Saturday, July 27, 2013

Paradise Found


The deep sustained rumble of a massive climate control system provides a throbbing baseline for the morning’s soundtrack. A variety of invisible birds call to one another tropically, like trumpet fills or cymbal crashes above the din. A steady parade of delivery trucks and rental cars rumbles down the four-lane road in varying registers. Looking down through the balcony railing, I see a man in a printed shirt and outsized headphones operating an electric leaf blower nine stories below. He is tidying the blacktop around the four large dumpsters. To his left is a chaotic yard, visible from my perch on high,
but obscured at street level by deceptive and cleverly trimmed plumeria shrubs. Inside the yard, damaged lounge chairs are stacked like corpses on a battlefield, their rubber and vinyl cracked by the sun, legs broken and bent at odd angles. Several chaise lounges are respectfully covered by a tattered brown tarp. Most are left exposed, rotting in the heat. On the other side of the hidden yard are dead and dying kayaks. Like an enemy army, they have been set aside to oxidize and rust. They are bound together by bungee cords and laid out next to their fallen officers, two double-hulled paddle boats. Directly below me is an above-ground parking structure. Its pink stucco exterior is softened by a great mess of deliberately arranged palm trees. The palm fronds are dusted in a toxic-looking, bluish-white powder; fallout from the exhaust of the aforementioned climate control system. It has been a half an hour and no cars have come or gone from the parking lot. Like a Vegas casino or the Hotel California, the Grand Wailea prefers its guests to stay “on property.”

Our son has been up since 4:30, which is understandable since it is our first morning here and he is still on California time. He and his sister watch an episode of Looney Tunes, presciently downloaded by me before we left. When it comes to screentime, all bets are off when we’re on vacation and mommy wants to sleep in.

I lean over the metal railing of our balcony (I’m not sure what would make it a “lanai,” but I cannot call it that) for a glimpse of the sea and the island of Molokini in the distance. Most of the view is obscured by the Four Seasons, our neighbor hotel to the south. But I can still see a burgeoning swarm of small charter boats anchoring in the shelter of the tiny crater island. I imagine passengers outfitted with snorkeling gear that, only yesterday, was inside the steamy mouth of a college sophomore from ASU, here on a semi-forced vacation with his parents and trampy teenage sister. I picture scores of passengers diving awkwardly from platforms on the boats’ sterns. They fill the azure ocean like chum, their rented flippers undulating as they commune with ichthyological wonders. If only Captain Quint were on this balcony with me. “Eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945.” What a vacation story that would be.

Looney Tunes is over. Time for a late breakfast. Forgoing the $18 pancakes in one of the five hotel restaurants, we call for our rental car, a Mazda 2. We all agree this car is wonderful, though I suspect we’ve reached this conclusion for different reasons. I am in love with its absolute minimalism. Power windows and locks notwithstanding, this tiny vehicle is a model of spartan efficiency. Not one unneeded yen was spent on its design or engineering. It does nothing more than it was created to do; move people from one place to another more quickly than a bicycle. No GPS. No Bluetooth. No voice commands or satellite radio. I badly want to own this car. The kids, I suspect, like it because it is not one of our cars. Upper-middle class children do not covet what they can’t have. They covet what they don’t have. Which is slightly less galling in its way and, if I’m honest with myself, is probably a close cousin of the reason I want the car.

We drive into Kehei in search of the Kehei Caffe, a breakfast spot that looked good on the internet and has an apparent air of locals-might-actually-go-here authenticity. We park on a side street next to a surfboard rental kiosk and a defunct wave pool. Rounding the corner we encounter a line of people protruding from the restaurant’s front door like an umbilical cord. The place looks charming in a funky beach town way. Its exterior is adorned in fading green paint that is apparently sold by the gallon at the Hawaiian Benjamin Moore outlet.

30 odd plastic tables litter the patio that fronts the busy beachfront thoroughfare. We join the queue outside the door. There are eight groups ahead of us. Tattooed waitresses emerge periodically, carrying large platefuls of scrumptious-looking food to diners who presumably arrived several hours earlier. The line moves slowly but steadily. Within 20 minutes we are one step away from the portal to deliciousness. The family in front of us disappears inside. Our approach to the door is thwarted by a sexy, dreadlocked, surfer chick waitress who admonishes to keep the doorway clear.

Another five minutes passes before a less attractive waitress informs us that we can go inside. We step through the door to find another queue zig-zagging around a cordon, giving the distinct impression that we are all waiting to check our luggage. The extra time gives my eight-year-old a chance to review the chalkboard menu. She announces that she will have the #1 (two eggs any style, home fries, bacon, and a biscuit), the #5 (three large pancakes with mac nut butter, maple syrup, and chocolate chips), a frosted cinnamon roll (the house specialty), and a vitamin water (red). I try to remember what I told myself when we planned this trip: Say “yes” as often as possible. But I can’t help it.

“Honey, that’s a lot of food.”

“(Disappointed.)”

“Why don’t you pick two of those?”

“(Fuck you. You don’t even know. Why can’t you trust me to make my own decisions?)”

“I just don’t think you’re going to be able to eat all that.”

“(Thanks for ruining my vacation.)”

We get the cinnamon roll to go.

After a stop at Foodland and a natural food store to stock up on provisions, we return to the Grand Wailea to spend the day enjoying the hotel’s 28,000 square feet of swimming pools, including seven water slides, a lazy river, a rope swing, water volleyball, and a swim-up bar.

My wife conceived of this trip. Originally, we were going to “spontaneously” take the kids to Disneyland, withholding our destination for as long as possible for maximum you-are-the-coolest-parents-ever effect. I suggested the Hawaiian alternative on the premise that, even on a trip that is nominally “all about the kids,” it is reasonable for the parents to enjoy themselves, too; a prospect that seemed much more feasible in a Polynesian Paradise than in Anaheim.

According to extensive research on the World Wide Web, the Grand Wailea is reputed to be the best destination in Maui for families. Why I thought this reputation fell into the “best kept secret” category is a mystery, but when we arrive at the pools after a ten minute walk from our room, it becomes immediately clear than I am not the only parent with a computer.

There are easily a thousand people here; ranging from four to 84, anorexic to morbidly obese, private cabana reservers to showcase showdown winners. The variety is reassuring; though the sheer volume is mortifying.

After a prolonged search, we find three empty lounge chairs without an umbrella on a grassy area away from the pools. (There is a waiting list for sheltered seating.) My wife liberally spackles our alabaster children with $28 sunscreen that contains not one harmful ingredient, nor, I suspect, much actual protection from the sun.

My son cannot swim, a fact the limits that amount of fun he can have in a swimming pool. My daughter gleefully plunges into the not especially clear water and asks, inexplicably, if we can play volleyball.

“Don’t you want to try the slides?”

“(Can’t you just let me do what I want to do?)”

“Okay, but I’m going to have to hold your brother.”

“(I don’t even know why you brought him.)”

The boy clings to my back like a frightened spider monkey, making sustained rallies difficult. His untrimmed fingernails carve a map of the Hawaiian Islands into my rapidly crisping shoulders. His sister mercifully loses interest and asks if I’ll go on the slides with her. I pass my son to his mother and follow the girl through the teeming water until we reach The World’s Only Water Elevator!

The World’s Only Water Elevator! is a heavily marketed component of the hotel’s swimming industrial complex. I had been unable to visualize it from the descriptions on the internet. Luckily, there is a 15 minute waterborne wait, giving me ample time to wrap my head around it.

The World’s Only Water Elevator! is a three-story cylindrical shaft fashioned out of faux lava rock. At its base is a large, partially submerged metal door with a bank vault-style handle and a small round window. We cannot see what’s behind the door, but it gives the every indication of being a death chamber.

Neither my daughter or I is especially confident about wading inside, but the eight or ten veteran passengers bobbing nearby assure us that it is mild and safe.

Finally, a muscular island youth in a logoed hotel swimshirt drifts through the gathered crowd, ducks under the floating rope that has held us back, and, at great effort, forces the chamber door open. He politely asks to see our wristbands; proof that we are paying for this. We file in grimly and take seats on an enormous life preserver that rings a pole in the center of the chamber. The metal door is sealed and locked. Despite the Nazi-esque, twelve-at-a-time efficiency of the thing, no one, not even my daughter, seems appropriately terrified. Our feet dangle into the water, which begins to churn slightly, like a clogged hot tub. Slowly, glacially, our life preserver begins to rise as water fills the chamber from below. We revolve clockwise at the pace of a secondhand. After a minute or so, we have reached the top of the World’s Most Boring Water Ride! As we exit, a hotel employee thanks us for riding The World’s Only Water Elevator! which “was built in 1999 at a cost of $1.3 million and uses 18,000 gallons of water.” Take that, country of Sudan!

Three hours and countless lazy river rides later, it is time for a break. Even the children seem ready. We return to the room for some healthy snacks and a quasi-siesta. The television is soon on and I am back on the balcony, looking through the railing. Below me, near the entrance to the parking lot, a gigantic man in a hotel uniform is polishing the pavement with a spinning buffer machine. Why is he buffing the street? I wonder. Nibbling on flavorless crackers and cheese, I recall my father's Army story of the time he was ordered to dispose of thousands of perfectly edible grapefruit because they were not on the “master menu.” Some tasks are meant to be performed, not analyzed.

My nose tells me that the afternoon heat has begun to cook the garbage in the dumpsters below. I step back into our air conditioned room for an olfactory reprieve. Inside, the kids are jumping from bed to bed over a pit of hot lava. My wife has the look of a woman who would like to not be around her children for a while.

“Come on, kids. Mommy's going to get some exercise. Let's go on an adventure.”

“Where?” they ask automatically.

“I don’t know!” But we're going to love it.

I call ahead to have the Mazda 2 brought around to the South Entrance. We pile in with three bottles of water and no idea where to go. I turn right on the four-lane road and drive south. Within a mile or two, the condos and resorts disappear. The road narrows to a single lane and drops to the edge of the sea. Waves crash against the volcanic shore, practically spraying the car with sea foam.
“Whoa!” the kids squeal, hoping the spray will reach us.

“Dad, look!” my daughter calls, pointing to three, native-looking, shirtless boys perched on a seaside cliff, manning 14-foot fishing poles.

“Why are they fishing, dad” my son asks existentially.

“I think they’re catching dinner, son.”

“Oh,” he says, satisfied with the obviousness of my answer.

The afternoon sun has fallen behind a silvery cloud. The fishing boys are backlit cinematically. I pull over, tempted to get out of the car, but something tells me we were not cast in this scene.

The road becomes narrower and rougher as we continue south. Gradually, the trees and shrubs disappear and are replaced by a Martian landscape of dried lava. Before long, we are surround by an enormous field of cooled magma. We travel bumpily along the deserted road, as if entering a science fiction novel.

“Dad, what is this?” the backseat asks.

“It’s a lava flow.”

“Like hot lava?”

“Yes, only now it’s cooled,” I say, pointing to the conical protrusion halfway up Haleakala and offering a half-baked explanation for how this landscape came to exist.

“Hot lava! We’re in hot lava!” the boy shouts. His sister joins the chant and I reflect on the universal childhood fascination with lava. The kids imagine the eruption and ask a dozen questions to which I must invent answers.

We reach the end of the road; a small parking lot at La Perouse Bay, occupied by five vehicles. We walk toward the rocky shore, the kids handling pieces of pumice and coral as I stare admiringly at four unwetsuited surfers catching wave after perfect wave.

A well-trod path heads from the small beach across the lava flow. The children accept my invitation for a hike without hesitation, my son talking ceaselessly and tripping frequently as we travel the uneven path. After a half mile, we pause to admire the crashing waves that shoot foamy spray through hidden chambers and tunnels below. I explore a tidepool filled with brightly colored fish and an angry hermit crab. Behind me, at a safe distance from the ocean, the kids scramble over porous boulders, collecting pieces of coral.

“Dad, look!” calls my daughter.

They have written We’re In Hawaii in white coral against the dark brown lava rock.

We hike for another mile before encountering two handmade crosses set against the backdrop of the ocean. The seaside memorial is decorated with shells and trinkets. It is clean and cared for. The kids ask, and I speculate that surfers died here, but I admit I don’t really know. The site is beautiful, not ominous. I am left with the sense that it is a place of peace for those who visit regularly.

The sun emerges from the clouds. It is drifting into the sea north of the deserted island of Kaho’Olawe. The day is ending. We turn back and walk toward the car, stopping less frequently. Facing the descending sun as we hike, we pass the children’s coral sign. Someone has made another one; Hawaii 2013. The sun reaches for the ocean, dimming the sky’s rheostat from silvery blue to shimmering gold.

Suddenly, to the right of the path, a black goat appears. Cobbling his way along the chunky boulders, he parallels us for a hundred yards, eyeing us with curiosity, but not caution. There is no farm anywhere near this place. He seems to have come from nowhere. Perhaps he is a stray from a ranch halfway up the slopes of Heleakala. I prefer to think he is a conjured companion, a harmless igneous creation, emerged from the lava to guide us home in the half-light.

The children are spread out behind me, walking in solitary contemplation. Each picks up the occasional
stone and casts it with perfect form into the crashing surf. Back at the parking lot, two surfers stand by a rusting pick-up truck, swigging beers and sharing tugs from a pint of Jim Beam. Two others are still
in the waves, catching final rides in the golden sea.

In the car, the kids chug water and ask about dinner. We meet their mother at the hotel and walk to a restaurant that is farther away than we thought. Dinner is good. The chocolate cream pie is better. On the walk back, my son makes us laugh so hard that my wife must seek refuge in a roadside shrub to keep from wetting her pants, which only makes us laugh harder and forget what started us laughing in the first place.

We are in bed by 9:30; the boy with me, the girl with her mother.

It is 5:30 a.m. now. A slight improvement over the first morning. The boy watches Ninjago on the laptop while the two girls snuffle in bed. Below the balcony, the HVAC is humming and the leaf blower is whining again. Exhaust pipes spew dust on the palms and an over-matched woman adds another victim to the lawn chair graveyard.

But my attention is elsewhere. This morning I’m looking above the railing to the slopes of Heleakala, the clouds forming near its peak. I see the road heading south to the lava flow, knowing that, in a little while, its four lanes become one, and that anyone who travels far enough will find what they are looking for.