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Hawaii Stray Notes July 18, 2021
On being that 33-year-old guy going to Hawaii with his parents plus some casual observations about Maui in 2021
• I spent this past week in Maui with my parents, brother and his girlfriend who paused her movie on the flight to generously teach me Solitaire. On paper, it sounds like an odd way to spend the week of your 33rd birthday, but in practice it was one of the most fun seven-day stretches I’ve had in a long time. That should be expected though- it’s hard to mess up a week in Hawaii.
Should you be thinking about traveling to America’s most tropical state, here are a few observations/notes.
• The state still treats COVID like it’s 2020. Can’t fault them for that. However, this means there’s a lengthy registration process to even travel to the islands from the 48-state mainland. You’ll need a photo of your vaccination card, a couple of confirmations that you haven’t been around anyone with COVID for ten days and numerous digital signatures. Failure to complete these means you may be sent to a quarantine hotel which sounds like a free vacation but many assured me it ain’t on the house.
• One of the most memorable excursions on the vacation was a tour led by an indie coconut farmer who shared that “10% of local service industry workers fled Maui during COVID.” Because of this massive shift, eateries are offering a minimum $35/hour to servers just to keep them on staff. He went so far as to claim to having seen a job listing for $40/hour to flip pizzas. I wasn’t quite sure if he was being facetious when he mentioned that “dishwashers are getting $2000 signing bonuses” but I think he was.
*I still don’t know if this is true. I really want to believe it is though to help combat Maui’s exorbitant cost of living that’s designed for tourists dropping coin. However, it did seem like this guide was flying by the seat of his pants during parts of the tour so I’m not entirely sure.
• I may not have searched long or far enough but great food on the island was hard to find. I don’t mean this as a slam but for an island chock full of million dollar homes, there were surprisingly limited culinary options mostly made up of just tourist fare and chains. Sure, there were your upscale $$$ resort steakhouses on Yelp and spots with three-month reservation lists due to the massive influx of visitors but we were looking for unique, affordable meals that leave you wanting to come back to every day similar to what you’d find in most major American cities.
That being said, we did find a few exceptional meals that met my snobby standards. They were Fat Daddy’s BBQ that got that Guy Fieri stamp of approval, Nalu’s Hawaiian Grill whose volcano fries with gojuchang aioli blew me away (or maybe it was the food truck we stopped at that had this flavor) and the famous Ululani’s shaved ice with their snow-like texture, ample flavor selection and creamy bases that made the hour long wait in line entirely worth standing next to a cranky lady for an hour longer than I wanted to.
• As expected, there is a friendly, gentle vibe to Hawaii and Hawaiians. I ran near the beach on two mornings and nearly all runners I passed smiled, waved and mouthed “Morning” unless they were saying, “Move, dude” and I just misinterpreted their friendliness.
Contributing to that low key vibe is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's sweet, enduring cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” that you’ll undoubtedly hear in shops, grocery stores and almost any place with a speaker system. However, I was surprised that nearly all songs I heard out in public were Hawaiian covers of well known hits. I noticed this first when I heard a mellow version of “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” and then I heard it everywhere. Really made me smile. This was a really cool and smart way to put your own cultural stamp on recognizable tunes.
• Twice, our group snorkeled on our own. I casually pointed out fish underwater like a rookie and generally didn’t know what I was doing other than making sure I was breathing air and not saltwater. Toward the end of the trip, we took a real snorkel tour and learned actual tricks of the trade from guides. The most important one to take home is to never fully take your mask off. Simply, angle it upwards, make sure to empty it of any water and get it right back on. Taking it all the way off never works. There was quite a bit more in the lesson about how air pressure works but unfortunately, I wasn’t quite smart enough to retain this knowledge.
• The family stayed in a small town called Kihei on Maui and we found ourselves repeatedly driving past a large white domed aquarium on the 310 highway. One afternoon, after having been snorkeled out, we decided to hit up this Maui Ocean Center. Allegedly, it’s one of the ten best in the world and full of tortoises, puffer fish, seahorses and stingrays. However, the main attraction was definitely a 360-degree glass tank where all types of fish swim beside, above and below you completely immersing you in an oceanic experience second only to snorkeling but featuring fish you’d never see in shallow waters like sharks. Yes. Tons of sharks. Baby sharks even. Nurturing Mommy sharks. Estranged Daddy sharks. I even learned that sharks aren’t quite the evil predators we think of them as. They mostly feast on dead or diseased fish (overheard this while eavesdropping a real tour I didn’t take).
• If you are to ever visit Maui, the most essential destination is probably any beach but number two has to be the ‘Iao Valley State Park. The moment you enter, the air changes. A breezy calm overtakes you as you stroll through tropical greenery that evokes every adventure movie you ever wanted to live through. My brother and his girlfriend accurately described it as “Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.”
To enter the park was $5.00 but there were no turnstiles to get in. Instead, a kind lady stood next to a pseudo ATM and asked folks to pay. Many ignored her request or simply didn’t see her at all. I felt bad for her; the park had given her the world’s most uncomfortable job- asking people to pay for stuff even after they’d seen others bypass her. Luckily, I don’t think she worried about this as much as I did.
• Moms be finding off the beaten path activities for trips, am I right, fellas? As noted above, she found many gems but her most memorable discovery was probably “Goat Yoga.” We drove to a remote farm (most homes in Hawaii are remote; some must be at least an hour from any type of hospital or shaved ice stand), set up mats in her backyard and saluted the sun while female goats wandered about the premises. Male goats were excluded from the fun because they “will urinate upon their face, beard, and front legs” as part of their mating ritual. When the class concluded, all students were given Ziploc bags with Cheerios. Then, one would set down in a “table top position.” You’d have another person dangle Cheerios over your head and soon after a goat would be hurtling onto your back digging their heels into your skin. It was a bit on the painful side but goat yoga is one of those “Well, I’ll probably never do this again” things that gets a pass simply for the sheer novelty factor. Kind of like going to New Jersey.
• I’ve never feared for my own life like I did this past week when the five of us drove the windy, hairpin turns up the Maui upcountry Haleakala National Park summit. With no railing on the sides of the road and only cliffs below, this was one of the most intense, nausea-inducing people experiences in my entire life. I like a breathtaking view as much as the next guy but this was a bit too far. Best of all, once we reached this massive summit 10,000 feet up, we looked at all the molten lava rocks as well as the famous silversword plants that wilt as soon as they bloom and headed straight back down. We must have been up there ten minutes for an excruciating three-hour road trip.
I may be overreacting though. At the peak, I quizzed employees that worked up there asking, “Do you really make this drive every day?” and they yawned at my weak, city boy reaction to the twists and turns. This was nothing to them. Good for them. I’m just glad my commute to work doesn’t have me dodging bikers on narrow roads for hours. Might just be me though.
• Finally, I saw one movie on the flight to our 50th State. Here’s a quick take:
“The Way Back” (2020): Over the course of my lifetime, I estimate I’ve seen 700 sports underdog movies. This isn’t a knock on the genre; it’s more a testament to how enduring the genre is. There’s nothing better than seeing a David topple a Goliath. In the case of “The Way Back,” that Goliath is twofold. There’s the dysfunctional basketball team Ben Affleck’s former star/now alcoholic character Jack takes over for mid-season and also Jack’s dependence on booze to self medicate. It’s a graceful, compelling human story of a man whose lost almost everything given one last chance. Yes, it may sound corny and does veer into maudlin territory at times but a mostly naturalistic screenplay where high school players clown on each other lives next to tender bedtime stories about giving fish bubble baths kept me riveted on my 8 AM flight. Plus, Al Madrigal has never been better as the team’s assistant coach. LONG LIVE THE FORMULA (Streaming on Amazon for $12.99 but honestly worth it).
Starting Tuesday, I’ll be back in New York this week prepping for my screening with Anna on July 31. If you haven’t gotten tix yet and need a promo code, let me know. Here’s that Eventbrite.
Mahalo now, y’all