Sliding Into Maui's Beauty

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From the top of a mountain to the depths of the sea: craters, whales, and a botanical bonanza

A hiker is dwarfed by the botanical giants in the rainforests.


MAUI, Hawaii -It's one thing to see the arcing body of a humpback whale rise out of the ocean and splash down from a beach or a tour boat. But the experience is much more awesome when you're perched in a kayak close enough to hear and get a whiff of the beast.

We're waiting for a pair of whales about 50 metres or so from us - just two of about a 20 or so in our midst - to burst out of the water. One's a nearly 40-tonne, 12-metre-long mom with her two-tonne newborn which doesn't yet have the lung capacity to stay under water for long. While mom's making moves like she's about to come up for air, my husband starts paddling our two-person kayak forward; I resist and start back-paddling. We're close enough that we hear what sounds like heavy breathing.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 Pacific grey whales just like this one have made the 5,600-kilometre swim from Alaska to Hawaii to have their babies, while the males fiercely engage in a show of bravado and sometimes physical body slamming, to compete to be a female's "escort" for the next mating season. The pods will spend the next four or five months frolicking around the islands where the water is warmer. The females will nurse and train their young to hold their breath for up to an hour so they'll ready by summer to make the long journey back north.

While all of this amazing marine life is happening before us off the shores of west Maui, all I can think about is a famous YouTube video where a leaping whale lands on a kayaker, taking him beneath the sea (happy ending: he eventually emerges unscathed).

Chances are zero that this will happen here, says our guide, Brendan, who tells us federal regulations stipulate boaters of all types must give these creatures a berth of at least 50 metres, and refrain from chasing or trying to touch them. Whales can feel our presence and respect the boundaries, says Brendan. He knows firsthand about not respecting their personal space, he tells us, as we're waiting for another show by our mom and baby. Malodorous misfortune literally rained down on him once, covering him and his kayak with the sputum from the spout of a humpback. His clothes had to be thrown out and the kayak was rendered unusable because of the pungent odour.

Our respectable distance has only yielded good karma with sightings from all angles. Some of the whales give us the full-Monty show, while others just shoot us the tail.

Beneath the surprisingly clear waters, about a mile off shore beneath the gently lapping waves, we can see complicated coral caves and formations like an underground highway.

Snaking along the seabed, the formations provide refuge for another one of the island's iconic marine animals - the green turtle and an array of colourful fish.

After an hour of outstanding whale watching, we paddle a kilometre south along the shore, seeking the popular spot where the honu - the Hawaiian green turtle - likes to hang out.

These rotund but graceful elders of the sea remind me of astronauts floating in space, their funny round heads incongruous with their tough outer shell.

Outfitted in snorkel masks and flippers, we swim to within a metre of one, but it remains unfazed by us and the three small yellow fish that have latched onto him for a snack of algae, which has grown on his dark green body.


Botanical bonanza

Ula-Ula emerges from a tangle of towering palms and a jumble of tropical plants, in the jungle a short turn off the Road to Hana.

We're on our way to the popular Twin Falls waterfalls, but not before getting a lesson in the botanical bonanza in Maui's tropical forests.

Carrying what looks like an ordinary stick, our guide breaks it open to give us a taste of the mildly sweet sugar cane and passes it around for a taste. The fibrous chunks he's cut for us only have a faintly sweet taste, nothing like the refined end-product we buy in the grocery store. Sugar cane, like just about everything that proliferates on the island, is not indigenous, but rather brought over by Captain Cook or Polynesian settlers. Acres and acres of land on Maui are devoted to sugar cane - the state's second-largest crop after pineapple.

But dozens of plants of other kinds thrive. Excluding the legendary "Maui Wowie" of herbal fame, Maui's jungles are a teeming apothecary of natural alternative medicines from leaves, barks and flowers of thousands of plants, long used by Hawaiians for all kinds of ailments.

Ula Ula, (a.k.a., "Red," a.k.a., Chris) is a transplanted Manhattanite who's lived on all of the Hawaiian Islands and is known for his unabashed enthusiasm for Hawaiian culture.

He tells us a story of the powerful properties of the islands' flora and fauna. In a recent surfing accident, Ula Ula suffered a deep gash after hitting his face on coral. His surfing buddy/doctor sewed him up with 15 stitches and warned him not to hit the waves for at least a week to avoid infection.

Nothing was going to keep him away from surfing for that long. Instead, he harvested some leaves of the noni to seal up the gash, and was back on his board in 48 hours.

During our short hike, Ula Ula talks animatedly of the wild things growing in our midst.

He plucked the flowers, leaves and bark from dozens of plants, extolling the folklore remedies used for centuries: noni fruit and leaf for every ailment from diabetes to inflammation; wild ginger for stomach upsets, kukui oil for skin problems.

We chewed on a mysterious leaf which made our mouths numb and purported to give some people a mild buzz. We capped off a perfect day in the jungle with a refreshing dip in the Twin Falls.


House of the sun and extreme temperatures

Despite the fact that it's considered one of the can't-miss activities on Maui, we were too lazy to consider making the trek up to the behemoth dormant volcano in time to be there by the time the sun rose.

Hordes of tourists do it and that usually means getting up by 3 a.m. and making the switchback drive in the dark to the 3,055-metre peak. The prize is a wildly colourful sunrise, made even more spectacular by the iron oxide which gives the mountain its reddish colour.

Mid-morning seemed far more civilized and scenic, but not necessarily warmer. Driving up Haleakala Crater Road, we passed an ever-changing landscape of ranches, jungles, forests and scrubby desert-like land. And we watched the thermometer go from 21°C to 5°C as we wound higher into the sky over 90 minutes.

The guidebooks are not kidding when they say dress in layers, including warm socks and jackets, if you're going to make this day trip. But there is obviously a disconnect for many tourists about the possibility of near-freezing temperatures on a tropical island.

Dressing all wrong can mean the difference between getting to fully experience this vast lunar-like black-and-red crater, and taking a running peek and then quickly heading back to the car.

Haleakala's crater stretches more than 11 kilometres long and three kilometres wide.

It's often enveloped in cloud and is populated by dozens of volcanic cones of varying shapes and sizes.

There are several short and longer hikes and an interpretive centre, where you'll get good advice on what to do based on your how ambitious you're feeling.

We opted for a three-hour hike, despite a whipping wind and chilly temperatures. It was not an entirely pleasant experience, but in hindsight and after having warmed up, well worth it - if only to say that you were hailed on in Hawaii and that you've walked into the gaping maw of a once-active volcano, which hasn't blown since the 17th century, but could spew once again.


Another kind of crater

Just two days later, we were sunning ourselves on the deck of a swishy catamaran headed for Molokini, another extinct volcanic crater and national park, partially submerged in the ocean. You can see the crescent shaped Molokini from all along southwestern Maui.

The crater is ideal for beginner and intermediate snorkellers because the crater wall creates a barrier from the waves. The backside is a 100-metre sheer wall face popular among scuba divers.

Rather than a barren landscape and seeing the occasional plant or bird, we were going to be surrounded by schools of Day-Glo-coloured fish, dozens of coral species, odd looking creatures and, with luck, more green turtles. Our affable crew aboard the Trilogy had equipped us with everything we needed for a successful snorkelling outing: hot cinnamon buns and coffee for breakfast, good-working clean flippers and masks, and for anyone who felt they needed a little extra buoyancy, waist belts. (There is also the option to scuba and "snuba" - combined snorkelling and scuba.)

Rental underwater camera in hand, I began snapping photos of trumpet and parrot fish, anemones, eels and stingrays, black triggerfish and could reach out to nearly touch a bright-yellow tang.

Spotting an octopus just a few feet from the crater wall was the thrill of the day. That, and finding out after getting safely back on board the ship that several of my fellow snorkellers had seen a reef shark.


If You Go

Hike Maui has been in the outfitting business for nearly 30 years. Guides are professional, entertaining and knowledgeable. Our day trip involved kayaking/ whale-watching followed by snorkelling with the green turtles in the morning. The afternoon took us to Twin Falls for a jungle hike and a swim in the falls, located just a short drive off the Road to Hana. 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Water, snacks and lunch provided. Cost $154 per person, plus tax. for this a details on the company's other tours.

Haleakala: There are many ways to experience Haleakala: self-guided, guided by horseback or on foot. Most people opt for the drive to the top and quick look over the lip and perhaps a stop into the visitor centre for some background information and souvenirs. The trip up Haleakala Highway is 43 kilometres and there are no gas stations, or chances for food or drink. Entrance fee to the park is $10 per car. There are also sunrise and bicycle tours. Check

Molokini: Dozens of snorkelling tours to Molokini leave from south Kihei or Malahee Harbour. We went with Trilogy on its Molokini Crater/Turtle Town trip aboard its 50-foot trimaran. Cost of the 6 1/2-hour tour is $99 for adults, teens $75, children 12 and under $49. Breakfast, lunch and beverages are included, plus all gear and lessons. Snuba (a combined snorkel and scuba experience) is also available, and scuba diving can be done on this tour.


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