By dawn's early light

KATRINA LOBLEY
Last updated 05:00 01/04/2014
Hawaii
Katrina Lobley

FIRED UP: A Maui sunrise.

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Packing a puffer jacket for Hawaii just feels wrong, yet I am told it's cold, as in bitter, bone-chilling, freezing cold, atop Maui's Mount Haleakala before sunrise.

So I take the advice, rolling a feather-filled jacket into a ball, stuffing it next to the bikinis and board shorts, and flying to Honolulu, connecting straight on to Maui.

All Hawaii's islands are stunners. Mark Twain once described them as "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean", but Maui comes with celebrity endorsement. Not only did Twain stay here for five weeks when he intended to spend just one, but Oprah Winfrey, Willie Nelson and Steven Tyler all have places here. Mick Fleetwood owns an eponymous restaurant in Lahaina in West Maui.

I am staying at the beachfront Royal Lahaina Resort, before tackling the Haleakala sunrise tour. Originally, my pickup time is scheduled for 2.20am. That is bad enough, but when I call to confirm, it has been changed to 1.50am. Goodbye any prospect of sleep.

Waiting for the mini-bus, I half-heartedly chat to a couple from Sydney booked on the same tour but truth be told, I'm grumpy. I'm usually only up at this hour with a cocktail in hand. All I keep thinking is: "This better be worth it."

The mini-bus scoops up more passengers before tackling the 60-kilometre ascent to the summit of the world's largest dormant volcano. Climbing the Haleakala Highway, winding this way and that, is soporific and I snatch a little sleep along the way.

When we pull up in the parking area, it is still nowhere near dawn - but a full moon illuminates all the cars and coaches that have beaten us. The driver says they missed out on a spot here the night before.

Some of us hop out to stretch our legs but quickly scoot back inside again. Not even a puffer jacket keeps out the cold and I did not pack gloves. Coffee and packaged pastries - our mountaintop continental breakfast - are available from the front of the bus. We slurp and sit and chew and wait. Eventually, the sky lightens enough to take up position at the guard rail next to the visitors' centre overlooking the crater.

Unfortunately there is no spare spot along the rail - people are shoulder to shoulder along the front row. Eventually, it occurs to me to look around and head to higher ground. The Pa Ka'oao Trail winds around a volcanic cinder cone, leading to an unseen vantage point. It must be better than this.

Better? It's glorious. A few others are up here too, swaddled in hotel quilts and beach towels, trying to ward off "chicken skin", as Americans call goose bumps. I tie my scarf under my chin, goat-herder style, to keep the ears warm and clamber around the rocks, snapping the ever-changing sky from whatever angle I wish.

The view is amazing enough, but then something quite extraordinary happens.

At an elevation of almost 3000 metres, we are above the clouds, and magic strikes when the sun suddenly, unexpectedly, bursts through them.

A golden light anoints us as though an ancient Hawaiian god has handpicked us for a blessing. The sun climbs higher in the sky, the light turns harder, more ordinary, and it is time to return to the bus with all my earlier complaints forgotten.

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Our explorations of Haleakala National Park are not quite over yet. We pass the observatories that put international astronomers closer to the stars and park at the pinnacle, about 3055 metres above sea level, where an exhibit tells more about the scant flora and fauna of the surrounding windblown cinder desert.

One of the mountain top's most photogenic species is the Haleakala silversword, a low-lying plant that lives for decades, before producing a single, spectacular flowering stalk before dying, scattering seed to the wind.

We snap an example growing near the road and tumble back into the bus, ready for a full breakfast at the bottom of the mountain. Back in Australia, I had entertained the idea of taking another tour, one where you mountain-bike down Haleakala after sunrise. What I didn't factor in was how difficult that might be on zero sleep.

I hog the bus's back seat, probably snoring all the way down. By the time I tuck into scrambled eggs, bacon, snags and hash browns, I swear I have just woken from the most surreal dream.

The writer travelled courtesy of Holiday Specialists, Hawaii Tourism Oceania and Hawaiian Airlines.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Fly to Honolulu and then to Kahului airport on Maui (40min); see hawaiinairlines.com.

TOURING THERE The Spectacular Haleakala Sunrise Tour costs from about $160 a person through Holiday Specialists.

STAYING THERE Rooms at the Royal Lahaina Resort cost from about $150 a person a night twin-share through Holiday Specialists.

MORE INFORMATION holidayspecialists.com/hawaiigohawaii.com

- FFX Aus

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