Maui Wowie…

I recently found myself once again island-hopping the Hawaii isles. My favorite island, Maui, is the second-largest of the chain, and its wonders are well worth taking several days to explore since you will never be at a loss for somewhere new to discover.

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The rugged coast of Maui

The airport in Maui is located in largest city of the island, Kahului, located on the northern coast. Here you will find most of the big car rental agencies, as well as some locally owned rental companies. Being the Maui is a major tourist destination for both U.S. travelers and foreign tourists, and the added population of cruise ship passengers, if you are planning to rent a car, it is a good idea to book your reservation well in advance.

Kahului is the perfect base from which to explore the island. Less than 30 minutes away is the town of Lahaina, a small coastal village is filled with oceanfront restaurants and quaint shops. One of its best known features is the large banyan tree, with its limbs gracefully stretched out, providing amble shade from the tropical sun.

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The thick, lush rainforest at the Iao Valley National Park is crowned by rugged mountaintops.

If you want a close encounter with a rainforest and the chance to see beautiful mountains, the Iao Valley National Park is just a 30-minute ride away from Kahului. It has several short trails to hike. But be warned, whether you opt for make the short ascent to the lookout or the descent to the river, you will be climbing a lot of stairs. If mobility is an issue, there are wonderful views you can enjoy without having to take any trails. Iao is not a large area, so spending 30 minutes to an hour will allow you to cover all there is to see.

Another adventure and one of the best known treks is the Road to Hana. Beginning in Kahului, the road winds its way along the coast and through the dense rainforest, navigating its 52 miles, 59 bridges the 620 curves that have made it famous. There are shirts and bumper stickers available at roadside stands bragging “I Survived the Road to Hana,” as well as drinks and plenty of places to get a bite to eat.

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One of the many waterfalls on the Road to Hana waiting to be discovered

The rugged coast and white sand beaches, are breathtaking, as are the dense green rainforests and scenic mountains. Scattered along the road are numerous waterfalls and cascades, many with banks to stop and to take photographs as the water surges over the edge of a cliff and tumbles down a mountainside.

The other famous landmark in Maui is the Haleakala Volcano National Park. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Kahului, depending on your experience driving steep mountain roads. Along the way, you will pass through the small village of Kula. Make a point of having a meal at the Kula Bistro, where the food is farm-fresh and very reasonably priced (but be prepared for a short wait, depending on the time of day).

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From the top of the volcano, you can get a spectacular view of the island amid a moonlike landscape of multi-hued rocks

The O’o Coffee Farm is about a 10-minute drive from Kula and definitely worth a visit. After short walk up a gentle slope, follow a dirt road which leads to a rustic farm building and the gardens.

Here you will be met by one of the farm’s very knowledgeable workers, who will describe the different types of award-winning coffee grown at O’o while you enjoy a complimentary sample. (You can also buy a bag or two of the farm’s brew to take home with you.)

Continuing toward the volcano, the road beings its long ascent to the summit. You will travel through lush green valleys and rainforests and a layer of clouds as you make your way to the 10,000-foot crest. The terrain at the peak resembles a moonscape of various colored volcanic rocks that are millions of years old, having been expelled during the mountain’s fiery rein.

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The island seems to be eternal swathed in a blanket of white clouds

Slightly lower in elevation is an additional parking lot and visitor center. Here you can take a steep hike to the top of hill with wonderful views of the crater on one side and the valley on the other.

Most of the time, the valley will be obscured by an ocean of white clouds as far as you can see. This view is particularly beautiful at sunset, as the sky changes color from blue to yellow to deep orange when the sun dips below the false horizon of the clouds.

Here’s a tip: On your way to the summit, take note of the several lookouts. To avoid traffic and a slow descent down the mountain, leave 20 minutes early and then stop at a lookout to marvel at the sunset.

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Nothing is more spectacular than the setting of the sun over the false horizon of clouds viewed from the volcanic summit.

Also bear in mind that if you decide to come for the sunrise. you must leave very early and also make a reservation well ahead of time. Those without a reservation will be turned away.

Whatever itinerary you choose to follow in Maui, you are sure to find some unrivaled natural beauty that will leave you saying “mahalo.”

Tahiti… Paradise Found

I found paradise in Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora…

When you close your eyes and imagine white sand beaches, warm crystal blue water, rugged mountain tops and lush green valleys, what specific place comes to mind? For me, it is the Society Islands of French Polynesia.

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For many, life in Tahiti has changed little since Captain James Cook landed in 1769

The Society Islands consist of the nine islands and five atolls, and contained within the archipelago are Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. They were named in honor of the Royal Society by Captain James Cook, the English explorer, after his visit to the islands in 1769, and this overseas territory of France received partial sovereignty in 1977.

Today, it is an overseas collectivity of France.

The largest of the islands is Tahiti, which hosts Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, with a population of 184,000 inhabitants.

Tahiti is the buzzling economic, political and cultural hub of French Polynesia, and is usually the first port of call for foreign tourists since it has the only international airport in the collectivity.

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The island of Tahiti taken from Moorea

If you are planning on purchasing black pearls during your visit, Papeete has the largest selection and some of the most reputable dealers (although prices are usually somewhat lower in Moorea).

French Polynesia is world renowned for its black pearls, known for their dark, iridescent shades of black and silver, capturing the entire spectrum of colors of the rainbow.

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Once you get away from the hustle and bustle of Papeete, you will find that most of Tahiti is calm and relaxing.

Tahitian pearls are not actually black, as they are often referred to. Instead, the majority of Tahitian pearls are gray, silver, charcoal or shades of shimmering green, blue and gold.

And although it is true that they take their name from Polynesia’s most well-known island, Tahitian pearls are, in fact, not cultivated in Tahiti, but rather elsewhere throughout the waters of French Polynesia.

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Sunset at the Tahiti InterContinental Resort

Black pearls, which are named for the lip of the oyster (pinctada margaritifera-cumingi) that produces them and not for their own hue, can come in almost any shade, including peacock green, metallic gray, cobalt, cherry red and bright aubergine.

Although some colors tend to be more popular than others, the value of a Tahitian black pearl is determined by its luster, size and shape, rather than its hue. Unlike Asian or freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls are rarely round and can come in very unusual forms, including elongated drops and asymmetrical pear shapes.

Because the black-lipped oyster is very large, Tahitian pearls tend to be quite large, In fact, they are usually between 8 to 16 millimeters long, although they can be as large as 20 millimeters long.

Personally, I would not recommend staying in Papeete since it is rather rundown. I have also had more than one taxi driver tell me there are a fair amount of unsafe areas in the city.

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You can find lots of hidden coves and beaches across the island.

That is not to say that the rest of the island follows suit. Within its 1,042 square kilometers, Tahiti has plenty of beautiful beaches, lagoons and a lush interior with numerous hiking trails to explore, as well as Mount Orohena, towering 2,241 meters above the sea.

One of the top must-sees in Tahiti is Fautaua Waterfall, a natural sparkling water cascade that towers 985 feet into a large pool. But be warned, it is a long and ambitious trek through steep slopes and tropical jungle to get to, so if you decide to go, bring comfortable hiking shoes and plenty of mosquito repellent. (Also, the falls are sometimes closed to tourists due to heavy rains and other climatic concerns, so check if they are open before you go.)

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Even if you don’t make it to Fautaua, there are plenty of little waterfalls tucked into the Tahitian landscape that you can explore.

If you are a surfer, Tahiti’s Teahupao is known as one of the best surfing beaches in the world. The island is also ringed with small villages and a range of lodging from budget hotels and guest houses to private home rentals and exquisite luxury resorts, my favorite being the Tahiti InterContinental Resort and Spa.

Moorea is the second largest island and only a 30-minute ferry ride or a 10-minute flight from Tahiti. There is no city on the island, but you will find a number of small villages and hamlets. There are many tour guides on the island that can show you the sights at a very reasonable rate. The advantage of a guide is you will not miss any of the highlights and you will learn of the rich island culture.

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A village church in Moorea.

Another option is to rent a car and explore on your own. The advantage here is that you are on your own schedule and are able to stop and swim, have a picnic, dine at a café on the beach and take as much time as you like at any one location.

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The beautiful coastline and the blue waters of Moorea.

Moorea is the favorite of many visitors to the Society Islands. The only drawback is there are not many sand beaches to spread out a blanket on and enjoy the warm tropical sun. Instead, you will find a vast variety of lagoons to enjoy a swim along its coast. If you are an avid diver, you will certainly appreciate the multiple reefs surrounding Moorea that are inhabited by an array colorful tropical fish.

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Moorea is known for its breathtaking black-sand beaches.

Those with an adventurous spirit might want to try diving with sharks and stingrays, one of the highlight tours of the island.

You may also decide to drive inland up a steep, well-marked road to the Belvedere Lookout. From this exceptional vantage point, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the island’s lush green Opunohu Valley 790 feet below and the surrounding mountain top of Mount Rotui towering above. The overlook also affords a wonderful view of Cook’s Bay, where Captain Cook first set foot on the island’s twin bays.

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Belvedere Lookout in Moorea overlooking Cook’s Bay

Smaller still than Moorea is the island of Bora Bora, which for many is considered the Pearl of the South Pacific. Each time I have been here, I have chosen to rent a car and take a leisurely drive the 22 miles of road that wind gracefully around the Bora Bora coastline.

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Palm lined coast and crystal clear waters of Bora Bora

There are two Avis car rentals on the island and the prices start at $100 for a small car. If you decide to rent a car, I’d advise making the reservation online well ahead of time since this is a port of call for many cruise ships and availability is often limited.

Each of the islands has its own unique personality, and unlike Moorea, Bora Bora has many white sand beaches to lay on and soak up the sun. Here too are large crystal clear lagoons to snorkel and wonderful reefs just offshore to dive and explore.

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One of the many resorts lining the shoreline of Bora Bora

The Lagoonarium, a massive outdoor aquarium specializing in lagoon fish and marine life, offers close encounters with sharks and stingrays in a controlled environment for those who didn’t want to risk an open-sea meeting in Moorea.

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Bora Bora is the smallest of the three islands, but its beauty and grace are seemingly endless.

The beauty of French Polynesia is eternal and has forever been captured in the post-impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin. But just between you and me, there are still so many unexplored nooks and crannies on the islands to dive the reefs, surf the waves, climb the mountain peaks and just lay on the beach and soak up the rays of the warm tropical sun that Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora can become secret personal Edens for every person who visits them.

And that’s what makes for a true paradise found.