After flying all night, getting off the packed airplane at Honolulu International airport felt wonderful. The warm, tropical sun and swaying palm trees greeted us. Jumping into the rental car, we wanted to drive straight to the western shore where our fabulous beach front condo awaited. But arriving early in the morning, allowed us to reflect on why we didn’t request an early check-in. Never a group to waste an opportunity to explore, however, we headed for Waikiki beach. After enjoying a nice lunch with live music at the Hard Rock Café, we strolled across the street and dipped our toes into the Pacific Ocean. The enormous beach, packed with tourists, radiated excitement.
A bit of shopping along the row of tiny t-shirt stores filled our need of being with the busy crowds. After that, off to the quiet west shore we went. The curvy drive past old, densely packed houses gave us a chance to see what life was like for the inhabitants of the island. It wasn’t the polished perfection of the steel and glass hotels and lush condos of Honolulu, yet there was a grittiness about the place, a feeling of balance with the island and the ocean that could never be experienced from the top of a skyscraper.
A stop at the local grocer reinforced this feeling. Simple green corrugated steel decorated the store as we passed through the small front doors and walked into a bygone era. From the store, we drove two miles to the tall, gated condo. As we made our way to the fourth floor and opened the door of our room, the actual decor didn’t resemble the pictures from the internet. Old plywood protected the patio windows from the construction going on outside. A full work scaffold, complete with ropes, buckets and cement tools hung directly before the windows. This was not a welcomed sight to exhausted travelers.
A few frantic calls later, the agent arranged for us to move to a smaller condo on the eight floor. Since the kids agreed to sleep on the couches, we decided to make the best of it. A stunning view of the bay and beach below was worth the inconvenience.
After getting a good night’s rest, I convinced everyone that hiking up Diamond Head, an extinct volcanic crater on the east side of Honolulu, would be a great day trip. Since Mark Twain had visited the Kingdom of Hawaii almost 150 years earlier, and ridden a horse to the top of Diamond Head, I longed to follow in his steps. Although no horses are allowed on the path today, every step for me was special. Breathing hard and sweating, we walked through the long tunnel to the exterior cliffs of the ancient volcano. In that moment, we were swept back to WWII with the weathered concrete gun turrets and narrow stairs that once housed soldiers that defended the island. The vistas of Honolulu on one side and the expansive Pacific Ocean on the other were breathtaking from the summit. Although this same cityscape was not what Mr. Twain saw, I imagined how he might compare it to what the beautiful island had been in his day.
The following day, we visited the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor. Taking a tour of the USS Bowfin submarine gave us a glimpse into the past. The Park Service’s movie of the attack on Pearl Harbor and ferry ride out to the Arizona Memorial were somber, moving events. No trip to Hawaii is complete without a stop here.
Back at the condo, relaxing and enjoying the gorgeous beach became our highest priority. Walking along the uneven rocks that jutted deep into the powerful ocean made me appreciate this astonishing place for what it is—a delicate blend of moving life and beauty. Every night my kids attested to this because although the calming roll of the ocean lapping at the sandy beach is wonderful as you drift to sleep, the pounding of the high tide in the middle of the night is not as soothing as one might believe.
On the morning of our fourth day on the island, as we awoke to balmy breezes, we immediately slid open the balcony doors to enjoy breakfast on the patio. Below us, on the normally tranquil beach, people gathered near two large, dark objects that must have washed onto the shore during the night. Covered in sand and not moving, two Monk seals lay next to each other. Neither one moved.
In short order, signs and cones were erected to form a perimeter to keep onlookers away from the mammals. We wondered what terrible events could have occurred to cause two seals to be in such an unusual state. It was not natural for wild animals to be so close to humans.
As we approached the barricade, a nice woman greeted us. A volunteer from the Monk Seal Response Team, she came down to help educate people and protect the monk seals from harm. Since the Hawaiian Monk Seals are one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with only about 1300 remaining, we were happy to lend our support in any fashion we could.
Monk seals are named for the folds of skin that somewhat resemble a Monk’s cowl. Normally, these warm-water seals live near the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but this mother had, just two days earlier, separated from her young pup near Kawaii and swam straight onto our beach to recuperate. She wasn’t sick or injured, just tired from traveling. We totally understood. Since monk seals do not mate for life, the other seal next to her was most likely her suitor, a younger male.
As we milled around, admiring the seals from a safe distance, the female opened her eyes. With a few twists of her body, and flaps of her tail, she wiggled into the ocean surf. The next large wave carried her off. The darker, sleepy male opened his eyes and lifted his head. Realizing the other seal had left, he made a mad squirm toward the ocean. Like an arrow, he swam to the female and together, the couple danced up and over the waves like birds in flight. And without any warning, the two disappeared into the Pacific.
After returning to our condo for breakfast, we spent the rest of the day submerged in the crisp ocean learning to body surf. That evening, we took the kids to a beach front luau and danced long into the night. We all had a great time, along with a few cuts and bruises from surfing.
In the end, our vacation was rich with Hawaiian memories. Yet with all the unique things we did, it was our brief encounter with the monk seals, and enjoying their simple splendor, that still resonates deep within me. The world is a richer place because of the rare treasures found only in Hawaii.