Destination of the Week: Hawaii
Beyond its touristy beachfronts, the Aloha State offers an island Eden for eco-travelers.
Sat, May 02, 2009 at 05:42 AM
For tourists, the perpetually warm, impossibly lush state of Hawaii offers all the ingredients of a dream vacation. The islands' trademark "aloha spirit" — their welcoming, laid-back, earthy vibe — is probably as much of a draw as Honolulu's famed Waikiki Breach. Furthermore, Hawaii is arguably the most exotic place U.S. citizens can visit without a passport. Even with a slowing economy, 6.5 million visitors are expected to come to Hawaii this year.
The travel industry brings money and jobs into what would otherwise be an isolated, slow-moving economy. In many areas of the state, tourism is the economy. But there's a growing feeling among locals and old Hawaii hands, as well as tuned-in tourists, that the traditional Hawaiian atmosphere is being taken over by mass-produced package tours, impatient vacationers and concrete resort hotels.
While the view from heavily populated Waikiki Beach or the buffet line at a resort's sanitized luau will support the "death of aloha" theory, there are plenty of other trends that show Hawaii's culture and its natural landscapes are far from forgotten.
Honolulu, the state capitol, is consistently recognized as a national leader in clean air. Ambitious transportation projects, an enviable public transit system, and the widespread implementation of electric-car charging stations prove Hawaii is at the forefront of the green movement. And the resorts and tourist havens fueling negative talk about Hawaii's future? They're only small portions of the islands' geography.
Mauna Lani Resort proves that size and number of amenities don't automatically relegate you to the environmental blacklist. This Kohala Coast resort on the Big Island has earned an impressive collection of awards for its stewardship of the land. Mauna Lani is a leader in solar power, with a three-acre field of panels providing a majority of the resort's electricity. The golf course was voted one of the world's 10 best thanks to its extensive list of eco-friendly traits, including a state-of-the-art watering system and grasses that are drought resistant and don't require extensive fertilization.
On the other end of the spectrum from Mauna Lani is Lova Lava Land. This hippie-themed haven is powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Rooms? How about a spacious yurt or recycled and renovated VW van? Other amenities like a composting toilet, bicycle rental and nonchemical cleaning products add to this offbeat resort's green cred. Proximity to the ocean and nearby lava fields make it a mainstream option as well.
Oahu's bus system is the most far-reaching in the state. Travel around Honolulu's Waikiki area can be accomplished quite conveniently on the bus. While other islands are sorely lacking when it comes to widespread public transit, there are plenty of green options. The greenest — bicycling — is entirely possible given the relatively small size of the islands and the perpetually warm, if not dry, weather.
The state is in the planning stages of a strategy that will see it reduce the need for fossil fuels by 70 percent over the next 20 years. One of the first parts of the plan involves installing charging stations for electric cars around the islands; between 50,000 and 100,000 charging stations will be installed in Hawaii over the next three years.
Agriculture has always been an important industry in Hawaii. Locally grown food is easy to come by, especially for those who venture into one of the many farmers markets held around the state every week. These festivals of food are part foodie's wonderland and part photographer's ongoing photo op. With the tropical climate, the farmers markets are the best places for mainlanders to get in touch with the islands' natural and exotic edibles.
There are even wild places on the more densely peopled islands of Maui and Oahu. Sites like the Ka'ena State Park, on Oahu's relatively remote leeward shore, offer a glimpse of what the majority of Hawaii's landscape once looked like without resorts and souvenir shops.
The island of Kauai is known for its natural landscapes. Its wild-looking highlands have drawn film crews for such movies as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Waimea Canyon State Park seduces visitors with numerous hiking trails and rugged scenery, not often associated with "postcard Hawaii." Trekkers would be hard-pressed to find the terrain, views and numerous unique specimens of flora and fauna anywhere on the mainland.
Anyone who's been to Hawaii knows that native Hawaiians (and those who have adopted the islands as their home) take great pride in their language and attach more than average importance to certain words. This practice stretches into the environmental realm as well.
From farmers to surfers to fisherman, the idea of kuleana (responsibility, ownership, concern) has influenced the way the Hawaiians interact with their land. Taking care of their natural surroundings is not merely "the right thing to do" — it's part of the culture.
For surfers on Oahu's north shore and Waimea Bay, and cliff divers at Lanai's Kaunolu Point, the idea of playing within nature has created a unique dynamic between sporting culture and the land. Environmental stewardship (malama'aina) flows naturally from these subcultures because nature is such a big part of their identities.
There's no arguing that Hawaii is a touristy destination. But a majority of the state's landscape is natural and much of the culture involves living with nature in practical and fun-loving ways.
(MNN homepage photo: Jeff Kubina/Flickr)