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A Love Boat Love Story
Love stories happen when you least expect it. They can happen between friends or lovers or even places we visit that we can’t forget. Wherever there’s love, there’s a story to be told.
This is quite an old tale, one that began many years ago and involves a mystical spirit, an island, my parents and me.
My love of the sea and sailing upon it began when I was eight years old. My mother had a fascination with the South Pacific, from the Hawaiian Islands to French Polynesia. Her favorite TV shows were Adventures in Paradise and Hawaiian Eye, she tried to grow indoor pineapples during bleak Chicago winters and wore colorful, plastic leis on New Year’s Eve. So it was that my father nearly re-mortgaged our house in order to treat us to a six-week journey to Hawaii.
During summer vacation, between the fourth and fifth grades, we flew to Los Angeles where our cruise would begin. After a few days doing the “Hollywood Tour” thing, it was finally Cruise Day.
Leaving the Hollywood Hills behind, we boarded a really small ship, the SS Matsonia, for our five-night cruise some 2,250 miles across the Pacific to Honolulu. I was seasick before we ever left the port.
It wasn’t until two days before we docked that I could stow my close friend, the barf bag. I ran around the deck, jumped in the 10×10 foot pool, tried my luck at the horse racing game and giggled at the hula lessons.
Who could ever imagine that the next five weeks, three in Honolulu and two in Kauai, would leave an indelible mark on my psyche and a longing in my heart to return. Some say it’s the Aloha Spirit; others just blame it on the gorgeous scenery and perfect weather. Me, I think it was simply the most memorable time of my life.
In Honolulu, we stayed part of the time at a condominium on Waikiki Beach. The high-rise building didn’t have a pool so I’d traipse down the elevator, walk to the condo next door that gave us pool privileges. Once there, I’d wave to my parents, who occasionally glanced out of their window, probably to make sure I wasn’t on the way back.
From Oahu, it was just short plane ride to Kauai, for a couple of laid-back weeks at one of only two resorts on the island, Coco Palms.
Elvis stayed there the week before to film the last scene in Blue Hawaii. It’s the ending scene where he sings the Hawaiian Wedding Song to his new bride, while paddling along the creek that flows through the resort. The Elvis electricity hadn’t quite diffused and hotel staff was still buzzing about the movie and the king. I couldn’t have cared less. Elvis who?
Back in the late 1940’s, Kauai native, Walter Smith began a motor boat service to bring visitors up the winding Wailua River to visit the enchanted Fern Grotto. Of course this tour was on my mother’s to-do wish list. On our first day in Kauai, in our rented powder blue Corvair convertible, we drove to Smith’s Tours and boarded a small, covered wooden launch.
Slowly, we made our way along the river to the Fern Grotto. A Lost World trail led us to this once-hidden location. A trio of musicians played Aloha Oe as a hula dancer gracefully moved to the music. What happened next, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it was the Spirit of Aloha that entered my heart as I stood behind the cascading waterfall or simply the plucky sound of the ukulele. But something got to me and never left. Right there at the Fern Grotto in Kauai.
Time spent and soon we were back to Honolulu for one last week. We unpacked at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel, a sprawling complex of hotel rooms and annexes, several swimming pools, tourist shops and a lagoon.
We did the typical tourist things; an “authentic” luau, a visit to the newly opened Hawaiian Cultural Center, a few local art galleries and home decorating stores.
My parents had my portrait painted on lurid black velvet, bought paper-thin monkey pod salad bowls and a rainbow assortment of muu muus. Every feathered, carved and dried vegetable musical instrument used to accompany the hula dance, somehow made its way into our suitcases. Before I knew it, our six weeks were over and we were aboard a United Airlines jetliner back to the mainland. My mother’s dream trip to cruise to Hawaii was realized. My dad made it possible and I was the lucky kid who got to go along for the ride.
I have no idea where the years vanished or how time so quickly slipped by that half a lifetime would pass until I made my return to Hawaii. But it did.
When the opportunity presented itself last month to cruise to Hawaii aboard Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess, I jumped at the chance. My parents have long since passed away. But for some twist of fate, about twelve years ago, a new set of parents entered my life. My new neighbors in Florida, Merle and Tom, had seen me through some pretty rough times; my mother’s death, a lengthy divorce and trying to make it on my own.
As soon as I had my reservation locked in, I asked them to join me. And they did. At 78 and 82 years old, they were going to Hawaii for their first time.
Cruising has advanced by light years since I first set out on the 13,000 ton Matsonia. Weighing in at 109,000 tons, still small compared to today’s behemoths, the Golden Princess surely would provide a smoother ride than my first ship. Even when we encountered 27′ seas near Ensenada on the voyage home to Los Angeles, it was barely noticeable.
The Golden Princess was a joy and I could not have asked for anything more. By day two of the cruise, I realized I was caught in a weird time warp; most of the Hawaiian cruise activities hadn’t changed since I last crossed the Pacific Ocean. They still played that goofy horse race game. Women in loose-fitting flowered dresses attended hula lessons. Hawaiian language classes were interjected with cultural enrichment and Hawaiian history. Same as I remembered from half a century earlier.
Our fourteen-night cruise allowed us only one day each for the Big Island, Kauai, Oahu and Maui. Not the six weeks that I remembered but almost enough time to revisit the past with enough moments remaining to absorb the present.
Prepped for what could be an emotional journey, I created four missions to accomplish on this trip. Pay respects at Pearl Harbor; spend an evening at an old-fashioned tourist-y luau; buy a made-in-Hawaii ukulele; and meet the descendants of Walter Smith, whose motor boat brought me to Kauai’s Fern Grotto, where the Aloha Spirit had grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go after all these years.
Hilo on the Big Island was our first port of call. A coffee mill, Volcanoes National Park and a picnic lunch were on our shore excursion itinerary. With only eight of us, it was almost like a private tour. Back onboard at 5pm.
Second day was Honolulu on Oahu. The Golden Princess docked very early so we were off and running to Pearl Harbor by 7:45am. Silently, we walked through the Arizona Memorial, looking in amazement as bubbles of oil from the battleship were still reaching the surface seventy-two years later.
Back onboard with just enough time to change clothes, at 3pm we were on a bus to Germaine’s Luau experience. Tacky, yes. Colorful, yes. Not exactly a gourmet buffet but we weren’t there for the food. And certainly not the poi! It was same the old-fashioned, made-for-tourists luau that I remembered from 1961. Except this time I could order a mai-tai.
At this point I was two for two. The next day was Kauai and hopefully the last two items on my mission list would be accomplished.
The shuttle to the airport car rental place picked us up right at the pier. Within minutes we were in my rental car (no Corvair this time) and off to find Smith’s Tours. Funny, when you’re young, short distances seems great. Within minutes, not the hours I once imagined, we were parked at Smith’s.
Tucked in my bag was a fifty-year old souvenir book with Walter Smith’s photo on the cover. I introduced myself to the woman at the ticket counter. She was Walter Smith’s granddaughter-in-law and was wonderfully surprised to see this old book resurface with photos and stories about her family.
The boat was about to leave so we boarded what I thought looked like the same boat from years ago. We began our languid, three-mile ride along the Wailua river, past lush, verdant mountains, vine-covered trees and several neon yellow kayaks paddling downstream.
Tissue securely in pocket, I held back the waterworks as we docked near the trail that led to the falls. Except for newly installed handrails and wooden steps, this enchanting grotto still looked the same.
We were led up the same path to the same viewing area. The only difference was that we were no longer allowed to venture into the cave behind the falls. This entire area was once off-limits to anyone except Hawaiian Royalty. We were on sacred land in a special place.
Photo op complete, the musicians appeared and the hula dancer took her mark. My iPhone set to video, I somehow managed to film the three-minute performance despite tears that I just gave up on trying to hold back. The others on our tour applauded at the song’s conclusion and we made our way down the misty path to our boat. Third mission accomplished.
Oddly, and totally out of my memory, Coco Palms Resort was right across the road from Smith’s Motor Boat Service. What was that car ride that I so well remembered? Hah. We probably walked across the road for our tour to the Fern Grotto. The resort is in a horrible state. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki destroyed the buildings and it’s been in ruin ever since. A small sign at the former entrance announces daily tours of the ruins every day at 2pm. Unfortunately, Merle and Tom were worried about getting back to the ship, so it was I made a Note to Self: I’ll do this on my next trip.
Back in the car, I was ISO a ukulele. I had researched the shop that sold what I thought might be an affordable hand-crafted ukulele. When we pulled up in front of the shop, Tom wanted to go inside with me while Merle waited in the car.
Suddenly I’m looking at price tags way over my budget. A young guy came over and started to sell me on ukuleles made in China or Japan because that was all he said I could afford. Depressed, I said, “Let’s go,” to Tom. As we were walking to the car and out of nowhere I said, “You go ahead, I’ll be right out.”
Back in the store I went, fully intent on finding a made-in-Hawaii ukulele, despite the sky-high prices. There had to be something.
The same kid/salesperson came over from his desk. I asked him if there wasn’t possibly anything available in my price range. As he was about to reply with another “No,” the store manager overheard and stepped in. I repeated my offer. Calculator in hand, he said that I could buy a made-in-Hawaii Kelii ukulele for the price I mentioned.
This was my dream tenor ukulele, the first one that I looked at when I walked into the shop. Through his mysterious calculations, he was able to discount the ukulele so much that it became within my price range. I was astonished. Aloha Spirit intervention? Hm. Fourth and final mission: Complete.
The next day was Maui. Most people feel that Maui is the most beautiful of all the Hawaiian Islands. That may be true, but I’m convinced that Kauai is the most magical.
Maui was a day of walking around town, mailing last-minute postcards and waiting in line too long for a coveted shave ice. Back onboard, it was time to say, “Aloha” to Hawaii, as the Golden Princess began her eastbound voyage home.
They say life travels in circles; reconnecting with people and places as you journey along. My cruise back to Hawaii retraced steps I took more than fifty years ago. To see, taste, hear and experience the same moments, retold a love story between people and places, family and acquaintances, ships and boats.
If you’ve never been to Hawaii, no matter how old you are, put this on your close-in to-do list. Cruise there if you can find the two weeks to go.
Sunrise over Diamond Head in Oahu introduces you to the magic of the islands. Explore the breathing volcanoes on the Big Island. Drive the legendary Road to Hana in Maui.
Take a half-day city tour and drink a rum-filled mai tai at a luau in Honolulu. Finally, step aboard the legacy of Walter Smith and cruise up the Wailua river to the enchanted Fern Grotto.
Breathe deeply and let the Spirit of Aloha grab your heart, too.
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