. Now, I have a deep relationship with water as it is. If I am cranky, put me in water. It doesn't really matter what kind. Dump me in the shower, draw me a bath, for God's sake find me a hot tub or a pool, and all will be right with my world. So when I arrived at Laniwai (which is Hawaiian for "freshwater heaven), I was, indeed, in heaven.

You check in and are escorted to a lavish locker room, where you change into your swimsuit, because the Kula Wai is co-ed. Out in the entry to the garden, you select the scent for your custom exfolliation. I chose sugar and maile. (Maile is a fragrant leaf, and I'm in love with the fragrance; it's clean and not too girly.) Then, you explore the various aquatic environments. Two hot soaking tubs; two jetted hot tubs; one seriously cold tub; six different outdoor showers. Plus luxurious lounge chairs. This place is wonderful. When you have about 20 minutes left, your host will ask you to head into the locker room to change into your robe and relax in the Relaxation Room.

And you will; it feels so awesome. Then your therapist will come get you and your treatment begins. If you've ever had a massage, you know that to begin you lay on a table with your face in this round cushy thing staring down at the floor. Well, not at this spa; here, you're looking down at a bowl filled with orchids. That's the difference; many little things that just take it to an even more perfect place. It is heavenly. Chuck discovered and beat the hell out of several knots in my shoulders and legs, and lulled me into a yummy relaxed state that I didn't want to end. As he walked me back to the Relaxation Room, Chuck said it was a pleasure to work on me. He's awesome. The experience was so incredible, I made an appointment to come back the next day for an exfoliation treatment. (As a side note, my skin is so soft right now I swear I slide right out of bed.)

The next day, I didn't run. Instead, Dad and I headed out to go to church. However, we never found church, so we ended up taking a drive. We came upon this great view of Aulani from the outlying areas; it really does look like it just grew out of the landscape!
Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa ... beautiful.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch oceanside before I had to go to my next spa appointment. I played in the Kula Wai again, and was greeted in the Relaxation Room by Sarah, who would soon turn my skin into something so smooth it was almost unrecognizable.

She used a concoction made of lehua honey, sugar and other stuff, and then wrapped me up in a warm cocoon ... it smelled like ambrosia! As she applied the mixture to my face, I wondered to myself, "why do I not take as much time, care and attention to my own face?" I'm trying to change that, so I'm starting to give myself a little more self-care. I only get this one face (not to mention the rest of me) so I guess now is as good a time as any to pay attention to it.

Afterward, I snuggled down in the Relaxation Room and met up with two ladies who were in Kula Wai with me prior to my appointment. We chatted for about an hour, over tea and zucchini/carrot cupcakes. It was a lovely way to end my appointment.

Then I was off and running again, this time to the beach and for a snorkel. The water is perfect, in the pool, the reef and the ocean. Happy, happy girl.
The view from my chair on the beach.
Far too soon, Monday rolled around and it was time to head for the airport. I did not want to go. I'm still not sure I want to be here. There was something about the people in Hawaii, and at Aulani in particular, that was just so comfortable. I felt right away like I belonged there. As I prepared to leave, and chatted with staff throughout the day, I found myself feeling a genuine sense of sadness over having to leave. And ya know, I got a sense that they were sad, too. It really is like family; parting ways is always sad.

It was an intense week. Lots to see and do, and a fair amount of relaxation, too. One of the many things they've done really well at Aulani is infuse the place with Hawaiian culture and folklore, such as the menehune - the "little people" mischief makers of the land. They are all over the place! I discovered them sleeping under the public phone, hiding in the elevator and hanging out by the pool. So clever, and a delight to discover.
Menehune! These mischief-makers are everywhere.
And now, I'm back home ... back to "real life". As Sarah was applying honey to my back, I expressed to her how sad I was that I was leaving. She said, "When you leave a part of yourself in Hawaii, a part of Hawaii will stay with you". I like that thought. She also told me that Hawaii will be there when I'm ready to come back.

I'm ready now, but it will have to wait. At the end of an incredible week, I find myself feeling so incredibly grateful to my dad for taking me to this place that seems singularly able to make everyone feel at home. Whether we were enjoying a meal (and most of the time that also meant gorgeous scenery), listening to music (which we did every single night, in one way or another), seeing the sights or relaxing (yes, Dad) by the water, we had a great time. Lots of laughs, only a few disagreements (all of which were my fault) and an altogether near-perfect vacation. 

Being home is hard, but I don't think I came home quite the same as when I left. I'm trying to hold on to the feeling of aloha in the islands, and I'm following a great lead here. This is what the great surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku said about it:

"In Hawaii, we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with 'aloha', which means 'with love'. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world's center of understanding and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with 'aloha'. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it, and it is my creed. Aloha to you."

And so I leave you with ...



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