Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Garden Isle

If Honolulu feels a bit like LA smashed on to an island then lush (and small) Kauai is the place for you. Kauai is the northernmost and oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, and as a result is laid back lush jungle. At only 20 min by air from Honolulu you will actually wait longer for your flight then you will spend the air. You'll know you're on the right island when you encounter the Kauai Chicken - and despite your best efforts, you will encounter them.

Mount Waialeale, located at the heart of Kauai’s rain forest is the wettest place on earth with over 400-inches of rain per year. While the rest of the island doesn’t get that much rain, we started most mornings on the island with light, albeit brief, rain. A beautiful rainbow always seemed to follow the rain shower. The trade winds blow across Kauai, keeping things cool and lowering the humidity – so any bad weather you had back on Honolulu is left behind when you arrive in Lihue, Kauai’s main city.

We made the Kauai Beach Resort our home away from home. It’s a beautiful resort just a few min from the Lihue airport. Now that it is run by the Aqua hotel chain you are likely to find a good deal during the off season. You could spend all your time at the resort, with 4 pools, beachfront access and a shuttle that will bring you to and from the airport. I would recommend renting a car though so that you can explore the rest of the island. There is a small collection of hotels right in Lihue but most of the other hotels are located up the coast in Poipu. There is a military lodging option – Pacific Missile Range Facility Cabins on Barking Sands Beach and VOQ’s are also available. Another tip, skip the pricey resort breakfasts and find yourself some fresh malasadas (a cinnamon sugar donuts) - we found Kauai Bakery and Cinnamon where you could pick up a bakers dozen.

We were scheduled to spend our first day on a boat viewing the north part of the island, known as the Na Pali Coast, with Holoholo charters. Unfortunately, due to rough seas our trip was canceled. In their credit, we heard nothing but good things about Holoholo, and they did try to reschedule us for another day. (On the bright side, now we have a reason to go back.)
Instead, we spent the day driving around the island. Driving in Kauai is so easy – there are only two main roads and everything you will want to see is off of one of them. The GPS was nice to have, but completely unnecessary, as everyone gives directions using mile-markers from one of these two highways. The only real challenges are the one-lane bridges you will encounter all over the island. Local custom is to let 3-5 cars from the other direction come and then its your turn. The book also said we should give the “hang loose” sign, but we found the traditional thank you wave to be more appropriate.

It will take you about an hour to get from Lihue all the way up the coast on both sides. If you have a whole day you can cover the whole island. Make sure you pick up a travel book so you have some idea of where to go. (We purchased the Lonely Planet guide to Kuaui in the Honolulu airport.) The dry caves at the northern point of the island are worth the trip – so if you only have time to go one way, head up north. You should also take some time to walk down one of the many beaches you will encounter. If you get the chance to drive west most of the guidebooks will point you to Russian Fort Elizabeth – we found the place to be deserted and a little creepy. Do make sure you stop at the Kauai Coffee Visitors Center. They have a self-guided walking tour and lots of coffee to taste.

There are several lighthouses on the island and all are worth going to see. The Kiluea Lighthouse on the North Shore of Kauai is beautiful – if you don’t want to pay to tour the lighthouse, you can enjoy the view from outside the gates. The Nini Point Lighthouse is on the approach to Lihue airport and can be a challenge to find. Despite what the tour books say, you can drive there – just print directions before you go and if you feel lost that means you are going the right way. The lighthouse is not all that spectacular but the views from the point are worth the trip.
One of our favorite activates was Tubing in the old irrigation ditches with Kauai Backcountry Adventures. You meet at Backcountry Adventures where they outfit you with a helmet, headlamp and gloves. (You will need to bring your own towel and water shoes.) Then there is an hour narrated drive up to your put in point through some old-field roads. We were warned the whole way up not to say the word “freezing” or “cold” – which made me very worries I was going to be both “freezing” and “cold” – when in fact the water was quite pleasant. You’re not really ever in the water other then your backside, although you will be splashed a lot. Once you are in your raft its like bumper cars down the irrigations ditch, most of which is through hand carved tunnels. You should get to know your tour group, because no matter whom you started out near, at the end of each tunnel you will find yourself in a whole new group. My sister was in a “speed tube” and sometimes found herself in front of the guide. Meanwhile, I found myself in the “spinning tube of death” which spun me into every place you could get stuck in the ditch. One of the guides took pitty on me and would straighten me out whenever possible. Even with assistance I went from the front of the group to the very back by the time the tour was over. Backcountry Adventures offers two trips a day and both include lunch. We took the later trip, but I would recommend taking the first trip of the day to free up your afternoon and evening. This is a not to miss activity! Make your reservations early because they fill up every trip.

We also made reservations for a tour at the Grove Farm Historic Sugar Plantation Museum. They only give tours twice a week – so if this is a must see activity for you make reservations early. The tour takes you through perfectly preserved sugar plantation buildings, furnishings and collections. You will be asked to remove your shoes every time you enter a building, so wear accessible shoes. I’m still not really sure how I feel about this tour. On one hand it gave me a great overview of the sugar farming industry on the island. I was able to see some incredible architecture and landscaping. On the other hand it was geared at an audience that knew a lot more about the island then we did and as a result I found it a bit pretentious. The tour is also a full two hours long – which was about 30 min too long for my attention span. It’s also really not intended for children – so leave the kids with the hotel daycare. My advice to the Grove Farm would be to offer a wider variety of tours – maybe an hour introduction tour and a longer and more in depth tour for those already familiar with the island.

We did not get a chance to go into Waimea Canyon, which is the largest canyon in the Pacific at 10 miles long and 1 mile wide. You can hike in the canyon or take a boat trip. This will certainly be on our itinerary on our next trip to Kauai.

I almost forgot one of my favorite parts of Hawaii - Shave Ice! Shave Ice is so yummy I'm including a picture of my sister enjoying her shave ice! You must stop for one of these while you are in Hawaii. I could try to guide you to one, but experience tells me that you should just find a stand and pick your favorite flavors.

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