Searching for Paradise – Maui, Hawaii, USA

Does paradise really exist? Sometimes I have doubts. Looking through glossy magazines, we often see advertisements for gorgeous destinations to various tropical islands – fantasies of utopia. The photos are so bright and clear that you wonder if they are real. Could the water possibly be that blue, that clear? Could the white sand on that beach be so perfect? The photo definitely depicts a heavenly destination, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a secluded beach surrounded by palm trees. There are no people in the photo – not even a footprint from the person who had to take the photo.

It sounds too good to be true, don’t you think? Maybe it is.

I recently took a trip, my second trip to Maui, which many people consider paradise. My first one was several years ago, right after college. To go back a second time was fortunate, in my opinion. I was looking forward to returning to the friendly island I so fondly remembered – a peaceful island filled with aloha spirit, a beautiful culture, marvelous tropical vegetation, waterfalls, amazing seafood and the best fresh pineapple.

As time passes, we tend to forget any negative memories and savor only the favorable ones. I guess that’s a good thing. I mean, why dwell on less-than-lovely memories?

When I went to Maui the first time, I was with my parents. My dad did all the driving and the paying. Automatically, that put the vacation into the “paradise" category. Stress level is always less when someone else is in charge. We went to Oahu. Pearl Harbor was humbling and educational. I learned a lot about the history of the Hawaiian Islands and its people when we visited the Polynesian Cultural Center. But my favorite place was Maui.

Gorgeous Ocean View: On the Road to Hana
Ocean view on the road to Hana

Maui was relaxing, calm and beautiful. We went to a traditional Hawaiian luau. We swam on a beautiful sand beach and we saw rainbows every day.

My second stay in Maui was with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, her best friend and my 13-year-old daughter. Are you sensing a different type of vacation? We stayed for one week at Napili Point Resort. Built in the 1970’s, it’s a low rise condominium complex surrounded by other low rise condos, homes and the sea. There is nothing to block your view of the skyline, the ocean or the West Maui mountains.

One thing my daughter and I were especially looking forward to was snorkeling. I had snorkeled a couple of times, but never around corral reef. We rented the necessary equipment and were excited to snorkel right in front of our condo in Honokeana Bay. Before the trip, I read customer reviews online that said the snorkeling was excellent and that there were many sea turtles in the bay. I was skeptical, though. There had to be a catch.

We walked down to the only place in the bay that looked like a good entrance. There were several people snorkeling so we figured there must be a good place to scoot into the water. Since the islands all came from volcanoes, the edge of the land is very sharp and jagged. We crawled to the water, very carefully. There was no soft sandy area for entering. The black rock was filled with tide pools. The waves were constantly crashing into the rocks as we tried to navigate our way.

My daughter looked down at the rocks and shouted, “Mom! Look! Sea urchins!” Wow. That sounded neat, even though I couldn’t exactly remember what those were. “We learned about them in school last year,” she said with a long pause. “Don’t touch them. They’re poisonous.” She dropped that bomb on me and continued walking along without any worry.

I stood there frozen with fear. I was too far out on the rocks to go back, but not close enough to the water to jump in. This was the catch. Sure, the snorkeling is awesome, if you live long enough to get in and out of the water.

Emily Prepares to Snorkel: The crashing waves and jagged rocky entrance made if difficult to get into the bay.
Emily prepares to snorkel

We quickly found a low, flat area where we could safely sit down and get into the water. By the time we were in the water, fixed our snorkel gear and started swimming, I was pretty stressed out. I was just starting to relax my breathing when I remembered there are sea turtles in this bay. Suddenly, I was too afraid. I didn’t want one popping up beside me unexpectedly. This wasn’t feeling much like paradise.

We swam for a while until we were comfortable with snorkeling. We saw a few pretty fish, but not many. It was late in the day already; we decided to come back and try it again the next day. The second time was much easier. We went snorkeling almost daily. Each time was more wonderful than the last. We were confident with the gear. We even figured out how to swim in the current and take underwater photos at the same time. We saw dozens of different types of fish and lots of huge sea turtles.

Snorkeling is great once you get used to it!: It just takes a little practice

Even though the experience started out with some stress, it quickly became one of our favorite memories until it really did feel like paradise. Since I had been to Maui before, I was elected to be the designated driver of the rental car. I was conscious of my health; I wore sunscreen every time I went outside. Despite my best efforts, my white Scandinavian skin could only take so much of the July Hawaiian heat and sun. On the first day of driving the Chrysler Seabring convertible, I was fried. If you get a sunburn on the first day of a six-day vacation, it really limits your beach time.

There was another reason we chose a convertible. There is a famous road in Maui that many travelers have talked about. Tourists from all over the world have survived the famous road to Hana (sounds like Hawn-uh). I use the word "survived" because it really is a dangerous ride. The trip is only 35 miles each way, but it takes all day to go to Hana and come back down to sea level. The road is steep, narrow and winding, right to the top of the island. The closer you get to Hana, the more narrow, curvy and life-threatening the road becomes.

The Road to Hana is narrow and dangerous: but the views are spectacular!
One view on the road to Hana

There’s a good reason someone designed T-shirts that read, “I survived the road to Hana"! The Hana Highway (HI-360) has 600 curves and 54 bridges. As I drove around each tight curve, my hands gripped a little tighter. I could never tell if I would be met by another car; I drove slowly. When other cars lined up behind me, my heart would race. I noticed I was taking short and shallow breaths. I pulled over to the side whenever possible to allow them to pass me safely.

We were surrounded by beautiful rainforest. The vegetation was thick, the humidity high and the air smelled like wet Earth. We went through several areas of light mist and sprinkles, which disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Driving up the mountain, our car was so close to the right side of the road that we could stick our hands out and touch the volcanic walls and moss that grew on them.

Life is Short - Swing on a Vine!
Swinging on a vine

We even stopped to swing on some vines, like Tarzan and Jane. What a beautiful place! I just didn’t remember the drive being so stressful. We chose a convertible so we could take in the full view. For anyone who volunteers to be the driver on this crazy road, you cannot drive, negotiate tight curves on a cliff and expect to enjoy the ocean view all at the same time. That would be suicide. I was in no mood for suicide. Plus, having five people in one convertible was a little tight. Since my daughter was the smallest and thinnest, she was placed in the middle of the back seat. Did I mention she gets carsick easily?

The drive was not exactly what I had remembered from my previous trip. I recalled stunning ocean views, black sand beaches, crashing waves, the rainforest, swinging from the vines and the many amazing waterfalls. Of course, those were still there. The waterfalls were not as plentiful; Maui was experiencing a drought. But there were still a few to be enjoyed. I just couldn’t delight in them the same way having to keep my passengers alive. It wasn’t feeling like paradise.

The day we drove to Hana was garbage day for the few local residents who, surprisingly enough, live by the road. The garbage was being picked up by two men in a regular pick-up truck. They tossed them in the back of the truck and secured them with a large net. I could tell they were locals from the moment I saw the white truck coming up the hill behind me. The driver was going fast. I, on the other hand, had white-knuckles from driving with extreme caution.

View from the breakfast table
View from the breakfast table

After feeling them ride my bumper for several minutes, I was able to pull off to a small, narrow shoulder. Those don’t come up very often. I was thankful to find one. The truck zoomed past, the driver knowing he was dealing with a tourist. The passenger, sitting in a relaxed, slouch with his right arm hanging out the window, extended his arm and gave me the traditional Hawaiian “hang loose” hand single, which is a quick shake with only the thumb and pinkie finger extended. He must have seen the terror on my face as I drove. He flashed me a friendly island smile. After taking a deep cleansing breath, I managed to smile back.

We finally reached the lovely town of Hana. We stumbled across a real gem when we came into the Hotel Hana-Maui and Honua Spa. It wasn’t until I picked up a brochure that I learned how impressive this place was. It was rated in the top three “Ultimate Resorts for Seclusion” by Modern Bride Magazine, and one of the top 25 by Conde Nast Traveler.

We enjoyed sitting outside on a covered patio in a gorgeous restaurant while overlooking the ocean as we ate a delicious meal. The French toast was so wonderful that I took a photo of my daughter as she ate it. She had the type of expression that exudes happiness. We gave it our rating as “The best French toast in the world,” by the Appelgates. We liked Whaler’s Village, an upscale outdoor shopping center, with lots of accommodations, golf courses, restaurants, etc. We ate at local restaurants in a busy shopping district on Front Street – where all the action is. From there, we took a leisurely dinner cruise one evening.

Looking back at the island: during the dinner cruise
Looking back at the island from the dinner cruise

As we floated off the coast of Maui, our waiter told us that if we were taking this same cruise in February, rather than July, we would be surrounded by whales – peak of mating season.

There are so many things to do on the Hawaiian islands that you could come back ever year for a long time and still not have experienced everything. Going to a luau was another highlight. Like all tourists, we took lots of photos, especially along the road to Hana. After the photos were developed, I looked through them and all stressful memories of that drive had disappeared (well almost).

When I shared the photos with friends, they said, “Wow. You went to paradise!” I paused and thought about that comment and realized that, yes, I had been to paradise – twice.

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