Mix one part current events and geography, an extra-large serving of Hawaiian history, add some sassy humor and you get the flavor of a Grand Circle Island tour of O’ahu with guide Kawika Bell.
Bell, 35, works for Roberts Hawaii, the state’s largest privately owned tour and transportation company with a fleet of more than 1,000 vehicles and 1,400 employees.
He introduces himself by name — Kawika (David in Hawaiian) — but quickly assures those aboard his bus to just call him “Cousin Good Looking.”
Tour bus excursions remain a popular part of a Hawai’i vacation for many visitors, especially first-timers, honeymooners and visitors from Japan traveling in groups.
Roberts president Neil Takekawa said the guided tours remain the mainstay of the growing transportation company, making up 50 percent of the company’s business and providing that critical first impression that many visitors have of the Hawaiian Islands.
But as Hawai’i has gained in popularity for repeat vacations — more than 60 percent have come here before — the numbers of people booking tours has dropped by about a third, he said.
Visitors these days are looking for more than a good story. Many who board the big buses have done some research before they got on the plane and want a taste of culture and a feel for what it’s like to live here. “They want to walk off the bus learning something and a little closer to the culture,” Takekawa said.
Bell holds a degree in Hawaiian history — relatively unusual in his line of work — that gives him the background to accurately portray history. To him, being a tour guide for seven years has given him a changing and interested audience of people from across the world.
“We show them a little bit of the aloha spirit, the beautiful islands, the culture, the history and the language,” he said.
Less than an hour into the tour, he’s taught them that the group will be ‘ohana (family) for a day. And therefore it’s their kuleana (responsibility) to get back on the bus on time.
He asks them to not talk with him while he’s maneuvering the bus in and out of tight spots. “Because I am a man, I can only do one good thing at a time,” he said.
And he’s learned some crowd-pleasers. He calls the group back to the bus with “my shell phone,” that is, he blows into a conch shell
Mary Ann and Russ Brady flew to Hawai’i this month for the first time — from Annapolis, Md. — to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
They spent a few days exploring Maui before arriving in Honolulu. For the Bradys, Bell’s tour gave them both a chance to relax.
“We could see the sights together where he’s not just driving,” said Mary Ann, with a nod toward her husband. “We’re learning a lot from the bus driver.”
Russ, a commercial driver himself, enjoyed the ride and Bell’s often playful narration. “He’s fantastic, the personality just doesn’t quit,” he said.
Bell is clearly a people person, stopping to connect with not just the visitors but the woman selling fresh fruit next to the Dole pineapple maze, the buffet lunch hostess at Helemano Plantation and the competing tour guides he meets at various stops.
In between pointing out flowers, trees, white sandy beaches and the Halona Blowhole, he describes the missionary influence on native Hawaiians and how they discouraged the use of the Hawaiian language and effectively banned hula.
“People can draw their own perspectives on what they think should have been done and what was right and what was wrong,” Bell said.
The people aboard his bus said they appreciate his honesty and feel they get a more authentic taste for what Hawai’i is like rather than a sanitized everything-is-perfect-here-in-paradise view.
In explaining the cost of living, Bell confessed that he’d forgot to buy a gallon of milk until he was on his way home and the only store open was a 7-Eleven, where he found himself paying $8.59 for that jug.
He sticks to the truth, and trains other drivers to avoid the old stereotypes of the old-time tour guide who makes up a new story to go with whatever group he has for the day.
“Never BS anyone,” Bell said, “because you don’t know who you’re going to get aboard the bus. I’ve had people that I picked up that were rocket scientists from NASA.”
Bell keeps up a teasing banter. When passenger Russ Brady moved up to chat with Bell a few minutes into the trip, the big blue bus got stuck on Lemon Road behind trash trucks blocking him from picking up the rest of his passengers. Making conversation, Brady asked: “How long have you been driving?” Bell’s answer: “about four to five minutes” got a doubletake, then a laugh and the group began bonding with their “cousin” for the day.
Sisters Monica and Resa Rosander took tours each day they were in the islands, all from Roberts. It was Monica’s first trip — she lives in Muncie, Ind., — and Resa — who lives in Chicago — had come before and been happy with other Roberts tours. “Their prices are very reasonable,” she said.
They spent nine days in Hawai’i, visited Pearl Harbor, went to a lu’au, toured Maui and the Big Island as well as their tour of O’ahu. They said they were having a great time, leaving the driving to the pros, knowing that they were seeing the main sights they had spotted when planning their vacation on the Web.
They wouldn’t get lost, they were safe and they could leave all the details to others while they just enjoyed the sights, their vacation and each other.
Resa said part of their motivation was a recent end to her relationship with her once-significant other: “It’s the screw-you-I’m-going-to-Hawai’i-without-you trip,” she joked.
Bell spends much of the day answering questions: Do we have snakes? Costco? Wal-Mart? Erupting volcanoes on O’ahu? How long does it take to climb to the top of Diamond Head?
Bell is married and lives in Hale’iwa with his family and even points out his own home as he drives nearby.
Although he likes what he does, sometimes the hours are long, he said. The shift starts an hour before the passenger pickup and ends an hour after, so a day that starts at dawn can sometimes go until after dark, Bell said. But his schedule varies — one day takes him around the island, another to the Big Island and the next could be a local company treating its workers to a special tour/dinner package.
The company trains guides to emphasize Hawaiian history. “We try to teach people that there is more to Hawai’i than just blue sky, sand and surf,” Takekawa said.
To respond to the changing visitors demands, Takekawa points to the variety of tours: from military highlights, cliffs and coastlines to the backroads of O’ahu.
“People don’t want to just sit on a bus or van,” Takekawa said. “They want to get out and do something, touch something.” The backroads tour includes a stop at a papaya farm. “You can walk on the farm, pick a papaya and eat it right there, fresh off the tree.”
But he admits that most visitors don’t want to go too far off the beaten track where they get dirty. “You can still wear your nice tennis shoes and you don’t have to throw them away when you get back to the hotel.”
Typically, Takekawa said guides start as drivers, shuttling visitors to and from the airport, dinner cruises and other spots before they begin the narrated tours.
Many of them go through Kapi’olani Community College’s Hawaiiana program to get more training — an expense the company reimburses.
Bell said he still relies on some tour-guide staples. He may not be strumming his ‘ukulele at stops, but he’s known to lead the bus in some songs that the late Don Ho taught to generations of tourists, from “Tiny Bubbles” to “Just Hang Loose.”
(“Sipping on a drink, lying in the sun. Don’t try to fight it. It ain’t no use, ‘cuz when you’re in Hawai’i, you should just hang loose.”) Takekawa said the popular guides who stick with the job now are accurate and approachable, not just entertaining. “Their talent is really being able to connect with people,” he said.
For Bell, it’s even simpler, “treat your customers every day like your own family and we would all be in a better place.”