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“Life’s Swell” on Outside Magazine

Surfer girl

From the archives of Outside and new to me, this piece about surfer girls by writer Susan Orlean. Orlean immerses herself in the culture of surfer girls of Maui. The girls are aged from about 12 to about 20. Her descriptions of their lives, their challenges, of what it’s like to live the life of a surfer girl in Hawaii, the genuine article, left me feeling woefully inadequate and deprived in some ways, and feeling an unexpected empathy for these princesses of cool.

To be a girl surfer is even cooler, wilder, and more modern than being a guy surfer: Surfing has always been such a male sport that for a man to do it doesn’t defy any received ideas; to be a girl surfer is to be all that surfing represents, plus the extra charge of being a girl in a tough guy’s domain. To be a surfer girl in a cool place like Hawaii is perhaps the apogee of all that is cool and wild and modern and sexy and defiant. The Hana girls, therefore, exist at that highest point — the point where being brave, tan, capable, and independent, and having a real reason to wear all those surf-inspired clothes that other girls wear for fashion, is what matters completely. It is, though, just a moment. It must be hard to imagine an ordinary future and something other than a lunar calendar to consider if you’ve grown up in a small town in Hawaii, surfing all day and night, spending half your time on sand, thinking in terms of point breaks and barrels and roundhouse cutbacks.

Those long sentences are just a bite, read the whole thing on Outside.

Photo by DSuar via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Saving Hawaiian Monk Seals

I have never been to Hawaii. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I went when I was 4 with my family. I remember sitting on the beach and playing in the sand. I can’t tell you which beach or which island… it may as well have been Any Beach, USA. I’ve decided this visit doesn’t count.


Though I have never experienced Hawaii, I have always been fascinated by the islands. Specifically, I have always been interested in the Hawaiian monk seal. You see, I have my master’s degree in marine biology and I study seal diet. I had grand plans to study the Hawaiian Monk seal in graduate schoolbut unfortunately, it never came to fruition. I ended up studying the diet of Greyseals, off the coast of Maine. However, I now have an opportunity to go to Hawaii and study the Hawaiian monk seal. But, first, do you know why they are so important?

With a population of around 1,100 animals, the Hawaiian monk seal is the most endangered pinniped (seal/sea lion) in the U.S. and one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. There were two other species of monk seals, the Caribbean monk seal, which has been declared extinct, and the Mediterranean monk seal — considered the most endangered pinniped in the world with a population of  less than 600 remaining. With only around 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left and the population decreasing at 4% a year, this charismatic and important marine mammal may not survive much longer.

The monk seal, hunted by humans to near extinction in the 1800’s, has struggled to rebound. The majority of the seals live in the North West Hawaiian Islands, mainly between French Frigate Shoals and Midway Island. The monk seal has been fully protected for the past few decades; their primary habitat in the North West Hawaiian Islands has been protected for several years. NOAA has permanent research stations dedicated to studying this species and partners with many other organizations such as the University of Hawaii and The Marine Mammal Center.

Sadly, the monk seal is still not recovering. It is thought that the main reason for this lack of recovery is that most monk seal pups are dying of starvation. They have a less than 1 in 5 chance of making it to adulthood. This is probably due a shift in the availability of food and to competition for fish resources from other seals and other species such as sharks. If a monk seal pup can make it past the first few years of life he has a much better chance at surviving. But many young pups can’t seem to compete well enough to get the fish, cephalopods and invertebrates they need.

There is some good news. There is one small group of monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands whose population is increasing. What we need to do is to fully understand the biology and ecology of this small population so we can better monitor its growth. This increased understanding will be used to develop effective strategies to allow seals and humans to coexist in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The foraging ecology of these animals is a critical component to understanding the prey and habitat needed by the only growing population of Hawaiian monk seals.

I study seal diet. For this opportunity, in partnership with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa and NOAA, we will use the latest technology in the field of marine mammal dietary studies to try and determine what the Main Hawaiian Island monk seal population is eating. We will collect seal scat (poop), a non-invasive sample collection method that causes minimal disturbance to the animals. (Yup, that’s right. I study seal poop. Don’t judge.)

In researching seal diet, we look for fish bones in the seal scat to see what the seals are eating. Sometimes certain fish species do not show up in the scat because their bones are so fragile. I will bring the scat samples back to the lab and analyze the them for prey item DNA. This method will give us more sensitive data on monk seal diet than we have been able to obtain in the past, thus giving us more insight into the diet of the Hawaiian monk seal in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Understanding the diet of marine mammals is tough to do since foraging is difficult to observe, so any information we can gain about this subject matter is valuable and will contribute to the conservation of the species.

Monk seals have been called “living fossils” because they are considered to be on the order of 14-16 million years old. We certainly don’t want to watch them become extinct! We hope that gaining insight into the diet of the small increasing Main Hawaiian Islands monk seal population will help us understand this species better and help to conserve a highly endangered species, before it is too late.

Help Dash go to Hawaii! The expedition is funded by the National Geographic Channel, but she needs to win a place from a program called Expedition Granted. To learn more, go to Expedition Granted and VOTE FOR DASH. To learn more about Dash, check out her blog.

The Search for an “Authentic” Hawaiian Luau

Strapping Lads with the Meat for the "Imu"

The search for an authentic Hawaiian luau begins in your head.

Even before I moved to Hawaii, I considered luaus to be tourist traps. Moving here did nothing to change that opinion; most locals seem to have the same idea. I probably still would not have attended one, except for mainland visitors who seem to think they haven’t seen Hawaii unless they’ve been to a luau. BUT, they also have an idea that luaus are touristy, so they always say, “But I want to go to an AUTHENTIC luau.”

And the trouble begins.

I have asked local travel agents what they tell customers who want an “authentic” luau. One said, “I tell them to find a Baby’s First Birthday Luau.” You see, locals DO attend luaus all the time — they look a lot like a backyard cook-out or family reunions on the mainland. Every blessed weekend Magic Island and Ala Moana Beach Park are filled with family gatherings: someone is cooking, someone may be fishing, someone is yelling at the kids, everyone is talking, eating and playing games. That’s what a luau looks like in Hawaii today.
Is that what you had in mind? For most people, the answer is “no.” They want to come back and tell friends about the fire dancers and hula and poi (wrinkle your nose as you say it).

That’s why another travel agent says she steers people away from local luaus that try to be “authentic” according to Hawaii standards. There are games for the kids, an imu (underground oven) and feasting — all the traditional luau components, but none of the show biz sizzle. Clients who go are disappointed. That’s not what they thought an “authentic luau” would be. It was just like something they could have attended on the mainland. They secretly want fire dancers.

My own experience is similar. A recent visitor insisted on an authentic luau experience and suggested the Polynesian Culture Center. PCC is a visual extravaganza, a well-produced, well-manufactured experience. As my daughter said, “All it’s missing is a roller coaster and it’s Six Flags.” But, she also enjoyed it precisely because it is aimed at tourists. It provides a Cliff’s Notes version of Hawaii history that is educational and entertaining. What’s not to like? In my great local wisdom, I suggested instead Germaines, where we shared a picnic table on the sand with others bussed out from Waikiki. There was an imu ceremony, great food, a stage show and interactive entertainment for the whole family. My guest hated it. I think she envisioned being invited to the grass hut of a local family that still lives in the 18th century and welcomes visitors who are not tourists but “travelers” to their quaint island ritual.


Ironically, one of the least “authentic” luaus I know of provided a perfectly wonderful experience for other visitors. Hilton Hawaiian Village has a luau that is advertised as “under the stars.” True that – -it is on the roof of a building in Waikiki. The stars are overhead (and so is the rain), and there is a distant view of the ocean. But my guests enjoyed the stage show, the buffet that was just exotic enough but not too much so, and the activities. It also fit with their schedule. PCC is closed on Sundays and Germaines and Paradise Cove are a bus ride away. We were able to include the HHV luau in the evening after a morning of snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and still allow for an afternoon nap.

I, too, actually enjoyed the HHV luau. We were seated across the table from a family that spoke no English. Because of that, I’m guessing they were from Japan but who knows? I do know that the two women are sisters, just like my sister and I. We managed to figure that out with a lot of gestures, smiling and nodding. Fortunately, the “I’ll take your picture” finger click is a universal sign language expression. It broke the ice and we had a wonderful time. My guests loved the demonstrations of how to tie a sarong and posing for photos with the wonderfully willing dancers (male and female). I loved spending the time with them and the family across the table and the euphoric sense of “OMG I’M IN HAWAII” exuded by everyone at the many tables. I have never seen so many smiles in one place at one time.

So what is the moral of this story? There are three.
1) Every commercial luau in Hawaii is a re-creation of some sort. It’s ok, everyone knows it. They each have a slightly different focus, though.
2) Every luau is “authentic” in that it is a gathering of people who want to enjoy food, fun and one another.
3) The best luau is the one that fits your schedule and your expectations. And so,

The search for a perfect luau ends in your head.

Cindy Scheopner lives in Hawaii. Find her on Twitter as @scheopner. Photo by Cindy Scheopner.

Doris Duke’s Shangri-La

Shangri La

Why not have a living room outside? If you’re one of the richest people in the world, you can live any way you want. Doris Duke wanted to live in Hawaii so she built this five-acre estate near Diamond Head on Oahu. Not just a vacation hide-away for the wealthy, Shangri La is a labor of love.

Duke had fallen in love with Islamic art and architecture on her honeymoon world tour, commissioning a marble bed and bathroom suite inspired by a visit to the Taj Mahal. Hawaii was the final stop on the tour; a stop that turned into a four-month stay convincing Duke to combine her passions. She had the suite shipped to Hawaii and built the house around it. Beginning in 1936, Duke continued to craft the home over the next 60 years. It opened for tours after her death.

The estate presents a plain white wall to the street; a carved wood door flanked by camels leads inside. Behind the wall are public and private rooms, manicured grounds, a pool, the Playhouse and water garden. It is difficult to describe the beauty without becoming as ornate as its tile work. Photos are available online but they cannot convey the sense of peace and tranquility that abides. Duke loved this place and it returned the favor, sustaining and restoring her to the end.

Tours are operated through the Honolulu Academy of Arts. You MUST arrive on an academy shuttle bus or you will be turned away. Tours are three times a day Wednesday through Saturday (the estate closes each September for conservation work).

Insider tip: keep an eye on the “cultural programs” section of the website for upcoming events. They sell out almost immediately so click quickly if there will be one during your visit.

Cindy Scheopner lives in Hawaii. Find her on Twitter as @scheopner. That’s her photo of the Duke estate, above.

Two Mai Tais, 25 Years Apart

Adult beverage Beach Bar Moana SurfriderTwo drinks, one life.

The first drink launched the first life in 1984. The blurry cell phone photo is the second drink; stirred and sipped 25 years later in 2009. Although it’s never been my favorite entry in the squishy-sweet umbrella beverage category, each Mai Tai celebrated a significant occasion. One heralded the beginning of my Navy career, and one marked my post-Navy life as a writer.

Both reflected a pinky-orange Waikiki sunset viewed from the Moana Surfrider hotel (where a cocktail, then and now, is about the only thing I can afford at such a swank establishment.)

In 1984 I’d flown into Honolulu to report aboard my first Navy ship, homeported in historic Pearl Harbor. My assigned guide from the crew took me directly from the airport to the Surfrider in time to catch one of those spectacular sunsets. I was actually a little crabby because my first-choice ship was homeported in Italy, and I’d had to jettison a whole Alfa-Romeo-on-the-Amalfi-Coast fantasy to be stationed on Oahu with my 1973 Ford Gran Torino.

Twenty-five years later, I’d just finished a jam-packed blogger press trip across the Hawaiian Islands; a group of us were invited by the Hawaii Tourism Authority in an effort to boost Hawaii’s visibility in social media channels. As the “family travel” person, I was there with my 9-year-old son, who at this Mai Tai moment was blessedly occupied jumping around in the surf and out of my hair.

25 years.

A bunch of gray hair and crinkly skin and a 22+ year Navy career enjoyed but finished, and here I was on the same beach drinking the same drink, a lot wiser and YES, dammit, I was pleased to admit….quite happy with my lot in life.

I ordered another one.

Sheila is co-founder of Tourism Currents, which helps make sense of social media for destination marketing for tourism professionals, and she writes for the multi-author Perceptive Travel blog. She hopes it doesn’t take another 25 years to return to Hawaii.

The Obama Family Vacation

The Original Shave Ice

Original Shave Ice by Kila via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Our man in the White House was Hawaii born and raised, so it makes perfect sense that during the winter break, he packs up the family, the fabulous Michelle and his lovely girls, Sasha and Malia, to head to Oahu for a little down time. Now that the holidays are over, seemingly everyone is back at work, including the President of the United States — but the Obama family vacation continues to make news, some absurd, some political, some just kind of amusing.

I love to read coverage of the Obama’s visits to the islands because I’m curious — as a person who’s tries to explore the local angle — about where that oh so attractive family of four (and who knows how many secret service people) choose to spend their time. I’m not so interested in the family’s accommodation of choice, they’ve got a budget I couldn’t hope to replicate, though there is a certain voyeuristic appeal in seeing what gorgeous view property they’ve rented this time. I’m more interested in where the Obamas go to eat, which beaches they choose, what they’re doing when they’re being, as best they can, an American family on vacation in Hawaii.

The Christian Science Monitor tells me Barack Obama got shave ice (no “d”, people) but doesn’t say where. You’ve got to go to the New York Times to learn it’s Island Snow. That same article says the President took his girls to the Honolulu Zoo, via motorcade. (I’d recommend walking, it’s pretty close to your Waikiki hotel.) ABC News says they visited Pyramid Rock Beach — on the grounds of the Marine base, where he also played golf.  CBS News says the family ate at Alan Wong’s and snokeled at Hanauma Bay on the day when it’s closed to the general public, meaning they don’t have to blow by it because the parking lot is full. As a person who likes a little off the beaten path exploration, I find the Obama itinerary a little lackluster, but I suppose there are some limitations when you’re traveling with a party of 24 staffers and a bunch of bodyguards.

According to the The Telegraph the Obama family vacation cost about 1.5 million dollars. As a person who’d budget about 175USD a day for a Hawaii vacation (hotel, rental car, meals, everything… ), reviewing the Obama itineraries is a little unsatisfying. Where are the private snorkel boats? The chefs brought in to prepare seafood caught that day? I’m sure that as mere outsiders, we don’t get to see what’s on the dinner table, we don’t get to know if they’re paying a guy to go to the fish auction at 5am to get the best blue fin for that night’s dinner.

It would be fun to review the Obama vacation and think, “So THAT’s how a local does it!” Instead, adjusting for a flashy budget and security, the Obama’s look a lot like just another family.

Obama Family Stops:

Holoholo Links

Mauna Loa and the snow of Mauna Kea

Mauna Loa and the Snow of Mauna Kea by Kanu101 via Flickr (Creative Commons)

  • If you’ve driven through Kepa’a, you’ve seen the ramshackle shuttered hotel on the mauka (inland) side of the highway. That’s the Coco Palms and here’s what’s going on with that property: Past is present at decaying hotel on the Honolulu Star Advertiser.
  • Snow fell on Mauna Kea recently; on the National Parks of the Pacific Islands blog there are pictures of the unlikely combination of snow and lava.
  • Gooey. Hot. Three kilometers down. Researchers from Ohio have discovered that liquid planet is a lot closer to the surface than previously thought. On Ohio State University Research.
  • Well, that’s one way to celebrate it. “Christmas became an official Hawaiian holiday in 1862. Historical accounts said the occasion was marked by the firing of cannons and flaming tar poured down the sides of Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu to re-create the image of a volcano.” On the Miami Herald.
  • It takes five years, approximately, for the fish to move in. A intentionally sunken ship in Lahaina waters is now a thriving home for sea life. On the Star Advertiser.

When it Rains

Kauai, HI

Storm Clouds at Kauai's Na Pali Coast by jeffgunn via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Since she sits out there in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from the mainland, it’s not that surprising that Hawaii gets blasted by a tropical storms now and then. If you’ve got your heart set on nothing but sunshine for your visit, you might be disappointed when the clouds roll in and it starts to rain. Typically, those tropical rains are transitory, but every now and then you’ll get a run of bad weather. There’s no reason this has to ruin your trip. There’s plenty to do when weather forces you off the beach or out of the rain forest in search of drier pursuits.

Visit a museum: On Oahu, The Bishop Museum has the glorious Hawaiian Hall, plus, there’s a whole hands on selection of science exhibits. The Hawaii State Museum of Art has changing exhibitions of work by Hawaii’s artists — and bonus, the restaurant downstairs is excellent. ‘Iolani Palace, the former seat of the Hawaiian monarchy is a perfect place to learn about the history of Hawaii and to see where Hawaii’s last queen was held prisoner.

See the stars: On the Big Island, the ‘Imiloa astronomy and science center is a fun place to learn the importance of astronomy to the Polynesians that first arrived in the islands by sailing canoe. There’s a sparkly planetarium and plenty of science fun. And it’s not just for kids — we spent a rather diverting afternoon there learning about the sky, electricity, all kind of things.

Peek underwater: Of course, the best way to see Hawaii’s marine life is to strap on a mask and get in the water, but that’s not always practical. Maui Ocean Center is a lovely little aquarium with beautiful tanks full of the island’s marine residents. Waikiki has an aquarium too, it’s one of the oldest in the nation and is home to a few nautiluses, the oddest crustacean you’ll ever want to see.

Go the the mall: Sure, you can shop, but that’s not the point. Often, there’s free entertainment — hula dancers, musicians… all kinds of Hawaiian cultural events take place at the shopping malls throughout the islands. And hey, if you happen to pick up a plate lunch at the food court before trying on some new aloha wear, well, that’s okay too.

Take a lesson: Speaking of getting some culture, you can get involved first hand. Some of the Outrigger hotels offer Hawaiian cultural activities for their guests — games, ukulele lessons, crash courses in Hawaiian language, lei making… check the program where you’re staying or ask the concierge what’s on for the day and join your fellow guests in learning something new.

Do nothing. Ideally with a view. It’s not going to last. So get another cup of coffee — or a cocktail, it’s your holiday! — and watch the sky. Listen to the wind in the coconut palms, the rain on the roof. Take a nap with the windows open. Let your eyes wander out across the horizon of the Pacific. Hawaii wants you to sit still, chill out, take a back seat while Nature drives. Enjoy it.

Fern Grotto? Not so Ferny.

Wailua River

Wailua River by fadedpictures on Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the midst of fern grotto Mother Nature made her home…” — Beautiful Kauai

It takes a little less than an hour to arrive at Fern Grotto via Smith’s fern grotto river cruise. The destination is a place of legend and somewhat kitschy romance. This natural amphitheater was once a popular location for weddings, and the acoustics are still quite impressive, but sadly, the ferns are sorely lacking. While I wasn’t disappointed with the hospitality or charm of the staffers on the boat trip, the grotto itself is… well, it’s a little tired.

I thought of this the other day when I stumbled across a picture postcard sent from Hawaii in the early 70s. The grotto was lush and green, aloha shirted men lined the walkways accompanied by ladies dressed in matching muumuus. The walls were draped with greenery, water dripped from the reddish rock. It was exactly the kind of place Mother Nature might make her home, a cool refuge from the Hawaiian sunshine.

Sadly, the site was afflicted by drought and most of the reviews are accurate, if unhelpful, in their “you should have seen it 20 years ago” assessment of the site. It’s still fun to take the boat and be suckered into the somewhat uninteresting marketing point of this being “Hawaii’s only river” because really, who doesn’t like a leisurely ride on the water?

For the less lazy, one of the many kayak rental places will set you up and you can paddle your own way, taking as long as you like to travel the two mile stretch. But make it about the journey, not the destination.

As for the song Beautiful Kauai,  it was written in 1967 by Randy Farden — surely fern grotto was bursting with plant life in ’67.  Don Ho made the tune famous — his classic lounge version of it is here.

Ban the Bean?

Like your Kona, do you? Yeah, me too, the day doesn’t start around here until the espresso machine makes that noise, you know the one, telling me it’s done and my addiction is ready to go.

Someone else has taken a liking to the bean, it’s the coffee berry borer. This pest has decided that Kona cherries make a lovely nesting place and it’s wreaking all kinds of havoc on Kona’s coffee growers. There’s talk of a quarantine to prevent the spread of the bug, but not all of Kona’s coffee farmers are happy with the new rules.

Of particular concern to many Kona coffee farmers is that they were not sufficiently involved or consulted in regards to the development of the measures being taken to stop the spread of the Coffee Berry Borer in the Kona region and throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

To many small Kona coffee farmers, and in particular organic coffee farmers, the new Interim Quarantine Rules seem to be more concerned with the large coffee plantations on other islands (e.g., Kauai and Molokai) and less concerned about the spread of the Coffee Berry Borer throughout the Kona region. — Kona Coffee Roasting

The Kona Coffee Farmer’s Association has a PDF with pictures of the bean beetle, here. And there’s a KITV story with video here.