More than a beach

The Hui Aloha Church, built in 1859, is one of many old missionary churches along the Hana Highway, which winds through a picturesque rain forest.
The Hui Aloha Church, built in 1859, is one of many old missionary churches along the Hana Highway, which winds through a picturesque rain forest. (SUSAN ECENBARGER)

Hawaii's mountains, jungles, jaw-dropping scenic drives, long history, and unique culture await visitors who take time away from sand and surf.

Posted: June 30, 2014

UMIKOA, Hawaii - We begin on a rutted, red-dirt trail in this tiny hamlet populated by ranch hands and their families, some 3,500 feet up Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano that - measuring 31,100 feet from its oceanic base to the top - is the world's tallest mountain.

Guide Richard Lindberg is driving a taxi-yellow Kawasaki Terra-X, an all-terrain vehicle that looks like a golf cart on steroids. He stops at a gatehouse, gets out and signs a clipboard. "This way if we don't come back, they'll come looking for us," he explains.

Sitting on the back seat is a two-foot high koa tree, which we will plant at about the 5,000-foot level on acreage set aside by Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, a Honolulu-based sustainable forestry company that has already planted more than 200,000 koa trees along with other endangered Hawaiian species.

"The koa was the signature tree of the Hawaiian forest," Lindberg says, steering the Kawasaki, churning and whining, around a lava boulder. "It was reserved for use by the Hawaiian royalty two centuries ago, but farming and lumber practices wiped out 90 percent of the koa forests. We aim to reverse that process."

We bounce into a field of seedlings like the one in the back seat. Lindberg stops, cuts the engine, and asks me to pick a spot. He digs a hole by jumping on the spade like it's a pogo stick. When he finishes, he's out of breath. "High altitude," he explains. I place the tree in the hole and scoop the black, loamy soil back in.

As I water the tree, and Lindberg begins an almost religious incantation: "Over its 50-year lifetime, this tree will generate $31,250 worth of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycle $37,500 worth of water, and prevent $31,250 worth of soil erosion." He looks up. "The beneficiary for these dollar savings is our society."

When we return to the visitor center, a refurbished 1920s ranch home, Lindberg hands me an embossed certificate of sponsorship with my name, my tree's serial number, and its GPS coordinates, so I can monitor its growth online in coming years.

My guess is that most people do not envision planting a tree on a mountainside as part of a Hawaiian vacation. I suspect that many Americans' idea of Hawaii is drawn from escapist marketing, airline posters, and Elvis films. I suspect that many East Coasters never go to Hawaii, reasoning, "I can get the same thing - water, sand and palm trees - in the Caribbean, so why bother with the long plane ride?"

But Hawaii is no mere tropical paradise - it's much, much more interesting than that. It has mountains, jungles, coffee farms, tea plantations, cattle ranches, an active volcano, jaw-dropping scenic drives, national parks, a long history, and a unique culture.

I'm with Mark Twain, a world traveler who, near the end of his life, wrote this about Hawaii: "No alien land in all the world has any deep, strong charm for me, but that one; no other land could so longingly and beseechingly haunt my sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one had done. Other things leave me, but it abides."

So leave those golf clubs and that tennis racquet home. Put down that mai tai. Get off that beach chair and on the road. Go beachless in Hawaii. Plant a tree. Here are a few more suggestions.

Take the world's greatest drive

In terms of scenic beauty, Hawaii highways are like sunsets - they're all great, but some are greater than others. The greatest of them all is on the island of Maui, and it begins in the old sugar plantation town of Paia, where along the beach surfers await their next wave, fishermen await their next bite, and birds await their next instinct.

The famous Hana Highway hairpins through a magnificent rain forest where alternating hot sun and warm showers nurture vegetation in flamboyant abandon. It's 52 miles, 617 curves, and 56 bridges from Paia to Hana, and all along the road orchids grow like weeds, African tulip trees blossom the color of burnt orange, and banyan trees are goateed in moss. Everywhere are palms, ferns, vines, eucalyptus trees, enormous monkeypod trees, colorful impatiens, giant philodendron, mangoes, and guava you can pick from your car.

Always, to your left, the scrawling signature of the shoreline is outlined by white foam and black lava rock, and to the right the steep slope of Haleakala volcano, ribboned with waterfalls and robed in mist.

The difficulty and danger of the Hana Highway have been greatly exaggerated (not to mention commercialized - "I SURVIVED THE HANA HIGHWAY!" T-shirts and bumper stickers abound). But in truth any competent driver can easily make the journey. The original road was hacked out with pick and shovel by convict labor in 1927, but today it is well-maintained and clearly marked - though it's narrow and you will rarely exceed 25 m.p.h.

My advice is to start early - solely because you don't want to be rushed. There are many places along the way that you will want to stop and linger. Indeed, the more times you halt and leave your car, the more times the road will reward you.

Most people turn around at Hana and head back to Paia. There's nothing wrong with this - it's another beautiful drive. But what you really ought to do is take the road along the far side of Maui, which is virtually uninhabited.

Visit a former leper colony

In the morning, rocks on the trail usually are wet and slippery, but the mules - those marvels of cross-breeding - negotiate the three-mile serpentine path down the cliff with the surefootedness of a donkey and the intelligence of a horse.

A thousand feet below, the Kalaupapa Peninsula, jutting out from the northern shore of the island of Molokai, is a low tongue of lava sealed off from the rest of the world by the cliffs and some of the roughest surf on Earth. It is the site of a former leper colony, and seldom in history has such unspeakable human tragedy occurred amid such inspiring natural beauty.

The mule train takes about two hours to reach Kalaupapa, which quite possibly is the most unusual community in America. It was declared a national historic park in 1980 and is being preserved and maintained by the National Park Service. A one-day visit to Kalaupapa is one of the great and unforgettable experiences available to travelers anywhere.

Today there are about 10 permanent residents, who prefer to be called "former patients," left in Kalaupapa. Their average age is about 85. Most of them were brought here as children against their will and still bear some marks of the injuries they sustained when the disease was active. Sulfone drugs have controlled the disease in their bodies, and they have been promised they will be allowed to live out their days there. They live in cottages in the village of Kalaupapa; there is a store, a gas station (open once a week), a small hospital, a bar, and a post office (zip code 96742).

The peninsula was a hellish dumping ground for leprosy victims who were left there without shelter or provisions beginning in 1866. The arrival of a Belgian priest, Father Damien, in 1873 changed the course of the settlement.

The Park Service has a classy display outlining the history of the settlement followed by a walking tour that includes a visit to St. Philomena's Church, which was built by Damien, who eventually succumbed to the disease himself. He was declared a Catholic saint in 2009.

Follow the royals

A monarchy in the U.S.A.? Kings and queens? Royal bloodlines? Coats of arms? Divine right? Palace intrigue? Coronations? Crowns and thrones? It's all in Honolulu.

The only royal palace in the United States ever used as an official residence by a reigning monarch sits in quiet majesty amid noisy, whiz-banging traffic downtown. On the palm-shaded lawn, the Royal Hawaiian Band plays concerts every Friday at noon. They end with the haunting "Aloha Oe," perhaps the single best-known piece of Hawaiian music, which was written more than a century ago by Queen Liliuokalani herself.

Inside Iolani Palace, you must don a pair of purple booties over your shoes under the vigilant but kindly eyes of docents, who sometimes boast: "We had electricity here before the White House or Buckingham Palace. Flush toilets, too."

You can visit the maroon and gold throne room, the dining room, and the blue meeting room. Upstairs there is a library and the bedrooms of both King David Kalakaua, who built Iolani in 1882, and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, who was overthrown in 1893.

The palace served as Hawaii's territorial capital and then its state capital until 1968. It was restored to its original grandeur in 1978 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Go four-wheeling on the Pineapple Isle

Sunset comes to the Garden of the Gods bejewelled in amber, rubies, and crystal; it enters with a star presence, convinced that it is on center stage and that you have come to see it perform.

It is a scene beyond nomenclature - lunar, surreal, the Badlands with an ocean in the background, nature standing on tiptoe.

Most visitors to the tiny island of Lanai spend at least one sunset at the Garden of the Gods, an otherworldly colossi of rock and color, pinnacles and canyons formed by some ancient cataclysm.

Its Hawaiian name is Keahiakawelo, and Hawaiian legend holds that it is the result of a contest between two priests from Lanai and Molokai. Each was challenged to keep a fire burning on their respective island longer than the other, and the winner's island would be rewarded with great abundance. The Lanai priest used every piece of vegetation to keep his fire burning, which is why this area is so barren today.

The Garden of the Gods is about an hour down the unpaved Polihua Road from Lanai City (pop. 2,500).

The road is copper-colored, deeply rutted, and leads through fields of high green grass that has replaced the pineapple that used to grow all over the island until about 25 years ago.

Nearly everybody rents a four-wheel-drive jeep from Dollar Rent-a-Car, and Lanai may be the only place in the U.S.A. where they will not only rent you a four-wheel-drive, but also encourage you to go off the road.

Lanai provides an amazing variety of terrain for a tiny island - windswept beaches, rain forests, dryland forests, raging surf, placid bays with beaches and talcum-soft sand, and cool, foggy uplands. And, of course, the Garden of the Gods.

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