Rediscovering the Joys of Travel on the Big Island of Hawaii

It’s a sun-spackled morning at Hapuna Beach, like most mornings on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. A turtle the size of our coffee table back home in California surfaces halfway through my swim. It proceeds to stay close by, like an old friend. I laugh, elated — but then a complicated upwelling of emotion follows.

Over the past year and a half, I’d almost convinced myself that I was OK with missing cherished faces and places, that I’d fully committed to being a hermit for humanity. Here, at the beginning of a weeklong visit for a pandemic-delayed wedding in early July, I was returning to travel in a different world, in which many people have lost loved ones, jobs and so much else. Even the familiar things felt strange. Airports. Crowds. My extended, energetic clan of in-laws; the hubbub of a big social gathering; what it’s like to meet someone new. A return to a beloved place.

The turtle and I swam along together for a while. I observed its calm cruising altitude from above, allowing myself the occasional dive down to side eye it from a respectful distance as it munched thoughtfully on coral algae. When I reached the end of the beach, I turned around to swim back the other way, but not before bidding my companion a good day. A few minutes later, I came face to face with another, smaller turtle.

In Indigenous Hawaiian culture, sea turtles are revered as the earthly form that aumakua, or ancestral spirits, might take to show us care, concern or comfort. Manta rays and sharks are other examples of these spirit forms, and are treasured in the same way. I thought of my grandmother, gone nearly a year now. After the grinding stress and uncertainty of the last many months, I got to be with a large slice of my family for the first time in a year and a half, taking a trip that was forward-looking. It was nice to feel hopeful again.

After all, what’s more forward-looking than a wedding?

Appreciating the chance to travel in the world again

This summer, many Americans have been traveling with a kind of cautious optimism. In the lead-up to our Big Island trip, navigating the complex and ever-changing web of requirements to enter Hawaii was a not-insignificant process, and a reminder that things were still fluid. New coronavirus variants were ascendant, and while my husband, Matt, and I had been vaccinated, our children were not yet old enough to be. Regardless of vaccine status, we all had to take tests and receive negative results within 72 hours of flight departure time.

We did run into some snags: Matt’s results never actually materialized, which sent him on a scramble to track down another Hawaii-approved testing site for a rapid test the day before our flight. He found one at the San Francisco airport, for $225 — the price of travel in the Covid era. We uploaded our results to the Hawaii Safe Travels website and confirmed our results at the airport before our flight. (Not long after our trip, the rules changed again, so that vaccinated travelers could bypass testing and avoid quarantine.)

Once we landed in Kona, though, the anxiety dissipated, and it was a relief to feel that everyone had done their part to keep the larger community safe. We rented a house with my husband’s parents, not too far from the Fairmont Orchid, where the intimate, 39-person wedding would take place. The rental house included a beach parking pass for the Mauna Lani Beach Club, a small, reef-protected cove with shallow water that was perfect for young swimmers and snorkelers.

One morning at that friendly little beach, our 8-year-old, Teddy, snorkeled for the first time, delighting in the iridescent blue needlefish and schools of yellow tangs that zipped by. He had remembered how to identify and pronounce humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Hawaii state fish. I noticed a moray eel with its head poking out of the coral, comically frozen in a hopeful pose with its mouth wide open, ready to receive.

Later, Teddy scrambled up from the water, excited. “Mama, I saw a girl in the water who looks just like Ishana,” he exclaimed, referring to a speedy little girl on his swim team back home.

What were the chances? Not only were we on the same beach at the same time as Ishana’s family — who were enjoying a long-delayed family reunion — but it turned out that we were all staying in rental homes within walking distance of each other. A random run-in outside the usual orbit, spontaneous conversation, a sense of normalcy — we were renewed by an outsized joy, at what can happen when you are out living in the world again.

Hawaii is a place that marked the beginning of my traveling life. The relationship began almost 25 years ago, with visits to a college friend who was born and raised on Oahu. It grew with that friendship, and with trips to Kauai, the Big Island, Maui, Lanai; it deepened when I researched and wrote a book about Chinatowns, including Honolulu’s; and it was cemented when my best childhood friend moved to Kailua. When you do something that you haven’t done in a while — like, say, leave your home — the whole enterprise can feel a little weird, or else tinted with nostalgia. When I saw parrotfish munching on coral and leaving vaporous trails of crumbs, I felt that I was truly back in Hawaii, accompanied by a vast archive of memories. Maybe nibbling fish do for me what madeleines at teatime did for Marcel Proust.

Travel in a time when we still need to maintain distance from strangers is, well, strange. Most of the time, we could be outside: on a beach, in the ocean, on a trail. Inside a restaurant, shop, or grocery store — or, say, an urgent care clinic, where we had to make a stop when Teddy gashed his foot open on some lava rock — the masks went on and we adhered carefully to posted restrictions. We repaired our spirits at One Aloha Shave Ice, where Nakoa and Leilani Nelson-Riley’s housemade organic ginger syrup was so fresh that I could see little flecks of ginger root in my order, a gorgeously melting snow mountain complete with ice cream and azuki beans.

As travel numbers increase to Hawaii and other places, there has been local concern and pushback against overtourism, especially on the island of Maui, where the once-quiet Hana Highway has lately become a traffic jam. During our time on the Big Island, it felt relatively calm when compared with the prepandemic era (our trip came before a devastating brush fire broke out at Parker Ranch in Waimea). We tried to do as we felt we always should: spend at Hawaiian- and other local-owned businesses, go lightly in the environment, behave with respect.

On a break from wedding preparations one afternoon, Matt and I went for a slow drive to have a leisurely lunch at the original Merriman’s, in the upcountry town of Waimea. There was Maui, floating on a cloud just offshore. As the road climbed higher in elevation from the western coast, the car’s dashboard thermometer ticked its way down. Rainy mist thickened to fog, drifting over us to blanket the observatories atop Mauna Kea off in the distance.

Over crisp martinis and savory saimin with slow-roasted Kalua pork, we remembered the year a snowstorm canceled a planned stargazing trip to the volcano’s summit. And we recalled other adventures on the Big Island: surfing with locals at Kahalu’u Beach, exploring an abalone farm and a tropical fruit test garden, learning about coffee at the Hilo Coffee Mill, hiking Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, tasting jaboticaba berry wine at the southernmost winery in the United States. We talked about what it meant to make new memories with our big blended family, beginning with the wedding of my brother-in-law, Mike, and Diana, his bride.

At the resort the next day, the warm, late-afternoon light cut low across the Pacific, setting the tall coconut palms that lined the small sandy beach aglow. The couple were married in front of three dozen close family and friends; the young bridesmaids and groomsmen were their four children. There were tears as we reflected on and appreciated all that had happened. Then cocktail hour began, the shoes came off, and everyone danced into the night, illuminated by glittering strings of lantern lights.

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Connecting to the past by making new memories

The following afternoon, a group of us convened at the Mauna Kea visitor station, located at 9,200 feet (from there to the summit, at 13,800 feet, a four-wheel drive is required). We phoned ahead to inquire about the weather forecast for stargazing — no snowstorms or cloud cover, we hoped.

The man who answered the phone had a smile in his voice. “It’s perfect,” he said.

From a 90-degree day at sea level, we drove toward a fully arcing rainbow, the car filled with enough layers and blankets to protect against an evening with a forecast of 35 degrees. After about 45 minutes, the road took us above the cloud cover to reveal a blue sky that was almost blinding in its clarity. We arrived at the visitor station and immediately set out for a high place on the western-facing ridge, just in time to watch a splendid, cloud-wisped sunset over a reddish-hued landscape reminiscent of Mars.

Then we hiked back down the trail to the visitor station parking lot and opened up our beach chairs to wait for the stars. One by one they made their appearance, with the rosy smear of the Milky Way as a backdrop. Our 10-year-old son, Felix, used an app on his iPad to make observations about the luminosity of multiple stars, including Sirius A — the brightest star in the night sky. Someone pointed out Ursa Minor, and everyone in our party chattered excitedly. We watched the tiny dots of satellites whiz by in their prescribed paths, and the shooting stars flame their brief, bright life across the dark.

I thought about how we try to be big, all the time. To look into the center of the galaxy is to know, in a visceral way, that we are small.

The conversation turned to constellations, and how they never really look like what they are supposed to be. Peering into the sky, we tried hard to see what our ancestors saw: was it the tail of Scorpius, or the demigod Maui throwing a fish hook? My mind drifted to earlier that day, when I’d sneaked away to bike down to the beach, alone, for a long swim. Or at least I thought I was alone, until a manta ray swooped up under me, its wings gracefully waving. I tried to race it and lost, giddy and full of awe at the sighting.

Manta rays in the morning, the Milky Way in the evening. We were making new memories, but also connecting to the deep past and a profoundly old idea. A reminder to marvel at the world, not to mess it up.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim” and the new children’s book “Sarah and the Big Wave.”

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