There are some destinations that get under your skin; those that permeate deeply and stick with you long after returning home. Liken it to falling in love, as it often happens quickly and inexplicably. Add in an actual romance and perhaps the impact is greater. Our writer shares her story of Hawaii’s island of Oahu, and how the love story she left with is different from the one she went in chasing.
I WAS TRYING MY BEST TO hide my face while I sat alone at Honolulu’s airport bar, ugly crying into an overpriced glass of cheap sauvignon blanc, day-old mascara running down my cheeks. I realize it may be a pathetic image to start out with, but it’s one I’m willing to own.
It had been seven days since I first arrived on Oahu, and circumstances made this one rollercoaster of a trip. Leading up to my departure, I had friends and family who had raved about their Hawaiian vacations, and this island in particular. “It will change your life,” they said. “It’s the most beautiful place on earth,” they said.
Take this transformative power of the destination, throw in a love story, and you have yourself a recipe for airport dramatics.
Allow me to rewind, as the “love story” part dates back to a trip I had taken months prior, when I first met Michael (name changed for reasons that will become obvious) while attending a conference – he from Sydney, Australia and I from Toronto, Canada.
Michael and I hit it off right away, but there was the issue of the 16,000 kilometers separating our real lives, which made it nearly impossible to pursue a relationship. After returning home, we exchanged text messages during our mutual waking hours, spoke frequently, and soon thereafter, made a plan to meet in Oahu, where coincidentally, we both had planned to visit for work.
It was the opportunity I had been waiting for to live out my fantasy of being The Bachelorette, dating a dashing suitor in some exotic locale.
But, as I learned, real life doesn’t much care for whirlwind romance.
Looking back now, it was only fitting that our first activity on-island together was cageless shark diving in the North Shore region. I’m not sure if there’s a more perfect metaphor for what I was getting myself into; you can swim with sharks and come out totally unscathed, but there is also a possibility that you might get bit.
Regardless, this was my first real chance to truly engage and interact with island locals, as the tour was led by Island View Hawaii’s David Berry, his son Kaiea, and Cheyne Kalai (who, while not blood related, is fondly referred to as part of the Berry family). Together with David’s other son, Kaiwi, this bronze quartet hosts two to three groups a day to do something blatantly counterintuitive to human survival; they drive their vessel out to a decided area of the ocean where the depths reach nearly 75 meters to swim with hammerhead, reef and Galapagos sharks.
Once we reached our destination and set the anchor, everyone onboard (save for the smart one manning the boat) was instructed to jump in.
As I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s the type of proposition that requires a deep breath before actually taking the leap. What I didn’t know at the time was that this concept of breath, or “ha,” as it’s called in Hawaii – is an important part of the local culture. I was enlightened to its meaning later that week during dinner with Kaipo Ho, who, in addition to his role as director of cultural experiences for Outrigger Resorts, is also a kahu (keeper, the minister or facilitator), trained in Hawaiian cultural protocol.
I hadn’t before considered the origin of many of Hawaii’s most commonly used words; there, you greet people with aloha, you thank people with mahalo – the destination itself is called Hawaii; “breath,” or “ha,” is firmly entrenched in the beliefs, values and vernacular of local people.“The easiest way to explain ‘ha’ is to think of a baby being born,” Kaipo told me. “What is the first thing it does? That young child takes its first breath outside of his or her mother. He’s no longer dependant on the mother’s biology, but he’s dependant on starting his own life. Then he lives for however many years, and when the time comes and he gets called, what does he leave behind? The ‘ha’; he lets out his last breath.
“In between that first ‘ha’ and that last ‘ha,’ we as individuals have given our life – our ‘ha’ – to so many other people through our words, through our actions, through respecting the space of others. That essence of ‘ha’ is very sacred.”
Since I’ve already established myself as a bit of the emotional type, I’ll admit that Kaipo’s insight brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful way to look at life and measure our actions; not by minutes, hours or seconds – but by breaths.
Looking back, I’ve considered how swimming with sharks was such a significant “ha” moment for me – perhaps because of the possibility it could have been my last. (FYI, there have never been any casualties, or incidents for that matter, reported on Island View’s tours.)
I lived to tell the story, evidently, keen on following David’s safety instructions and upbeat directive: “Let’s not be victims today.”
Hawai'i Tourism Authority
Believe it or not, floating with the current as sharks and other ocean life swam freely below – sometimes seemingly almost within arm’s reach – was the most ethereal experience of my life. It was the sort of moment you wish you could share with someone special.
But instead, I was there with Michael. I’ll spare you the details, but by this point, I realized ours wasn’t the fairy-tale I’d initially anticipated. Sometimes you “just know”, and almost immediately upon reuniting with Michael in Ko Olina, this is what I just knew: a lot of the romance was fiction, fabricated by my imagination. I had created unrealistic expectations going into this very unique (though admittedly, adventurous) situation. I’d been in a dream, and I was shaken wide awake.
Hawai'i Tourism Authority
Hawai'i Tourism Authority
Still, Michael and I had committed to spending nearly a week together (I’m not sure how many ‘ha’s’ that amounts to, but safe to say, too many) so I had no choice but to make the most of it. And instead of falling for my travel companion, I was effortlessly falling for Oahu.
At first, it was the landscapes; the lush green mountains are enough to almost force you off the road as you try to absorb the beauty, whether you’re driving inland or along the coast. It was the ocean, which I noticed to be a gathering point for locals and tourists alike – whether you want to surf or sunbathe. It was the seafood, fresher than any I’ve ever tasted and always impeccably prepared.
My time in Oahu was riddled with incredible experiences: I got a bird’s eye view of the land thanks to a tour with Paradise Helicopters. I had the chance to experience an exquisite homemade meal at Kahumana Organic Farm. I hiked to the top of Diamond Head volcano only to be rewarded with the most incredible views of the Pacific.
Hawai'i Tourism Authority
But all of this makes-up only a fragment of what it was about Oahu that made me fall so hard; ultimately, it was something intangible that I can only explain by relating back to the people I met along the way; people like David and Kaipo, who embody the calming, spiritual essence of the island.
As for Michael, we haven’t been in touch since we said good-bye in Oahu (save for an awkward phone call a week later, all in the name of closure). Those airport tears? Sure, he had something to do with them, but the root of my sorrow came from parting with a much truer, deeper love: my unforgettable, un-glorifiable, life-changing Hawaiian ‘ha’s.’
When you go:
tomas del amo
Both Air Canada and WestJet have flights through western gateways into Oahu’s international airport in Honolulu.
Travellers should rent a car when in Oahu for easy access to all key sights and attractions. It’s just over an hour to travel from one end of the island to another, but you’ll want to spend your days going in any which direction in search of the best views, beaches and street food.
For a different perspective of the island, try a tour with Paradise Helicopters, a unique company with several former “Marine One” presidential pilots. Not only can you trust you’re in good hands, you really can’t beat the view.
Take a tour of Kahumana Organic Farm before dining in the on-site café. Made with ingredients grown and harvested in the surrounding fields, you’ll be hard-pressed to ever find a fresher, more delicious meal. The farm also provides produce to a number of local restaurants.
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This article originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Canadian Traveller.