The Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, dominated by the volcanic peaks of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, can overwhelm. By day its lush flora contrasts with stark black lava fields flowing west to the Pacific. Spectacular sunsets can yield to even more stunning, star-filled nights.
For me and my two sisters, it was a magnificent backdrop for something equally intense: a sibling getaway. Don’t get the wrong idea: Though 3,000 miles apart, I’m in touch with my California sisters almost weekly by phone; we see eye-to-eye on most things and support one another through our various crises. And we generally find a way to get together at least once a year — either when I travel west from my Boston home or when one or both of them have occasion to head east from their Palm Springs-area digs.
But I had planned a driving vacation in this spectacular Hawaiian neutral setting that I hoped would work a special magic by helping us re-create a youth spent together without the burden of other pressures in our lives.
That magic worked far beyond our expectations.
The Hawaiian reunion I shared with Judy and Ann last fall — we range in age from 69 to 80 — began when my wife, Eileen, thought it would be a special way to celebrate Ann reaching her 80th year.
Reunion getaways by senior siblings are something of a trend.
“I’m hearing much more about this as baby boomers retire,” said Valerie M. Grubb, whose book “Planes, Canes, and Automobiles” documents travels to glamorous destinations that involve grown children and their aging parents. “It’s definitely a generation that’s in better financial shape than previous ones.”
About 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, she said, citing Pew Research Center statistics that draw travel agents’ attention and leads to the creation of packages for senior family members, who often are spread across the U.S., as my sisters and I were.
“Sharing natural beauty with people you love offers an opportunity to bring you closer together again. It stimulates conversation,” said Grubb, who has visited 14 countries with her 85-year-old mother. Their next stop: Hawaii, she said.
Lois-ellin loved the idea of sharing with us the traditional Thanksgiving dinner being planned by her extended family, or ohana, as it’s known in Hawaiian. Eileen and I would fly to Los Angeles from Boston, with Ann and Judy joining us for a Sunday flight to Kona.
Eileen and I had sketched out the five days to incorporate both island sightseeing and “alone time” — for Ann and Lois-ellin and for the Harris siblings and Eileen.
At the open-air Kona terminal, Lois-ellin greeted us with traditional leis and kisses. Lunch followed at the nearby Bite Me Fish Market Bar & Grill, where the reminiscing began.
The description of the upcoming Thanksgiving feast — 28 people gathering in the agricultural community where Lois-ellin’s son and his family live — led us to recall tales of past shared holidays. Lois-ellin’s talk of ohana especially intrigued us.
Lois-ellin, who long ago had hosted numerous large Thanksgiving affairs in Washington, D.C. (often attracting one or two Harris family members), made this Hawaiian fete seem unusually exotic. Not only would it be the first holiday together for me and my sisters in eight years, but, Lois-ellin seemed to suggest, it could somehow infuse our reunion with a spiritual sense evoking island traditions.
We eagerly awaited the holiday, and in the meantime, we plotted a road trip of the type that my sisters and I had first experienced as children in the Midwest.
Our plan was to explore Volcanoes National Park and, at Lois-ellin’s suggestion, we took the Saddle Road, known for its beauty, to traverse the island.
The stories tumbled out about our driving trips: the stops to eat bologna sandwiches our mother had made, economizing as we ventured through the Deep South. Visits to the Civil War battlefields our dad loved. (His father had been a Confederate officer.) The shock of seeing “White Only” signs on drinking fountains and jukeboxes devoid of “colored singers.” The alligator whose swims by our campsite at a Florida state park we carefully timed.
As we talked, I pictured our dad black-haired, as he was when I was an adolescent. And the David I recalled was the lanky twentysomething who had taken me to St. Louis Browns games — a David I’d replaced in my mind with the grown-up brother I’d known in later years.
The drive to the national park flew by, and the road finally began to climb the foothills of Mauna Loa. A park ranger explained the volcanic activity in the area and recounted the history of eruptions. Steam vents in the bowl-shaped caldera, where lava once flowed, held our fascination.
A documentary at the visitor center showed scenes of fiery explosions from past years — images not generally visible to park visitors these days but ones that stayed with us as we had lunch at the Volcano House, once favored by fellow Missourian Mark Twain. (Twain had described seeing flaming lava flows that “looked like a colossal railroad map of the state of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky.”)
Conversation during our return drive to Kona triggered perhaps our most vivid memory of past sibling bonding: a 1993 memory we hadn’t shared since. We recalled how we had we had helped our mother deal with the end of her long, final illness. We had acted as one, standing around her in the last moments, lovingly telling her that it was all right now for her to “let go.” With the memories shared, the car went silent.
For our little family, another Pacific sunset beckoned. We kept on a westward course to the Mauna Kea Beach Resort, where my sisters treated Eileen and me to a 15th anniversary celebration. By dessert, the dramatic full moon provided us with all the heavenly wonder we needed.
The moon returned for Thanksgiving dinner, where we joined Lois-ellin’s ohana, sharing with new friends the tales of our family experience.
For me, a strange sense developed that my parents and my brother David were somehow at the table with us, as real a presence as any. It was that unexpected spiritual ohana — a week ago a new concept, though one I thought I fully understood — that made me most thankful.
As I look back, I wondered what made this island get-together unique compared with other reunions, which usually are associated with weddings, graduations or funerals. This one was special, I reflected, because it was just us siblings, communing without any agenda other than to relish the beautiful, unfamiliar surroundings. In a way that is hard to describe, we were bound that week only by our love for one another.
Of course, we didn’t really need a Hawaiian setting, although someplace new to all of us did provide a sense of breaking through. And I suspect that for all of us the word ohana will always conjure the unparalleled sense of sibling unity that we had on that island.
With aging comes a bit of wisdom that can be used by senior travelers to ensure a successful trip
Reuniting senior siblings in a distant location calls for extra planning. Medical concerns are a top priority, of course, when older travelers are involved. But it’s also important to reduce other worries associated with the trip. One family member’s discomfort or uneasiness can quickly affect others. Here are some things to consider when making travel arrangements:
Start early and stay positive. Don’t overreach in your planning, but take care not to pass up opportunities that you might not get again
Discuss everyone’s worries as well as expectations for the trip and reunion — and what can be done to reduce and enhance them.
Investigate travel insurance to protect your investment in case of an unexpected health-related or other cancellation. Make sure the insurance covers potential costs associated with emergency treatment.
Leave a detailed itinerary and contact information with another family member or friend; have their contact information with you as well. You might want to include the name and phone number of your attorney.
Make sure your wills are up to date.
Determine whether extra time is needed to navigate airport terminals. Will wheelchairs or electric carts be useful in reaching the gate or making connections?
Choose luggage with wheels for easier handling. Check bags if stowing them in the cabin is difficult.
Consider aisle seating. And walk that aisle frequently, especially during longer flights, to avoid cramps or thrombosis.
Take snacks and either buy water or fill your own bottle once you clear security.
At your destination
Make sure your rental car is comfortable — not too low or too high off the ground —- and the doors open wide enough for an easy entrance or exit. Are there age restrictions for drivers?
Check with your hotel to see if they have accommodations for guests with disabilities. Don’t hesitate to say what special needs you might have. (You may want adjacent rooms with connecting doors, for instance.)
Ask about your hotel’s layout. In some resorts, a van or cart is used to shuttle guests from the lobby to their room. Or you may want a lower floor. Also, check transportation options for sight-seeing.
Keep a detailed list of your medications (including generic names) and dosages, along with contact numbers for your physicians. Bring extra medications, and keep them in a separate bag in case anything is lost or stolen.
Know the location of medical facilities, including those for emergency treatment. Are there on-call physicians?