Why can’t I be as brave as this wee wahine?

Today, I need to grow a pair of kahunas. We’re going snorkeling, and I want to be brave enough to float 15 feet above a lot of tiny little vegan fish, and potentially a 50-foot starfish that can suck my eyeballs out of their sockets and then smother me to death.

We board our Body Glove boat really early at Kona’s little pier, and we’re checked in by a pretty, athletic, tanned college-age girl with bleach-blonde hair and freckles. As opposed to looking cute and pouty, she seems to be actually pouting, which is not cute. As soon as I board, I think, how can someone who works aboard the S.S. Hot Guys in paradise be so uptight?

The rest of the crew members remind me of the photos in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs that I used to hide under my bed as a teen. (They didn’t even bother to include distracting things like words.) The life of the party is a short local with tribal tattoos and a big toothy grin who clearly spends a lot of time under a dumbbell, probably in an effort to get to bench-press as many cute girls as he can. He high-fives my dad and enthusiastically welcomes us to Hawaii then makes jokes about what he’s pretty sure is a perfect body to my sister and mom and me. He even flexes. It’s very entertaining, and even a little endearing, and soon he’s taking the act to the next unsuspecting family. I feel bad for the inevitable father of the mature-looking 17 year-old. That’s not going to go well.

Kona from the boat.

Despite the certainty of my imminent fatal jellyfish stings the second I get in the water and, let’s be honest, a little bit of a hangover, I enjoy the bumpy boat ride south along the coast to our snorkeling reef. Eventually, Kona’s hotels taper off and the coastline is just private land with rustic little houses and patio furniture facing the sea. It’s brilliantly sunny. The company’s website mentioned a bar, and sure enough, our blonde hostess makes an announcement to the boat that she is also our bartender, and the bar is open. I decide a bloody mary would be the perfect solution for both my anxiety and my hangover, and, though it is only 8 in the morning and might make me look like a huge lush, I ask my dad for money. He gives me a solid Irish Catholic guilt trip–because it’s only 8 in the morning and really makes me look like a huge lush–then asks me to get him one, too. The blonde makes a great drink, complete lack of enthusiasm notwithstanding.

After about 45 minutes, the boat slows to a reef pretty close to some 50-foot cliffs, and the captain announces over a loudspeaker that a crew member is going to do roll-call and give instructions for collecting our flippers, face masks, and snorkels, so please give him our attention. He’s a big Hawaiian guy with a big sense of humor. My mom is the strongest swimmer and snorkeler of us all and isn’t listening, but I’m completely absorbed, hoping this witty little how-to above water will last all day. It goes on for at least ten minutes–we nod as he explains that we should dunk our face masks in a bin of anti-fog solution not once but twice, we observe the location of the coral-friendly sunblock dispenser, we rehearse the signal for “help!”–and he eventually runs out of things to say. I’m doomed.

The next five minutes are a blur. I’m almost the last person to get flippers, and by the time I get a face mask, my mom is probably already a mile off shore, and my dad and sister are bobbing in the water staring up at me, pleasantly coaxing me to come in. I try to get the mask on, but when I pull the straps tight, they immediately come loose. I see the blonde and ask her if she knows where more face masks are, and, perhaps since helping me now won’t earn her a tip, she hands me off to the captain. Of all people.

Our snorkeling site. Almost as scenic as the crew.

The captain looks a lot like my greatest college making-out accomplishment. And for a 20-something guy with a lovable face and perfect body walking around without a shirt all day, he somehow doesn’t seem at all douchy. He’s even helpful, and smiles a lot, and almost seems shy–as though not a lot of people come up and talk to him. In fact, he could be one of those guys who has no idea he’s hot, a group that, as far as I’m concerned, belongs on the endangered species list with green sea turtles and crested honeycreepers and must be protected in his natural habitat. And bred, for good measure. (More on him here!)

The captain tests a couple of masks before finding me a good one and walks me to the back of the boat, and I can barely exhale a “thanks!” because I’m trying to stand up straight, hold my two ounces of abdominal muscles as taut as possible, and suck in my stomach as far as it can go without being obvious or cutting off my breathing. I see my endlessly patient sister and dad, still bobbing and watching, and at least 60 little yellow snorkels moving around the boat belonging to people not currently getting attacked by electric eels. So I jump.

It’s cold! And I’m scared! I kick my legs like crazy while I get my mask and snorkel in place, remembering that I have an open cut on my toe from lava that is probably attracting a great white shark. I’m alternating between looking underwater and freaking out at what I see and looking above water and freaking out because I can’t see what’s below me. My sister and dad help me get acclimated to the mask and snorkel, though, and continue to be entirely selfless with their time. After calming me down, they swim in a little pod with me and tolerate my alternating “this is amazing!” announcements and “don’t leave me!” pleas. At one point, my sister and I accidentally get too close to the coast, where the current is strongest, and a wave slams her into a piece of coral, not just scraping but severely bruising her upper leg, and I think she is the bravest, toughest sister ever. She was probably trying to protect me in some way.

Otherwise, it’s peaceful, and I get most of the way to confident and unafraid in the water. We see a lot of small, vegan fish, and when we tire out there are really, really good cheeseburgers waiting for us on board, that someone mentions the captain grilled. What can’t he do.

There’s still about an hour left in the excursion, and we discuss whether we want to get back in to snorkel or if we just want to bob around on pool noodles. Bobbing wins, and I’m suddenly feeling bold and decide to get back in the ocean by way of water slide. I love water slides. There’s a diving platform on the top of the boat, too, and I actually used to be pretty good at doing back-flips off of them on party boats in my early 20s. But without a few beers in me to unburden myself of modesty and caution, I stick with the water slide. I go to the top of the boat and feel really relieved not to see the captain at the bridge so I don’t have to walk by him and say the stupid awkward things I normally say to guys when I’m intimidated.

I sit down and inch my tush off the top of the slide, and it is all downhill from there. The slide has a turn in it, and I get rolled over so that I land in the water like a pin-up girl resting on a chaise on her side (except it’s not sexy), giving me an instant Indian sunburn between my knee and elbow. I can still hear cringed reactions when I surface a few seconds later, so I’m pretty sure everyone on this side of the boat heard the distinct slap of a lot of skin hitting a lot of water and is gawking at me. I can’t look at the boat. I don’t want to know who saw. I flashback to the beach weeks and boat parties and tubing trips of my teens and early 20s when I was cute and single and up for anything, and I reassure myself that I’ve always been this embarrassing.

On the ride back, a pod of playful spinner dolphins races our boat, just beneath the surface, right beside where we’re sitting on the boat. We’re reveling in this beautiful and pure moment in nature as a family when suddenly, the blonde appears behind the bar again, this time with her shorts off, and it’s revealed that her bathing suit bottom is a thong. She literally has something stuck up her ass. This explains everything.

We all spend the afternoon relaxing. I swim in the hotel pool and do some shopping. But the excitement is not over yet. Tonight is the Royal Kona Resort’s Lava Legends and Legacies Luau.

I read a lot of luau reviews before booking us, and this one seemed promising. We’re very excited. But on arrival, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s not immediately confident. Seating is at long communal tables coming out like spokes from the stage, on an ever-so-slight incline, covered with plastic wave-print tablecloths, and all the tables up front are filled or reserved. We get the best of what’s left, though, and see that we actually have an excellent view, thanks to the natural amphitheater-like slope of the seating area, and the tables and chairs are really clean. The “bar” is a folding table with half-full punch bowls on it and a long line behind it. But once we get in the mai tai line, it moves quickly. The punch bowls are fruit juices spiked with a lot of light rum, for self-service, and the bartender doesn’t mind at all that we have a cup in each hand when he tops us off with dark rum. The mai tais are as good as any we’ve actually paid for. The hotel is on the waterfront, and the sun is beginning to set to the right of the stage. It’s actually pretty perfect.

Our luau.

After a half hour, the emcee comes out and encourages the guests to come to the pit where the Kalua pig is buried. Earlier in the day, hot rocks were placed inside the carcass, then the pig was covered with a few layers of cloth to prevent dirt from getting to its delicious skin, then covered with leaves, then dirt. Poor little guy. He has no idea how delicious he is. I think, if he only knew, maybe he wouldn’t mind. (That’s a terrible thought. I know.)

I am eating very well during my week in Hawaii, and this meal is immediately tied for my favorite. The emcee describes each dish before we go through the buffet, and we all return to our seats with full plates of almost everything. I don’t know what I love more–the traditional Kalua pig, which is moist and unctuous and smoky, or their luau chicken, breast meat and chopped spinach in a creamy coconut milk gravy. I like the sweet, tender terikyaki beef; the lomi salmon, a salad of raw tomato, onion, and salmon; the violet-colored starchy, sticky mashed Hawaiian sweet potatoes; and the simple, humble sticky rice with soy sauce. It’s worth sampling the glue-like poi, if for no other reason than to know what the emcee is joking about so much. We stock up on mai tais and dessert for the show, then sit back and relax.

This Hawaiian warrior lunged at tough-looking dads in the audience. Hilarious.

The performance is amazing. My parents, who attended many luaus when they lived in Hawaii and in the years since, insist that this emcee is the best. I believe it. He has a genuine perma-grin, and his script is funny, polite, and clean. He’s such a gentleman. The dancers work extremely hard, and we are in awe of their energy, grace, and synchronicity, and the constantly-changing costumes are well made. The stand-outs are the women swinging poi balls all around them in unison, a very serious warrior who goes around the audience in black face paint jumping at the men with his tongue out, and the fire dancer and eater, who is one brave soul with probably not a lot of taste buds. Throughout the show, I keep taking little bites of my rich, aromatic dessert, as I’m down-wind from the plate and powerless against it. The luau chicken. No pineapple upside-down cake or coconut milk gelatin could get between me and that chicken.

We all love the luau. Afterwards, my sister and I give an encore performance, dancing and singing for our parents to the Backstreet Boys in our little living room. This trip was originally a romantic getaway for two, and there are my parents–being serenaded by their party-crashing daughters in a condo with paper-thin walls.