Before I ever went there, the mention of Hawaii provoked in me images of some fat fool standing on a crowded beach, playing the ukulele. I imagined a place where comfort is king and everybody has a relentlessly good time doing things like luau and golf The sort of tropical paradise, in other words, that I could get enough of by dropping in at Trader Vic's and drinking a Mai Tai.
In my stunted imagination, Hawaii was one monolithic place, and everyone who went there looked like Arthur Godfrey. Nothing in it for me.
And then, on a trip to the southwestern Pacific to dive the Japanese ships sunk in the bottom of Truk Lagoon during World War II, I met Paul Warren. He was the most extroverted of all the divers on the trip and, for that matter, one of the most extroverted men I had ever met.
He was also a very good diver. Graceful in the water; stingy with his air; unhurried and serenely at ease, even at 220 feet. I had neither his competence nor his experience, so when he offered me some advice--in the exuberant fashion of a teacher who loves his subject and finds himself dealing with a slow pupil--I tried not to let pride get in the way. In the course of ten days together on a dive boat, I learned how to become a much better diver, and we became friends.
It turned out that Warren was from Hawaii. In my ignorance, I said, "Oh yeah? Honolulu or Maui?"
"Neither," he said. "Kona. On the Big Island."
He had to explain to me that Hawaii is an island, part of the Hawaiian Islands, by far the largest and most recently formed of them. Sparsely populated and wild. A good place, Warren explained, for people like us.
"You ought to come out," he said. "I will show you the righteous Hawaii." He ran the dive concession, he told me, at a hotel called Kona Village. Great diving, he said. Bring the wife.
Well, you meet people on trips, and you become friends for the duration of the trip, and you say you are going to stay in touch and get together again, and in the end you seldom do. But Paul Warren's magnetism was of such force that we did stay in touch. And when Paul told me that he was buying a 53-foot boat which he would charter as a live-aboard for divers and would I like to come over for a cruise, I made my first trip to the Big Island.
The diving was fine and it was good to see Paul again. He introduced me to the Big Island with something that went beyond his normal exuberance.
"I wouldn't live anywhere else," Paul said. "Not in the islands. And not in the world."
It was more than a surprise to me. Something like a revelation. You think of the Hawaiian Islands as small specks of land in the vastness of the Pacific. Strips of beach built up with hotels and condominiums, with maybe enough interior to support a golf course or two. But, at 4,000 square miles, the Big Island is more like a miniature continent. It has miles of beaches--being an island, and all--but the interior is some serious country with a couple of mountains that are nearly 14,000 feet. High enough, and on a landmass that is sufficiently free of pollution, that several nations have built observatories at the crest of one of those mountains.
Also high enough to hold a little snow.
"No kidding," I said to Paul Warren when he mentioned that. We were wearing swimming trunks and could not see the top of Mauna Kea through the volcanic haze, though we could have driven to it in less than an hour.
"Yeah. We do a lot of skiing up there."
"Come on." It was as though I had tried to tell him about the great reef diving we had around my home in Vermont.
"Serious," he said.
"You ski in Hawaii?" I said, ever the skeptic. "What do you use for a lift?"
"Four-wheel drive, man," Paul said. "Or you hike it if you've got the stuff."
An inspiration began to take shape in my mind.
Something about a place where you could wear Rossignols in the morning and Scubapro in the afternoon appealed to me.
What Paul said next, just by way of making conversation, made it even better.
"See that hill country up there?"
Where the volcanic clouds parted, you could see the hills which were banded in colors, almost like a diffused spectrum. At the bottom, they were black from lava rock. Then there were some tentative yellows. Followed by increasingly lush green as soil and daily rain made tropical growth possible. Then the land went brown where the rains stopped.
"Gets almost like Wyoming up there," Paul said "Great bird hunting." I said something skeptical.
"No, true fact," Paul said, earnestly, "they've got all kinds of birds up there. Pheasant. Quail. Partridge." You could bird hunt in Vermont, too. And ski. But you didn't do both in the same day, and you certainly didn't throw in a little scuba over a coral reef The idea that had taken seed in my mind earlier was now beginning to sprout and branch.
"You know, Paul," I said, one night later in the week when we were anchored in a small cove off the coast, looking up at a profoundly deep sky littered with stars, "You could have yourself some kind of sportsman's holiday here. Skiing. Diving. Bird hunting. How many other places in the world can you do all that in the same week?"
"And big-game fishing," he said, "don't forget that."
"How could I." The Kona coast was famous for big billfish. Fish of over 1,000 pounds were not uncommon. One weighed in at over 1,600.
"Well," Paul said, "if you want to come back someday and do it all, just give me a call. I'm always ready."
"I might take you up on that," I said. It wasn't much more than than an idle threat, then. But it grew into something close to an obsession.
I might have dropped the whole thing if I'd ever stopped to think about the packing. Ski boots, hunting boots and fins. Wet suit, ski pants, briarproofs. Shotgun, regulator, goggles for skiing, mask for diving. Swim trunks, hunting vest.
I decided to rent skis when I got there or, if necessary, hold somebody up with my shotgun and steal them.
I flew for hours, missed my connection in Honolulu and got into the Kailua-Kona airport late at night. Me and all my baggage. I was the only tourist there waiting to claim a shotgun. I felt tired and a little foolish.
But checking into Kona Village changed that. It must be the most restful, peaceful hotel in the world. One hundred and twenty-five halis--which are cottages with grass roofs, large porches, all around ventilation, and no phones, faxes or televisions--spread over 80 acres, so that when you lie in bed, you are honestly unaware of the next hali, which you cannot see because it is separated from you by a wall of bougainvillea or some other lush tropical plant. Kona Village is right on the beach, on the western side of the island, and the ocean breezes never stop. The palm fronds rattle ceaselessly and soothingly.
Before I put my head on the pillow and let the breezes sing me to sleep, I ate. Mahimahi so fresh it had been swimming that morning, sauteed with a little lemon and butter. Then a walk on the beach, a swim in the lighted pool, and a very short rum. Then oblivion.
In the morning, I met up with Paul who was, as always, excited.
"We got a great plan," he said. "You want sport, we are going to show you some serious sport."
"We" was Paul and a man named Jody Bright, a Texan who promotes billfishing tournaments and rock concerts (go figure) under the corporate cover of Tropidilla Enterprises. What Paul Warren didn't know about diving off the Big Island and Jody Bright didn't know about the sportfishing there just wasn't worth knowing.
Bright joined us for breakfast--fresh Kona coffee, fresh pineapple, fresh papaya--and we talked about the plan. We would leave the next morning from the Hono Kohan marina in Kona in a sportfisherman--Jody and I--and head down the coast, trailing baits for marlin. We would fish all day. Meanwhile, Paul would head down the coast in his boat, anchor in a small protected spot called Okoe Bay, about halfway to Southpoint on the long, formidable, uninhabited coast.
"When you get tired of fishing and diving," Jody said, "we've got some bird hunting lined up on the Parker Ranch." The Parker Ranch, he explained, was Hawaii's equivalent of the King Ranch in Texas. And it was covered up with birds. I less foolish about bringing the shotgun.
Pacific Blue was 42-foot Bertram sportfisherman, well maintained by its captain, Bill Casey, a laconic man who had the narrow, webbed eyes of someone who has spent a lifetime at sea, squinting into the sun.
"Pleased to meet you," he said, then went up to the fly bridge and eased the boat away from the dock, down the channel, and out into the long blue swells of the Pacific Ocean where we dropped the outriggers and started fishing.
The first moments of any fishing or hunting day are full of a kind of sweet hope and anticipation. It feels the way it must for a big-time ballplayer before the first game of the season. Maybe even better. The day is a blank tablet and you, by God, are destined to write big things on it. This is especially true of billfishing where it is never a matter of numbers. Most days, you catch nothing. Hemingway's hero Santiago, in The Oldman And The Sea, wasn't doing all that badly, going 84 days without catching a fish. Zane Grey, the author of all those western novels, was among the first great passionate billfishermen. In 93 days of fishing he was able to land only four of the 140 fish he sighted.
But when you do catch something, it is a fish of several hundred pounds. Vividly colored like the water it comes from and stronger than you would have thought possible. It can take several hours--sometimes more than half a day--to bring a hooked fish to the boat.
When you put the baits in the water, in the still cool early morning, you always think, This is the day.
Two fish had been caught the day before. In the optimism of early morning, I felt like I was certain to hook up. I watched the baits dance in the foaming white wake, concentrating so I wouldn't miss the strike. We fished down the coast for three hours until we had come out of the lee around South Point, the tip of the island, and were in swells that ran to six feet or so. The volcano Mauna Loa was active down at this end of the island, and the air had a slightly sulfuric fragrance.
We turned and fished back up the coast.
We changed baits. One color of plastic for another. Caught small tuna and used them for bait. Chased schools of small fish on the hope that a blue marlin might be doing the same thing.
We caught one nice ono--maybe 30 pounds--a member of the mackerel family. Most anglers know the fish as a wahoo. It is astonishingly fast and strong. It also eats well, as we were to find out, but it is no marlin.
"But I've still got a long way to go to catch up with Zane Grey," I said.
"We'll get one tomorrow," Captain Casey said, sounding like he meant to do whatever it took.
We were in the fly bridge, running fast, and against the hard rock coast ahead, we could see the small white profile of Paul Warren's boat.
Okoe Bay is a small indentation--perhaps half a mile long and a quarter of a mile deep--some So miles down the coast from the marina and the hotel. We had it to ourselves.
There were still a couple of hours of light left when Paul and I went over the side in 6o feet of clear water. I followed him to the bottom which was sand, lava rock and coral. On the bottom, directly under the boat, reef fish schooled around the backbone, tall and head of the ono, which Paul had filleted for sashimi. A moray had come out from the protection of the rocks to get in on the feed. It was perhaps six feet, sleek and green, and not so much sinister as otherworldly. The ferocity of morays is a myth.
I followed Paul toward a rocky point and some caves where we found a few lobsters. By the time we got back to the boat, low on air, the ono carcass had been picked clean as bones bleached in the desert. The moray had returned to his rock and followed our progress, gulping and showing his teeth.
A shower. Dry clothes. A drink on the bow, with the sun settling into the endless Pacific. A kind of sweet weariness that couldn't have been much better even if I had caught a thousand-pound blue marlin.
Paul put a little soy sauce and seasoning on the ono fillets, seared them for half a minute on a side, then served them as sashimi. Then we did the lobsters over coals, with the hibachi hung over the fantail, dripping sparks into the black water below.
In the morning, with the sun still hidden behind the mass of Mauna Loa, the island's active volcano, and a soft orange light dappling the surface of the bay, I swam with a school of two dozen spinner dolphin. They were as friendly as the beasts in Eden.
They are small, as marine mammals go. Humpbacks migrate along the coast of the Big Island. Also several species of smaller whales. It is against the law to chase them or harass them, and they need the protection. But these dolphins came right to me. One looked me in the face, then circled me three or four times. I suppose he was inviting me to play, but I couldn't figure out the game. Eventually, he gave up and swam away. I'd been three feet from him and had the strange sensation that he was trying to establish eye contact.
I counted eight morays under the boat. It was the anchorage Paul generally used, and he almost always cleaned fish there. The morays were all fat. The reef held all the usual gaudy fish--tangs, parrotfish, squirrelfish, sergeant majors--and it seemed like a good way to spend breakfast, down there among them.
Of all the ways I have ever started a day of fishing--or a day of anything, for that matter--this was easily the best. Paul had told me that he was doing more and more motherboat charters for billfishermen and the reason was plain enough. Waking up in Okoe Bay, going for a dive and then having your breakfast on the bow, still damp from your swim, sipping Kona coffee and looking out into the uncluttered Pacific...if that doesn't make your mind right, then, very likely, nothing will.
"We are going to do it today," Jody Bright said.
Bill Casey had his game face on.
I was serene. I'd already had a great day and it wasn't even seven o'clock.
We caught mahimahi on Pacific Blue that day. But no billfish. Jody Bright and Bill Casey took it harder than I.
"You come back and I promise I'll break that jinx," Casey said.
Bright wrote me a couple of weeks after my trip to tell me that Casey's boat had taken the top fish in one of the island's billfish tournaments.
Paul and I had one more day of diving, and we used the chance to go down to about 150 feet on a formation he calls the "Pinnacles," a tall tower of hard lava rock that rises out of the Pacific like a Stone-Age totem. The bottom falls off in a kind of sheer drop that divers like to think of as a wall and that will, no matter how experienced you are, give you a rush of vertigo when you first drop over one. We saw a lionfish. It looked like some kind of aquatic armored vehicle.
On the way back up the coast, to the marina, Paul said, "Now you've got to put on some boots and get up into the dry country."
"Seems a shame."
"Nah. You'll like it. You'll get some shooting."
"Be nice," I said. You can stand coming up empty after a couple of days of billfishing. But you need action when you hunt birds.
"Oh, we'll get lots of action, don't worry about that," Eugene Ramos said. "We'll see all kinds of birds. Maybe a goat or a pig too. You bring a rifle with you?"
He had picked me up at the hotel--I was at a new place, now, a vast Hilton with shops, restaurants and golf courses--right on time and early in the morning. This was a relief. If I had waited long, dressed in hunting clothes and carrying a shotgun, somebody would have had me arrested.
"No rifle," I said. "Just the shotgun."
"That's okay," Ramos said. "I got one. You can shoot it."
After three or four cattle gates and a climb of six or seven thousand feet, through drier and drier land, we came to a plateau. We were in Ramos's truck. He drove, I opened the gates, and the German shorthair rode in the bed.
"Let's sight in the rifle," Ramos said, which is the polite way guides have of telling a sport they'd like to see if he knows how to shoot.
The rifle was an old Winchester Model 70 in the .270 caliber, and it could drive tacks. After three or four rounds at a target painted on a cardboard box, Ramos decided I could shoot.
We talked as he drove, still higher and deeper into the empty interior of the island. It was true. It did look like Wyoming.
Ramos is the man to see about hunting on the island. He has been guiding for 20 years, and he has keys to all the gates on the Parker Ranch, so he has a fair amount of territory.
"Thousands of acres?" I asked him.
"No. Lot more. Hundreds of thousands." He had a lilting accent. The product of his ancestry, which was Portuguese. The cowboys on Hawaii came from Portugal. Hawaii is a multicultural heaven.
"What kind of birds?"
"All kinds. We got a lot of turkeys. But they're down lower. We got Chinese pheasants [hunters know them as `ringnecks'!, Indian pheasants [called `kalig' in Hawaii], Indian partridge [chukars], Hungarian partridge [huns], California quail, and a few others. We got goats and sheep and pigs, too. Lots of game and lots of land to hunt."
The air was thin and smelled slightly of sulfur. It was hot and very dry.
We stopped at a deep, volcanic depression. Tough, dry land brush grew in clumps around it. Enough to make a little food and some cover. The shorthair, who was big and all business, got out of the truck, made a couple of arcs through the brush and hit a point.
"Hold up now," Ramos said to the dog.
Then, "Go on in," to me.
I did. The bird that got up was big and black and it flew like a pheasant.
"Shoot him," Ramos said. I did. It was an Indian pheasant. A kalig. Which the dog retrieved without being told.
It was everything bird hunting is supposed to be. The lionfish and dolphin seemed a universe removed, in space and time, though where they were was about five miles in a straight line, and less than 24 hours from where I stood.
We kept on hunting. More of the Indian pheasants. A big covey of chukars, which the dog held staunchly while I climbed a hill covered in loose lava rock to get to him. A lot of California quail. It was the kind of variety, and the kind of shooting, that you seldom find outside of the artificial environment of a game ranch. But these were all wild birds. And we were on land where we saw no other hunters. Nobody at all, for that matter.
We were in the truck, driving to another spot, and bouncing over the lava rock when I looked up ahead and saw something.
"That a goat?" I said.
"Sure is," Ramos said and stood on the brakes. The goat took off, leading a herd of some 20 or 30 animals, raising a long, trailing cloud of dust as they climbed a small finger ridge, maybe 200 yards away.
The lead animal stopped and Ramos glassed him.
"That's a good goat," he said. "Shoot him."
I put the scope on the goat. I'm not great at measuring horns from zoo yards, but he looked like a big animal and, anyway, I'd take Ramos's word on it.
I put the cross hairs on his shoulder. Took the breath, held it, and ... hesitated.
"Sorry," I said and lowered the rifle. I didn't want a goat head for the wall, and I didn't expect Paul would appreciate the meat. And...I don't like to stalk from a truck.
"That's okay," Ramos said. "You do fine with the birds, anyway."
Ramos, it seemed, was content to have made the point--without having to skin out a goat--that you can add big-game hunting to the sporting possibilities of the Big Island.
Ramos dropped me at the hotel, and I went back to my room with the game bag on my vest bulging. I got a few looks from the tourists, most of them Japanese who were once more validated in their belief that America breeds far too many gun-carrying cowboys.
I cleaned the birds, and Paul cooked some over charcoal at his house in the hills. We ate them with the last of the ono and a bottle of cabernet, and Paul enthused over the birds as only he can.
"We can can it the Big Island surf and turf," he said.
"Might be better if it was marlin and mutton," I said.
"Except it wouldn't taste anywhere near as good."
It had been a fine week for a sportsman of catholic tastes. If I had wanted to find a flaw, I would have been reduced to this--I never unpacked my ski boots. (But then, I never had to hijack a pair of K-2s at the point of a 20 gauge, either. There was still snow on the mountain while I was there, but there wasn't much, and it had been there a long time.
"Not worth skiing," Paul said, and I took his word for it.
But we drove up there, anyway, just to take a look. The air was very thin, and, in spite of a hard sun, it was cold. But, then, I was dressed for sea level, where I'd been an hour earlier.
I looked out at one field of snow where some skier had carved a perfect sine wave across a couple of thousand vertical feet to the road below, where the truck had been waiting to pick him up. I was almost sorry I hadn't hijacked some skis.
But, even if I hadn't done it myself, I had evidence that it could be done.
Truth is, there isn't much a sportsman can't do on the Big Island. Ice fishing maybe. For that, I'd have to stay in Vermont.
Otherwise, all things are possible in what may be the best of all possible sporting worlds.
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Paul Warren charters the 53-foot Sun Seeker for diving off the Big Island year-round. It has staterooms and onboard compressors, and can stay out for several days and serve as the mothership for a sportfisherman. Day chapters are $125 per person. Overnight is $800 minimum for 2-3 people, plus $250 for each additional person. If you want Sun Seeker for a mothership, it is $700 per night with a 2-night minimum. Paul Warren, PO Box 383657, Waikoloa, HI 96738; 808-883-8847.
Billfishing off the Big Island is world-class. Jody Bright arranges charters and organizes tournaments with prizes and authentic luaus served on the beach. Day charters run in the $750-a-day range. Entry fees for tournaments can be a bit higher (even quite a bit), but you could get lucky and pay for the trip. Contact Bright at Tropidilla, PO Box 2158, Kailua-Kona, HI 96745; 808-322-2010.
For $500 a day you get the services of Eugene Ramos as a guide, access to the best hunting areas on the island, and the use of his German shorthair. Not to mention some of the most interesting bird hunting, and conversation, anywhere. A bargain. Contact Hawaii Hunting Tours, PO Box 58, Paauilo, HI 96776; 808-776-1666.
Kona Village: 800-367-5290.
The Hilton at Waikola Village: 808-885-1234.
Skiing and general information: Hawaii Visitor's Bureau: 808-961-5797.
Norman, Geoffrey. "The sportsman's Hawaii." Forbes 21 Nov. 1994: S127+. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
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