Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
By
updated 7/8/2005 3:47:01 PM ET 2005-07-08T19:47:01

I never really wanted to go to Hawaii. I know divers' ears around the globe are stinging at the words rolling off my forked tongue and mobs are forming pitchforks and torches in hand to come set straight the heathen who would question the sanctity of its shores. But I always thought it would be too commercialized. After all, they hardly seem like the most remote islands in the world when they film Baywatch Hawaii there. I thought it would be hard to get to the natural, more beautiful core of the place. I was wrong.

It began one night at a bar — where all great ideas are born. My friend Andrew had been dying to get back to Maui, and since we are both afflicted with a constant case of itchy feet, he knew I wouldn’t need much convincing. We have been friends for a long time and he’s never let me down, so, despite my skepticism, I decided that I should trust him. It took about 15 minutes and half a Guinness. Before I knew it we were booking tickets.

I now find myself standing on top of the Haleakala volcano just before sunrise shivering under three layers of outerwear. I’m kicking myself for not believing him that it could be this cold in paradise — even at 10,023 ft above sea level. How stupid I’m feeling that I braved a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call to come freeze my butt off on a mountain only to bike — yes, bike — down it at first light. So I curse to myself as I climb to the rim of the crater to see what I can only describe as a moonscape open up before me.

I feel like I’ve just reached the top of the world and what lies below me is utterly foreign. I can imagine Neil Armstrong floating weightlessly across the rock to claim this piece of land in the name of exploration. It’s one of those rare moments when you feel absolutely content with your life and the path you have chosen that has led you here — a moment when you cannot imagine anything more beautiful. Now the cold and the wind and the darkness don’t bother me. And just as the sun reaches over the mountaintop, bringing the colors and textures of the landscape alive, an entire squadron of clouds creeps over the rim and across the crater floor, protecting the secrets that lie within. It’s clear just long enough for me to stand on the highest rock I can find and peer out over the endless Pacific. The fog envelopes me as it races over the island as if its spirit is watching me — allowing me to see what it decides I am worthy of and hide what I’m not yet ready for. It keeps a lot from me this morning, but I’d like to think that I’ll win its heart by the end of my journey.

But first Andrew and I head down the mountain toward the blue edges. Like most of the Hawaiian Islands, the land portion of Maui is a volcanic peak. About 500,000 years ago the island took its first breath, so everything under the surface has been brewing, battling and evolving in the relative isolation that 1,000 miles of open ocean and unfathomable amounts of time will allow. And there’s no better welcome to the seascape than the pearly gates of Molokini Crater.

I secretly hope the Hawaiian spirits that inhabit the ocean will be more giving at the bottom of the mountain than the top.

MOLOKINI CONCERTOS

The crescent-shaped remains of this dormant volcanic cone sit two and a half miles offshore like an austere citadel, whose only inhabitants are seabirds charged with guarding the world below. In the morning, boats full of divers and snorkelers leave from Maalaea Harbor, Lahaina and Kihei and head to Molokini on such straight paths that they look as if they are being pulled by hidden strings. On this morning, we join PADI resort Maui Dive Shop from Maalaea Harbor, and the closer we get to Molokini, the quieter the guests become. Even Andrew, who always seems to be in the middle of telling a story, stands hushed at the rail. When seen from the deck of a boat, Molokini feels like the last refuge between you and the enormity of the Pacific Ocean.

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
There are two realms off Molokini: The protected, flirty, fish-filled and relatively shallow inner portion that is shielded from the wide-open Pacific, and the wild and unpredictable Backwall. For much of the year, when the humpback whales arrive, the undersea experience is accompanied by haunting concertos. Feeling daring, we take on the Backwall first. Almost as soon as we round the corner and leave the protected inner waters, the wall drops away into a deep blue for more than 300 feet and the surface boils with the crashing of waves born, like Hawaii’s original inhabitants, in the faraway south Pacific. We can feel and see every impact even at 80 feet, and the whalesong seems to hit the same curved wall as the riled-up water and splinter off in every direction. It’s like hearing an orchestra warming up in a whirlwind.

Soon enough the current embraces us in its relentless grasp and we begin following a dictated course along the wall, fully at the mercy of the sea. The divemaster tells us we can see almost anything on this dive, if we’re lucky. So we swivel our heads from the wall to the blue. We have to take in the scene in quick passes as we’re swept past the wall, but longnose and teardrop butterflyfish, Moorish idols and whitetip sharks make their presence known in the 150-foot viz.

Slideshow: Undersea wonders A couple of green sea turtles make their way in from the open ocean to rest in the shadows of an overhang, and a manta ray makes a close pass; it’s graceful, nonchalant majesty makes it look as if it is actually riding atop the booming, leaden tune of a nearby whale. When the current deposits us at the far side of the crater we are breathless, despite having put little physical effort into the dive.

Andrew, feeling a bit like a wild man at the end of a roller coaster ride, wants to turn around and do it again. I sit on the surface with my head half submerged in the water and listen to the madcap mix of whalesong, seabird squawks and chattering divers as the spirits of the two worlds of Maui come together in my mind. We’ve just had a singular experience in a world where a rowdy and uncontrollable entropy rules, and I want to let it soak in for a while.

When we dive inner Molokini the same feral aspect of the sea manifests in a much more comical manner. Upon descent, we’re nearly overrun by a voracious herd of lemon butterflyfish as they pass over the volcanic substrate snacking on the algae that grows in the sunlit shallows. Garden eels undulate in the sand at 70 feet as if buffeted by unseen winds. We follow an octopus as it pours itself, in the way they do, over, around, under and through the cracks and crevices of the seafloor, changing color and texture the entire way. At the end of the dive, as we look up, a manta ray passes through the sun at the surface in a perfect silhouette.

This is the beauty of Maui: It is raw and untamed. You can find yourself driving down a one-lane road looking for a hole in a fence that will grant you access to the bamboo forest. There are no signs, no tour buses, no neatly marked paths. Then in the next moment, you’re lying on a massage table at the Westin, sipping tea or champagne or taking a sunset sail on Trilogy’s catamaran. All of that infrastructure that I thought was going to prevent me from seeing the real native beauty of the place really just enabled me to choose how much of an explorer I felt like being that day.

Jackie D’Antonio  /  Sport Diver
When I first arrive at the Kaanapali resort on Maui and manage to get all my crap inside, wash the airplane funk off my face and walk outside to take in the view, I’m overwhelmed. The sun has begun to sink in the sky, creating that warm golden hue of the hour or so before sunset. Andrew and I sit in the cool grass for what seems like ages until the darkness comes to spoil the show, leaving only the sound of the waves against the shore to mar the stillness.

The next morning we hop in the car and drive up to Tedeschi Vineyards. As we meander along the winding road I realize how much a 20-minute drive into the mountains can change the face of the island. This is cowboy country, where paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — still herd cattle in the old town of Makawao and the surrounding area known as Ulupalakua. Suddenly we find ourselves in a small general store that looks more Rocky Mountains than Pacific ring of fire — the Ulupalakua Ranch Store. Small Christmas lights line the ceiling and country crafts are on display. I feel myself start to swagger the minute I walk through the door, and Andrew asks if my southern accent is going to come out long enough to embarrass him. But at this store, I end up leaving with, among other things, coconut candy and a package of macadamia nuts — apparently beef jerky takes a back seat in these parts.

After we load our car full of food we drive the final mile or so to the vineyard. They’re famous for their pineapple wine, but we discover that the vino from the grapes is nothing to sneeze at. Even aside from the wine, though, the location is well worth the trip. There are beautifully landscaped grounds with old stone buildings, some dating back to the 1800s. They offer tours of the ranch, but we found it more peaceful just to wander around and have an impromptu picnic in the shade of the huge trees.

These mountainous areas on Maui, the upcountry as they call it, remind me of the northern California coast. It’s quiet, with the lovely smell of eucalyptus in the air and quaint houses lining the streets. It is a nice complement to the surfer-lined beaches that surround it. This is also the area we biked through after the amazing sunrise at the crater.

We stop for breakfast at a little restaurant surrounded by an incredible garden that stretches down the side of the mountain. Over eggs benedict and an espresso we decide to spend the afternoon driving the road to Hana. This is on one condition however; you see, Andrew is a horribly distracted driver, and I’m not about to give him the wheel on a winding road that’s lined with some of the most appealing scenery around. He argues but eventually agrees, so, after reluctantly turning in my quite fashionable helmet to the guys at the Haleakala Bike Company, we head for the other side of the island to change gears from the relaxing breakfast and get our hands (and our shoes) dirty.

It has been called the most beautiful drive in the world, and I understand why after the first mile or so. We begin at an intersection where a homeowner has built his entire fence out of colorful surfboards — a sight you will see only in Hawaii. The road winds its way around sheer cliffs that drop into the sea, and you pass waterfalls and gardens so beautiful they’re named after Eden. The shade of green is so heavy along this road you literally inhale it with every breath, and we absolutely must stop every 20 feet or so to trudge down a muddy trail and take a photograph. We are completely covered in mud within 10 minutes.

There is a stillness about this part of the island that you can find nowhere else. Sometimes silence is the loudest thing you hear — especially in the bamboo forest, which is one of the hidden secrets of the drive. But it remains hidden, for now, until we go to church and see the pyramids.

THE PRIVATE ISLE

We are aboard one of PADI Gold Palm Trilogy Excursions’ dive boats and cross the Au’Au Channel toward an island whose main draw is the tantalizing illusion of splendid isolation: Lanai. The evening before we’d watched the sun settle for the night behind this nearby island in a tranquil hush of orange light. But each day as the sun passes overhead, we’re told, beams of light gather in volcanic undersea cathedrals. They slip through the holes and cracks in the 20-foot-high lava grottos and passageways that make up First Cathedral and are forced to spend the day at play, dancing, darting and fluttering in vain attempts to find their way back out.

When we actually descend into the 100-foot-long main chamber of First Cathedral, a whitetip reef shark, startled by another diver, wends its way in and out of the forest of lightbeams like an otherworldly monk headed to prayers.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in and out of what seems like hundreds of churches in my travels throughout Europe, and none has the majesty or instills a sense of awe like this place. Each opening in the ceiling reveals a wash of blue that mimics a stained-glass window. I look at Andrew, and he’s just hovering in the water column trying to take in the entirety of the atmosphere. Neither of us is too religiously inclined, but the place fills us with wonder nonetheless.

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Slideshow: Polynesian delights We gather our senses for a dive on Second Cathedral. Even though it’s numbered second, its main chamber is even larger than First Cathedral’s. As we sweep our dive lights through the dark edges and shadows, we realize the place is chock-full of shrimp and other invertebrate life. In places the ceiling practically ignites with burning bushes of orange tubastrea corals. Pyramid butterflyfish flitter outside the main opening of the cavern, and we spot about a dozen tiger cowries hidden away in the nooks and crannies.

During the trip we come back to Lanai twice more with PADI resort Ed Robinson’s Dive Adventures. For our first dive, we’re dropped off at a set of pinnacles and lava arches called the Pyramids. This is Andrew’s favorite Maui dive, and even though I like to give him grief about how easily he gets fixated on things, I don’t put up an argument when he asks to dive the site twice more — and neither do the other divers.

It’s called the Pyramids because of the massive packs of pyramid butterflyfish that gather over the pinnacles, but it’s also a place for treasure hunters. We find viper and snowflake morays, cowries, clown crabs and some of Hawaii’s most fearless and blasé- about-divers whitetip reef sharks. Snapper and barracuda are constant companions, green sea turtles keep trying to use Andrew’s head as a landing beacon, and we have a lovely visit from a passing spotted eagle ray.

THE FIVE GRAVES

Not too many nonlocal divers make the trip to Five Graves, but since I have an affinity for sea turtles, the next morning we drive to Makena, about three miles south of Kihei. There’s a small graveyard on the way to Makena Landing, which gives the entry point its name. Other than the shore entry, there’s nothing too spooky about the site, unless you’re afraid of green sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, piles of (well-fed) reef fish and sleepy whitetip reef sharks — all of which are waiting for us.

We get out just as the surf picks up, shower at the landing and decide to head back to the road to Hana. We have some unfinished business there, and feeling like the spirit of Maui is a bit more cooperative, I once again take the keys from Andrew (who grumbles), and we set off on a Bamboo Forest quest.

SHROUDED KINGDOM

It’s quite a feat for us even to find the entrance to this shrouded kingdom. We drive back and forth in front of an old fence looking for an opening. Finally, a single car parked on the side of the road gives it away. We pull over and poke around in the stalks until we see a path, and then we step into another world. The light is instantly transformed into soft glowing beams, and the rolling landscape that lies beneath the bushy tops of the bamboo is revealed. We hike back and find clear pools of cool water where the distant sound of waterfalls entices us on; eventually we come across the occupants of the car that had revealed the entrance to us.

“Hey guys, what’s back there?” I ask.

“Heaven,” they say. “But I don’t think you’re getting there in those shoes.”

I look down and realize I have stupidly worn my flip-flops on this current exploratory.

“That’s OK,” I reply. “I’ll make it work. Which way do we have to go?”

They smile and say, “Well, first you need to hike up this muddy, slippery hill and get to the small ravine. Then you need to cross the dicey, moss-covered log to get to the river. Then you need to swim part of the way because it’s too deep to walk, and when you see the vines hanging down on the right you can climb out and get back on the path — it’s only a few miles from there.”

OK, smart guys, I think. I look at Andrew and do what any quick-witted girl would. I lie. I tell them it’ll be no problem and thank them for the directions. As soon as they’re out of sight Andrew and I take another route. I am all about discovering hidden corners of the world, but this particular journey requires a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and a dry bag, neither of which we have. I can hear it, though, and I know it’s there, taunting me from afar.

The fact that we can’t make it all the way to that waterfall on this trip only motivates us to go back, because Andrew and I are the same kind of person: All we have ever wanted is to travel the world and soak in what it has to offer. Because in the end, the only thing you really have to take with you is your experiences. And the only thing you really leave behind is the impression you have made on the world and the people who live in it. All material things fade, but you will remember the road to Hana. You will remember that sunrise and the scent of the air as you bike down the volcano.

Maui is full of experiences that enhance your life. We’ll be back for sure — with a dry bag, some Tevas, the smart guy’s directions and something to prove.

Special thanks to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, Kaanapali Resort, Haleakala Bike company, Westin Maui, Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours and Trilogy Excursions.

Books recommended by the author: Maui Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Snorkel, Paddle, Surf, Drive says it all when it comes to the endless adventures of exploring wild Kauai. Maui Revealed is a recent guide packed with insider's tips and Maui, Hawaii Map published by the University of Hawaii Press is an essential tool for in-depth topside exploration.

As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.


© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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