Digging Into Hawaii


Say the word Hawaii to most mainlanders, and it instantly summons images of palm trees and golden sand, gentle waves and hula. All that and more lives in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the most geographically isolated island chain on the planet.

But what’s unique about this archipelago of 137 islands that stretches for 1,500 miles is its aloha. The word not only means “welcome,” “hello,” “goodbye” and “love,” aloha at its purest offers an all-embracing spirit. In the Hawaiian tradition, everyone—even visitors, or malihini—is treated like ohana (family), welcome to partake in the pleasures of its six most-visited islands: the beaches, the ocean, the trails, the music, the ever-changing sky show. Even the precipitation typically falls as a warm, friendly rain.

Sacramento has long had a strong Hawaiian connection. John Sutter brought Hawaiians with him when he first arrived—nine kanakas, he called them, the Hawaiian word for “people.” The first structures built by the newcomers who sailed up the Sacramento River were grass huts similar to ones in Hawaii.

Sutter wrote in his journals that he was grateful for the kokua (help). “I could not have settled the country without the aid of these Kanakas,” he said. That aloha spirit permeates the major islands from north to south in the following ways, encouraging visitors to experience the enchanting nature and culture of Hawaii.

Sutter wrote in his journals that he was grateful for the kokua (help). “I could not have settled the country without the aid of these Kanakas,” he said. That aloha spirit permeates the major islands from north to south in the following ways, encouraging visitors to experience the enchanting nature and culture of Hawaii.


It’s no accident that Kauai is called the Garden Isle. It is home to the wettest spot on Earth, Mount Waialeale, averaging 432 inches—36 feet—of rain annually over the past 70 years, according to Andrew Doughty, author of The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook.

So it makes sense that some of the most luscious, verdant gardens in Hawaii make their homes on Kauai. Even if you’re not a gardener, or you don’t know the difference between a hibiscus (the Hawaii state flower) and a plumeria, there are four spectacular gardens on Kauai worth a visit. There’s nothing like them anywhere on the mainland.

Three are part of the National Botanical Tropical Garden (ntbg.org) consortium: Limahuli, Allerton and McBryde gardens. The fourth, Na Aina Kai, which means “lands by the sea,” is a 240-acre private garden developed by husband and wife Ed and Joyce Doty.

Limahuli Garden and Preserve sits on the edge of the north shore, backed by the majestic Mount Makana, whose silhouette stood in for the fictional Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific, filmed on Kauai in 1958. Its lava rock kalo (taro) terraces have been carbon dated to about 700 years old, and the garden features plants and native species used by some of the earliest Polynesians who migrated to Hawaii. Deep in the valley behind the garden, conservation and restoration biologists work to preserve native species.

The three-quarter-mile self-guided tour is a loop trail through the garden. Good walking shoes, a hat and water are recommended (it can get warm on sunny days).

Limahuli Garden and Preserve is near Haena Beach and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults and children older than 13, free for children 12 and younger.

The Allerton and McBryde gardens are on Kauai’s south shore in the historic Lawa’i valley. Visitors to both gardens gather at the Southshore Visitors Center (open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily) near Poipu, across from Spouting Horn. Trams take visitors on a 15- minute ride into and out of the gardens; the rest of the tour is done on foot. The upper McBryde Garden (formerly called the Lawa’i Garden) is named for Duncan McBryde, the sugar magnate who farmed the valley.

The McBryde Garden contains “the largest assemblage of native Hawaiian plants in existence anywhere,” according to its website. Most are endemic (found only in Hawaii), and the selfguided tour along Lawa’i stream feels like a trip back in time. Tours are $15 for adults, $7.50 for children 6–12.

You also can tour the closer-to-thesea Allerton Garden, the brainchild of Robert Allerton, who purchased the property from the McBryde family in 1938 and enlarged the garden, continually adding to its elegant design until his death in 1964. It features outdoor “rooms” that Allerton used for entertaining, as well as rippling pools and dramatic sculpture—not to mention the famous Jurassic Park trees, the Moreton Bay figs, where dinosaur eggs were found in the first film.

Tours of the Allerton Garden are $45 for adults, $20 for children 8–12 (discounts available when booked online).

Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens (naainakai.org) is located in Kilauea, perched on a plateau overlooking the Pacific Ocean that includes a series of extensive sculpture gardens, a hardwood plantation, and a moss- and fern-draped canyon that leads to the sea.

The gardens offer a variety of guided tours from 1½ to five hours, on foot or by covered tram, Tuesday through Friday throughout the year. The three-hour formal and wild garden tour ($50 general) provides a wonderful overview of the property. The Ka Wamakai 2½ hour morning walk ($50) takes visitors down the Wild Forestpath, descending into the cool, woodsy Kuliha’ili Canyon and on to Kaluakai Beach.

Reservations are required for all but Limahuli Garden tours.


Oahu, “the gathering place” of Hawaii, is the third-largest island (generally considered Hawaii’s “main” island), with 80 percent of the state’s population.

The repository of all things historically, culturally and artistically Hawaiian is Honolulu’s Bishop Museum (bishopmuseum.org), open daily except Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Take one of the 25- to 45-minute tours included with admission ($19.95 general, $16.95 seniors, $14.95 children 4–12). The impressive three floors of the Hawaiian Hall show visitors three realms of Hawaii— its gods, its people, and its rulers and royalty, or ali’i.

Iolani Palace (iolanipalace.org) is the only royal palace in the United States, built by King Kalakaua in 1882 and home to Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili’oukalani. After she was deposed in 1893, the Victorian palace served as a government building, then as the state Capitol until it was returned to the people of Hawaii and extensive restoration work began in 1969. Since then, many artifacts have been uncovered in the elegant building, one of the crown jewels of Hawaiian culture and a national historic landmark.

The palace is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Hourlong guided tours ($21.75 general, $6 children 5–12) with knowledgeable docents require reservations; self-guided tours ($14.75 general, $6 children 5–12) send visitors to the first and second floors with pre-recorded audio guides. The Royal Hawaiian Band plays free concerts on the palace grounds most Fridays (weather permitting) at noon.


The Valley Isle holds many Hawaiian highlights, including one of its most visible— Haleakala, the house of the sun. From the top of the 10,023-foot peak, visitors can look north and west, taking in Maui’s curvy waistline, the flat plain between two defunct volcanoes. To many locals and visitors, Maui no ka oi (is the best), with its west shore beaches and some of the best surfing, snorkeling and windsurfing ocean in the world, as well as excellent restaurants and grand resorts.

But a quiet gem emerges every Wednesday night at a small (by Hawaii standards) hotel on the west shore near Lahaina that instantly immerses visitors in Hawaiian culture: slack key guitar performed by master musicians. The art of ki’ ho’alu, which means to loosen the strings, had its origins with paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys), who were left with guitars by visiting Mexican vaqueros. They developed their own tunings for the acoustic guitars and an intricate style of finger-picking that is astonishing to watch and hear.

Master ki’ho’alu practitioner George Kahumoku hosts weekly concerts at the Napili Kai Beach Resort. The 7:30 p.m. shows feature the most skilled guitarists, such as Kahumoku, Dennis Kamakahi, Ledward Kaapana and others, as well as the younger generation of Hawaiian musicians, including Keoki Kahumoku, Daniel Ho, Da Ukulele Boyz, Sterling Seaton and Wainani Kealoha.

Tickets are $37.99 for the show, $78.35 for the show plus dinner at the Napili Kai’s Sea House restaurant. For more information or reservations, see slackkeyshow.com.

Local musicians perform all over the island. If you find yourself on the Hana side of Maui, the Travaasa Hana Resort regularly hosts talented local musicians, including Leokane Pryor and CJ Helekahi, whose album No Ka Pueo was released this past year.


As of 2012, the island of Moloka’i holds the distinction of being home to two saints from Hawaii: Father Damien DeVeuster, named a saint in 2009, and Mother Marianne Cope, elevated to sainthood in October 2012. A contingent of former patients (more on this in a moment) and representatives traveled to Rome for both ceremonies at the Vatican. For more than 100 years, people with leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) were banished to Kalaupapa, which translates to “flat leaf,” named for the shape of the peninsula. There was no effective treatment and no known cure for the disease. Some 8,000 patients died there, though fewer than 1,000 of them lie in marked graves.

Neither of the two saints were Hawaiian— Father Damien was Belgian and Mother Marianne was German—but they served the sick and banished for many years.

Father Damien died in 1889 of complications from Hansen’s Disease, the only religious kokua (helper) to succumb to the disease. “The servant of the Word became a suffering servant, leper with the lepers, during the last four years of his life,” said Pope Benedict XVI upon Saint Damien’s canonization.

Mother Marianne died in 1918 of natural causes at the age of 80 after serving the patients of Kalaupapa for 30 years. Neither she nor any of the nuns or others who followed her in service contracted the disease. Sulfone antibiotics to arrest the disease were administered to Hansen’s Disease patients beginning in 1946, though patients at Kalaupapa were kept in isolation until 1969.

Today, Kalaupapa is a national historical park (nps.gov/kala/index.htm) dedicated to telling the stories of its saints and patients. Visitors must be older than 16 and can travel to the peninsula via air or down the challenging 2,000- foot pali (cliff) trail on foot or by mule.

Once at Kalaupapa, Damien Tours (808-567-6171) provides a memorable drive around the peninsula, which includes the opportunity to sit in Saint Philomena Catholic Church built by Father Damien and to visit his gravesite. The Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour (muleride.com) puts visitors on muleback down and back up the 3.2-mile trail. There also are options to fly in from topside Moloka’i, Maui or Honolulu.


Lana’i has long been called the Pineapple Island for the crop that made it famous beginning in 1922, when James Dole bought the island and incorporated it into the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later Dole Food Company). Lana’i became the world’s largest pineapple plantation. In the late 1980s, the company moved production from Lana’i to other locations, and the acreage that once held hundreds of thousands of pineapple plants now is home to wild grasses waving in the breezes.

Last year after the island was sold by one billionaire to another (from David Murdock of Dole to Larry Ellison of Oracle), some residents saw this as a hopeful sign for Lana’i’s future. Lana’i hosts a wonderful collection of cultural and natural treasures. The island is better known for sites such as Shipwreck Beach and Garden of the Gods, yet one not to miss is Kaunolu, a Heritage Site of Hawaii on the southern tip of the island that’s home to the remains of a 1790s fishing retreat belonging to King Kamehameha I.

Though getting there requires a slow journey in a four-wheel drive vehicle down a trail to the sea, Kaunolu presents a rare opportunity for visitors to get spectacular views of Shark Fin Cove, the southern coastline and the top side of Kahekili’s Leap, where warriors jumped off the 60-foot cliff to demonstrate their bravery. (Careful—there’s no barrier at the edge of the cliff.)

Kaunolu is best visited in the morning— afternoon sun can make the rocks quite hot to the touch—and requires some hiking and scrambling to access.

But this remote site is one of few spots in Hawaii of such archaeological significance that is accessible to the public.

Lana’i also boasts a splendid repository of its local history and culture, including its long tenure as the Pineapple Island, at the Lana’i Culture & Heritage Center (lanaichc.org). Located in part of the former Dole administration building in Lana’i City, the center has photographs and artifacts from the island’s plantation days. It is open Monday through Saturday with free admission, but donations are gratefully accepted.


For 30 years, one of the longest Hawaiian volcano eruptions on record has fascinated visitors, locals and geologists on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its star performer, Kilauea volcano, has created lava fountains, emitted tons of ash, opened new vents and sent lava flowing to the sea. According to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, Kilauea’s Pu’u O’o vent has produced about 1 cubic mile of lava covering 48 square miles of land. It has buried eight miles of highway and destroyed a national parks visitor center, 214 homes, most of the historic village of Kalapana and the nearby postcardperfect black sand Kaimu beach.

All of this activity has provided researchers with more data over a long period than ever has been collected in Hawaii and has allowed the general public to witness a volcano in action, often at close range.

The best place to get a good view of Kilauea (currently the only active volcano of the five on the Big Island) is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a World Heritage Site about 30 miles southwest of Hilo. Kilauea, which means “spewing” in Hawaiian, is one of the world’s most approachable volcanoes because of its close monitoring, so when park officials limit or close access to sites in the park, it is wise to heed that advice.

For example, Halema’uma’u Crater has been active since March 2008, when a molten lava lake cracked through the bottom of the crater and has since frequently thrown rocks over its rim and almost constantly spews gases. Though the old viewing area next to the crater has been closed for safety reasons, visitors still can get a distant view (and see its eerie glow at night) at the Jagger Museum overlook in the park.

But there are vast areas of quiet in the park that are accessible for hiking, bird-watching and other outdoor activities from the decades-old lava plains by the sea to the higher-elevation rainforest and caves. When lava is flowing from Pu’u O’o, down the cliff to the sea, visitors can watch the dramatic plumes of steam from safe viewing areas that can change with conditions.

The best place to begin a visit is at the Kilauea Visitors Center near the entrance to the park. The film Born of Fire, Born of the Sea, shown hourly, offers visitors a visual introduction to the volcano.

For more information about Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, see its website: nps.gov/havo/index.htm.