By BOB SAN
AAP contributing writer
I never really wanted to go to Hawaii. I knew where there are spectacular beaches and mountains that I can visit without having to fly for nine hours.
It was a wedding invitation that finally brought me to this most remote spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in November 2014, when I was able to attend the family event in Honolulu and then visit a friend who had moved to Kauai a few years earlier.
Honolulu was exactly what I expected and the type of city I like to avoid as a traveler. With its traffic and over developed water front and expensive prices, I was happy to fly over to Lihu‘e after a couple of days and spend a week on Kauai to visit Tom LaVenture, a friend and managing editor of the Asian American Press.
I stayed at a nice hotel in Kapaa. The east side of Kauai is known as the Coconut Coast, a reputation from decades that Coco Palms here was the biggest destination hotel in the Pacific. Now in ruins from Hurricane Iniki in 1991, the hotel is a reminder of a golden era just across the road from the string of two and three star hotels that are the comfortable yet more affordable part of Kauai, compared to the four and five star resorts of the north and south shores.
Kapaa is more urban but it has the Kapaa Path. I could not resist exploring oceanside path and after a haircut I rented a bike on my first day. It was beautiful and made me forget about everything else.
The bike path is a five-mile trail that hugs the ocean and is completely off the main road — Kuhio Highway. It is an easy bike trail with no hills as it winds through Kapaa parks into great elevated views of undeveloped shoreline and beautiful Kealia beach. The path disappears into the ruins of an old plantation dock and ends at the secluded Donkey Beach. It was so peaceful that I just laid down to watch and listen to the waves for a couple hours. By the time I biked back to the hotel to meet Tom, I was totally relaxed.
The next four days were spent walking the beaches, reading and napping by the pool or the ocean and getting the grand tour around the island from Tom. Kapaa is convenient as it is about a half hour drive to Kilauea where we went horseback riding at Silver Trails Ranch.
Horseback riding is relaxing and we got to see some of the interior that is not accessible by roads or is locked away in private property. The forests and vegetation were beautiful as crossed streams and as soon as we knew it the ride was over.
I was hoping to raise my arms in the air in a full gallop, to mimicKevin Costner’s character from the 1990 Orion movie, “Dances With Wolves.” It wasn’t a Hawai‘i thing, but was something I always wanted to do while horseback riding. The tour operator discouraged that, saying I would fall and hurt myself. I will find the chance to show off my horsemanship another day.
The following day, a drive about 40 minutes south of Kapaa, past the gorgeous Tree Tunnel to Po‘ipu and the Kaua‘i Coffee Plantation in Hanapepe, we stopped at the docks in Ele‘ele to take an early morning catamaran tour boat to view the famous Napali Coast that runs from the western to the North Shore. This is a not-to-leave out experience when the weather is good — but can be a challenge on a windy, choppy or rainy day. Our trip was a little of both but well worth the view.
The snorkeling wasn’t great because it was very choppy and so the alternative spot further south wasn’t that secluded or scenic. But later on the views of the rugged Na Pali Coast made famous by Jurassic Park, King Kong and countless other movies, was an eye opening almost spiritual experience as the sun came out from the clouds and produced shades of blue and green I did not think were possible. Along the way there were dolphins swimming and jumping alongside the boat.
HANALEI BAY AND THE DESCENDANTS
As a movie buff, the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to Hanalei Bay on the North Shore. One of my favorite movies in recent years, The Descendants (Disney-2012) starring George Clooney and the now very famous Shailene Woodley, was filmed on O‘ahu and Hawai‘i Island as well, but the focus of the film was right there on the endless beaches of Hanalei.
Some of the key scenes, such as when Clooney’s character is jogging along Hanalei Bay where hedge rows separate the public sand beaches from the vacation cottage rentals that give the area a charm that no longer exists with the big hotels on other islands. We could spot the same cottage that was portrayed in the film, where Clooney’s character catches sight of a man on vacation with his family, but who he just found out had been having an affair with his wife.
We drove all the way up to Ke‘e beach, which is where the main road ends on Kaua‘i. North of Hanalei is very remote with a few private resorts and many quiet surfing spots and the entrance to the Kalalau trail — a path for the rugged hiker along the Napali coast — which was not on my itinerary for this trip. Instead we stopped and spent more time in the sun a “Tunnels”, another remote leg of beach that seems to go for miles. The wind and waves were so big that day the lifeguards were not letting anyone in the water except the surfers — but it was just as nice to lay there in the sun on gorgeous uncrowded beaches.
Kauai has a tendency to offer the little daily experiences that make the trip more memorable to the heart as well as the mind. Having planned to have Thanksgiving Dinner at the hotel, we instead stopped at Tahiti Nui in the town of Hanalei, an old tavern-restaurant that has all unique qualities of a destination spot that gives a place its character — and thank goodness not much else has come into Hanalei to delude that original charm.
We had a very affordable and delicious dinner. At the same time we looked over the entire place to see the spots of the bar where George Clooney, Beau Bridges and other cast members sat in scenes from The Descendants.
FRIED RICE IS FOR BREAKFAST ONLY
Again, Kaua‘i is a special place where the charm of the island and its inhabitants is what turns one-time tourists into regular visitors.
I love to eat so Tom took me to some of the premier Chinese and sushi restaurants along with the every day “local moco” spots. They were all pretty good.
The funniest experience I had was a lunch after a bike ride in Kapa‘a. The menu was limited to burgers, wraps and sandwiches, and since I am a fried rice fan so I asked and was enlightened to a local custom. Much to my surprise, the waitress pointed out to me that fried rice was served only during the breakfast hours. Go figure that one out!
My five days in Kauai went by quickly. Kauai is charming and beautiful and it fits my beach-bum personality perfectly. The only problem I have is that it is very small, everything closes early and there is no major league baseball. I’d get bored living there.
But I did come away from my stay in Kauai with an appreciation for its people. They are quick to smile and treat dumb tourists like me with genuine friendliness. Everybody is part of the ‘ohana (family) and I was called “Uncle” by the friendly omelets chef at my hotel, and by a cashier at a super market. But what strikes me the most is what they call Aloha ‘aina (love of the land) and which amounts to a passion for protecting the environment to the point of it being part of the culture. “Be good to the island and it will be good to you” is what Tom said he is told often by the kupuna (elders).
The Hawaiian islands has its own indigenous monk seal that is still on the endangered species list. They will swim at sea and then come onto a beach to rest for days if needed. When they do, the hotels and residents alert a volunteer group that will cordon off the seal and keep watch as well meaning gawkers could stress the animal getting to close.
During my brief stay there were two monk seals that stopped to sunbathe on the beach over for three days. Around the clock volunteers from the Kaua‘i Monk Seal Watch Program stood nearby and answered questions about the seals to people who walked by.
I was proud to take part in this effort one morning. I was doing my morning beach walk and one of the volunteers asked me to look for more seals as I sat on my chair reading. They expected to see more seals and if I saw one to call the volunteers and they would come right over.
Another example of Aloha ‘aina was during the Na Pali Coast boat tour. Food and drinks were served and I left a napkin sitting on the chair next to me. A young woman on the boat crew told me in a stern but not unfriendly way that I should put the napkin away, otherwise it would blow into the ocean. This little exchange about protecting the natural environment — even out at sea, reminded me of the boat tours I take in Phuket, Thailand. On that tour, we were wondering where to put some food we could not finish because the garbage cans were full. A boat operator took our plates and hurled them overboard into the pristine water of Andaman Sea. “The fish will eat them,” he said. I wonder what kind of reaction he would get if he had done that in Kaua‘i?
All in all, I had a good time at the wedding and I enjoyed Kaua‘i, especially visiting my old friend Tom. At the same time I would hesitate to go back if only because of the cost and distance of flying when there are very beautiful warm weather and beaches on the continent in Florida and California.