We were driving through a windy pastureland that could have doubled for the coast of Ireland.
"Look over there." Our 18-year-old son, Ben, pointed to a knot of gnarled trees. Nearby, cows grazed the long brown grass. "You know, there are a thousand different places we could be, but Hawaii isn't one of them." And yet Hawaii was exactly where we were.
"Land of a thousand places" became the standing joke during our two-week trip to the islands of Hawaii and Maui. Every time the four of us saw a different landscape, we'd chime in: "You know, there are a thousand different places "
By the time we came to the mini-Ireland part of the Big Island, we'd already swum face-to-gill with candy-colored fish, toured a coffee plantation, walked atop ancient stone walls and explored young lava fields.
And that was just during our first full day.
"The environment changes every 20 minutes," said Sam, Ben's 15-year-old brother.
Hawaii's quick-change artistry turned out to be perfect for teens. My husband, John, and I traveled here last summer with friends Terry Miller and John Fuller and their kids, Amy, 14, and Woody, 15. All four teenagers, like the rest of their species, had energy, curiosity and the attention span of fruit flies. But not once in two weeks was the word "borrrrring" uttered.
The key was to keep moving. We knew that one of those thousand different places was bound to turn up just down the road.
On that first full day, we drove counterclockwise from the busy Kona coast, halfway around the island to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. By the time we got to our rental cottage, a few miles outside the park, we'd made more than a dozen stops.
The first came a couple of thousand feet up from the coast in Kona coffee country. Dozens of coffee farms are hidden in and under the semi-jungle on the slopes of the island's central volcanic mountains. Several of the farms offer tours and free samples. We picked Holualoa Kona Coffee Co. just outside the town of Holualoa. Had this been a class in coffee production, our teens might have nodded off. But nothing piques even the most blasé teen's interest like walking among the trees, seeing ripe coffee beans redder than Rudolph's nose, and smelling what Ben, now a freshman at the University of Chicago, called "the platonic essence of coffee."
Sam, the entrepreneurial brother, wanted to know how much bean pickers earned.
"An exceptional coffee picker can pick up to 700 pounds a day," said tour guide Cindy Kure. "The pay is about 35 to 50 cents a pound."
Sam's eyes lighted up. "That's $350 a day! Why do I still go to school?" Because the work is grueling, there are no benefits and most pickers average from 200 to 300 pounds a day. Keep studying that chemistry, Sam.
We drove south to Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, a beautiful lagoon that was once a sanctuary and home to alii — royal chiefs. With its 500-year-old stone walls, ancient petroglyphs and reconstructed temples, it's a great place to get a sense of Hawaii's cultural history.
But it's an even better place for exploring and splashing, which is more fun than an organized activity and a lot cheaper. That is an important consideration in Hawaii, where some things are eye-poppingly expensive. (A gallon of milk costs more than $6.) The kids climbed palm trees, walked across black lava beds smoothed by infinite tides and spotted their first sea turtles.
There was no splashing but plenty of exploring at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We allocated only two days there, and it wasn't enough. One of life's great experiences is watching molten earth ooze close enough to singe your leg hairs.
"I'm standing on liquid fire!" Sam shouted the first time he saw a lava flow.
For hit-and-run tourists like us, the keys to Volcanoes Park are Crater Rim Drive and Chain of Craters Road. We spent much of our first day on and off the 11-mile Rim Drive, which loops around the huge, now-quiescent Kilauea Caldera. We stopped every few hundred yards to explore steam vents, sulfur deposits and orchid-dappled fern forests.
The park's Thomas A. Jaggar Museum offers Hawaiian myth and lava lore. We learned that Puu Oo, the Big Island's most volcanically active area, belches out about 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide fumes a day — enough to fill 100 blimps. And it spews about half a million cubic yards of lava a day — enough to pave the 19-mile Chain of Craters road 15 times.
The Thurston Lava Tube was the highlight of the day. It's a 2,000-foot-long cavern below the surface of a solidified lava field that once acted as a lava canal. The first part of the tube is lighted, the second part is dark — perfect for spooky flashlight fun.
By midafternoon, the heavy mist became a downpour — rain forest is yet another of Hawaii's "thousand places" — so we returned to our cottage, played games, read and napped away the remaining jet lag.
The next morning, we drove the Chain of Craters road, down the south-eastern slope of Kilauea, to the Puu Oo area. The teens loved the road signs half-buried in hardened black lava.
Lava has been burbling out of the Puu Oo vent since 1983; in 1990 the flow destroyed the small coastal village of Kalapana. But forget shooting geysers of molten rock. Lava doesn't work that way, or at least not often. It oozes out of the ground like molasses from hell. We walked a mile or so across the crusty lava field, as dark as melted chocolate, to that day's freshest flow. The closer we got, the hotter it got.
The lava flows are monitored by park rangers and can be dangerous. There were times when the electric red lava bubbled right beneath the rock we were standing on. A word of fashion advice: Wear thick-soled shoes. The rocks are hot.
"It doesn't look real," Ben said as he watched tongues of glowing, 2,000-degree lava seep by him. "It looks like a Hollywood version of lava, like a special effect." Sam and Woody threw old lava chunks at one of the fresh flows, but the hot lava was so thick the rocks just bounced off.
Our final destination that day was a B&B outside Waimea, on the opposite side of the island. On the way, we watched surfers at Honolii Beach Park and hiked down a slippery jungle path to Onomea Bay where the boys found coconuts lying near the water, begging to be smashed. They willingly obliged.
By the time we got to Waimea, it was early evening but light enough to see we'd ended up in southern Colorado. At least that's what Hawaii's horse country looked like to us. The next day we drove the Kohala Mountain Road through the 200,000-acre Parker Ranch, with its dry grasslands strewn with cattle and cactuses. Arizona? New Mexico?
Eventually we got to the Kohala coast, an area punctuated with beaches and fancy resorts. After a long swim break, we returned to Kona, having circumnavigated the Big Island in four days.
Next stop: Maui — on a 10-seat commuter plane.
Learning to surf Both families set up base camp in the Kanai A Nalu condos at Maalaea Bay. "Maui Revealed" (Wizard Publications), our Hawaii bible for most things, warned against staying in this area, calling it smelly, windy and buggy. It wasn't smelly or buggy while we were there. As for the wind, where in Maui isn't it windy? The Maalaea condos are centrally located, cheap (by Hawaii standards) and offer oceanfront accommodations.
Over a communal breakfast, the kids announced the first order of business: "Surfing!"
So we drove 16 miles west to Lahaina and turned them over to the Royal Hawaiian Surf Academy and Freddy Hoette, an aging surfer who promised he could teach anyone — including our first-timers — to ride the waves in five easy moves.
"My job is to get you up on that board as many times as I can," he said by way of introduction. "Right here is where the magic starts."
Freddy, a Hawaiian native, is as lean and tough as a piece of beef jerky. He's been surfing for 40 of his 45 years and has the scars, sun-bleached hair and Zen take on life to prove it.
He was as good as his word. Everyone caught waves.
Aside from the surf lessons, our only other organized (read expensive) activity was the Old Lahaina Luau, the islands' best-known luau. It's a nightly extravaganza of food, music and dancing — complete with orchid leis and hula lessons. It's fun, even magical. As waves crashed against the nearby seawall, the dancers and singers acted out the legends of Hawaiian history on the outdoor stage.
The best part came when guests were invited up to dance to "Hawaiian Wedding Song." Nothing embarrasses teenagers like dancing parents.
We kept moving all week. One day, we drove through the island's central plain, along thousands of acres of sugarcane fields, to the Iao Valley. This wooded gorge features the Iao Needle, a spire of rock that's a remnant from an ancient volcano. It's also the site of the great massacre of 1790 that consolidated the rule of warrior king Kamehameha I over all Hawaii.
After the Needle, we hiked the Waihee Valley Trail, just outside Wailuku. This is a can't-miss activity. The trail is something out of Indiana Jones: jungle, swinging bridges and a trailside flume of water that the teens rode back down the hill.
Next we hit Highway 340, one of Maui's two notorious coast roads. With narrow stretches and as many twists and turns as a hula dancer, 340 lived up to its reputation. We almost got sideswiped twice by cars barreling around hairpin curves. We decided we needed a break. So we parked and hiked down a cliff to the Olivine Pools, a series of gorgeous swimming holes carved by the tides into a black lava shelf that juts into the ocean.
Before the adults had stripped to their bathing suits, the teens were diving in, creating tides of their own.
By the time we got to Honolua Bay, on the northwest edge of the island, the coast road was no longer a hula, but an easy waltz. Honolua is a well-known snorkeling spot, so back in the water we went. Even in the deepening light we could see the rainbow-colored fish Hawaii is famous for.
We took on Maui's other twisty coast road, the famed "Hana Highway," a couple of days later. We went only about five miles — just far enough to get us to another Indiana Jones trail we read about in "Maui Revealed." This one was through a bamboo forest that led to pools and waterfalls fed by rainwater washing down the slopes of Maui's eastern volcano, Haleakala. "Now we're in China," said Sam, as he hung on to a bent-over bamboo stalk to keep from sliding down the slippery trail.
Our final Maui adventure began at 3 in the morning — a sunrise pilgrimage to Haleakala National Park. The roads were clogged with buses, cars and vans full of bicycles that would take tourists on bike trips down the mountain after the sun came up.
We arrived at 4:35 and, for the first time in Hawaii, we were cold. The summit was already jammed with sunrise watchers, all bundled in blankets and multiple layers of Hawaiian shirts.
When the sun peeked over the clouds at 5:55, everyone applauded, cameras clicked and somebody played "Here Comes the Sun" on a Walkman. We could see the twin 13,000-foot-plus peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island.
Alaska? Switzerland? No, just another one of the thousand places.
"This whole trip," said 14-year-old Amy Fuller, "I've never felt like I've been in Hawaii."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Hawaii, with teens
From LAX,nonstop flights are available to Kona on United and American; connecting flights (change of planes) are available on Hawaiian. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $491.80.
WHERE TO STAY:
Mountain Meadow Ranch, 46-3895 Kapuna Road, Honokaa, HI 96727; (808) 775-9376, http://www.mountainmeadowranch.com . Spacious two-bedroom bed-and-breakfast on the bottom floor of a ranch home in Hawaii's lush horse country on the north slope of Mauna Kea. Furnished with tasteful antiques and a stocked refrigerator. For two or more nights: $85 single or double occupancy. Two-bedroom cottage is also available; $135 per night for up to two couples or $800 per week.
Hawaii Volcano Vacations, P.O. Box 913, Volcano, HI 96785; (800) 709-0907, http://www.hawaiivolcanovacations.com . Twelve cottages, with lodging for groups from two to 10, for rent. Five-minute drive to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. From $110 to $175 per night, double occupancy.
Kanai A Nalu, 50 Hauoli St., No. 211, Wailuku, Maui 96793; (888) 382-8320, http://www.islandresortrentals.com . Bargain rates can be had at this oceanfront condo that's off the beaten track. Centrally located, but you'll need a car to get around. Great for families. Low season, two bedrooms start at $135.
WHERE TO EAT:
The Coffee Shack,on the makai (ocean) side of Highway 11, one mile south of the Captain Cook Post Office on the Big Island, (808) 328-9555. The food won't bowl you over, but the view will. The deck is perched high over Kealakekua Bay. From outdoor tables you can see 26 miles of coastline. Breakfast and lunch entrees start at $5.50.
Aioli's Restaurant, Opelo Plaza, 65-1227A Opelo Road, Kamuela, HI 96743; (808) 885-6325. Upscale eclectic cuisine. The kids loved the Duck Confit Enchiladas. Entrees start at $12.95.
Moana Bakery and Café, 71 Baldwin Ave., Paia, Maui 96719, (808) 579-9999. The best food we ate on both islands and reasonably priced for Hawaii. Worth a trip just for the meal, but don't miss the funky town of Paia. Chili-seared ahi wrap ($12.95) made us fall in love with rare tuna. Open for breakfast ($5.95-$9.95), lunch ($4.95-$12.95) and dinner ($6.95-$23.95).
TO LEARN MORE:
Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815, (800) GO- HAWAII (464-2924), http://www.gohawaii.com .
— Jody Jaffe
Jody Jaffe and John Muncie write novels under the pen name John Jaffe. Their first novel, "Thief of Words," was published by Warner Books in April 2003. Their next novel, "Shenandoah Summer," is due in August. They teach journalism at Georgetown University and live in Silver Spring, Md.