Island Obsessions - Page 2

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Soft Core

Since the adventures topside are just as thrilling as the diving, Kauai ranks among the top soft-core dive destinations in the world. Generally, divers make two dives in the morning then spend the afternoon, well, generally besieged with one awe-inspiring sight or activity after another, which is the game plan we're on. But we want a local's insight, so we hook up with Navy pilot Cmdr. Mark McDonald and his wife, Fran, whose family calls Kauai home. With my own Navy background, it is all I can do to not salute Mark when he and Fran show up at the Sheraton Kauai Resort to pick us up.

They immediately take us to nearby Shipwreck Beach, popular among local body-boarders, for a hike along the ragged and picturesque cliffs nearby. But on the way back, I spot a young couple getting married on the beach and ask if I may take a photo. The preacher replies, "Yes, but only if you'll witness the marriage."

I thought he was joking, but this couple had packed up her white dress and his black jacket and bow tie and slipped off to this idyllic spot, complete with a cliff-side diving spot appropriately called Jump-Off Point in the background, and arrived on the beach without a witness. So as I happened to be passing by, I witnessed the wedding fully cognizant that this could only happen here, in Hawaii, on Shipwreck Beach, which is this couple's perfect vision of paradise.

Fran, Mark, Jeff and I repair to Lappert's Ice Cream shop to celebrate the nuptials with some macadamia-nut flavor in a waffle cone. Then we're off to Hanapepe, and to another beach, called Glass Beach. Years ago this was a dump, and over the years the glass bottles have been churned, tumbled and beaten by the sea into tiny glass granules that now make up the majority of the sand here. There are also old bicycles and other discarded items that have been embedded into the soft volcanic rock cliffs by passing storms, which gives the beach a Mad Max feel. The biggest surprise of this corner of Kauai is the Japanese graveyard that overlooks Glass Beach. Here, volcanic red-rock, Japanese-designed tombstones rest in a field of bright-yellow, daisylike flowers.

That night, as we dine at Beach House, a rare Hawaiian monk seal, one of only 1,200 in the world, pulls itself up on shore to rest. Because these animals are protected, they immediately cordon off the beach with yellow police tape, and crowds of people gather. It was a sight that, sadly, few people are privileged to see. But the monk seal has chosen a perfect night to pull out, with a sunset that looks as if it was stolen from the scales of the lovely lau hau, the rainbow butterflyfish.

The Gathering Place

We bid farewell to Mark and Fran, then head off to the bright lights and big-city world of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, "The Gathering Place" (the island's nickname), and the famous Waikiki Beach.

When we arrive in Waikiki, they close the streets down. And locals and tourists alike begin to congregate along the curbs.

A local tells us we'd arrived during parade season (who knew!?). Every now and then, he says, they just close the streets and, in a while, on that ephemeral notion of aloha time, someone or something would parade past. Our inquiries on when this famous procession would pass are met with shrugs, as are our questions about the focus of the coming spectacle. So, we settle in and watch surfers and body-boarders rip white ribbons in Waikiki's famously perfect blue waves … until we hear a distant drumbeat.

It's a call to action. We arch our heads to see down Kalakaua Avenue. Two surfers cross the road — a couple of Japanese tourists.

Then the distinct sound that could only be the flourish of a high-school marching-band horn section kicks in, and it's game on for parade season. We squeeze in for a good viewing position, and two marching bands (the size of small towns) from snow-locked Michigan, several hot rods, a motorized picnic table and an unlabeled woman waving from an unlabeled convertible drive past. And like the evening showers, just like that, it's over.

Hawaii once again flirts with our imagination of paradise, as we were flung from the garden of Eden that was Kauai to the cosmopolitan international shop, sun and surf (and if you're in a high-school band, midwinter marching) Mecca of the Pacific.

"Looks like about 600 teenagers are going to let loose in town tonight," Jeff muses as the last band passes. With that, we turn in for the night for safety's sake.

Caged Like a Felon

The notion of The Gathering Place does not end at the shoreline and does not preclude sharks — lots of them. After making arrangements through Aqua Zone, the next morning, I'm bobbing in a cage in open water three miles off the North Shore town of Haleiwa surrounded by many manu, sand, Galapagos sharks, and even here in blue water, reef sharks.

Even with your eyes firmly peeled on the blue, the sharks seem to appear right in front of you, wrapped in shafts of light that  extend all the way to the unseen seafloor. And the sharks come from all sides and directly below. To experience such a show of stealth will leave you in awe of these apex predators. It's one of Oahu's most unforgettable experiences and, since it's done with just snorkel and mask, could even be scheduled on the same morning you fly out.

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