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The Key to an Authentic Vacation: A Sense of Place

The natural wonders of Hawaii's Big Island provide the perfect tonic for body, mind and especially spirit 

By Suzanne Gerber

In the travel industry, the hot trend of the past several years has been giving customers a sense of place. It’s not enough to facilitate a beautiful, relaxing or stimulating vacation experience: The visitor needs to feel a connection to his surroundings. Hence all the nuts and berries in your massage oil and local art in your cabana.
Last December, I took my first two-week vacation in a year (if we made “not-working” a condition, it’s more like two years). I didn’t know exactly what I was hoping for on this much-anticipated trip to Hawaii. Relaxing was certainly high on the list, as was disconnecting from the stressful overload that’s part of the package deal of living and working in New York City. I guess I was mostly looking forward to a minimum amount of thinking, planning and taking responsibility. Let the taro chips fall where they may.
This wasn’t going to be a touristic trip (or trap) for me. I’ve been to the Islands a number of times and have done many of the requisite vacation things: hiking in canyons and volcanoes; swimming, snorkeling and diving with human and marine mammals (including a pod of a thousand spinner dolphins). I’ve seen the big-wow sites from sea and sky, zip-lined through the rain forest, gone off-road ATVing, basked on white- and black-sand beaches, watched slack-key-guitar and hula shows, been to a lu‘au and drunk everything local from Kona beer and coffee to fresh coconuts to Mai Tais.
This time my priorities were more about what I wouldn’t be doing. I was visiting a friend who was also on vacation, and I was planning to just fall into stride with the much more human rhythms of her life for a while.
Instead, I got sucked in big time and completely overwhelmed by a sense of place.
(MORE: How to Feel Connected to Where You Are)
The Beauty and the Beach
To be fair, you would have to intentionally mute your senses and make a superhuman effort to not feel that kind of connection. Virtually from the moment you land, Hawaii envelops you — sweeps you up and grabs you in a big pikake-scented bear hug. (And that's only partly because of the fresh-flower lei your host or driver has draped around your neck.)
I’m not talking merely (merely!) about the Brobdingnagian trees and plants (everything here is larger than life) and the mega-sensory assault that’s a given here. What surprised me more was the daily, inescapable sense of Hawaii that wraps itself around you like an awikiwiki vine.
Start with the first big lesson one gets, or should get — about the difference between native species and imported, invasive species. It would be easy to walk around the Big Island admiring, for instance, the cheery, ubiquitous chorus of "songbirds" and the profusion of beautiful purple-leafed and flowering plants when in fact you’d be praising three of their greatest scourges: the coqui frog (an accidental “gift” from Puerto Rico that has, because of its lack of natural predators, decimated native bird populations and wreaked havoc on the entire fragile ecosystem) and the equally invasive rubbervine tree and the miconia, aka the purple plague.
This awareness leads rather naturally to a widening of the lens. I went from (morning one) reflexively extolling the beauty of everything I saw and heard to (evening one) asking my friend probing questions: What is that? Is it endemic? How was it introduced? Is it invasive? Can anything be done? In so asking, beyond amusing her, I got a tremendous education and developed a deeper appreciation for the native flora and fauna that in turn caused me to feel a personal connection to the land.
Such knowing and connection seems general among the population. Wherever we went, I marveled at the depth of knowledge people have about their birthplace or adopted home. They know their native musicians and artists (and a familiarity with Hawaiian history is a given), they participate in festivals, they speak at least a little Hawaiian, maybe play the ukulele (if they’re natives, they unquestionably do), recognize birds by their song and their appearance, speak with authority about vog and waves and cloud formations, know if and where the lava is flowing, and can always direct you to the best beach or cup of coffee.
This isn’t just chauvinism. This is a deep pride that comes from feeling I am of that.
(MORE: Passions: Why I Love the Ukulele)
Re-entry Is the Hardest Part
When I got home — after 5,000 miles, 16 hours in transit and a difference of about 55 degree — all I could focus on was what I missed: the weather, spending time doing what I wanted instead of what I had to do, my glorious surroundings, fresh produce, fascinating critters of both human and nonhuman persuasions, the crunch of dried lava underfoot, the crashing of waves, the smell of gardenia and jasmine, the gentler pace of life.
That was natural. Being back in New York City causes a unique despair — different than if I had returned to, say, a smaller or less urban place. It’s easy to be proud of this city, of being a New Yorker, of knowing where to see, do or buy the best anything. We have plenty of nature — seriously great stuff — but it’s different. You take a subway to it, it’s a destination, like Chinatown or the Theater or Lighting District. New York is about energy and supreme human creation, and it’s the most extraordinary city on the planet. But our human connection to it feels ephemeral, conditional, competitive even.
And so my work — beyond hatching a way to return to Hawaii — is to keep a little piece of it alive inside me. There are no ne-ne geese or humuhumunukunukuapua‘a in Brooklyn, no turquoise beaches or erupting volcanoes, but all those amazing things I left behind can still inspire me to find what’s authentic and meaningful here. Or anywhere. 

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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