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Oahu visit alive with adventure

Swim with the dolphins, sky dive, climb mountains, Oahu.swim iwth the dolphins

Date: 12-14-2002

Publication: The Washington Times; Swim with the dolphins, sky dive, bungee jump, climb mountainsOahu visit alive with adventure

We are still groggy from our 5 a.m. wake-up call as we slip into Waianae Harbor before the sun's first light. The inky ocean is certainly more inviting covered in turquoise, and we are apprehensive to slide in, but you can't swim alongside Oahu's dolphins without joining them.

A mile outside the harbor, our first dolphin of the day makes a joyful leap out of the water. Suddenly, we're not only awake, we're in awe.

"I've waited my whole life to do this," says an excited fellow traveler - from Hawaii, no less. "I can't wait to tell everybody at home about it."

In a new age of adventure travel, coming home with only a tan is passe. If you want to impress the group around the water cooler, try sky diving, bungee jumping or mountain climbing. Whatever you choose, just be sure it's a bit scary. (Bumps and bruises are optional but certainly add credibility.)

This trend has been a boon to destinations such as Oahu - the Hawaiian island that includes Honolulu - that are geographically diverse, are easy to navigate, offer an incredible array of once-in-a-lifetime activities and . . . shhhh, have top-notch spas, restaurants and hotels to give those adventurers something to do on the days when they're not hanging off a cliff.

Back on our boat, 40 miles from this bustling capital city, we have arrived at one of just three areas in the world where free-roaming dolphins can interact with humans. Marine biologist Tori Cullins and her husband, Armin, have been leading small groups of people to swim with the dolphins since they started their company, Wild Side Specialty Tours, in 1996.

Researchers at heart, the Cullinses have spent countless hours studying the sea, its many life forms and the effect humans can have on it.

"Our 'surfaris' focus on education and conservation," Mrs. Cullins says. "We won't compromise the dolphins' resting or socializing periods, nor will we draw them close by feeding them. We've spent 10 years living with these dolphins and have befriended them."

Because the animals are wild, passengers are not guaranteed interaction, Mrs. Cullins says, "but we've had good luck. Chances are, you can have a truly intimate experience swimming alongside dolphins in the ocean."

What an experience it is.

In the silent world under the ocean, the first indication swimmers usually have that a dolphin group is checking them out is the hauntingly melodic sound of the animals communicating with one another.

Like a shadow, the sound creeps into my consciousness, and I know they're near, checking me out, wondering what I am. Following Mrs. Cullins' careful instructions, I swim calmly, splashing as little as possible. As soon as I see them, I am to swim parallel. If they want to play, they'll let me know.

I see a shadow off to my left, check my breathing, and hope. There they are, first at a distance. They slowly come in for a closer look, diving below, then surfacing for a quick flyby. It's a captivating sight.

After a few minutes, the dolphins leave, then return, this time trailing what Mrs. Cullins reveals later is one of their favorite toys: a light- colored plastic grocery bag. The bag starts on the tail. Then, with a flip, it is launched onto the dorsal fin, back to the tail, and then is caught expertly on the flipper.

When one dolphin is finished and leaves the bag deep on the ocean floor, another quickly scoops it up and begins its own game. The dolphins, even seen through a snorkeling mask, are magnificent, swimming and diving effortlessly, sometimes alone, other times in groups.

The encounter, experienced in near total silence, is surreal. Time stands still. Has it been one minute or 20? Suddenly, in a flash, they're gone, leaving me wondering if they really were there at all.

A little farther along, Mrs. Cullins points out an active cleaning station for sea turtles, where overly slimy turtles stand on an underwater rock and allow fish to scour their shells for algae. We retrieve the snorkeling equipment.

"Swim gently and don't get too close," Mrs. Cullins cautions. "They won't settle in unless they feel safe." After a moment, a turtle glides in, hovers for a moment, then lands on the platform. The fish are hungry and quickly go to work on the now motionless turtle, gently yet thoroughly removing the built-up algae. We wonder how the turtles know when they need a little off the top.

Turtle soup isn't on the menu at the Waianae Ice House, a cinder- block ice-and-tackle shop just a few yards from the marina that serves the ubiquitous Hawaiian plate lunch.

Perhaps the original fusion cuisine, the plate lunch consists of two scoops of sticky rice; one scoop of old-fashioned, mayonnaisey 1950s macaroni salad; and an entree, which can run the gamut from authentic home-cooked Hawaiian, Korean or Japanese specialties to short ribs, hamburger steak or, unexpectedly, Spam, which we are told is a Hawaiian staple.

Worried that we have flown 12 hours only to have an adventure end with canned meat, we are nonetheless intrigued and go into the Ice House. The plate lunch is a pleasant surprise. The macaroni salad is appropriately wet, and the rice is fresh, hot and sticky. The entree choice, called "poke," is a Hawaiian specialty made with chunks of fresh raw fish (usually ahi tuna), onion, sesame oil and spices; it is like sushi, only better.

The owner is a retired teacher from Newberry, S.C., who, like many of the people with whom we come into contact, visited Oahu years ago and never left. He and his wife, a native Hawaiian, do all the cooking themselves, using fish brought fresh from the boats docked just outside.

Hawaii is full of refreshing food surprises, new tastes and interesting combinations. Fresh island fish such as ono and opakapaka are a nice departure from the salmon, sea bass and tilapia that inhabit Washington' s fish markets, and some of the preparations are equally distinct.

Mangoes are picked green, sliced, pickled in a mixture of vinegar, salt, sugar and lemon juice and sold at roadside stands. Other fresh treats include guavas, passion fruits, the island's famed sweet kahuku corn, and fresh chilled coconuts, which are pulled from an ice bath and theatrically cracked open so the cold milk can be drunk through a straw and the meat worked off with the teeth.

Shave ice, a kissing cousin of the coarse and crunchy snow cone, is a fluffy mixture of finely shaved ice doused with tropical fruit syrup and an optional dash of sweet red beans. Delicious on its own, it is only improved by the scoop of vanilla ice cream that lies like a treasure at the bottom of the cup, waiting to be uncovered.

Although Oahu has Starbucks and McDonald's, Nordstrom and Macy's, the pervasiveness of the island's culture and identity give vacationers the rarest of vacations finds: an unscripted experience.

Even the most jaded traveler can't help feeling a little like Indiana Jones after stumbling across, for instance, a small religious shrine alone in the woods. Is it guarding the mysteries of the universe? Concealing the world's greatest treasures? Who knows, but spinning stories is part of the fun.

Shrines are all over the island, and each is different. Some are quite old and mark sacred sites that honor ancient local gods. Others are, surprisingly, newer. Even more surprising is that most are undisturbed. Small trinkets left to honor gods or other deities have not been stolen, and the sites are free of graffiti.

"Most people who grew up on the island understand and respect the local legends," says a guide at the North Shore's Waimea Falls Park, a destination for hiking, biking and kayaking. "We pretty much live and let live around here."

All over the island, guides are not only respectful of sites, but quite knowledgeable about them, sharing legends of burial rituals and human sacrifice and pointing out the ancient petroglyphs that visitors can easily miss. A sense of stewardship is quite noticeable.

The next day, in an attempt to work off a midmorning snack of malasadas, the Hawaiian donuts that are eaten by the dozen and washed down with local Kona coffee, we find ourselves trekking through an abandoned plantation that once grew tropical plants for wholesalers.

Although the plantation has reverted to forest, echoes of its former life remain. Vibrant red birds of paradise and fragrant white lilies peek through groves of philodendron with leaves the size of dinner plates and huge ferns with fiddleheads that look ready to reach out and grab an unsuspecting arm.

All around, the spidery arms of banyan trees create caves with walls that look like webs and seem to go on forever. It's a little creepy, yet cool. We can't decide if we feel more like explorers or movie extras. We vote for explorers.

Adventure-tour companies are big business on Oahu. Visitors can dangle over a waterfall, jump out of a plane or ride over the mountains in a James Bond-esque motorized hang glider - and that doesn't include the more traditional adventures such as snorkeling, riding horses and hiking on Diamond Head.

Surfing schools catering to landlubbers attempting to realize a dream of hanging 10 on Waikiki are growing like crazy, too.

Even the horizontally inclined can brag about an adventure: Bike Hawaii Tours, the company that leases the plantation, runs a van stocked with bikes up a mountain every day.

Just don't tell the folks at home that the five-mile bike ride you completed was downhill.

Back on the trail, newlyweds are taking photos of each other. They are young, in their early 20s, and everyone is surprised they're spending their Hawaiian honeymoon mucking through the woods instead of something, um, more romantic.

"We didn't come all the way here just to hang out," the bride says. "We want to have great memories of our honeymoon. Tomorrow we're going sky diving."


What to do, where to stay

Expect near-perfect weather year-round, with brief showers most afternoons, in Oahu. The North Shore's famed big waves, which are glorious to see but definitely are not for novice surfers, usually begin to roll in around December and last throughout the winter. Waves remain manageable on the rest of the island, although summer can bring large waves to the south shore near Honolulu.

Wild Side Specialty Tours offers snorkeling and other activities. Contact Tori and Armin Cullins at 808/306-7273 or www.sailhawaii.com.


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