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Paradise on two wheels



As a cycling birdwatcher and as a birdwatching cyclist who had already visited the Hawaiian Islands twice, I long ago dismissed them as a destination for any future travel, choked as they are with both cars and alien bird species.

What am I supposed to do there? Lie on a beach? I don't even own a bathing suit!

But my partner Hisano (rhymes with Shimano) harbours fonder memories of the islands and besides, safe and warm riding options in civilized countries with flush toilets become limited by mid-November. We rode my favourite state, Ohio, in May, so I suppose it's only fair that we now do hers.

We decided on a two-week tour of two of the Hawaiian Islands — The Big Island and Maui.

Day 1

Most cycling tourers choose to ride around the Big Island (or Hawaii) clockwise. But I rely on maps, not guidebooks, to do my route planning. And so taking into account prevailing northeast winds, I favour a counter-clockwise direction, so that we will make the most of our northeast progress away from the windy coast, while the rest of the way we'll benefit from being on the more scenic water side of the highway, always a preference on any shoreline.

By the time I assemble both bikes it's a late start out of Kona — 100 kilometres later it's getting dark at Naahelu, and accommodation opportunities are scarce. I've cycled 39 of the 50 United States and Hawaii is the only one I've known that has absolutely no motels. I'm no bike camper, in fact I'm travelling so light this trip that I don't even have panniers, but with no other choice we sleep in someone's tent pitched in the backyard of a hostel. Sleeping bags, towels, hot showers and a toilet are all at our disposal for a total of $20!

Day 2

If it's rainy, windy and cold, you are generally excused from riding your bike on holiday (at home, only deep snow stops me, forcing me to rely on cross-country skis for housecalls and errands. It's easy to forget in Whistler that the original purpose of skis was for transportation).

But today only one of the three evil elements prevails: rain. It's calm, it's warm and we've got waterproof gear so we ride all day. The first hour is the best as we find a paved backroad to Pahala. Almost devoid of any traffic, it is a pleasant respite from the most-annoying component of Hawaiian roads: local red-neck pick-up drivers, often hostile to cyclists. But as obnoxious as they are, they are ultimately harmless, I suppose.

In the afternoon we are treated to a few dry hours as we climb into Volcanoes National Park. It's the first of seven uninterrupted 1,000-metre ascents we'll do over the 13 days. Hisano complains of the extra weight she's bearing. My bike is lighter and she's carrying 500 grams of my clothes in her panniers. I tell her she shouldn't have packed a bikini, an unnecessary extravagance on bike tour, and remind her that unlike myself she's fully sponsored on this trip by Équipe TD (not the bank, that's Tom DeMarco).

Day 3

We spend the next morning riding and birding around spectacular Kilauea Crater. At this altitude, 1,240 metres, native forest birds predominate, safe from avian malaria that was long ago imported to the lowlands of Hawaii. You must have binoculars to enjoy the vivid scarlet beauty of the diminutive Apananes and Iiwis.

We linger too long in the comfortable mountain climate and we pay the penalty later as we get caught in the dark north of Hilo, again we engage in a desperate search for accommodation. In a place as touristy as Hawaii, it's surprising how far one can travel sometimes without coming across a single hotel or B&B! An hour past sunset, I knock on a house door in Papaaloa. Dave answers and tells us there's no lodging available in the area. Recognizing our discouragement, he kindly invites us to stay in a guesthouse that he recently built on the deck of his backyard pool. We learn that he has, in fact, personally constructed everything we see: house, garage, 20-metre pool and workout facility (for his ironman wife), including all the plumbing and electrical. He acquired almost all of his building material second-hand (even the pool!) and transported it here piece by piece on a little trailer behind his sub-compact car! Off-grid, everything is solar-powered. As a fireman on 24-hour shifts he has 20 days a month to devote to building projects.

He serves us barbecue salmon with beer. I offer him $100 for his troubles and take his business card. "Super Dave" is a good guy to know, if you ever need a handy-man... or brain surgery for that matter as there doesn't appear to be anything this man can't do!

Day 4

Rain and wind can be challenges for Hawaii cyclists but luckily we won't have any more of the former on this trip, and today will be the first of only two when we face any headwind! We drop in on Super Dave at the fire station in Waimea. Across the street we pick up a spare inner tube in a bike shop owned by a former Whistlerite!

Day 5

As so often on bike tour, the first hour is the most precious. Riding south on the North Kohala coast there's no traffic, no wind, no heat, no bumps, not even any hills... just effortless pedalling on a smooth ribbon along a spectacular coastline. Cycling doesn't get better than this. Later in the morning as the heat and traffic pick up, we take a break in Holoholokai Beach Park. I set up office (for post-card writing) on a picnic table in the shade of an alien Sea Hibiscus. Like the birds, almost all low-altitude vegetation on these islands is non-native, even the trademark coconut palms.

Hisano takes her first dip of the trip in the Pacific. She's earned it. As indomitable of a companion as any Dr. Watson to a Sherlock Holmes, she earns 30 minutes of beach or pool time for every 300-kilometres we pedal! Back on the bikes, we pass by a runner on the wide shoulder of Highway 19. This is the route of the World Ironman event. Observing the light, effortless stride, I comment to Hisano "That woman could run all day." Sure enough, two hours later (we stopped for lunch), we overtake her again, many kilometres further south. This time my curiosity overcomes me and I ask the runner, Sylvia, a few questions. Her voice betrays no sign of fatigue as she jogs along. I'm not shocked to learn she's an ultra-marathoner. She recently completed a 100-mile course in 34 hours on rough mountain trails on Oahu, often scrambling on all fours! Sylvia and Ironman are reminders that human beings are naturally outstanding endurance athletes, superior to all other land mammals in their capacity for sustained effort. That is, if they don't allow themselves to succumb to the conveniences of modern life with its inherent over-dependence on orthopaedic devices such as cars.

Day 6

Our loop of the Big Island completed, today we do a day trip from our hotel in Kailua up Kaloko Drive, a steep residential road on Hualalai Volcano. An extreme example of amorphous sprawl, it seems that in Hawaii you can rarely see more than three houses at a time, like Kadenwood here in Whistler. The key to tropical mountain climbing by bike is to leave at dawn and to make steady vertical progress. You maintain a comfortable 20°C climate all the way up! We climb 1,350 metres in less than 10 kilometres. That's like riding up our bobsled track access road at Whistler Sliding Centre four times. Again at altitude we are rewarded with an abundance of native birds, especially Amakihis, including a pair of Hawaiian Hawks.

Day 7

So far it has been a fairly routine holiday by my standards. But today I do something extraordinary. Taking advantage of a willing chauffeur (Hisano), I rent a car for the first time in 15 years! In preparation for Maui, it's time to do some high-altitude training. We unload the bikes from the van at the pass along the Kona-Hilo Saddle Road, elevation 1,950 metres. Rarely pedalled by visitors, it turns out that the panoramic Mauna Loa access road is the best ride on the whole island. Cycling across vast lava fields on smooth asphalt up to elevation 3,000 metres, we encounter an average of one car per hour. No hostile pick-up truck drivers, and no other cyclists. Fortified by the determination of a kamikaze and by macadamia nuts, Hisano is proudly cycling far higher than she ever has in her life. Her panting in the thin air is the only sound up here. She marvels at my composure. In turn, I marvel at her balance. How can anyone pedal so slowly without falling over? She's a lot faster on the way down, descending with the confidence of an expert downhill skier. Back on the Saddle Road, we have one more hour of daylight to bird a forest on the east slope of Mauna Kea. I am pleased to find a confiding Elepaio amongst the Apapanes, but alas, I'll find no new "lifers" this trip. But I will find a total of $1.85 in "road money," mostly dimes. With all the long steep climbs, it's easy to spot coins at 9km/hour!

Day 8

We fly over to Maui and embark upon another counter-clockwise circumnavigation. The north shore of west Maui is a cyclist's dream. The road is as scenic as our Sea to Sky highway, but with one tenth of the traffic volume travelling at one quarter the speed. In fact, the speed limit is five miles per hour over some bridges!

Day 9

South of Lahaina, I briefly tag along with a group of cyclists from Vancouver. There are a lot more road riders on Maui than on Hawaii, and most are British Columbians (but we never meet any other bike tourers on either island). Wheel to wheel we are rolling at 40 km/h on this flat stretch of road, a rare treat on these islands. The pace is too fast to find any dimes, so I drop back to allow Hisano to catch up. Now with another 300 kilometres under her wheels, she has earned more beach time at Maaleaea. Again I write postcards in the shade. We allow the worst of the mid-day heat to pass before embarking on the steep 1,200-metre climb up to Kula Lodge.

Day 10

On our bikes at dawn, as usual, we begin the long ascent of Haleakala, elevation 3,055 metres. Whistler local Trevor Hopkins has done this ride in 3 hours 15 minutes, starting from the beach! We take considerably longer, sweat-free. I count a total of 108 downhill riders this morning. They all got lifts to the summit, in vans, the road equivalent to Whistler's Mountain Bike Park. We encounter only three others riding up. Another calm day most of the way, the temperature remains comfortable all along. Hisano arrives at the summit understandably triumphant. I enjoy a certain satisfaction too — but we haven't done anything that most humans are not physiologically programmed to do.

Day 11

After a second night at Kula lodge, we begin our tour of East Maui down the Piilani Highway, another classic stretch of a quiet coastal road. There are a few short sections of unsealed surface, but this adversity is our advantage. We have no trouble negotiating the gravel on 23-millimetre tires, but its presence is enough to make car rentals companies discourage motorists from coming this way, so we have the road to ourselves. Kaupo General Store is the opportunity for provisions along the entire 85 kilometres to Hana.

Day 12

The first hour out of Hana is again the best of the day as we wind up a cool deserted road through tropical rain-forest (almost all non-native!) with vines hanging overhead. But the highway has become hot and busy by the time we reach Paia late morning. It happens to be another 300 kilometres since her last dip, so Hisano spends the afternoon on the beach. I head into the hills and encounter the worst riding conditions I've seen anywhere in Hawaii: narrow roads, no shoulder, and lots of cars and pick-ups. I wonder why BC's only pro rider (who appropriately bears the name Ryder Hesjedal) chooses to live here in the off season! Presumably, like Hisano, he's sensible enough to spend his time on the beach, not bike.

Day 13

Over the course of the 1,200 kilometres of cycling on the last two islands, we've climbed a cumulative total of over 18,000 vertical metres. You never know with overly polite Japanese, but Hisano actually seemed to enjoy travelling Hawaii in an unconventional manner. But I have a feeling that next time she visits, she'll come with her girlfriends, not me, and revel them with stories about how she once pedalled up 3,000 metre high volcanoes, as they all relax on the beach like proper tourists. Or, who knows, maybe Hisano will be dating an ultra-marathoner by then and she'll run around the islands next time!