The 50th state turns 50

President Dwight Eisenhower officially proclaimed Hawaii the 50th state on August 21, 1959. Celebrating 50 years of statehood in 2009, this joyous milestone deserves special attention. I traveled to the Aloha state to experience my little slice of the joy.

As my plane landed in Honolulu, I had doubts whether this journey would be as magical as my previous sojourns. This was my 30th visit to the islands, so I feared I might get the “been there, done that” blues. Blue Hawaii was just as charming and delightful as it had always been, and I realized it as soon as I exited the plane and took a deep breath of invigorating seaside air fragranced by plumeria.

It was a pleasant flight. Northwest Airlines announced a last-minute US$250 first-class upgrade, which I couldn’t resist. Considering I was flying on a mileage award ticket for free anyway, I felt 250 greenbacks to fly premium class was too good to turn down. Funny thing was, they wouldn’t accept their own frequent-flyer miles as currency for the upgrades – they only wanted cold hard cash.

The greeters outside baggage claim directed us to the Roberts Hawaii coaches, which were queued up and ready to board excited visitors bound for Waikiki hotels. With over 65 years in the business, Roberts Hawaii has the longest-running shuttle service with the largest fleet in the islands. Boarding a Roberts Hawaii coach was almost like being greeted by old friends. Within twenty minutes, we arrived at our first week’s hotel, the Ohana Waikiki East.

I’ve always been a fan of the Ohana chain and recommend it to young families for its outstanding value. Free high-speed, in-room Internet connection, free lobby access Wi-Fi, free telephone calls to the entire USA and Canada, and free passage on the pink line trolley through Waikiki to the magnificent Ala Moana Park and shopping center are just highlights of the family-friendly amenities offered by Ohana (the Hawaiian word for family).

The Ohana Waikiki East is situated on the former estate of Crown Princess Victoria Kaiulani, niece of the last two monarchs. The Ohana East lies adjacent to the Princess Kaiulani Hotel, named in honor of the beautiful, young heiress to the Hawaiian throne.

It was here, on January 24, 1889, the brilliant Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, arrived on the schooner Casco and quickly became friends with the royal family. He spent hours mentoring the princess and spinning tales of great adventure. The original stone bench upon which the two basked under the tropical sun remains as a historic treasure and is on permanent display at the Kaiulani hotel.

Our cheery room on Ohana East’s penthouse floor, 1914, faces Diamond Head and overlooks the former properties of Queens Liliuokalani and Kapiolani, as well as a triangle of park reserve dedicated to Princess Kaiulani’s memory. From our lanai were sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the sands of Waikiki Beach. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls offered a magnificent view of thousands of city lights by night and inspiring mountain rainbows by day. Each morning, tiny colorful birds arrived on our lanai to sing for crackers. At one point, fifteen red, orange, gold, and yellow birds converged upon the railing and sang in their version of “harmony” in exchange for buttery Ritz(R) treats. They were too cute to resist, at times eating directly from our hands.

A few steps from the Ohana East hotel is a stop for the pink line trolley, which we used extensively to navigate the tourist zone. These novel vehicles are classic street reproductions of San Francisco cable cars, complete with authentic brass and wood trimmings. At the far end of Waikiki is a trolley stop in front of our favorite casual restaurant, Wolfgang Puck Express, whose delectable rosemary chicken and herbed potatoes plate is ambrosia seasoned by a spectacular view of the turquoise waters lapping the sugary sands of the iconic beach.

In thirty visits to Hawaii, I’ve never seen the streets so lightly populated. The sidewalks and roads in Waikiki seem to be 40 to 50 percent less busy than typical at high season. Hotel rates are clearly the best I’ve seen in years, and the wholesalers are offering specials worth writing home about.

A two-minute walk from the Ohana East is the ocean stage behind the Duke Kahanamoku statue. Several times a week, a troupe of Hawaiian singers and hula dancers grace the stage to perform a free show as the sun sets on Waikiki. On more than one evening, we saw dozens of children from local dance schools on stage, all dolled up in traditional costumes, performing their hearts out.

Re-enacting the ancient religious hula has evolved into cultural enrichment, performed largely as secular entertainment. There are still some enclaves of traditionalists who consider artistic performances of hula to be blasphemy against the aboriginal Hawaiian deities, but for most contemporary dancers, it’s just artistic expression.

Ancient hula was always performed exclusively by men; were a woman caught in the action, the penalty was death. The ancient Hawaiian traditions were so misogynistic that Queens Kaahumanu and Kapiolani, the two most powerful people in the kingdom at the time of Kamehameha II’s ascent to the throne, convinced the child-king to abolish the ancient Hawaiian religion in 1819. The royal family then ordered the people to burn the wooden statues and tear down the rock temples. Note that this was prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1820.

Abandoning the ancient Hawaiian religion was rather inevitable since the populations witnessed sailors breaking a number of kapus and yet were never struck down by lightning, nor did they suffer the wrath of vindictive gods and goddesses for doing something abominable like men eating dinner at the same table as women.

Unfortunately, trashing the religion had inconveniences for the alii; hitherto they were regarded as gods. However, they quickly cottoned on to the Christians across the seas who espoused the attractive concept of the “divine right of kings.” Hence, Hawaiian aristocracy welcomed the Christian missionaries with open arms.

Hawaiian hospitality has been renowned ever since.

One of the finest specialists in Hawaiian hospitality is Roberts Hawaii Tours. There are dozens of tour operators in the state, but to be honest, after some bad experiences, I’m afraid to tour with any of Roberts’ competitors. One year, my sister happened upon a homeless-looking person passing out tour flyers on the street corner and booked a sunset cruise from them. The sunset cruise wound up being some fisherman’s boat used to catch nasty smelling fish during the daytime. For entertainment, the crew dressed my brother-in-law and cousin in tacky plastic hula skirts and coconut bras, making them dance for us. The dinner tasted like recycled cardboard.

Another bad experience was on a so-called, circle-island tour offered by a company making its office in the attic of a tourist junk hawker. The tour van that arrived in front of our hotel was a rusted-out Volkswagen from the early 70s driven by an unkempt geriatric hippie who apparently lived in a little grass shack with no shower. He rigged his van with speakers fastened by duct tape to the interior roof. The upholstery reeked of cannabis and some other mystery effluvium. He then proceeded to drive us around to every imaginable tourist junk vendor offering a commission to “tour guides.” And now, the bad news: he didn’t know jack, despite supposedly living in Hawaii all his life.

Roberts Hawaii is the only tour company I trust. My favorite tour is their “Moonlight and Magic” combo, which picks up guests just a few steps from the front doors of the Ohana East hotel.

The “Moonlight and Magic” combo is comprised of two excursions back to back – the first being a romantic cruise aboard the Alii Kai Catamaran, which sails Honolulu’s environs, followed by the Magic of Polynesia Show Spectacular located in the showroom of the Ohana Beachcomber Hotel (another really nice property, by the way.)

Our sunset cruise aboard the Alii Kai (“Ruler of the Sea”) included a large buffet dinner featuring carved roast sirloin of beef with cabernet sauce and creamy horseradish sauce, grilled chicken with a ginger and soy sauce glaze garnished with oriental vegetables, sautéed island mahi-mahi with macadamia nut butter sauce garnished with spring vegetables, pasta with your choice of marinara sauce or pesto cream sauce, mashed potatoes, steamed rice, Hawaiian sweet rolls, and butter.

Live entertainment included music selected from the expanses of Polynesia accompanied by elaborately-costumed young men and ladies. My favorite selection was the graceful poi ball twirling, synchronized to marvelous Maori melodies. The upper balcony gave guests the opportunity to breathe the fresh sea air and watch for spinner dolphins. As a vessel, Roberts’ Alii Kai is special to ride because firstly, it is the world’s largest Polynesian catamaran, and notably, for its exotic profile and elaborately carved tiki god statues ornamenting the bow of its twin hulls.

At the end of our romantic voyage, luxury coaches transferred us to the Ohana Beachcomber to enjoy “The Magic of Polynesia” starring John Hirokawa. Not to be missed, this is not any ordinary cheesy magician’s lair. The showroom is a massive Disney-esque volcano and lava flow stage laden with sophisticated lighting and earth-shaking surround sound.

Woven into the series of illusions are Polynesian themes, like a Hawaiian warrior that anthropomorphized into a terrifying deity. Then, a silken tarp veiled an empty stage for only a couple of seconds, and when it dropped, a full-sized tourist helicopter emerged from the void. Between stagecraft changes, three beautiful young ladies danced to the hauntingly beautiful Hawaiian tune, E O Mai, by Kealii Reichel. The grand finale was a touching tale of snowfall crowning the majestic mountain, Mauna Kea. After tearing some white paper napkins into tiny pieces, Hirokawa breathes life into the confetti, creating a blizzard of snowfall cascading into the theatre. It was an illusion of wonder and pathos.

We spent our second week in Hawaii aboard a floating Nirvana – Norwegian Cruise Lines’ (NCL) Pride of America. Our balcony stateroom was decorated in a rich Gauguin motif, the perfect inspiration for sailing the deep blue Hawaiian waters. NCL is the only cruise line with a wholly Hawaiian itinerary, granting more time to savor the islands’ feast for the senses.

We were so pleased to learn we could book Roberts Tours for each port along the way and even more pleased to discover the prices were almost half of similar excursions sold onboard the ship. Our cruise contract stated the shore excursions are not owned or operated by NCL, so we felt no particular need or ethical duty to endorse them. We were truly impressed by the large variety of options offered by Roberts shore excursions and can’t say enough good things about them.

It was so pleasant to hear the Roberts’ bus drivers speak in the national language rather than in local dialect – we could understand their narrations perfectly. There’s nothing more disappointing than paying for a tour and having the guide bastardize the language so severely that it becomes our chore to decipher the mumbo jumbo. He who aspires to use speech as a major part of his profession should likewise have the aspiration to speak like a professional. It’s not that difficult to turn on a television and listen to Anderson Cooper or Charles Gibson to learn what the national language is supposed to sound like.

Our driver in Hilo, Doug, was highly knowledgeable of the botanical varieties that flourished in the area. He took us down a country road to witness the beautiful Akaka Falls, then to see giant waves of turquoise waters crash with a furor into lava-flow beaches.

The journey from Hilo to Kona was one of the cruise’s highlights. Our tall, dark, and handsome concierge, James Lines, gave us invaluable tips for enjoying the spectacular natural beauty of the islands. He knew exactly what time of day the ship passed which breathtaking sites and where to position ourselves on the ship for optimum viewing.

The most comfortable place to watch the hot lava flow from Kilauea volcano was from our stateroom balcony, which was kept squeaky clean by our charming steward hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, one Katherine McKay. Katherine recommended we splurge on a premium dining restaurant serving Italian cuisine, and she was spot on all week long with perfect assessments of the ship’s many fabulous features.

It was almost eerie in the way the staff almost read our minds. About two minutes after I said, “I could use an extension cord,” the stateroom supervisor, Chris Sermons, a cherubic young man from Virginia Beach knocked upon our door inquiring if there was anything we needed. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, an extension cord was delivered courtesy of NCL.

The ship is gorgeous. I was mesmerized by the shimmering stars accenting the patriotic velveteen draperies in the formal dining room. It promulgated an almost ethereal ambiance of glory and tradition, inspiring a sincere pride in my American heritage. But I guess that is the whole idea behind the décor on a ship called “Pride of America.”

It’s a small, small world on the Pride of America, and I’m not just talking about the cabin restrooms. We happened upon Charley Dubinsky, schoolmaster of Cruise and Travel University, and sixty pupils attending his seminar at sea.

Marco and I attended one of Charley’s seminars directly following Cruise 360 one spring. We were fortunate to have not only Charley’s expertise but also special speakers like Marc Mancini. A professor at West Los Angeles College, Dr. Mancini has taught college-level courses in communications, French, travel, critical writing, cinema, and humanities.

We also were thrilled to have the effusive Dave Stockert from Holland American Line at our seminar. He is the author of the witty Idea Machine books for travel agents.

We popped in on one of Charley’s newest seminars held on the Pride of America. The classroom facilities were awesome. I was a little envious of these travel agents getting the country club seminar, especially after having been frozen for a week on the boot-camp version that Charley lead on a Carnival ship. Carnival had the air conditioning on so strong that I had to wear my cabin’s blankets to class. It was brutal.

The travel agents attending Cruise and Travel University on Pride of America got to go to all kinds of fun excursions like sunset and stargazing at Haleakala National Park, Smith’s Tropical Paradise Garden Luau, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – and more. I got the chance to attend one of the fun trips with them along the Kona Coast, sponsored by the Big Island CVB. Thanks to the meticulous planning by Deanna Isbister, leisure sales manager at the Big Island Visitors Bureau, the travel agents were treated to rich chocolates and exotic coffees at the Royal Kona coffee plantation, visited St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church (The Painted Church), and explored the Hale O Keawe heiau at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.

Wow, Cruise and Travel University has come a long way since the days when it felt like a work camp in Siberia.

Georgia Brown, a travel agent from Ottawa Travel and Cruises in Ottawa Illinois, attended Cruise and Travel University on the Pride of America. She related, “I’ve been on 45 cruises so far. I’ve sailed on Crystal, Azamara, Silver Seas, and Holland America, but I find the service here to be very good. I’m impressed with this ship, and I love the Cadillac diner.”

I agree. Sailing the Pride of America was the perfect way to see all the major islands with maximum comfort. Visiting these islands by aircraft would have been an expensive pain in the neck, with all the airport hassles and uncomfortable transfers required. I speak from experience – I’ve tried doing it with air passes before. It’s not worth it. Cruising Hawaii offers more bang for the buck within a stress-free environment.

At the end of the cruise, we boarded a car rental shuttle from the port to the rental station. On board the shuttle were a group of travelers who avoided the ship’s official excursion vendors all week.

They were singing the praises of Roberts Tours and how happy they were with their daytrips. They really loved their tour to Hanalei on the north shore of Kauai. The beach at Hanalei was selected number one on “Dr. Beach” Stephen P. Leatherman’s 2009 list of top ten beaches. Hanalei was the location for the 1958 musical film South Pacific. Scenes were filmed in the town itself and at Lumahai Beach to the west of Hanalei, where Mitzi Gaynor “washed that man right out of her hair.”

Tom and Sue Fulmele, travel agents from Boomerang Travel LLC in Stuart, Florida, took the helicopter tour over Kauai. They exuded, “Although you can see the Na Pali coastline by taking a boat tour, there is nothing in this world that can compare with the view from 2,000 feet. It is simply the most spectacular attraction in all of the islands.”

Our final week in Waikiki began during the Pan Pacific festival and parade, which we watched from the comfort of our sixth floor balcony at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel. A humongous stage was erected on Waikiki Beach to accommodate endless troupes performing Polynesian dances before hundreds of spectators.

NCL transferred our bags directly from the ship to the Sheraton so it made the transfer a very smooth process. Free Internet stations in the lobby of the hotel also added to a most pleasant stay. Its location is superb, directly across from the grand lady, the Moana Surfrider, where the venerable radio show “Hawaii Calls” was broadcast from beneath the giant banyan tree for decades.

We usually dread our last day in Hawaii, sitting around bored stiff, waiting for the inevitable coach to the airport. This year we tried something very different – we went on an exciting dolphin-watching cruise from Hawaii Nautical at Ko Olina, on the airport side of Honolulu. Ko Olina, meaning “Place of Joy,” is a resplendent tropical paradise spanning two miles of pristine shoreline flanked by swaying palms.

Guests snorkeled above a tropical reef teaming with zillions of colorful fish. Included on our catamaran cruise were a chilled lunch, frosty beers, unlimited soft drinks, and new snorkels for guests’ use.

A nicely-shaded area on the catamaran also had clean tables for picnicking or writing. Most people chose to go up on deck to enjoy the sunny day and witness the nearly one hundred dolphin sightings that occurred during this afternoon sail. A generous portion of ticket proceeds are earmarked for the Hawaii Nautical Marine Life Foundation, which funds educational programs and furthers efforts to protect marine wildlife in Hawaii. See to learn about their educational excursions.

Our trip back to the mainland began with a most bizarre experience. The check-in agent at Delta Airlines did not know how to process luggage that was routed Honolulu to Houston on Delta, then Houston to Detroit on Continental. Even stranger, she charged me for baggage, but did not charge Marco, saying he did not have to pay baggage fees because he held a foreign passport. Her understanding of the rules was that international citizens, rather than passengers on international flights, were exempt from baggage fees for the first two bags. Who were we to argue with the expert? Her strange interpretation of the rules saved us US$40 – a humble but tangible amount to apply toward our trip back to Hawaii next year.

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