OFF THE BEATEN PINEAP­PLE PATH

Un­plug in Hawaii on an un­crowded Un­cruise Ad­ven­tures small ship

Calgary Herald - - TRAVEL - THERESA STORM

Un­der a star-filled Jan­uary sky, six wet­suit-clad ad­ven­tur­ers cling to hand­holds drilled into an im­pro­vised surf­board bob­bing on the choppy sur­face of the Pa­cific Ocean just off­shore Hawaii Is­land. A guide in­structs us to lay flat and not to kick while peer­ing through a mask into the inky sea. Lights sus­pended from the surf­board eerily probe the depths, draw­ing milky streams of tiny crea­tures.

Within mo­ments, a vague shape glides out of the dark­ness far be­low. Flap­ping its fins, it grace­fully rises, loom­ing larger and larger, a silky black di­a­mond the size of a com­pact car. Mere inches from us, its tooth­less oval mouth gapes so wide I could slide my whole arm in. Brush­ing my hus­band, it som­er­saults and de­scends to rise time and again, feed­ing on the mi­cro­scopic plank­ton il­lu­mi­nated by the spot­lights.

It’s a gi­ant Pa­cific manta ray, one of the ocean’s largest fish, and this is one of the world’s best places to see them.

I would shout with de­light if my mouth didn’t have a snorkel jammed into it. This up-close ex­pe­ri­ence with feast­ing manta rays is just one high­light of a week­long, all-in­clu­sive cruise aboard Un­cruise Ad­ven­tures’ Sa­fari Ex­plorer. The 36-pas­sen­ger, three-deck yacht trans­ports guests on an offthe-beaten-pineap­ple-path voy­age to two popular and two lesser-known Hawai­ian is­lands.

Sail­ing from Molokai — the un­de­vel­oped Hawaii of old — to the Big Is­land (or re­verse), the voy­age also in­cludes vis­its to tiny Lanai and to West Maui, with a fo­cus on rich cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences, na­ture and out­door ad­ven­tures. Each is­land is dis­tinct from the oth­ers, with its own vibe and pace.

The com­fort­able small ship is equipped for ac­tiv­ity with an aft swim step, kayaks, pad­dle­boards, snorkellin­g equip­ment and Zo­di­acs for whale watch­ing and go­ing ashore. On­board nat­u­ral­ists join land and sea ex­cur­sions, pro­vid­ing guests with lively in­ter­pre­ta­tion, as of­ten do lo­cals.

The first full day finds us im­mersed in the ver­dant deep folds of Molokai’s iso­lated Halawa Val­ley pre­par­ing poi, a Hawai­ian sta­ple made from fresh taro root that we’ve just dug up, and “talk­ing story” with “Un­cle” Pilipo, who is charged with re­tain­ing the an­ces­tral tra­di­tions of this sa­cred land.

Later, we are hon­oured guests at a pa’ina — a tra­di­tional feast hosted by “Aun­tie” Moi, where we savour squid luau, kalua pig and lomi-lomi sal­mon while tap­ping our toes to jam­ming Hawai­ian mu­si­cians and sashay­ing kumu hula dancers.

Set­ting sail, the days to come in­clude an­chor­ing in se­cluded bays on the ar­chi­pel­ago’s craggy vol­canic coast­lines and lots of time in the water. A na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ary be­tween Molokai, Lanai and Maui is a breed­ing ground for hump­back whales, dol­phins and green sea tur­tles. We squeal with de­light each time we see them on zippy Zo­diac tours or from the decks of the Ex­plorer.

Don­ning snorkel gear, we glide above coral gar­dens filled with bright coral and sponges and teem­ing trop­i­cal fish, like en­demic sil­very Hawai­ian flag­tails and hu­muhu­munukunuku­a­pua’a, the state’s of­fi­cial fish.

On the pri­vately owned is­land of Lanai, the one-time king of Hawaii’s pineap­ple in­dus­try, we visit the Lanai Cul­ture and Her­itage Cen­ter to learn about the plan­ta­tion era. On a stroll to Sweet­heart Rock, a sea stack jut­ting 25 me­tres above the surf, our guide shares the tragic legend of Princess Puu Pehe.

Back aboard, happy hour sees us sip­ping the day’s fea­ture cock­tail while min­gling with other guests and the en­thu­si­as­tic Amer­i­can crew, some­times joined by lo­cal en­ter­tain­ers. Laugh­ter peals over de­li­cious a-la-carte din­ners, al­ways in­clud­ing a fresh-from-the­sea grilled fish.

In Maui’s his­toric ocean­side town of La­haina, we visit a boat­build­ing shed where Maui’s Voy­ag­ing So­ci­ety is hand-build­ing a 19-me­tre replica of a transocean­ic voy­ag­ing ca­noe, like those used by the Poly­ne­sians who once pad­dled (unimag­in­ably) to Hawaii. Plans are for a crew to sail to Tahiti nav­i­gat­ing by the stars, just like their an­ces­tors did.

While the South Pa­cific is a bit lofty for us ama­teurs, the time ar­rives to put our bi­ceps to the test.

We clam­ber into two tra­di­tional outrig­ger ca­noes for an im­promptu pad­dling race, rife with jeers and child­ish splash­ing of op­po­nents.

Af­ter a free day where Cap­tain Rod chooses the best places to go, fol­lowed by the night manta snorkel, the fi­nal stop of our jour­ney is the Big Is­land. In a Zo­diac tour of the rugged black coast­line, we peer into sea caves and lava tubes formed by the is­land’s still ac­tive vol­ca­noes, be­fore jump­ing into kayaks for a last guided pad­dle.

In a fit­ting fi­nale, a pod of hump­back whales ap­pears, frol­ick­ing with their young. The show-off who leaps high into the air, re­veal­ing its en­tire body, save its tail, is yet an­other high­light of our Un­cruise Ad­ven­ture and Hawaii’s vast na­ture. It whets our ap­petite for more.

PHO­TOS: THERESA & REID STORM.

There are spec­tac­u­lar views to take in while hik­ing to Sweet­heart Rock in Lanai, a pri­vately owned is­land in the Hawai­ian chain. The strik­ing red sea cliffs tow­er­ing above the some­times crash­ing Pa­cific wa­ters are home to the tragic legend of Princess Puu Pehe.

The na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ary teems with life, in­clud­ing dol­phins, left. A great way to see them is through Un­cruise Ad­ven­tures, where the Sa­fari Ex­plorer, right, holds guided pad­dles.

“Un­cle” Greg Pilipo shows guests of Un­cruise Ad­ven­tures how to make poi, a sta­ple Hawai­ian dish of taro root, in Molokai’s Halawa Val­ley.

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