Smallest of main Hawaiian islands might be most well-rounded
It’s the smallest. The oldest. The wettest.
Its volcanic peaks are low, green-cloaked, worn down and scalloped by wind and rain.
Kauai. My favorite of the four main Hawaiian islands. The most lush, low-key spot in the world with a ZIP code attached to it.
No freeways like on Oahu. No high-rise hotels like on Maui. No miles upon miles of brown rock like the Big Island.
Of the smaller inhabited islands, Lanai is too sleepy and Molokai too difficult (its top resort recently closed).
On Kauai, everything is just about right (except for the traffic around Kapaa). No buildings taller than a palm tree. Even the Wal-Mart has the decency to hide itself behind a cloak of trees on the edges of Lihue.
I have long-entrenched favorite places to swim, stroll, sleep and eat on Kauai. But each trip also brings new spots that become old favorites.
My last trip in March was a mix of first-time experiences and longtime standards. Here’s my latest collection of Kauai gems:
Manawaiopuna waterfall: I’ve flown in military helicopters in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, but I can’t remember a whirlybird ride as gluteus maximus-clenching as the slide up a narrow canyon to the dirt landing path next to Manawaiopuna Falls.
Island Helicopters has a monopoly on landing near this cascade, which starred in the movie “Jurassic Park.” We touched down next to a reservoir carved out of rock high in the hills above the west side of Kauai.
“All this was built for the sugar cane industry. They needed a lot of water because a 3-foot stalk of cane made the equivalent of one sugar cube,” said pilot Isaac Oshita, 35, a Wailua native.
Oshita honed his skills flying tourist helicopters at the Grand Canyon. Making the run up to the falls takes a lot of practice – and good weather. The trip doesn’t go if conditions aren’t optimal.
Luckily, our day was sunny and bright, if a bit windy. We scooted over the landing site and settled in, the rotors rustling the trees like a mini-hurricane.
We ducked out under the blades for the short walk up a trail to a pond under the thin, pounding strands of water tumbling 400 feet over the ridge above.
The trip isn’t cheap; $349 per person is the list price. But what was so satisfying was to fly from the concrete tourist world of Lihue, over the industrial harbor at Nawiliwili and then cut inland into the dense, jungle-like interior of Kauai that I had never seen.
The reservoir built by the sugar workers to water the fields downslope is intact, though the landing pad used in the 1993 movie washed away long ago.
Hidden beaches of the Na Pali Coast: Confession: I’ve been coming to Kauai for nearly two decades and before this spring, I never saw the Na Pali Coast on anything but a postcard.
Kauai brings out the languid traveler in me, and the idea of snorkel boats and helicopters never overcame the wonderful lethargy of beachcombing, strolling and hammock inspection that mark many of my trips to the island.
But the helicopter ride to the falls included a swing up the coast, and I saw what I had been missing all these years.
The steep pali, serrated like folds in a sheet, were beautiful enough. But the gem was the many hidden beaches – sometimes just small crescents a few dozen yards wide – that dotted the coast.
Accessible by only boat or, in some spots, the coastal trail, they were often deserted or inhabited by just a lucky couple of people. It’s about as close to the shipwrecked paradise feeling as you can find in Hawaii.
The ride back to the Lihue Airport isn’t bad either. We flew over Hanakoa Falls, which tumbles down the side of the Na Pali Coast. Then our route ran along the North Coast, over Kee Beach and the taro fields near Hanalei Bay.
“It’s used for poi,” Oshita jokes. “So we feed it to you tourists.”
The route back skirts Mount Waialeale, the wettest spot on earth with an average rainfall of 472 inches per year. We picked up some drizzle on the windshield as we passed the cloud covered peak. Then it was over the hills and into Lihue.
View from Brennecke’s Beach Broiler in Poipu: This casual restaurant serves a good hamburger and a pretty stiff mai tai. But I take everyone I can here for something not on the menu: the view of Poipu Beach Park across the street as framed from the second-story windows. A gaze out at the golden glow of the afternoon sun on the yellow sands and the sparkle-dappled waves beyond says “I’m not home anymore” better than just about any place I know.
Roy’s has fancier food. The Beach House sits closer to the water. But Brennecke’s Broiler is quintessential Kauai for me.
Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe: The red- and black-fronted store is in an out-of-the-way corner of Kauai.
Hanapepe is literally a town passed by. The main highway cut around the town several years ago, leaving it a kind of sleepy backwater along the south coast west of Poipu. Its architecture is the inspiration for the “Lilo & Stitch” movies and TV show, and tourists come to walk on the famous swinging bridge.
But for me the main draw is Talk Story, where Ed Justus and his wife, Cynthia Powell, sell books and keep up a community meeting spot.
My kids love the shop not only for the Hawaiian-themed children’s books, but for the collection of cats – Cami, Celiste and Ciera – who patrol the aisles or park themselves on the desk next to the cash register.
Independent bookstore lovers will love Talk Story, with its overflowing shelves of new and used books and more stacked in big piles in the back. On Fridays, it has music and snacks that bring in locals, and visitors who make the drive from the condos at Poipu.
Hanalei Colony Resort: I’ve visited the Hanalei Colony Resort many times over the years and never stayed.
Long ago, the big draw was a restaurant owned by Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Gutierrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa Rasten – better known as Charo.
The connection to the curvaceous Spanish entertainer, the ’60s “cuchi cuchi” girl featured on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “Laugh-In,” drew a steady stream of customers to the eatery she named after herself.
The resort next door always seemed a little too remote – it’s the only hotel west of Princeville on the north coast. And during my visits, it often appeared to be either in disrepair or under repair.
But the resort seems to have turned a corner. The majority of the rooms have been renovated, and they are big by Hawaii standards.
I stayed in March, solo in one of the standard two-bedroom units, and loved it. Be forewarned that though there are two beds, one is separated by a high wooded divider that blocks sights but not sounds.
A lot of guests seem to have signed up for long stays, and there are potluck parties by the pool and on the lawn. The hotel will prestock your refrigerator if you fill out an order form before you arrive.
The beach isn’t A-plus. It’s a bit rocky and windy. But it’s OK for a dip and great for a sunset stroll.
Charo’s is long gone. The current restaurant is a winner called The Mediterranean Gourmet. It’s picked up several awards from Honolulu magazine for its food and continues the eclectic entertainment of Charo’s era, with the occasional belly dancer performing between courses.
The hotel can also pack picnic lunches to take to Kee Beach or any of the other remote spots on this part of the island. And the gift shop next door also serves a great espresso.
Snoozy seals and crazed koi: The beach at Poipu looked like a crime scene: Yellow police tape around the beach. Crowds with cameras gathered around.
In the middle, a large brownish lump still on the sand. It was a monk seal, probably dead and washed up on the shoreline.
Then a camera clicked and slowly the seal’s eyes opened, checked out the source of the noise, and closed again.
The seal wasn’t dead. It was napping. They pull themselves up on the beach for a rest and the lifeguards use tape to keep the real problem – tourists – from getting too close.
It’s one of the many wonderful animal encounters I’ve had on Kauai. There are quite a few nenes, the Hawaiian goose that is the official state bird.
I’ve stopped to check out a donkey wandering along a back lane near Polihale Beach and watched as a big brown horse that had thrown its rider dashed miles down the sands near Waimea’s pier.
The Kilauea Point Wildlife Sanctuary is a favorite side trip, especially when I am staying on the north shore. The reserve, which includes nearby Crater Hill and Mokolea Point, is home to several kinds of nesting seabirds.
The area around the Kilauea Lighthouse, built in 1913, is a good vantage point to look for spinner dolphins, whales and monk seals.
One of my favorite animal experiences on Kauai is a bit artificial: the koi feeding time at the Kauai Marriott. Sure, it’s a canned event at a resort, but the muscular thrashing and flashing of the colorful fish to get their meal is one of the most naturally psychedelic experiences you’ll ever see.
Red rocks by Waimea Canyon: My love for Kauai comes from the lush, green world of the north shore and the northern slopes of the upcountry. But one of the spectacular things about it is that there are many geological and botanical worlds to be explored.
The antithesis of the green fertile image of the island can be found on Highway 55, the route up to Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Before reaching the lookout, there is an area of red soil that can be found throughout the island, but is most prevalent on the west side (good for sugar cane and popular as a coloring agent for “Red Dirt” T-shirts).
Here is a treeless stretch where the landscape looks more like Utah than Hawaii. A small creek runs through a cut in the land, giving a splash of blue to the red. It’s a palette that’s the flip side to the greens of much of the rest of the island.
Just a small stretch, but a hidden Kauai gem that makes me want to come back again and again to collect more.