Friday, February 12, 2010

Island Expectations

A few weeks ago, I was talking with two guests at breakfast about their visit to Volcanoes National Park the day before.  They’d been in the visitor information center and had overheard one of the rangers patiently describing the layout of the park and all its sights to a visitor.  The visitor suddenly cut the ranger off midstream and yelled, “Just tell me where the goddamn lava is!”.

At first, this sort of outburst seems insane.  We scratch our heads in confusion.  We think they’re kidding, or that we’re all being taped.  Then, when we realize they’re dead-serious, we want to shake these people by the shoulders and say, “how can you be so unhappy in such a beautiful place?”, “what’s the matter with you!” (Or something less polite.)   Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve heard – or heard of – such a sentiment.  We once had a guest check in during a rainstorm and get so wildly upset over the weather he drove off, returned to the airport, and caught the next plane home (it was sunny the next day). 

Certainly these visitors returned home feeling let-down by the island.  It seems a total waste – of vacation, of time, of money, of potential for great discovery, experience, and pleasure.  After much thought, I’ve come to realize that this sort of disappointing travel experience has to do with unrealistic expectations.

But it’s not entirely the visitor’s fault.  Tourist information can be misleading.  We recently were walking around downtown Kailua and picked up a tourist magazine and were startled to see not one, not two, but several articles describing dolphin encounters.  So it’s no wonder visitors come here expecting - and sometimes demanding - to see dolphins.  Alongside photos of snorkelers swimming with dolphins were photos of breaching humpbacks and spewing fountains of lava.  Looking at this, it could be hard not to build up a lofty fantasy, and perhaps, a sense of entitlement.  Based on these types of photos, all Hawaii should look like Waikiki, the sun should shine every day, whales should be breaching, dolphins and turtles should approach when snorkeling, the lava should be gushing forth, the ocean should be calm and safe, there shouldn’t be any bugs or rain or vog.  With such high expectations, it would be almost impossible not to be disappointed.  The Big Island is stunningly beautiful, and it is beautiful because it’s filled with wild, unspoiled, inherently unpredictable nature.  Visitors need to keep this in mind.

For instance, lava viewing can be tricky.  The flows shift and change and you have to know specifically where to go to see it.  We always advise guests to check the park website before going if they’re intent on seeing live lava, and talking with a ranger once in the park.  It may not be visible.  Or, you may have to hike out of the park (which was the case most of last year).  If you plan on hiking outside of park boundaries you must be prepared with the appropriate gear.  Also, you don’t want to BE that close to live lava anyway.  All those really gorgeous close-up photos you see of molten lava are taken by professional photographers with huge lenses a significant distance away, while wearing special protective gear (if you got too close you’d be vaporized). 

In short, it’s important to be realistic and understand that Kilauea – like the ocean and the weather – is unpredictable and changeable.  This is not a controlled environment, and it can be hard to accept this coming from an environment far-removed from nature.  But this is where the magic lies.  The Island feels so incredibly alive: trembling, brimming, spilling over with life.  In Volcanoes National Park if you don’t see lava, don’t be disappointed, because live lava is just one piece of what’s going on there.  Look at the tiny ferns and skeletal ohia trees with their vibrant flowers growing – yes, growing! – out of the frozen, barren-seeming lava fields.  Check out the way the lava froze as it cooled, making rivulets and holes and eerie colors.  Look for the olivine deposits that glint in the sun like diamonds, carefully feel the steam rising up from under rocks in Kilauea Iki, listen to the native birdsong in the rainforest, feel the ocean pound up under the rocks down at the bottom of Chain of Craters Road, listen to the lonely wind call across the desert at the petroglyph trail.  How many other places are there where land is being simultaneously destroyed and created each day?  Kilauea is a sacred place and many of our guests feel very moved there, as if they are closer to something greater than themselves temporarily, closer to nature, to God, to something mighty and beautiful, at once ancient and brand-new.  If you’re hurriedly running after a particular goal, chances are you’ll miss this.

We would definitely recommend seeing the Volcano.  Take your time, stop at the information station, see if there will be any ranger-lead nature walks that day that you could join, or any hula or art exhibits going on.  Walk through the Thurston lava tube, walk Devastation Trail, Kilauea Iki, and perhaps the Petroglyph trail.  Slowly drive down Chain of Craters road and stop at the bottom and walk along the shore.  Listen to the pounding waves, maybe walk along the rocks or lie down on them and watch the dramatic sky shift color.  It IS a powerful place.  Take your time, and let it in.


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