In Hawaii, She Sees Sea Glass On the Seashore
Sunday, February 25, 2007
I'm the kind of person for whom a beach vacation is not complete unless I've scored a piece of sea glass, one of those shards of broken bottle that have been tumbled by water, sand and time into a state of smoothness that renders them treasure.
But a beach full of the stuff? Somehow, despite the fact that I'd been visiting in-laws in Hawaii for 16 years -- spending more time eating, shopping or watching my kids windmill off surfboards than collecting bits of old Vicks jars -- the existence of Kauai's appropriately named Glass Beach had escaped me. Until recently, that is.
Even learning from locals that the beach had been picked over, that there were days you could show up and find nothing but pieces so small they were almost sand, didn't dampen its allure. On my family's next Pacific fling, I resolved, we would take the girls to Kauai.
And somewhere between visits to its majestic canyons, cute towns, idyllic bays and crowded pools, we would find time for my sea glass obsession. Even if the payoff was likely to be minuscule.
Sea glass was once mostly ignored as trash, although, according to Richard LaMotte, author of the collectors' bible "Pure Sea Glass," it at one time may have served as a status symbol in Philadelphia, where residents would place a jar of it in their front windows to illustrate their affluence. Now people collect it, sell it and make things out of it -- from fine jewelry to sun catchers, frames and mosaics, even stained-glass windows.
Part of its newfound appeal is its increasing scarcity. Glass bottles and containers have given way to plastic, shipwrecks have become more rare and people have stopped dumping trash in the oceans, all of which means there is less raw material for sea glass. Further compounding the problem, says LaMotte, one of the founders of the North American Sea Glass Association, is the fact that much of the sand brought in to replenish beaches buries whatever glass is on the shore.
I've certainly never had much luck finding sea glass in Hawaii. The kids and I once collected a cupful on Oahu, but it was mostly pedestrian browns and greens, the color of beer bottles, which makes sense when you consider it: Body surfers, beer and rough waters would conspire to toss back that kind of common stuff. (LaMotte says it can take 10 to 30 years to create sea glass, depending on the "wave action.")
I had higher hopes for Glass Beach, but first we had to find it.
Glass Beach isn't mentioned in most guidebooks, and there are no signs directing drivers to it. The beach turned out to be in the middle of an industrial zone not far from the popular tourist area of Poipu on Kauai's southern end. To get there, you take the Port Allen exit off the highway, then turn down a street past some warehouses, then follow a very rutted dirt road to the water, wondering if you're going to owe money to the rental car company.
You won't know whether you've gone the right way until you walk onto the probably deserted beach and look down. If you're lucky, stretches of the black sand will be paved with glittering glass.
We hit what we considered a bonanza that day: not just your average white and brown and green, of which there were plenty, but amber and blue and aqua. There were shards of smoothed pottery and a few pieces of well-worn trash (the sea glass comes from a nearby dump), including an earpiece from some eyeglasses and what looked like engine parts. But mostly there was lots and lots of glass -- on the beach and stuck between the rocks.
The beach wasn't suitable for anything other than combing; the rocks would make swimming suicidal, and, when we were able to tear our gaze from the sand, the view wasn't impressive: Several gas tanks overlook one side of the beach.