I have traveled to Hawaii over the years for family vacations, including for my honeymoon. The two or three times we’ve gone with big kids over the past several years, we’ve gone to Big Island because we can love it’s volcanic beauty and rustic backcountry farming communities. As a New Englander who is used to plunging into the cold Atlantic and watching for thunderstorms, the constant balmy weather of the Pacific Islands is a dream of seamless vacationing. In all these years, I’d never been to Kauai… until this past December. Sorry, Big Island. Kauai has stolen my heart.
Years ago, I worked for Steven Spielberg and was part of the team that stayed up all night to read Michael Crighton’s “Jurassic Park” in galleys; by dawn, we had the rights to the book for production. Spielberg’s production team chose Kauai for filming the dinosaur epic (they’d been there years earlier, filming scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark). What better place to evoke a prehistoric world. Although locals complain of traffic beginning to muck up their ability to move around the island, from the ground and from the air, Kauai is still a rugged, untrammeled paradise. In fact, seeing the island from the air is the ideal way to comprehend it’s wildness.
A helicopter tour provides an overview of almost the entire scope of the island in under an hour’s time. We splurged and had our our hearts in our mouths for the whole ride, but along with our racing heart beats came vistas we could never see otherwise. Floating out there, in the middle of the Pacific, the land surges from the ocean to seemingly uninhabitable ridges and peaks. We flew into the island’s majestic crater Wai’ale’ale, cruised along the NaPali coast and up into the famous Olokele Valley, surged over and beyond the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii” – we saw more waterfalls than we could count, and our pilot attempted to show us the full circle of a rainbow.
Back on the ground, we made it our mission to find hidden beaches, and scrambled through some brush near our lodging to explore this one. All beaches in Hawaii are public property (it’s just the access that might require a teensy bit of trespassing) but you’ll be well rewarded.
A must see excursion is Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii” – we were stunned by the rough canyons and glimpses of faraway waterfalls. Rainbows coursed through the crevasses. Mist surged over peaks and into valleys, a show we could have watched for hours. The Canyon has miles of hiking trails, the most beloved is one that trudges down into the Kalalua Valley; if you only do one dry-land adventure on the island, head on up into this remarkable location. It’s a one-way drive and you can’t get lost (but you need gas, food, and water because there’s only one concession at the end of the road).
The legendary Na Pali coast has been filmed countless times and provides dramatic contrasts in the most pristine tones of blue and green. Flying up the folds of this remote landscape is a exhilerating on it’s own, but when the pilot switched on the soundtrack from Pirates of the Carribean, it underlined the heart-pounding thrill of the ride – albeit, in a horrifyingly touristy way! In summer months, a day sail is a more relaxed way to take-in these vistas but in the wintertime, the seas are usually too rocky. The down-and-dirty way to get this view is by copter and our guide book told us that “going to Hawaii without taking a helicopter ride is like going to see the Sistine Chapel and not looking up”. That matter-of-fact statement helped us make our decision and stuff our fears away. It was a bucket-list level excursion – one none of us will forget.
Island life is relaxed and simple. Once back on the ground, we felt the tug between a desire to explore an exotic new place and the need to just swing in the hammock with a book. Mostly we were happy to do very little, sated by the dramatic beauty of the island (and perhaps by some rum drinks at the pool), but also pacified by the pace of Kauai life.
Books – Our trusty guide book was The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook by Andrew Doughty – which had been recommended to us and provided an authoritative, insider’s view of how to best enjoy Kauai (a contrast to traditional, impersonal travel guides). Doughty guided us to some sweet spots and calls his book “a love story” to the island.
Also, we stumbled upon a charming true-life tale of a woman who leaves her life as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer to raise money for the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Waking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island by Lucinda Fleeson is a tale of middle-age redemption and rebirth, but also chronicles the plant life of Kauai in impressive detail. Fleeson is a reporter at heart, and chronicles the alarming rate at which species are going extinct in this island paradise. It’s a nice light book to take on your trip if you plan on visiting the botanical gardens.
Movies – Watching all the Jurassic Park movies will get you in the mood; Jurassic World has the most local scenery. Consider Lilo and Stitch for little kids, The Descendants to see what the daily life of Hawaiians (might) look like, and South Pacific for nostalgia’s sake. Avatar was filmed locally and Soul Surfer was shot in the same spot at Hanalei Bay where Bethany Hamilton was bitten by a shark.
Where to Stay – In the winter, it’s best to stay on the southern side of the island, in and around the Poipu area, where we recommend condos and smaller hotels over the massive Grand Hyatt Hotel. (Try Koa Kea Hotel & Resort). The more exotic, northern side of the island is best for summer months — it’s quite rainy in the winter — and houses the elegant Princeville Resort and the town of Hanalei. We explored only the southern environs on this trip, as curious as we were to see Hanalei, but it was a good two-hour drive from our lodging. Something to look forward to on our next trip.
What to Eat – Definitely hit the local farmers markets (Wednesdays) so you can cook a few meals in your condo or bungalow. (Pssst, hit up Costco after you land in Lihue). Everything on the island is pricey so it just feels relaxed and right to relax at home for a few nights of vacation. We dropped in on The Shops at Kukui’lui for a fabulous Farmer’s Market and a few dinners out (including Merriman’s Fish House, which we loved from the Big Island, and The Beach House, which has lovely views). We discovered excellent poke at Makai Sushi, and we ate several hearty breakfasts at Kalaheo Café and loved grabbing breakfast or lunch at MonkeyPod Jam, as well.
What to Do – Don’t miss Wailua Falls or Waimea Canyon, both of which are all-day adventures. Definitely splurge on the Blue Helicopter ride. Younger kids would be frightened and perhaps not appreciate the adventure but it’s perfect for teens and adult kids. The incredible Way’ ale’ ale’ Crater is the wettest place on the planet and pure magic.
We loved kicking around Koloa Town and spent a few hours exploring Allerton Garden. There’s so much else to do — picnic on a black sand beach, explore coves with sea turtles, take in the local art market on Friday night in Hanapepe. Go to bed early, rise with the sun, and make sure you watch it disappear again every evening. Take in the local birds, buy some pearl trinkets, and try surfing.
Oh. And put away that cellphone!