Columnists :: Kilian Melloy

No Ka ’Oi: A Maui Adventure

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jan 30, 2012

Wade Holmes arrives early in the morning in his Ford Explorer. Wade is an athletic 36-year-old with close-cropped blond hair and bright blue eyes. His friendly smile exudes a confidence born of expertise.

If you want adventure on Maui, this is the man to see. With degrees in zoology and ethnobotany to his credit, countless hours under his belt exploring the nooks and secret spots of the Hawai’ian islands, and education in Hawai’i’s culture, language, and history, Wade knows Maui better than the back of his hand.

Hell, he knows Maui better than I know the back of my own hand: Over the course of a ten-hour day, Wade proves himself capable of answering any question my husband and I might think to ask him. Our adventure tour ranges from the gorgeously lush and fertile slopes of the ’Iao Valley to a hidden gem of a waterfall, to coastal tide pools and blow holes, to a smattering of ancient petroglyphs--with time for an introduction to the world’s tastiest banana bread.

From Mormon to Maui

Barely two years ago, Wade started No Ka ’Oi Adventures, a tour company dedicated to the "alternative traveler"--which could mean gay travelers, but doesn’t have to, at least not any longer.

Wade, who is gay and lives in Kihei with his partner, grew up Mormon in Rochester, New York, and attended Brigham Young University. A short-lived summer job on O’ahu led to what seems to be a lifelong love affair with the islands; Wade calls Hawai’i his "spiritual home," and if every home has a hearth, he’s found his on the isle of Maui.

After six years on O’ahu, where he earned his second degree, in ethnobotany (he studied "the cultural context of psychoactive plant use"), Wade made the move to Maui. There, after stints as manager at the ’Iao Valley branch of the Hawaii Nature Center and as a middle school teacher at Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina, he combined his love of Hawai’i, his passion for the outdoors, his academic knowledge, and his skill as an educator into what might just be the world’s best job. Even better, Wade would seem to be the best man in the world for that job, and that’s not just my opinion. The dozens of testimonials about Wade and his company to be found online all rave about him--every last one of them.

"It’s only a matter of time," Wade tells my husband, smiling--a matter of time before things go wrong, or someone decides they didn’t enjoy their adventure, or a client simply feels mean and in need of badmouthing him on the Web.

But perhaps a more pressing worry is just how fast his business, and his reputation, has grown. Wade has been written up plenty in the gay press, but the wider world is also starting to take note. He’s been the location scout for two upcoming programs on the Travel Channel, but even better the grapevine (or, as they call it in Hawai’i, the "coconut wireless") is abuzz about his tours. Any business owner can tell you that word of mouth is the best means of marketing, and the word on No Ka ’Oi is that it’s simply the best.

It’s only a matter of time before the man with the world’s best job might start to see that job grow larger than he can handle, and Wade makes it clear that he has no interest in hiring any assistants. This is a one-man show; specifically, this is Wade Holmes’ show. Only Wade can do what he does so well, namely be his own highly knowledgeable and affable self, making his clients right at home as he shows them the secret, beautiful places that make Maui such a treasure. He’s not putting on a show. This is his authentic persona, and he’s tickled to show visitors the natural beauty he enjoys so much himself.

EDGE asks the guide whether he fears becoming a victim of his own success. "Oh, I do," Wade says, laughing. But the laughter has a serious undercurrent: "It keeps me awake at night."

Tailor-Made Adventure

Wade started out marketing largely to the gay community (he credits gay resort Maui Sunseeker with helping him find business in the early days of his business), but now, he tells EDGE, his customers run about two-thirds straight and one-third gay.

Regardless of sexual orientation, Wade tailors each adventure to the needs, and the abilities, of his clientele. Where, he inquires, have we been on Maui?

We confess, not without a tinge of meekness, that we’ve spent almost all our time at Makena’s Little Beach.

So... Have we been to Hana?

Er, no.

Wade looks at us skeptically.

Not yet, we hasten to add. But we’re going. Next Tuesday, in fact.

Wade regards us a moment more, clearly taken aback. "And you’ve been coming here how many years?"

Well, ten. Not every year, mind you, but.. A lot.

Wade looks almost scandalized. Then he sighs, just a little. "You have a lot to see."

Wade decides to start us off with the nearby ’Iao Valley, home of the famous Needle (a formation of volcanic rock that has, like the striking formations in the American Southwest deserts, assumed its shape through millennia of erosion). The valley is home to a wealth of native and introduced plants: kukui trees (from which the ancient Hawai’ians derived oil to light their torches and lamps), coffee, banana, avocado, Brazilian pepper, the highly invasive strawberry guava...

If you were to find yourself stranded here, and knew what was edible, you’d do pretty well at surviving, Wade reckons. In fact, this gorgeous valley used to be the province of the ancient Hawaiian elite; they alone were allowed to reside there. The other 99% were invited once every year to enter the valley and partake of its riches.

Swimmin’ Holes in Paradise

Our tour of the ’Iao Valley takes maybe two hours. After we hike back down, though, Wade has another nearby destination in mind, so we head up the ’Iao stream, rock hopping and hiking until we reach a wide spot where a chest-deep swimming hole awaits. We’re hot and sweaty by then; Wade promises that the water will be refreshing.

By which he means pretty bracing. Which is to say, downright cold. That’s not a surprise to my husband or myself, since we’re both from the West and the Southwest, and glacier-fed (or mountain snow-fed) streams, icy cold, are not uncommon. But wait a moment, there are no glaciers or snow here... what gives?

Wade explains that the stream is supplied by rainfall, and though the ongoing drought has left the water level lower than usual there is plenty of algae and moss along the streambed. The plant life acts as a giant sponge; even in dry times, that sponge allows a trickle to keep on flowing.

This is more than a trickle, and indeed it is refreshing. We dry ourselves by resting on large, smooth boulders and sunning, Wade telling us stories and asking about our lives back in New England.

After hiking back to the parking lot, we drive to the next surprise: A waterfall so hidden that none of the guidebooks have discovered it as yet. Wade, protective of the spot and mindful of the way that natural beauty spots can become overrun through thoughtless publicity, asks that the name of the place be withheld, to protect the innocent... or, in this case, the pristine nature of the place, not to mention its status as a treasured swimming spot for the locals.

Indeed, the pool at the bottom of the falls is an idyllic spot for a dip and we jump in once again. The pool spills over the rocks another thirty feet, forming a second waterfall below us.

After another swim, we rest there between the two waterfalls and enjoy a snack (Wade has brought a supply of munchies, water, juice, and sunscreen: We are well cared for all day long). A trio of local teenagers show up and dive in. After about an hour, Wade lets us know that the time has come, and we depart.

Risk and Reward

As we drive along a narrow ribbon of road, with a steep drop-off visible through the passenger-side window, I tap at my iPhone, taking notes of the sights we’ve seen and trying to ignore the proximity of what, to me, looks like nothing other than the edge of a cliff.

Wade, perfectly fluent on this road, is at ease behind the wheel. He and my husband chat about the view, which is spectacular: I risk a glance and see the ocean rolling into our line of sight, dramatic mountains off to the side of a blue, rolling bay.

Where could our handsome, amiable guide be taking us? As it turns out, our next stop is Julia’s Best Banana Bread in the World, a delectable treat that lives up to its rather immodest name. Julia’s Best Banana Bread in the World is sold from a bright green, open air shed at the side of this narrow, winding road, on the edge of Kahakoloa village.

Julia isn’t in today, but Jan--a real character, warm and funny--is. She welcomes Wade with enthusiasm, and strikes up a conversation peppered with dryly humorous observations. It’s worth the trip just to hear her monologue.

And the bread? Made with dark molasses, it is moist, fresh, and scrumptious. Another traveler stops in as we munch. She’s goggle-eyed from the stress of navigating a road where more emotional breakdowns than mechanical result from two-way traffic on tarmac that hardly seems wide enough to accommodate a single vehicle, let alone two needing to edge past one another.

"It’s like puffer fish!" the woman exclaims. "A delicacy that’s thrilling to eat because it might kill you!"

Time and Tide Pools

It’s evident already that our lunch is going to be a late one, which is fine with my husband and me. But the hour is so late and there’s still so much to do that Wade realizes he may miss an appointment for early that evening. No matter: Far from letting us feel a morsel of guilt, Wade gives us to understand that he’s having fun, too, and his missed engagement is not a big deal.

Our next stop brings us to the Olivine Tide Pools. Like any tide pools, these are located right on the sea--Wade did promise as a "Mauka to Makai," or Mountains to Ocean, expedition--and they are carved into a wild, almost lunar, landscape dominated by a sandstone-like rock that looks as though it’s formed from compressed volcanic ash.

There’s plenty of the usual volcanic rock in evidence, as well, marked up with bands of mineral-rich and brightly colored igneous rock. The tide pools are a little lower down the slope than the gray, soft-looking ashy rock formations, and they can be quite deep: One pool, which is full of local teens, is ten or twelve feet deep, Wade tells us. The kids clamber up and jump in with abandon.

We take a third dip, this time in seawater, in a shallower tide pool located right at a small cove where the turquoise South Pacific waters rage and foam. It’s quite a contrast: A few meters away is a relentless, pounding surf, a nightmare to contemplate falling into, but the water in our tide pool is tranquil and warm... and inhabited. Wade yelps with surprise and then laughter as a fish takes a curious nibble at his finger.

Tide pools such as these are ideal nurseries, our guide explains. Juvenile fish can reside here with little fear of predators. The more we look, the more we see: tiny hermit crabs dot the lava walls that line and rise above the pool, and wide-finned fish that almost resemble extra-large tadpoles dart through the water. Wade explains that these fish are cousins of a wide-finned freshwater species that lives in streams like the ’Iao and climb up the rock walls under falls such as the one where we swam and picnicked, using natural suction cups on their elongated fins.

Wade also shows us the famed Nakalele blowhole, located just a few minutes’ drive away. Like any blowhole, this one is supplied with water forced into an underground channel that happens to have an opening at the surface of the rock a few meters inland. The force of the well sends a plume of spray high up in the air, like a geyser. But also like any blowhole, these marvels of accidental natural engineering must be treated with respect: Someone fell in just a few weeks ago, Wade tells us. The man had ventured too close, and he tumbled into the churning water. Falling into such a blowhole means certain death: A person is quickly pounded to death, and if the battering doesn’t kill him the impossibility of climbing out again means he’ll drown in the surging water.

A Late Lunch

Wade usually finishes up his tours with lunch, and one of his favorite spots is Star Noodle in Lahaina.

As predicted, ours is a late lunch: 4:00 p.m. Wade is greeted warmly by the staff, who then turn their aloha to my husband and me. We enjoy "share plates" of pad thai and noodles and crispy chicken served with a wasabi sauce and pickled ginger. We’re so pleased with our day of adventure that we insist on picking up the bill, to show Wade our gratitude.

As it happens, there’s a little more still to come: Wade has one more sight to show us. As he drives us back to Kihei from Lahaina, a drive of about 30 miles, Wade makes a quick detour to Olowalu, a small town near to which a number of petroglyphs can be seen.

Petroglyphs are ancient carvings, shallowly pecked into rock surfaces. At least one academic, Professor Ed Stasack, professor emeritus of art at the University of Hawai’i, has studied petroglyphs in depth; Stasack has mused that the figures, which often seem to be wielding oars or paddles, might be striking hula poses.

Hula is far more than merely shaking booty in a grass skirt. It’s a sophisticated system of movement that’s more like ballet than belly dancing, but as Stasack noted, there’s a strong component of oral tradition associated with hula.

In other words, hula dance is part and parcel of the myths and legends that Hawai’ians have told in song and chat, for generations; depicting figures striking specific hula poses may be a form of written communication, a means of transmitting lore or genealogies to subsequent generations.

Aloha Oe

It’s 5:30 p.m. when Wade pulls up to the Kihei address we’re calling home for two weeks. In a single long day, he’s shown us far more of Maui than we’ve ever seen before, and he’s done it in a relaxed, and relaxing, manner that’s much more akin to bumming around with a highly knowledgeable friend than being hustled and herded by a script-spouting tour guide.

Indeed, by the day’s end, Wade has become a friend for real, and he presents us with a final gift: T-shirts bearing his company’s beautiful and highly symbolic logo on the back, with the name emblazoned across the front:

"no ka ’oi"

The phrase literally means "excellence without parallel," and while Wade means it as a paean to his beloved island, the words also describe the service he’s given to us: Truly exceptional, from start to finish.

Aloha, and mahalo ("thank you"), we tell our new friend.

His parting message: Get yourselves to Hana!

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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