Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pineapple With Friends

It was the eighth and final day of our Hawaii vacation. Most people might have kicked back on a beach somewhere. We chose to hop to one last island, Oahu.

In contrast to the tiny plane that had brought us to Maui, this time we were on a standard jet through Island Air. At least, that was the plan. Some equipment trouble and a cancelled flight put us an hour behind schedule on Hawaiian Airlines instead. Yet another reason to prefer the small commuter flights, I think.

But we did make it to Oahu, and our agenda wasn't really packed anyway. First, we were going to see friends. Just a few months earlier, our friends James and Anna had moved to Honolulu with their daughter Julia. Our already-planned vacation thus became their first chance to welcome friends from back home in Colorado. They took us to a great Chinese restaurant they'd found in their time there. We then left James behind to work (the military being notoriously strict about such things... well, all things), while the rest of us enjoyed perhaps the most touristy stop of our whole trip -- the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

In a trip full of things that turned out to be better than expected, and a few that were less than expected, Dole was pretty much exactly what we'd expected. That made it a perfect way to wrap things up. Dressed up as an almost Disneyland for Pineapples, Dole had a massive gift shop, a restaurant serving all things pineapple, and a garden maze. It even had a train tour, aboard the "Pineapple Express." (Nothing like the movie.) It was all a bit cheesy, but in a rather endearing sort of way.

And it was all rather informative too. I'd known in the general sense that pineapples don't actually grow on trees, but this was the first time I'd seen the fruits growing on their odd plants.

I learned the plants produce only two crops before they have to be uprooted and replanted again. And I learned just how much better the pineapple tastes when it's fresh. (The ice cream was really quite good.)

There was a garden on the property, with all sorts of interesting trees and plants. Not pressed for time as we were back in the Garden of Eden, we were able to relax and enjoy walking through them much more. It also helped to have Anna with us, who really enjoyed seeing all the strange trees and flowers up close.

Particular highlights were the bizarre, almost fake-looking gum tree...

... and the coffee cherry tree, where we were able to impart to our friends all of the info about making coffee that we'd learned near the beginning of our trip.

We had enough time to conquer half the maze before the place closed for the evening, and then it was back to Honolulu to pick up James. We got a quick tour of their new home, and a fun discussion of the odd "doodle bird" calls that punctuate Hawaii sunsets and sunrises. (Later, we'd learn this bird is actually known as a Zebra dove.)

We all enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and hugs goodbye. Even with a short "will we find a gas station before the tank is empty" scare, we got to the airport in plenty of time for our overnight flight back to Denver. We'd packed the days enough that sleeping on an airplane, normally quite a challenge for me, was no problem at all.

We'd had a fun-filled adventure.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


A few miles past Hana itself, the "road to Hana" takes you to the second section of Haleakala National Park. We had one park destination in mind; it turned out to be a completely different one that made it worth the trip.

Stopping in at the small information center near the entrance, we learned there were two hikes you could do in the area. A very short one led to the Pools of Ohe'o -- or the Seven Sacred Pools -- a series of small waterfalls gently cascading through a string of ponds. The longer hike, around a four-mile round trip, led to Waimoku Falls. The former was our original plan, but the latter was what we decided to try first, while there were still several hours of sunlight.

The hike to the falls, along the Pipiwai Trail, seemed fairly brutal at first. It wasn't the incline; hiking most any 14'er in Colorado is likely to be more demanding. The heat, however, was rough. In the "summer in winter" Maui climate, I was soon wondering if we'd brought enough water. Not even half a mile in, we came upon an older man who was laying down exhausted on the trail. He assured us and several other passers-by that he didn't need any further help, but he certainly had me hoping this hike would prove worth it.

Soon, the scenery began to put my mind at ease on that front.

About halfway to the falls, the hike became much easier and even more scenic. We'd arrived at a thick bamboo forest.

The temperature dropped 10 degrees almost immediately as the hot sun overhead was blocked out.

The rest of the hike was as pleasant as it was beautiful. And when we reached the 400+ foot Waimoku Falls, it was every bit the amazing spectacle we hadn't gotten earlier in the day.

Of course, we had to pay homage to one of our favorite photos from vacations past:

I fear the photos don't do the falls justice, but perhaps this anecdote might. Just as we were leaving, a pair of young women came around the corner and laid eyes on the falls for the first time. They were Australians, we discovered, as one exclaimed, "Crikey!" As soon as we were out of earshot, Jacob laughed that this was the first time he'd ever heard anyone actually say that in real life. (The Crocodile Hunter's television appearances don't count.)

After such a beautiful hike, it was probably inevitable that the Pools of Ohe'o would be a bit disappointing. Though they're certainly situated in a tropical paradise of a valley...

...there's really not much to see, comparatively. You couldn't walk very far along the path of the stream. And while you could get in and swim (which we did), it was quite cold, and the water was too murky for you to see much.

With about an hour left before sunset, we started back along the road to Hana, the way we'd come. (We'd heard conflicting stories about whether 4-wheel drive was necessary to continue onward to the south, and decided not to chance it.) With darkness already descending, we just made it back to Wai'anapanapa State Park at mile marker 32, just on the nearer side of Hana. We'd wanted to stop there for another black sand beach we'd heard was there, but had missed the turn that morning. Fortunately, we'd seen Punalu'u on the Big Island, because any sand would have looked black by this point. It was a good place to stop for a vending machine Coke, though, to keep us alert for what remained ahead.

What remained, unfortunately, was another hour-and-a-half of "road to Hana" still to cover on the journey back -- and it was decidedly less fun in the dark than the morning drive had been. We did eventually get passed by a rabbit of a driver whose taillights we were then able to follow along the winding road back.

Once we were finally back in the city, dinner was well earned after all the hiking and driving.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Strange Rocks and Sand

Our first few stops along the road to Hana hadn't been our favorites, but things started looking up around mile marker 31, when we came to the Hana Lava Tube.

An interesting thing about the road to Hana is that most of the things along the way aren't actually "official." They're scenic spots on private property, made public by the owners. Much to my surprise, the Hana Lava Tube was such a place -- basically, a man with several acres of land which just happened to include part of a subterranean lava cave. He'd built steps and hand rails inside the cave, personally turning his unusual backyard into a full-fledged tourist attraction.

Back on the Big Island, we'd walked through a short lava tube at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Things I'd read online about the Hana Lava Tube led me to expect a bit more here. Still, I was unprepared for just how massive this place was. After a short flight of stairs, no more than 20 feet underground, a long tunnel began. Within a minute or two, the path had curved enough that the high-powered flashlights we'd been given were a necessity. Without them, the tube was absolutely pitch black; you couldn't even see your own fingers wiggling in front of your face.

Though the cave was dark, it was also spacious. The ceilings were high and the path was wide. And long. It kept going and going and going, through all sorts of interesting features, from gutters and bubbles permanently etched in the floor... odd, stumpy stalactites that looked like melting chocolate... a single opening to the surface, far back in the cave.

And by skipping a few earlier stops on the road to Hana, we'd arrived just when the Lava Tube opened for the day. We were the first people there, and had the place all to ourselves until we started back to the entrance. It was everything we could have hoped for, and far more impressive than what we'd seen in the actual National Park days earlier.

Back in the car, we continued on down the road, actually arriving in Hana for the next stop on our list, the Kaihalulu Red Sand Beach. Back on the Big Island, we'd seen the unusual Black Sand Beach, and now we were looking to continue our "collection." But the Red Sand Beach would be a bit more unusual for a few reasons.

For one thing, though it (like all Hawaii beaches) was public property, it wasn't really easy to access. It was in a hidden cove, with a short but slightly challenging hike to get there. (By that, I mean if you go, don't wear flip-flops. Thankfully, we didn't.) Only the unofficial guides will direct travelers to the beach, as getting to the trail requires a quick trek across private property. (Not that anyone seemed to mind.)

Even the hike itself just getting to the beach was well worth the time.

As for the beach itself, it was as beautiful as promised. But I have only two pictures of the place, taken from the trail above as we descended into the secluded area.

The reason I don't have more pictures is because of the other quirk of this beach: it's clothing optional. The majority of the people there weren't availing themselves of this, but there were at least three men and one woman who went nude. It sparked a funny conversation between us about how many people would have to be naked before we'd do it ourselves, but nothing beyond the talk.

We spent more than an hour at the beach, soaking up sun, swimming in the water, and climbing a bit on the rocks protecting the little cove from the ocean. We considered swimming beyond those rocks, but the current that picked up as soon as we came near the opening quickly convinced us to go back. One of the naked guys was undeterred by the current, swimming out into the open sea as we watched... and vanishing. Seriously, he hadn't come back by the time we left around 15 minutes later, and we saw no sign of him on our hike out. I hope you made it back okay, Anonymous Naked Guy.

But the "road to Hana" didn't actually end in Hana for us. Not quite. A few miles beyond the town was a second entrance to Haleakala National Park (the same park where we'd watched the sunrise). Entirely different sights were to be seen in this part of the park, and we still needed to check them off our list.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Beginning of the Road

When we spoke of going to Maui with anyone who had actually been there, it seemed the first question they asked was always, "are you going to do the road to Hana?" It's an attraction rated highly on every "things to do in Maui" article you can find on the internet, and apparently one that lived up to the hype.

For those not in the know, the road to Hana is a narrow road that weaves through the mountains along the northeast edge of the island. Peppered with single-lane stone bridges, it takes a good two hours and then some just to drive the 30-or-so miles to the small town of Hana -- and that's if you don't stop.

But the entire point is that you stop. All sorts of things can be found along the road to Hana, everything from roadside stands selling fresh fruit to tranquil waterfalls and beaches to short hikes leading to hidden jewels of nature. In short, the road to Hana is an all-day activity, and we allotted a whole day for it. We were at the town of Paia, a few miles before the official beginning of the road, right around sun-up. We were armed with a list of places said to be worth a stop, and roughly ten hours' worth of daylight to do as many of them as we wanted.

Our early choices weren't the best. Around mile marker 2, we stopped to see a place called Twin Falls. It looked beautiful in the online photos, and the short one-mile round trip hike to get there seemed like a nice, easy start to the day. Perhaps we'd become jaded about gorgeous island settings over the past week. In any case, Twin Falls wasn't nearly as majestic a spot as we'd imagined.

On our hike to get there, though, we spotted a rundown looking van/bus sort of thing on the other side of a thick copse of trees. We dubbed it "Twisty's Bus" (in honor of the current "Freak Show" season of American Horror Story). So that was sort of fun.

We continued down the road to mile marker 10, where we found the Garden of Eden, a botanical gardens and arboretum. We pulled in and walked around for maybe half an hour. We saw a number of beautiful and unusual plants and trees...

...including several brought in from other parts of the world.

The place really was gorgeous, but the two of us quickly found we weren't enjoying it. There were many miles of road ahead, and many more stops that were on our "must see list." We hadn't even explored one quarter of the arboretum, but it already felt like the clock was against us -- every minute we stayed there was a minute we weren't going to get somewhere else. So we decided to get back in the car and keep moving. If there were roses anywhere in this arboretum, we were literally not going to stop to smell them.

That said, the whole time we were walking the garden, I couldn't help but think of my grandmother, and how much she would have loved seeing this place. Maybe she did at some point. (Perhaps I can ask my mom about that.) And I could imagine plenty of people like my grandmother who would happily spend an entire day just at this one place on the road to Hana.

So my advice to would-be Maui tourists: if the Garden of Eden looks and sounds appealing to you... should go ahead and spend a day there. It's early enough along the road to Hana that you could go there, see the arboretum, and then go back on another day to continue farther down the road.

Our next stop was at the "Halfway to Hana" road stand, where we picked up some freshly made banana bread to snack on. We'd decided to skip one or two spots before that just to get ourselves feeling like we were back "ahead of schedule." Maybe we were rushing a bit through what was supposed to be a laid back experience, but the bulk of what we most wanted to see was the farthest stuff down the road.

Fortunately, we did start to relax more and enjoy the drive as we finally started coming to those things...

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Suck It, North Korea

Last night, I saw the movie that the GOP (the so-called "Guardians of Peace," not the Republican Party) doesn't want you to see, The Interview. My motivation wasn't out of any jingoistic support of free speech or patriotism, but I won't lie: the fact that it has become controversial probably did make me want to see it more. That said, I tried not to raise my expectations above where they were when I first heard of the film in a "more innocent time" (a few months ago). If it was about as funny as Pineapple Express (likely, the humor would be as stupid), that would be good enough for me.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it surpassed those modest expectations. Though not as subversive or smartly satirical as the other movie it has now been lumped in with, Team America: World Police, The Interview does serve up plenty of laughs. Some of them, particularly a late-film honoring of the comedic "rule of three," are quite hysterical. There are several amusing cameos, many inherently funny scene set-ups, and the best use of an animal for laughs in quite sometime. (Not the animal near the middle of the movie; wait until the third act.)

But really, it's not the writing that gets the biggest laughs in The Interview. It's the performances that put it over the top. For that not insignificant number of people who hate on James Franco and Seth Rogen, that's going to be a hard sell. (But seriously, they weren't going to see the movie anyway.) Franco is perfect as blowhard talk show host Dave Skylark (intentionally named after his real-life brother?). To whatever degree this movie is actually attempting social commentary, it's in how stone dumb Skylark is, and by implication, muck-raking TV "journalists" of his ilk. The movie pokes just as much fun at this character as Kim Jong-un, and Franco makes it consistently funny. Meanwhile, Rogen gets more of the physical comedy (thankfully none of which hinges on his weight), and gets his share of the laughs too.

Timothy Simons has a small supporting role, bringing the brand of obnoxious he excels at on the HBO series Veep. Lizzy Caplan, now a star of Showtime's Masters of Sex, has to play it straight as a CIA agent, but seems to be having fun doing it. Randall Park ends up with the unenviable task of playing Kim Jong-un, delivering a sufficiently ridiculous caricature to carry the movie across the finish line in its final act.

The movie is so silly and comes across innocuously that it's easy to see how it got greenlighted, filmed, and scheduled all before anyone realized it might be a potential target for North Korean rage. To have anticipated a reaction like this, you would have had to anticipate, say, anger from the religious right over This Is the End. (Though perhaps it's odd that there wasn't?) The Interview simply isn't anything that different from what Franco and Rogen have been making for years and years.

But I did find it pretty funny. I give it a B+.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Snorkeling, Take Two (and Three)

There was still plenty of day ahead of us after our morning whale watching tour, and plenty to see. It started right there in the park near the Lahaina harbor, where the Lahaina Banyan Tree grows. And grows. And grows.

Planted in 1873, the banyan has become the largest in Hawaii (and one of the largest in the U.S.). It was decorated in Christmas lights, and beneath its canopy, a local art show was underway. We scouted for a painting for our walls back home, but didn't find the perfect thing.

On the whale watching return trip, the boat captain had pointed out a spot "near mile marker 14" that he said had great snorkeling. We decided to check that out next. Our first timid snorkeling excursion on the Big Island had left us confident that this time we could swim out farther and see more, and that's what we tried to do.

I'm not the best at judging distances, and probably worse still in the water. I'm going to guess we were pushing a half a mile out. (Maybe just a third?) We were far enough from shore that a few gathered fishing boats were near enough to be worth keeping half an eye on. We'd seen a few interesting fish, but generally had seen little more than the ocean floor.

...and that alone had become less compelling than it had been at the start. We decided to give it a few more minutes, and then turn back. No sooner had we made that declaration than the good stuff started to happen.

First, we spotted an eel slithering into a small cave below.

Soon after, we found of pair of turtles, trying their best to be inconspicuous -- one so successfully that this was the only one I actually spotted myself:

When we did decide to start back for the shore, we continued to see more interesting sights we'd missed on the way out, like this huge, swirling school of black and silver fish:

This snorkeling excursion had been as exciting as the last one was underwhelming. The only bad moment was when I stepped on fallen thorny branch on the walk back to the car. (Score one for "dive boots and strap-on fins" over "closed heel fins.") We drank to our success by heading up to the Maui Brewing Company for an hour or two. Their brews weren't nearly as good as those we'd enjoyed in Kona, but a handful of tasty guest taps allowed us to try other new things we can't get easily back home.

In fact, we'd enjoyed the snorkeling so much that we decided to try it again when we returned to our hotel. The water behind our hotel wasn't as clear, but the results were almost as good. We went over to a rocky area nearby and quickly found another turtle, larger than the morning pair. Less skittish, too. He came out of his alcove to surface for air, almost chasing us back by swimming toward us. (Sadly, no picture of this guy. The GoPro was out of juice.)

We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, getting a few tips from our server about things to add to our plan for the next day -- the road to Hana.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Whale of a Time

Diving with mantas wasn't the only scuba excursion we had planned in Hawaii. We'd heard fantastic things about Molokini Crater, just off the coast of Maui, and we'd spent a fair amount of time online before our trip trying to track down someone to take us there.

You wouldn't think it would be that hard to find a boat to take you to the top spot in Maui, but it depends on how particular you're being. We knew we needed to go on Sunday -- all the other mornings we had on Maui were filled with other plans. It turns out that Sunday is the day all the local dive operations have chosen to cater to more advanced divers. Every place we found going to Molokini was visiting the "back wall." That would mean diving near a vertigo-inducing sheer drop, something Jacob wasn't looking to revisit just yet after a past Cayman Island experience (and which I don't know that I was ready for either). It also would have meant doing a drift dive in a high current area, something I wasn't yet ready to face again. Drilling down into the smaller outfits, we'd found a boat willing to do Molokini, on Sunday, on our terms -- we were just asked to call and confirm with them when we arrived on Maui.

On the lazy day of our arrival, we did just that... only for the negotiating to begin. Nobody but us had signed up for the Sunday boat. Would we consider going Saturday instead? No, we couldn't do that; the sunrise bike ride was scheduled for that day. Oh... well, they would make it work or get back to us.

Saturday after the bike ride, they decided they couldn't. They told us they weren't willing to take just the two of us out, but that they would check around town and find us another dive shop we could join up with. After that call, we decided we didn't want to go anyway. Jacob had eaten some bad sushi at some point along the trip (just one of the many reasons raw fish doesn't appeal to me), and wasn't necessarily feeling up to a dive -- at least, certainly not when we'd just been handed a way to back out without still having to pay for it. So, no more Molokini. The afternoon after our bike ride, we set about finding a replacement activity.

With a few ideas in mind from our pre-trip research, we quickly settled on booking a whale watching tour. There are plenty of places in Maui that will do this too, but we opted for Ultimate Whale Watch, operating a small boat for no more than 18 passengers. A chance to get up close and personal, we hoped.

We set out from the harbor in Lahaina. Ours was their second whale watching trip of the day, and the first had successfully found a humpback whale a little over an hour ago. Since it was early December -- still early in humpback season for Hawaii -- our best chance would be to return to where that last humpback had been found. But hanging out in the area for about 20 minutes turned up nothing. Still, whales had a money-back guarantee on this trip, and the captain had another place to search.

We were on our way there when one of the passengers called out that he'd seen a spout just off to port. Our captain throttled back and settled into the area, reminding everyone that since a whale typically holds its breath for 15-20 minutes between dives (and can do so for as much as three times that), we might need to wait a bit for confirmation.

We waited about a minute and a half. We'd found a newborn humpback whale calf, less than a week old. Chances are, it hadn't even been born yet when we'd left Denver.

Of course, this newborn wasn't out here in the ocean on its own. Within a few minutes, the mother made its presence known.

As you can see, the mother was getting fairly close to us, as she tried to position herself protectively between us and her newborn. In short order, we found there was another whale in the area, a male trying to get in with Mom.

But no matter what either of them did to look out for Junior, the kid had other ideas. We were probably his first close encounter with a boat, after all, and he was super curious. After about 10-15 minutes of trying to wrangle the kid, Mom finally gave up, having apparently decided we were no threat. She decided to let him do what he wanted. What he wanted was to take a closer look. A really close look.

He swam right under the stern of the boat, to the startled gasps of all aboard. Even the captain was surprised, and not quite sure what to do. On the one hand, he's supposed to stay 100 yards away from whales by law. On the other, this was hardly his fault. On the one hand, this was a two-hour cruise, with plenty of time to find other whales. On the other, we'd really just found this group, and were we likely to get a better show anywhere else? The captain decided to stay in the area, hoping that the male would come up for air before a big dive, show us his tail, and then allow us to leave having seen pretty much everything.

The male never did show us his tail. But Junior did, again and again. He was so young, his fins had not yet completely uncurled from being in his mother's womb. He was still learning, splashing around with his sort of half-tail, trying to emulate the adults. And he kept checking us out for the next half hour. Consequently, we got up close and personal with both Mom and the male at various points too.

If we'd stopped to ponder it for a moment, it might have been a bit unnerving being this close to these massive creatures in such a small boat. Even the newborn was as long as our vessel was wide. But it was just too cool!

When the captain asked if anyone on the boat had an underwater camera, we suddenly cursed having left the GoPro back in the car. It had never occurred to us we'd be this close. Still, it was hard to feel like we were missing out on much with our front-row seats. The co-captain of the boat, a cheery woman who actually spends her life moving between Alaska and Hawaii (moving with the whales), said this experience would probably ruin whale watching for all of us. (Maybe she was angling for a tip, but I'd say she and the captain had already earned it.)

After about 45 minutes watching this trio, our captain took pity on a no-doubt frazzled Mom, and left the whales to themselves. From there, it was a short and scenic ride back up the coast to the dock. Sure, we'd missed out on Molokini Crater. But it seemed safe to say that we'd substituted one great experience for another.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It's All Downhill From Here

After a beautiful Maui sunrise, it was time for our 27-mile bike ride. That may sound like a long trip (to some of you, anyway), but all but perhaps a quarter of a mile was downhill. All you really had to do was hang on and gently pump the brakes. And stay balanced, of course.

That last part could have wound up being a bit tricky. The truth is, I hadn't been on a (non-stationary) bicycle in more than 20 years, since back in early high school when I had a paper route. (I don't even think kids can do that anymore unless they're old enough to drive.) Of course, the example that's always used for something you never forget how to do is, "it's just like riding a bicycle." I was going to put that to test.

We suited up in all the gear from the shop, and we were ready to hit the road.

It turns out that riding a bike really is "like riding a bike," but things were just a little bit uncertain at first. Racing downhill, it didn't take much for me to feel out of control, but fortunately I never wiped out.

It's not like we were really in a hurry anyway. This is one of the reasons we'd chosen this particular bike shop from the dozens on Maui offering a sunrise tour -- this tour was self-guided. During the drive up the mountain, the driver (who, by the way, was shocked to hear I've lived most of my life in Colorado without ever going skiing) pointed out the three turns we'd need to make, and a number of places we might want to stop. But we were free to do whatever we wanted, taking up to eight hours to get the bikes back, if we chose. So we took our time.

Our first stop was at a lavender farm near the top of the mountain. The soothing smell was in the air, most intense of all in the tiny shop where we stopped for a hot drink, a few souvenirs, and a look at one of the gadgets used to distill the flowers' essence.

Right next door to the lavender farm was a place offering a zipline tour through the area. This was not the first time we'd considered ziplining, but the TV show South Park has seriously soured the prospect for us. In a particularly memorable episode from a couple years ago, Trey Parker and Matt Stone used their podium to declare how numbingly lame ziplining is, and painted such a compelling picture that we've been reluctant to try it ever since. That doubt, coupled with the quite high price tag, kept us from trying it on this occasion.

(In the last few weeks, a few people have told me that the quality/fun of ziplining depends greatly on where you do it. So perhaps some day we'll give it a try. But this chance slipped by.)

We hopped back on the bikes and continued downhill until we reached the small town of Makawao. On the drive up, our guide had told us of a number of good places to eat in the town. We didn't quite feel like sitting down somewhere, but we did try the donuts at the T Komoda Store and Bakery. Every bit as delicious as promised. I always thought that those people who waited three hours in line for the opening of a new Krispy Kreme donut store were pretty stupid; that feeling was only underscored by these amazing treats.

As we were standing in the bakery's short line, we suddenly heard the crash of cymbals as a local school's marching band started down the main street through town. We stepped outside to find a small Christmas parade, complete with an usual Santa.

Convertible Santa really tells you everything about Christmas in Hawaii. They seem to love Christmas there. All throughout our vacation, we saw decorations everywhere -- far more I think than back home in Denver. But the visual of it never stopped feeling unusual: blinking lights in 70 degree weather, parking lot stands selling trees you know had been shipped in from thousands of miles away, and Santa in the back of a convertible.

(As a side note: everybody in Hawaii can spot a tourist. Many of them will ask you where you're from. Whenever we'd answer "Denver," the response would inevitably be, "Do you have snow?" At first, I thought this was just locals being as uninformed about Denver as we were about Hawaii before our trip began. Hell, there are plenty of people back here on the mainland that think of Denver as some snow-covered hamlet resting on the edge of a mile-high mountain cliff. But as our vacation carried on, I came to suspect that all these Hawaiian locals were asking "do you have snow?" out of some quiet wish to actually see some in person. As they say, "the grass is always greener...")

After the parade wound down, we spent a while walking up and down the street, checking in shops for souvenirs. An hour or so later, we were back on the bikes to finish the last leg of our ride. We were the last people from our van to return our bikes to the shop in Paia, though the woman at the shop said that in this case, it made us the "winners" -- the people who had stopped to enjoy the most on the ride down.

We kept on taking it slow for the rest of the day. We had lunch in the area, stopped and bought ourselves some authentic Hawaiian shirts from a local shop, and stopped to watch the waves at a nearby beach.

We allowed ourselves a short nap to make up for the day's early start, before dinner at an Italian restaurant called Fabiani's. I mention the meal because I was able to get ravioli in an amazing crema rosa vodka sauce -- the same kind of sauce that used to be served at a formerly loved lunch spot near my work. It was good.

After dinner, we were again early to bed, in anticipation of another fun morning.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Good Morning, Maui

Our first morning waking up on Maui was our earliest morning of the entire trip -- we were up before 2:45am. The reason for this insane wake-up call? Apparently, sunrises are becoming "our thing." Two years ago, we'd been able to be inside Stonehenge for the 2012 summer solstice. It's not that we were looking to top that experience (I'm not sure you could), but we'd heard about another cool sunrise opportunity.

Mount Haleakala is the tallest point on Maui. (In fact, the massive shield volcano is actually about three-quarters of the island's land mass.) A number of bike shops on the island arrange tours that let you bicycle down the mountain, traveling from 10,000 feet above sea level basically to the shore line in a matter of hours. We'd picked one tour that put you atop the mountain to watch the sunrise from within Haleakala National Park.

After days in a tropical paradise, the biting wind on top of the mountain was a chilly reminder of what we'd left behind in Denver.

We stood in the cold and shivered for about an hour. But as the light came up minute by minute, it quickly became clear that it was going to be worth it. There was a lot more to the see than the rising sun. For one thing, there was the spectacular view of the crater right there in front of us, low clouds slowly rolling into the valley.

The tour guide who'd driven us up there told us that there were all kinds of hiking trails you could take throughout this amazing landscape -- probably well worth doing, had we not been there for something else.

As the dawn glow increased, a park ranger stepped up to address the crowd with an unusual presentation. She pointed out the full moon setting behind us, in what she unfittingly referred to as "double jeopardy."

And when the sun finally poked above the clouds on the eastern horizon, she launched into a full-throated Hawaiian chant to welcome the new day. Call me a bad person, but I quietly had to stifle a chuckle -- between the odd "double jeopardy" comment and the fact that The Lion King has pretty well ruined for my Hollywood-saturated brain any sort of sunrise chant, my giggle pump had been primed. Still, the urge to laugh quickly subsided as we took in a truly spectacular sunrise.

A few minutes later, we hopped back in the tour van to be driven back to the park entrance, the point from which our downhill ride would begin.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Needle Point

We could have easily spent more time on the Big Island during our Hawaii vacation. Our three days there were enough to hit the highlights we'd planned for, but we'd left the north and east sides unexplored. But ready or not, it was time to move on to Maui.

We took a small commuter plane with room for only 10 passengers. Assuming you don't have anxiety about air travel, I'd say this is definitely the better way to island hop. We were basically able to walk right up to the runway and board, without any of the hassle of the TSA's feckless "security theater." And illogical as it may sound, even the view seems more impressive out of the windows of the tinier plane.

50 minutes later, we were in Maui... but with several hours before we could check into our hotel. So we stopped for lunch, then headed to the nearby Iao Valley State Park. I'd seen some photos online, and the place looked like the sort of serene island paradise you expect to find in Hawaii. Indeed, there were some picturesque spots.

There were also some unusual and beautiful flowers.

But at the same time, because this place was located only 15 minutes outside of Kahului (where we'd landed), the park didn't quite feel like it offered the "seclusion" to go with the "serene."

One particular feature in the park, the "Iao Needle," was something I'd read about before we left Denver. I was expecting a short hike to get there, something that might fill up the afternoon. Instead, less than 200 steps up a few staggered flights of stairs, we came to the end of the line. The view from the observation point was as impressive as promised...

...but it hadn't taken any real time to get there. The drive up to the park and the walk had filled maybe 45 minutes of our afternoon. So on we went to our hotel, hoping we'd be able to check in early. No such luck. But we were able to lounge around on the beach behind our hotel while we were waiting for our room to be ready. After a few busy days full of activity, a lazy afternoon reading on the beach was a welcome change of pace. And the view was stunning.

Once we did get settled in our room, we decided not to do much more with our evening. Someone had told us to check out a place called Coconut's Fish Tacos, so that was our dinner. Not bad, and surprisingly filling for what didn't seem like a ton of food up front.

I think we might have taken a short dip in the hotel pool after dinner. What I know for sure is that we called it an early night, because we had a very early morning ahead of us the next day.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Battle Unending

The Hobbit trilogy has come to a close with the last and least of the three films, The Battle of the Five Armies. I say "least" in terms of entertainment value; it's certainly not least in terms of the sheer volume of visual spectacle presented on the movie screen.

The first two Hobbit movies were uneven in comparison to the emotionally powerful Lord of the Rings trilogy from a decade before, but each of them still had a handful of strong character scenes that presented the important personal stakes amid the sweeping setting of Middle-earth. The Battle of the Five Armies feels like the Transformers of the six Tolkien-adapted films. If you like loud, mindless action (and the box office says that plenty of you do), it's a feast for the eyes and ears. But there's very little there for the mind or heart, and that's a disappointing place to end a series of movies that started out with Oscar nominations (and a Best Picture win, for The Return of the King).

It all starts out with a rather awkward 10-minute opening that should have just been the final 10 minutes of the last film. Peter Jackson's desire to end The Desolation of Smaug on a cliffhanger may have been the most expedient way to let audience members (unfamiliar with decades-old spoilers) know there was still more story to come, but it critically compromised the narrative flow. Because this new film starts immediately with action -- Smaug attacking Laketown -- there's no time to reestablish who these characters are. Consequently, everyone comes of generic. Smaug is an angry villain for vague reasons. The mayor of Laketown deserves to be punished, though it's hard to recall exactly why that is. Bard is a generically heroic archer, the new Legolas (who even looks a bit like him), whose backstory about family failure from movie two isn't even mentioned again here.

The next 30 minutes or so contain some of the only quiet scenes of the entire film (though even these are cut with the whiz-bang rescue of Gandalf). The problem with this material, to couch it in legal terms, is that it relies on "facts not in evidence." Dwarven leader Thorin suddenly gives into a vaguely magical greed that seems to affect no one else. Bilbo (and one or two other Dwarves whose names we can't remember) prevail on friendship to try to talk sense into Thorin, but any demonstration of those friendships are one or two movies (and years) ago. The unfortunate result is that a lot of characters seem to behave inexplicably poorly, just to facilitate the titular battle.

That battle does soon arrive -- and it's bigger and bolder than Helm's Deep (from The Two Towers) and Pelennor (from The Return of the King) put together and doubled. It goes on for an hour, and it's full of Hollywood-style set pieces. Taken individually, any one of the gimmicky situations within the battle might be rather fun. But played out in a relentless chain, they start to get silly. The strained credibility snaps entirely when you're asked to believe that a handful of people could turn the tide of a battle this big. From there, you'll laugh openly at Legolas' acrobatics, roll your eyes at hand-to-hand fights that feel drawn from the sillier James Bond movies, and throw your hands up at the deus ex machina that resolves it all. (Even if you know that that last part, at least, is exactly how Tolkien wrote it.)

The volume (audio and visual) is so maxed out for so long that you simply become numb to it, then you start checking your watch regularly as this shortest of the three Hobbit films suddenly starts feeling like the longest. But now having fairly well trashed the movie, the fair thing to do would be to point out that it's really no worse than any other loud, dumb Hollywood action flick. In that company, in fact, it's probably better. The visual effects look generally better in this final chapter than in the preceding two. The geography of all the battles -- both army v. army and one-on-one -- is almost always clear, rarely getting visually confused as so many "handheld camera" action sequences in other films do.

And through it all, you have some solid actors doing the heavy lifting to inject more into the film than is on the page. Martin Freeman is a freaking rock star at it, but solid work is also done by Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, and Luke Evans. They are the edge this movie has over common action fare. Vin Diesel or The Rock are never going to draw you in and make you care the way the cast of The Hobbit does.

Ultimately, if you've come this far with The Hobbit films, you might as well finish the trilogy. But I would seriously suggest The Battle of the Five Armies as one to skip in theaters and catch months later at home. I grade it a C.

Friday, December 19, 2014

...Ye Who Enter Here / What They Become

Before I move on to tales from Maui, I'm going to pause in my vacation tales to catch up on something I missed back home while we were gone -- the last two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before its mid-season break.

First up was "...Ye Who Enter Here." Although I know this opinion won't be shared among most fans (especially the Marvel Comics readers), I actually thought this episode was the stronger of the two. It was full of strong moments both for characters and the actors playing them.

Bringing back Agent 33 now permanently stuck with the half-torn-off face of May was a very inspired decision by the writers. I like that they weren't trying to continue the "which May is which" gag from 33's previous appearance, but rather taking advantage of the chance to use another main cast member as a recurring villain on the show. It has worked wonders for actor Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, and it seems like it will lead to good scenes for Ming-Na Wen as well.

The rescue of Raina from Hydra forces was fun for several reasons, none more so than seeing twin Keonigs out in the field. Patton Oswalt seems to be having a ball with these multiple roles, and the writers are also having a ball writing them. The Keonigs' banter with each other (and to other characters at each others' expense) is wonderful. So is the way they play with the other characters (and the audience) -- are they brothers? Robots? Because the stakes aren't as high as last season's "how is Coulson still alive?" mystery, I can enjoy not knowing and being toyed with.

I liked the subplot involving Fitz and Simmons even more, and how Morse and Mack were drawn into their relationship issues. Any other show would play a "love rhombus" here, but instead, this show is using Mack as a confidant for Fitz and Morse as a confidant for Simmons. I also think other shows would feel strained in their machinations to keep two characters romantically separated; here, Fitz and Simmons efforts to avoid each other feel as authentic as they are heartbreaking. (And it's not like Mack and Morse are pure accessories here in FitzSimmons' story here. Their cryptic dialogue about "the other thing" they have going on should prove interesting down the road.)

In all, this episode built up a lot of momentum toward the mid-season finale. I thought it merited an A-, and I couldn't wait to see what happened next. Indeed I did not, leaving me to now cover two episodes in one review.

"What They Become" was still a good episode, but suffered a little bit for trying to cram so much more story into the same amount of space. The nicer character moments of the previous hour got crowded out a bit.

Even more, I thought the episode suffered a bit for moving the ongoing story a bit too fast. This is an odd complaint to voice, since the glacial pace of early season one was one of the series' biggest problems, one well-corrected since. But I was just starting to get into Whitehall as a villain, only to now have him unceremoniously killed. Sure, we still have other villains in play, but Whitehall's behavior and motivations just seemed to be coming into focus. I'm left to hope that perhaps he'll show up in the Agent Carter series.

Of course, the big story advancement was Skye's transformation at the end of it, and her true identity as "Daisy." This meant nothing to me; I'd later find out online that fans were excited that this was all Inhumans material. And while I do like the idea that the TV series will now be introducing information to be covered in later Marvel movies (rather than being forced to follow after them), I feel like purely human Skye hadn't yet been played out. Season 2's new badass-trained-by-May was a compelling leap over season 1's Skye. It was a stand up and cheer moment when Skye simply shot Ward (multiple times) the moment she got free, rather than allow herself to be played by him. But was this stage of her Jedi training truly complete enough that it was time to move on to giving her superpowers? I suppose the back half of the season will show us, but as of right now, I'm a bit skeptical.

Kyle McLachlan was certainly fun in this episode. Now we know his character is based on a comic character too -- one that to my uninformed mind seems like a retread of the Hulk. But McLachlan seems to be giving a very different performance that keeps that sense of similarity at bay. It certainly isn't boring, and I can console myself about the too-soon loss of Whitehall to know that we still have his character as a villain on the show. (Along with May-faced 33, now teamed up with Ward -- who has been waaaaay better as a villain than he ever was as one of the good guys.)

I'd give "What They Become" a B+. It didn't have as many good character moments (except for Skye) as the previous episode, though it certainly appeared to be a springboard to all-new storylines when the show returns in March.

Until then, we'll see how Agent Carter is.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Unscheduled Stop / Hawaii By Night

We had spent the entire afternoon at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but we weren't quite done with it. Having missed out on seeing lava up close, we were not going to miss the next best thing: returning to the Kilauea Crater after sunset. By night, the glow from deep inside the crater was said to be visible from the observation point we'd visited earlier. But we had a couple of hours to wait before the sun would go down.

We found out about a short hike that seemed like it would be good to pass the time, on a trail through an area called Kipuka Puaulu. It was back out past the Visitor Center, on the other side of the main road. It was also one more street beyond the one we accidentally turned on. We realized the mistake fairly quickly, but by then we'd noticed a sign on the side of the road promising a winery up ahead. Here, in kind of the middle of nowhere? We were fairly curious.

Sure enough, one mile down the road, we arrived at Volcano Winery.

As Hawaii is south of even Florida back on the mainland, this place touted itself as the southernmost winery in the U.S. It seemed to have two unofficial mascots hanging around in the parking lot. The Big Island has a number of feral cats roaming around. (There were several near our bed and breakfast, in fact, which one of the home owners -- a veterinarian -- was tending to. We were expressly warned not to attempt to pet them.) One such cat was patrolling the winery, while the other was lounging in one of the parking spaces, glaring at us with lazy disdain for even thinking about parking there.

Once we did get inside the winery, we enjoyed a flight of eight different wines, most of which we liked enough to arrange for a few bottles to be sent to us back home. They'll make for nice future memories of this great and unexpected stop in the middle of a wonderful vacation.

There seemed to be enough sunlight after our wine that we still decided to look for the Kipuka Puaulu trail head afterward. Yet even though it only took us perhaps 5 minutes to get there, things weren't looking quite so inviting by then. Still, it seemed like we had about another half hour before sunset -- and flashlights to take with us if we'd judged the length of the trail wrong.

It turned out we were right about it being maybe a 30 minute hike. We were wrong about how much sunlight was left. In a matter of 10 minutes, the flashlights were definitely appreciated. In 10 more, they were necessary. We couldn't clearly see any of the sights that the trail pamphlet and signs were pointing out, but the gist was that transported vegetation from off the island is very damaging to the things that grow locally, and that a substantial conservation effort has now begun to reverse that damage.

Whatever the vegetation, we were hiking along a trail through it in what felt basically like the dead of night. We had the place completely to ourselves, which I suppose was a tiny bit spooky. But on a rather tourist filled day on a very tourist filled island, having a place entirely to ourselves was also pretty neat.

Needless to say, we did make it back to our car safe and sound, and having now killed enough time to return to the Kilauea Crater. It was very much worth our wait.

The inside of the volcano seethed steam and glowed orange, a completely different spectacle than we'd seen by day. It was not quite lava up close and personal, but it may well have been just as hypnotic.

This long day in the national park hadn't really afforded us an opportunity for meals. While we'd brought plenty of snacks bought at the grocery, we were really wanting something more substantial, especially with a two hour drive back to the bed and breakfast still ahead of us. But the trouble is, on the Big Island, many things start closing very soon after sunset. Our one real option was the "Shaka Restaurant," a place billing itself as the "southernmost bar in the U.S." (Southernness is apparently a big thing for this slice of Hawaii.) The food was not the best, but it beat another granola bar and round of jerky to cap the day.

The end of that long day also basically brought an end to the first leg of our trip, on the Big Island. The next morning, we'd be moving on to Maui.