A remote haven for seabirds and other wildlife set like a jewel within an azure lagoon offering unexpected cross-cultural amenities for the adventurous traveler.
|Wildlife viewing by bike on the southern shore of Sand Island|
By ROB TAYLOR
Getting to Midway Atoll, a small outpost of sand and coral more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu, isn’t easy but for those intrepid enough to make the voyage, it can be the experience of a lifetime. Once a US Navy Air Station, now a wildlife refuge situated within the largest conservation area on the planet, Midway provides critical habitat for rare and endangered seabirds – including Laysan duck and and black-footed albatross – as well as sites of great historical significance including a variety of WWII relics. A dynamic, perhaps even idiosyncratic blend of custom and culture makes Midway a unique destination sought after by the world’s elite travelers (President Obama made a quick visit here in 2016) and yet it maintains an unpretentious charm. Relatively small in area – the three islands that comprise total less than 3 square miles and travel is done by foot or by bicycle – even the most footloose of visitors can experience myriad natural and cultural fascinations in just a couple of days. Currently, travel here is somewhat complicated by lack of commercial flights and visitor services but not impossible, especially if you’re willing to volunteer your time with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help out with conservation projects. If you can, time your visit during “albatross season” when over a million large, somewhat awkward yet undeniably magnificent seabirds, descend on Midway to nurture their next generation to life.
( 1 ) 3 P.M. Ø REDONDO
A short golf cart limo ride gets you and your baggage from the tarmac to Charlie Hotel in a matter of minutes providing ample time for a quick tour of Sand Island. Arrange to have your rental bicycle waiting for you to save time then fill up your water bottle (double-filtered water is available in the small water and ice shack across from the hotel) and have the hotel staff make arrangements with airport operations to let them know you’ll be crossing the runway during your bike tour. Then hop on your trusty cruiser and head out towards the Visitors Center and Museum which is located in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial Headquarters. Small, yet informative, the museum covers both the cultural and natural history of Midway including its importance to native Hawaiian people (the coral reefs here are thought to be the birthplace of all life) as well as the key role the islands played during WWII. A new exhibit explains the recent expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument within which Midway lies. Be sure to check out the green glass fishing floats and the large scale replica of Sand Island. A table in the back of the museum has albums of fascinating historic photos and other curiosities, including a 1964 copy of the Gooney Gourmet, a cookbook written by members of the Midway Officers Wives Club. Climb back on the saddle and head south passing by the old orchard and the historic Public Works buildings. Continue south and as you approach the runway check out the large, cleared area on your left. Once a forest of the invasive ironwood tree, this area is now a restoration demonstration site and now hosts various native Hawaiian plant species, including the rare and endangered Popolo. Now follow the bike path across the runway to the south side of the island and head west taking in the waves breaking on the reef just off shore. Continue west towards Frigate Point (beware of patches of soft sand in the trail) looking out for the extremely rare short-tailed albatross between the path and the runway. Eventually the path doubles back (crossing the runway again) towards town. Your timing should be just about perfect to arrive at the Clipper House as the doors open for dinner.
|Fusion dining at its funkiest at the Clipper House|
( 2 ) 5 P.M. Ø FUNKY FUSION
The Clipper House is the one and only restaurant on the island featuring a funky mix of American, Thai, and other world cuisines served buffet-style. Chef Pong Wichasawatdi and his all-Thai staff earned their chops on luxury cruise ships and put their culinary experience to good use. Menus constantly change but if you are lucky you might find a steaming pot of Green Chicken or Beef Massaman Curry and Thai-style Sticky Rice. Larb Moo (spicy pork salad), Tom Ka Gai (chicken coconut soup), and Seafood Tom Yum soup are other Thai specialties executed by the Clipper House to fantastic effect. On the flip side of the menu look for Steak Diane, Adobe Chicken, Baked Acorn Squash, and Zippy Shrimp, all local favorites. The salad bar features locally produced greens and other produce grown in the island’s hydroponic greenhouse. Thrill seekers can take advantage of the rare opportunity of having Thai and American dishes side by side in the same hot table. Notable fusion concoctions have included Thai Red Curry Mac and Cheese and the incredible Pad Thai Chicago Dog. For dessert, check out the selection of cakes, cookies, and pastries and if Kidjarom’s New York Style Cheesecake is available, don’t even think of passing it up. Otherwise you might opt for the ever-popular self-serve frozen dairy dessert available in vanilla, chocolate, and (occasionally) Clipper-House Coffee flavors.
( 3 ) 6 P.M. Ø SHOPPING MADE SUPER SIMPLE
While shopping options are somewhat limited at Midway, the Ship’s Store does a fabulous job of stocking truly necessary items. Forgot shampoo or dental floss? Jack Phosri, manager of the store has your back! Even more important is the stores selection of beers, wine and spirits. If you are used to big city selection, you might be surprised to find only a handful of brands in each category but if you allow yourself to simply comprehend the fact that this is the only store selling adult beverages and snacks within a 1,000 mile radius, you can feel absolutely righteous as you tip-toe out of the store with a couple of six packs of Chang Lager (US $11), a liter of Johnny Walker Black (US $55) and a jumbo bag of Tostito Blue Corn Tortilla Chips (US $6). The Ships Store also houses a large selection of souvenir merchandise offered by the Friends of Midway Atoll including t-shirts, post-cards, water bottles, and the classic, all metal, Zippo lighter (an essential gift for anyone you know who uses disposable plastic lighters, commonly found among other plastic ocean debris that washes up on the shores here). Be sure to stock up as the Ship’s Store has very limited hours and this will likely be your only chance to visit. Celebrate your newly acquired purchases with a quick trip to Cargo Pier where you can relax on a bench and get a good view of Hawaiian green turtles basking on Turtle Beach and foraging for algae along the pier; you’ll also get a great view of albatross and other seabirds flying over open water as the sun settles in the western sky.
|Get your karaoke on after hours at the Aree House|
( 4 ) 8 P.M. Ø SING YOUR HEART OUT
Over twenty hardworking Thai nationals (all men) live and work full-time on Midway maintaining the infrastructure and providing essential services to all of the island’s residents. After a long week of labor, it’s time to kick back, and long-term residents and visitors alike are all welcome at the Aree House where you can always find a cooler of beer and the warm, hospitality that the nation of Thailand is known for. Though it may be hard to decipher some of the card and dice games typically played on weekend nights, karaoke is a popular pastime that anyone can easily join in on. Put in a request for your favorite tune or just wait until a song inspires you to sing along. The Beatles, Neil Young, ABBA, The Eagles, and Selene Diaz are eternally popular but there is a wide selection of songs available cutting across a dozen or more genres. Thai pop songs often prompt the more accomplished local singers to croon. On warm summer nights the garden with its benches, water features, and attendant albatross chicks make for an exceptionally convivial and international setting. Charlie Hotel is right next door, but be sure to bring a flashlight as there are no external lights on Midway (to protect the birds) and it can get very dark!
( 5 ) 7 A.M. Ø UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
With so much to see in a short time, you’ll want to set your alarm and rise early. Even if you don’t, the albatross will probably wake you up anyway. Coffee and breakfast await you at the Clipper House but you’ll want to get your feed on quickly because you need to be at the Finger Piers at 7 am to meet up with Sam Songserm and his able crew of weed control technicians. Locally known as the A Team, Sam and his crew travel by boat to Eastern Island to wage war with verbesina (a noxious weed) and there is usually a couple of empty seats available (make sure they’ll be coming back at lunchtime!). Why drag your sorry keister out of bed so early to go to Eastern Island? While Sand Island harbors an incredible abundance and diversity, the presence of man, prevents some species from living there. Uninhabited, Eastern Island allows the visitor to observe a number of seabird species either absent or infrequently encountered on the rest of the atoll including Great Frigatebird, three species of Boobie (Red-Footed, Masked, and Brown) and both Sooty and Gray-backed Terns. As it lacks any old buildings or ironwood forests, the environment and wildlife of Eastern Island also provide an experience more similar to that of what a 19th century shipwrecked sailor might have had. Pack a spare camera battery to be sure you don’t miss out on once in a lifetime photographic opportunities!
( 6 ) 10 A.M. Ø ALBATROSS SAFARI
The Hawaiian name for Midway is Pihemanu which means the “loud din of birds”. Yes, indeed, these albatross can certainly make a racket but they also display a rich set of behaviors that can be appreciated only by spending some serious quality time with them. Both Laysan and Black-footed albatross are abundant on Eastern Island making for excellent opportunities to better acquaint yourself with them. The black and gray Laysan Albatross is more numerous and tends to occur more towards the center of the island while the dark-colored Black-footed Albatross prefers areas near the shore. Dances of these species, while somewhat similar to the uninitiated, include distinct and elaborate maneuvers and gestures. Air snap, Rapid Bill Clapper, Head Shake and Whine, and Scapular Action are just a few of the moves you may see. Pick an area where both occur and take some time to revel in their exuberance.
|Left: Spinner dolphins are seen frequently in the lagoon. Right: Wildlife recolonized Midway after the closure of the Naval Air Station.|
( 7 ) 1P.M. Ø REEF TIME
If the weather abides and other factors align, a snorkeling trip to the outer reef should be included in your itinerary. After a lunch at the Clipper House head down to the Finger Piers where you can get fitted out with gear at the Snorkel Shack. Be sure to inquire with locals as to the water temperature or check the NOAA Tide Station to see if a wetsuit is recommended. Travelling across the azure waters of the lagoon is nothing short of magical and you are often accompanied for part of the journey by the local pod of Spinner Dolphins whose name derives from their habit of leaping far out of the water to execute incredible pirouettes. Just a few miles from the harbor is Reef Hotel which, despite the name, was actually a surveillance post constructed by the Navy during the cold war. All that remains now are some old rusty steel posts which, along abundant coral provide a home for a dazzling number of sea creatures. Unicorn Fish, Convict Tang, Moorish Idol, Giant Ulua, White-throated Eel and Spotted Knifejaw are just a few of the species you’ll see. Watch out also for Spiny Lobsters that take refuge in crevices in the coral and the humongous Sea Cucumbers that laze about on the ocean floor. Because it is a wildlife refuge no fishing or any other type of collecting is permitted which allows the animals here grow to remarkable size.
( 8 ) 6 P.M. Ø A SUNSET TO DIE FOR
After dinner, pack some refreshments and ride out to West Beach to witness one of the best sunsets the planet has to offer. A small bike parking area and some old fishing buoys mark the start of a trail that leads through the local naupaka shrubs to the beach. Although the beach itself is actually closed to the public, you can find a nice place to sit just before you reach the signs marking the off-limits area that affords a great view of the western sky. Watch for the green flash just after the last drop of sun disappears below the horizon.
|Sunset from Cargo Pier|
( 9 ) 8 P.M. Ø PARTY LIKE THERE’S NO YESTERDAY
Captain Brooks, the one and only pub on the island, makes up for its small size with its large reputation as a great place to cut loose and have a good time on a Saturday night. Be sure to arrange for the pub to be opened in advance ($30 / hour minimum purchase) and spread the word to ensure a good turnout. Only beer, wine, and soft-drinks are served so if you are hankering for the hard stuff, be sure to BYOB. Pizza, popcorn and other snacks are also available. In addition to foosball, darts, and board games, the pub’s ring game often draws a small crowd (watch out, it’s addicting!). Dancing is encouraged, just put in your musical request with the bartender and he’ll likely be able to oblige you. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at the Aree House instead of at your hotel room after last call as the heat generated at parties on the island takes a while to dissipate!
( 10 ) 10 A.M. Ø BEACH WALK AND BRUNCH
Sleep in, enjoying the sounds of albatross courtship through the open window as you slowly awake to your third and final day on the atoll. The Clipper House doesn’t open until 9 am on Sundays and stays open through the morning giving you the opportunity to take a leisurely walk on North Beach before enjoying a leisurely brunch. From the Clipper House walk west towards Rusty Bucket watching for glass fishing floats among all the other flotsam washed up on the beach. Or maybe you will find some other treasure among the toothbrushes, lighters, fishing gear and other random trash? This might also be a good time to evaluate the impact that you are having on the environment and to think about how you might reduce the amount of trash you generate. As refuge regulations don’t allow for the collection of anything living or dead, small plastic figures or interesting bottles can make for pretty nice keepsakes of your visit to the atoll. North Beach is also a favored hauling out spot for endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Seals need their beauty sleep too so if you see one remember keep your distance (at least 150 feet) so as not to disturb its slumber!
|The Old Generator Building is one of over a dozen notable historic sites at Midway Atoll.|
( 11 ) 1 P.M. Ø WWII REMEMBRANCES AND COLD WAR RELICS
Before Midway became famous for its abundant wildlife, its renown stemmed primarily from its role in defeating the Japanese Navy during World War II and paving the way for a US victory. Official recognition came in 2000 when Midway Atoll was designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. For history enthusiasts, Midway offers not only a wealth of wartime artifacts but also important relics from both before and after. Start your tour at the memorials across from the Visitors Center. Each of the three stone slabs is inscribed with dedications to the various fighting forces that shaped the war’s outcome. Next, head towards the Ship’s Store veering right at the intersection to visit the Navy Memorial (also known as the Gooney Memorial for the large wooden albatross statue that once stood there). The Navy Memorial is located adjacent to the Midway Mall which was, during the Cold War years, the hub of social activity for the thousands of folks (Navy personnel, contractors, and families) once stationed at Midway. Although most of the facilities have been closed for some time, some – bowling alley, library, barber shop – are still in use. Check out the now defunct Midway Theater where Bob Hope once entertained the troops. Continue towards the harbor and check out the Seaplane Hangar. This giant building was actually once twice its current size but had to be refashioned after Japanese fighter planes bombed it during the war. Next stop is the Old Generator Building where the valiant Marine Lieutenant George H. Cannon sacrificed his life when he refused to give up his post despite severe injuries incurred during the Japanese bombing of Midway on their way to Pearl Harbor in 1941. Now head back towards town and check out the Midway House just across from the hotel. This elegant structure, designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was once the home of the Naval Officer in Charge of the Naval Station. Heading back towards the Clipper House check out the sole remaining Cable Company Building. Built in 1903 this, along with several other structures of identical design housed the workforce of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company which selected Midway as a hub for the communications cable they stretched from San Francisco to the Phillipines. Your historic tour would not be complete without taking a moment to reflect on the effect the war had on the Japanese people. Just west of the Clipper House you will find a small clearing with a black granite stone resting on a tree stump dedicated in 1999. The inscription, written in Kanji can be roughly translated as “Rest, the deep blue”, perhaps expressing hope that peace will reign over this remote outpost into the future. The flight back to Honolulu is a long one so some point it would be wise head back to the Clipper House for one final, hearty, and no-doubt eclectic, meal.
Postscript: This post was inspired by the "36 Hours" feature of the New York Times, Sunday Travel Section.