Thursday, 6 December 2012

Hawaii - More Time In Maui

Continuing our grand journey around the Hawaiian isles with Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Holidays, aboard the Pride of America…

Destination Hawaii – Maui, Pt 2

It’s Day Three of our grand Hawaiian adventure and, as usual, we’re wide awake at Silly O’Clock. With the five-hour time difference from Florida, we’re finding it difficult to sleep much past 6am (with our bodies still insisting it is 11am), but at least we’re getting plenty of time to experience both the ship and the destination!

This morning, we’ve been invited to breakfast at the Lazy J Steakhouse, which is usually reserved for suite guests but Norwegian would like us to get the full onboard experience, hence we are temporarily VIPs for the duration.

This breakfast option (which is also open to suite guests at lunchtime) provides a full alternative to either the main dining room or the Aloha Café buffet and is a wonderful idea for those who like that little ‘extra’ touch. It features a slightly more imaginative menu – including the likes of Crab Cakes Benedict and Smoked Salmon Frittata – as well as a full regular choice of fresh fruit, cereals and pastries, and a more relaxed vibe, hence it adds a real deluxe feel to the regular experience.

Once fully re-stocked (it is impossible to ever go hungry on a cruise, of course!), we are ready for the next item on our Hawaii agenda, which is the second full day on Maui and another chance to explore on our own with our trusty Dodge Caliber rental car (which we were able to park overnight right next to the ship – incredibly handy).

Our first target is to drive up the mountain of Haleakala and view the (dormant) volcano but, thanks to talking to our good friend Stewart Chiron (The Cruise Guy and general Hawaii expert), we know this is not a light undertaking.

Stewart had advised us to make this a morning priority while also being careful to stay fully hydrated and take some energy food with us to counter the effects of the quick journey to 10,000ft (as the altitude can be a problem if you’re not careful). We were also told it can be distinctly chilly at the summit, hence we dressed for a colder day than the standard 82F down at sea level.

Thankfully, we were blessed with superb weather nearly all the way – and an absolutely stunning experience as a result.

Haleakala forms the main part of Maui, dominating the eastern ‘half’ but, from a distance, looking less challenging than the more rugged western mountain portion. The perspective is a deceptive one, though, as the road up is long and winding (a real switchback in several places) and, with our desire to stop at regular intervals to enjoy the view and try to acclimatise a little, it takes us a full two hours to complete the drive.

With the near-perfect weather, we drive up through the ever-present layer of cloud around the mountain’s ‘midriff’ and emerge into clear, blue sunshine of the brightest and most inviting kind. It is immensely invigorating and – thankfully – we show no signs of being worried or affected by the big altitude difference.

It is $10/vehicle to enter Haleakala National Park and there are two separate visitor centres to enjoy, with plenty of information to take in and park rangers to talk to. We learn about the amazing and unique ecosystem atop the mountain, with plants like the remarkable Silversword, which blooms only once, right at the end of its near 50-year life cycle, and the Nene goose, Hawaii’s national bird, which lives in this rather bleak environment. There are also massive amounts of info on Haleakala and volcanoes in general, especially the Shield type which is basically all of Hawaii.

The vertical rise of the mountain causes some startling vegetation and other scenery changes, from heavy forest and lush tropical plants to open fields and then a more scrubby plant-life that then gives way to the rocky, arid summit.

The last 1,000ft or so is pure alien planet territory, an extensive volcanic field of rock and scree, but even that doesn’t prepare us for the view inside the crater itself.

Haleakala last erupted at the end of the 18th century and it is now possible to hike down into the crater from the main observation centre – a journey that takes you into the heart of a stunning vista of dormant cinder cones, red, iron-rich soil changes, huge boulders, craggy cliffs and vast stretches of volcanic scree and dust that disappear into the distance.

When JRR Tolkien was writing about the evil wastes of Mordor, he might very well have had the interior of Haleakala in mind. It is a view that amazes and boggles the mind, challenging the viewer to understand the immense forces of nature at work here, primal forces that have shaped the earth from the very beginning.

It is also a vista that shifts and alters from every angle (and there are numerous viewing points at the 10,023ft summit), including the ‘Science City’ of observatories and military tracking stations that live up here as well. We spend at least two hours observing, photographing and marvelling at this most astonishing of scenes, chatting to rangers and other visitors and just generally revelling in the experience.

We had thought we could fit in a trip to Lahaina on the other side of the island – the former Royal residence and whaling centre in the 19th century – but with the fact it will take us at least an hour to make the drive down, then another hour to get there, we decide that will be trying to cram too much into the day, especially as we need to return the car to the airport rental depot then be back at the ship by 5.30pm.

But we are immensely rewarded for our time on the mountain. It is a truly remarkable experience and one we will be keen to repeat in future, if at all possible. The weather had begun to close in as we lingered at the top, bringing in a thick veil of cloud and dropping the temperature by a good 10 degrees, hence we opted against a short hike into the crater itself. But this will certainly be on our ‘To Do’ list next time…!

Next up – The Big Island.