Hawaii, the wow state

It's a rainbow land of unending beauty and unpronounceable fish

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Try saying this word: Humuhumu- nukunukuapua'a. I'll make it easier for you: Humu humu nuku nuku a pua'a.

This is the Hawaiian name for the Picasso triggerfish, (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), which is the state fish of Hawaii. The translation is "triggerfish with a blunt snout like a pig."

Descriptive as that is, it hardly does the fish justice. The Picasso triggerfish has colorful markings the likes of which I'd never seen until our recent first-time visit to the Big Island and Maui.

As we snorkeled at various coral reefs, I kept noticing this amazing creature with a silver face, black diagonal slash and golden panels divided by electric blue and yellow lines, with more blue markings behind the snout and just above the tail. They came in different sizes and the markings varied somewhat -- some had red accents -- but there was no mistaking them, even from a distance (thank you to the person who invented prescription snorkel masks). And while other states have officially designated state fish -- Pennsylvania's is the brook trout -- this one beats them all in a beauty contest.

The Humuhumunukunukuapua'a is my new favorite member of the animal kingdom (except for my dog, of course), and snorkeling is my new favorite activity. Too bad there are no coral reefs in the Allegheny River.

I practically had to be dragged out of the water at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island, and wound up with the sunburn to prove it despite repeated slathering of sunblock No. 80. The bay is a Marine Life Conservation District, which means it is well protected. Much of the coral is close to the surface, which puts snorkelers within arm's length of a stunning variety of tropical fish in all their Technicolor glory.

At one point the reef just dropped off -- boom! -- into total blackness, as if the ocean floor was 100 miles away. It was actually kind of scary, and all I could think of was "Finding Nemo," the Disney Pixar movie with a reef that drops off just as this one did. Later I learned that the filmmakers based the movie reef on Kealakekua, which made perfect sense.

Kealakekua is also the location of the Captain Cook Monument, marking the spot where the British explorer James Cook died in 1779. He'd tried to take the king hostage after some Hawaiians made off with one of his small boats. The villagers killed him instead. Moral: Don't mess with any royal named Kalani'opu'u.

We also did a night snorkel with the manta rays, those huge, flat-winged creatures with the friendly "smiles" on their undersides. A boat took us to a designated spot, we donned wet suits and fins, jumped in and held onto a floating frame. Divers went down to the ocean floor with spotlights and shone them up at us, illuminating the plankton that mantas feed on.

Thus attracted, the rays proceeded to do a water ballet directly beneath us, describing big, vertical circles that exposed their belly markings. Sometimes they were close enough to touch.

We were in Kona three days before the insanely punishing Ironman World Championship, an annual triathlon comprising a 2.4-mile rough-water swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile run. The race moved from Waikiki to the barren lava fields of Kona in 1981, just to up the torture quotient. The highways were dotted with bikers working out and the port town was packed to the gills.

Our trip was marked by many other "wow" moments. My camera is full of fiery sunsets, often with palm tree silhouettes in the foreground. We'd heard much about sunrises atop various volcanoes, but agreed that the sunsets were spectacular enough without rising at 4 a.m. for the early morning show.

At Volcanoes National Park we saw the smoking crater of Kilauea Caldera, which last erupted 50 years ago but still glows orange after sunset, and hiked some trails with great views of the volcanic landscape.

At Honokohau Beach, green sea turtles, or honu, floated lazily in the shallows and sunned themselves on shore. The breakers rendered the water so calm, swimming there was like floating in a lagoon. A recreated long house, basically an inverted v-shaped roof of grasses on a frame, sits on the beach as it might have when Hawaiian settlements thrived in the area.

We also visited the National Historical Park of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, famous for its fierce carved wooden figures. In ancient Hawaii, those who'd broken the sacred laws, or Kapu, had one chance to escape the death penalty. If they could reach this place, which protected defeated warriors and noncombatants, no harm could come to them. The park contains thousands of archeological sites that span 400 years of Hawaiian history.

When we got to Maui, the high point was traveling the Road to Hana, a narrow 35-mile road through the rain forest studded with hairpin turns and one-lane bridges.

Guidebooks detail the many treasures along the way, from botanical gardens and views of the coastline to waterfall-fed pools made for swimming. One of my favorite discoveries was the giant rainbow eucalyptus trees, whose enormous trunks are striped with red, orange, yellow and blue. They're set back from the road, so we'd have missed them if not for the guidebook. Thank you, Lonely Planet.

We wound up missing a few things here and there, but our philosophy about travel is pretty simple. You can't see everything, and whatever you do see is something you haven't seen before, so it's best to take your time and enjoy where you are instead of rushing in a frenzy to the next place.

Plus, it's nice to leave some discoveries for the next time.


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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