How Kauai Changed Me
I had a huge letdown in 2012 when I broke my foot and had to cancel two, yes TWO trips to Hawaii, even after they had been paid for. So when a Kauai FAM came my way last summer, I was aloha hungry and ready to go.
Because the air was built-in by Blue Sky Tours, they didn’t really care if I went in a couple of days early so I did. I used the points I earned selling Aston properties to book two free nights at the Aston Islander on the Beach. I also scoped out a bike rental, Hele on Kauai that offered me a comp bike rental. I waited in mute expectation, afraid to say the words, “I am going to Hawaii”, lest like last year, something would happen. I literally held my breath until the day of departure.
Ok, not literally, but I was really, really afraid of something happening to keep me from going this year. Yet on the day, I parked in our spot behind the Fairfield Inn, got on the bus and rode off, still feeling like I was not out of the woods.
At the airport, I used the United Club pass I had been given by our rep to see how the high mileage folks lived. Wow was that nice. Nice comfy chairs, snacks, drinks and muted flat screen TVs. Clean, empty bathrooms and a lot of folks acting like they were at the library, really courteous of and grateful for the shared hiding place- away from the raucous terminal and mumbled announcements. It was wonderful, but I doubt if I would pay $50 for it. Have you noticed I have not paid for anything yet except the bus ride in and I will be reimbursed for that?
On the plane- well, I barely remember anything about the flight except that I had carefully packed a good lunch (to keep from spending money on bad food) and had two free drink tickets in my pocket plus a tiny bottle of rum in my purse. The next thing I knew- the Honolulu Airport. I used to love this place for a couple of reasons but this time, I saw it for what it was- dingy and tired, in great need of an aloha refresh. Come on Honolulu, we send you hordes of thirsty for aloha people and this is what greets them? How about you do better? I found my way to the bus for the inter island terminal and found a place to plug my phone in after a $10 upgrade to a window seat on my Kauai flight (I know- I finally spent some money!).
In my attempts to locate a wall plug for my phone, I find a little spot next to a departure hall where a young mom and her son are hanging out. We speak and she is incredibly sweet- heading home after two weeks with her autistic son in the Honolulu Hospital because the Big Island just doesn’t have the level of health care his issues need. Now I have been a vegetarian since I was fifteen so let me tell you what happened that day, on that floor in the dirty Honolulu airport. Shayla and I were talking and got on the subject of how her having to stay in a hotel while her son was in the hospital was a real strain. She shared with me some of her strategies to keep costs down and one was to buy these pork rolls from the Royal Kitchen in Chinatown. She started digging while talking excitedly about how good they were and then produced yup, a fresh-baked pork roll- monopua- for me to try.
Do you believe I was polite enough to try it? Do you believe I so did not want to crush her enthusiasm in sharing something that had helped her survive that I ate pork after forty plus years of no meat? I did. That is what happened. Hawaii changes people. I can’t say I liked it because I did not. But I couldn’t look in her eyes and tell her no, how you survived is not something I will share with you. She finally flew home, to a life of struggles with her family, her son’s health and feeling like she had helped me experience something valuable. That was worth every choking bite. I hate pork.
Flights in Hawaii are like jewels. This pretty little Hawaiian Airlines plane is just gussied up and ready to be my carpet ride to adventure. Waiting with me is a family of real Hawaiians wearing pretty traditional clothing and leis and hair and everything. The matriarch doesn’t really speak English very well so after I mistakenly sit in one of their seats, no one says anything to me. I wasn’t even aware I had made the mistake until a resort rep gets on the plane, sits next to me and has a little conversation with them. THEN I look down at my ticket and see I am in the wrong window seat. They are so stinking nice none of them says anything, they just went with it. Can you imagine that happening in Chicago? I think everyone local on that plane knows each other. I hear stories about the Kauai Visitors and Conventions Bureau staff that I have not met yet.
It is obvious who the tourists are and who uses the half hour plane ride to catch up on the goings on about the island- like a nice flying living room where languages flipped between English to Japanese to Hawaiian with everyone keeping up. Six PM was approaching and I have been up for many hours so after the pleasant conversation ends, we shuffled out the door. At baggage claim, I catch a few ‘best beaches’ tips from a retired hippie art teacher who came in the 70s and never left, then the Roberts of Hawaii van whisks me off to my hotel.
Eyes as big as saucers. I watch everything because I am new to the territory and want to get my bearings. The ride is good, the air is fresh, the biggest town is pretty tiny and it becomes more and more obvious that this is a place of home, a safe place. I am a guest in the home of Kauai. I feel safe, something I rarely feel where I live.
It is so hard to adjust my frame of reference when I get to a place like this. Scenery that includes tiny unspoiled beaches and high, high mountains, one they call King Kong, is something it takes a while to get used to. My hotel is nice, but nothing too fancy. The desk clerk is very welcoming and the security guard rips himself away from chatting up a second desk clerk to drag my bag upstairs.
No elevators here which is fine with me. I am in the main building on the top floor above the reception area. I am greeted with a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates and Kauai coffee, plus a little note of welcome from the management. The one bedroom suite overlooks the tiki hut, pool and just a bit further on, the ocean. I can hear it roaring and of course head that way just to look. The stretch of beach I can see holds a few tourists straggling along and some local fisherman. I also see and am enchanted by my favorite, a honu. There are chairs stuck in the sand so I sit and listen to the chatter of visitors. It is pleasant to have arrived and again, it feels like a warm and safe home.
Moving back toward the main building, the tiki bar is filling its chairs and the smallish pool has swimmers swimming. The three-story buildings blend nicely with the palm trees and the landscaping is beautiful. I have mapped the place and so strike out just for the sake of walking and to find a bite to eat.
As I walk along a back street, I feel tension fade and while the heat is makes me damp, I am happy and glad to be walking past the field where there is a family camping on the ocean and fishing. I am grateful to be blessed enough to be moving through moist tropical air as the fullish moon peaks over the horizon. I am also glad to see a place where I can have a redirecting meal of beans and tofu so I can wash the pork memory away forever. I take it back to my two room long lanai perched over the resort and watch the moon rise and the hotel guests move about below me. A shower and then bed. I have been awake too many hours.
Good morning! Yes, I am time challenged because of the five-hour time difference and I am up before the sun! I want to see the sunrise and go for a long bike ride.
I need to find that grocery store and get a couple of yogurts to add to my little fridge. The suite is fabulous, full patio windows in both rooms facing the ocean. The bed is a haven after the long travel day and everything is clean. The coffee pot works well so lanai time after a beach walk for the sunrise is in order. I have a date with a bike later and want to be ready. I have researched the four mile bike path along the Coconut Coast and am excited to see what it’s like.
What is it like? It is like Kauai. The comped bike from Hele on Kauai is courtesy of Franny Johnson who runs a consignment shop and bike rental store all in one. If anyone knows me, this is a dream come true. However, I did not come to shop and I’m so eager to get on that bike, I don’t feel I thanked Franny enough for her generosity.
A few scooches around the block and aha, there is the path. It is Sunday morning and the path is my church. Hello there, and aloha you and look at that cool bridge and did you see that bum back there? Why are there people sleeping in their cars next to the road? Better keep moving.
Moving is a pleasure on the bike and I am eager to get up the path, past the town which yes, seems congested. I am shaking my head right now at how ridiculous that is. This town is a swath about four blocks wide with one main thoroughfare where the traffic is really not great but congested? Maybe in rural Hawaiian terms. So I keep pedaling past the vacation homes on the left and the ocean on the right. The land inclines slightly and the homes fall away.
Beach after beach present themselves to me and I am caught in wonder at how would it be to have this view every day? How is it people come and then leave without leaving a big chunk of their wistful hearts? How is it those rocks and that tree will be here without me to gaze upon their movement day after day after day? A passionate rapture grabs me and moves me further where more beaches capture my imagination and there is a guy meditating on the rocks. On the rocks? Yikes. Lava rocks. But back to the mesmerizing love flooding my whole being and I can only apologize for not finding words succinct and clear enough to convey what I was feeling. Then I hit a beach.
There are so many cool beaches on Kauai that only a few actually have lifeguards. This one does and it also has people with surfboards, families with picnics and sun tents and loud music. This is a fun hangout and until I get past it, my rapturous mood calms. I can’t pretend I would rather be flocked on the beach with a bunch of revelers. I can’t say it enough, am so rapt in this island’s beauty I really want to be still inside to adequately take in every slight nuance of a wave, a bird, a tree. As you can see from how I am rambling on here and haven’t gotten much past the first day, this is a big deal, this aloha Kauai thing. Looking back, I had no idea how this would go for me, how it would change me. The pork thing should have been my first clue.
But I digress. I ride all the way to the end of the path and it ends abruptly, jutting into a trail I know I should not follow on a bike. I turn around and take in the view from the reverse vantage point, running across many others who have rented a bike to take in the coast. It is splendid. There’s a weird little spot jutting out over the ocean so I check it out and learn it is an old pineapple dump spot, a railroad spur where the refuse from canning pineapples would be dropped into the sea. The pineapple industry is gone. I can’t say it enough- the frisky white surf, the contrast of sea green with the lava rock, the white sand- it is heaven on earth.
I longingly visit in my mind the place where I have shucked off my former life and moved here. Then reality hits. I am spatially challenged and this island is 25 by 30 miles in size. Madison is farther away than spots end to end on this island. Would I be claustrophobic? Would all the islanders and haoles have their nose in my business every day? Would I adapt to muumuus and smoke pakalolo all day every day while working at the local video rental store? Or would I have that bike ride every day, the morning coffee in the café and some great job harvesting organic papyrus on a local farm that paid even less than the video store? Dreaming of an alternative life is a serious hobby of mine. In my mind, I am an avid risk taker. I do it in real life at times, but a switch to an island you can only get off of by boat or airplane? As beautiful as it is, the 30 mile land tract is a constraint on my wandering comfort zone. Can a comfort zone be a wandering one? I keep riding and when I get back to town, I stop at a food truck for a fresh coconut smoothie and watch the local scene. It is chill except for the busy two lane road, haha. Oh the congestion.
I’m an avid taphophile so my next stop is the town cemetery and on the bike, ruminating between the gravestones is easy and interesting.
The ground is lumpy, like the buried are not quite at rest, keep turning in their graves. But I am drawn anyway.
I continue on my bike ride, kind of skirting the edge of town where real life lives. I peer into driveways and smell food cooking, skirt the driveways where the guys are wrenching on broken down trucks. Dogs see me but don’t chase, just aloha acknowledge me. The drone of regular life for real residents is here and I wonder how they see us, the tourists. I’ve lived in tourist areas and had my back up because of the awkward interface. Do they like us? We’re obviously giddy in love with something they no doubt treasure. Are they jealous yet willing to share?
On the day I have to ‘work’, Franny’s son collects my buddy bike. I take a surreal taxi ride to our first hotel. The driver has lived on Kauai her whole life, has only been to the beach 10 times and would rather live in San Francisco because she likes the opera and culture. I am relieved when she drops me off at the Kauai Beach Resort, probably the only negative person on the whole island. This place is resorty, beautiful lobby, bar, nice little grotto waterfall area in the pool, etc. I unpack and wait to meet my roommate. She is lovely Diane from Wisconsin and I like her immediately!
The next few days we are kept so busy being shown hotels and attractions on the island, I am exhausted every night. The highlights are the people on this trip with us, the bus driver and tour narrator, Juan and of course, Maile and Veronica, reps from the Kauai Convention and Visitors Bureau; Giggly beautiful ladies who exude aloha with class and grit, if that even makes sense. They are intent on imparting every bit of knowledge about Kauai that they can. Hardworking and stunning, I am their faithful adherent to all things Kauai.
I’m not going to talk about the food much because again, no words. Just get out there and find a place to eat and experience any level of nirvana. Hawaiians do not mess around when it comes to food. Their purple potato salad is a staple. I am an adventurous eater and I was hesitant to try it. Now I just wish I had a bowl of it. I would pick it over ice cream. So just try everything and know that the chance of having a bad meal on Kauai is pretty slim. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh and yummy. Yes you will see McDonald’s, but who is looking? I don’t know. Maybe they have some special Hawaiian McDonald’s food. I never bothered to find out on my rides around town.
I do need to mention the coffee. One of our stops was the Kauai Coffee Company. Rows of trees and a nice little shop with coffee in cups and coffee in bags and coffee everything. In one of our stops, someone made the foolish mistake of asking if they serve Kona Coffee. Um no, big rivalry. Kona Coffee is a bit of a dirty word and the person who mentioned was a little embarrassed. No big deal, just have another cup of Kauai coffee and we move on.
Quick run-down of the activities we did and sites we saw.
The Dragon’s Breath Blowhole is spooky and fun, with a compelling legend of love and loss.
The waterfalls we visited were equally stunning, spots to linger and adore.
Waimea Canyon is spectacular with its Grand Canyonesque vistas! I love the orangey soil against the green and am awestuck with wonder. How was it formed?
The Shops at Kukui’ula near Poipu were fantastic and if they wouldn’t have stuffed us every two hours, I might have had the chance to have some great Hawaiian ice cream. Sad story, right? Really pretty perfect for an afternoon or morning repast before you hit the beach.
This is an intimate shopping, dining and art venue, where organic broccoli is $5.99 a pound.
Kayaking on Hanalea Bay with Kauai Kayak Company.- Was amazing. We saw sea turtles and had to kind of struggle against converging currents and then were able to snorkel and frolic in the surf. It was a blast. I think Puff the Magic Dragon was somewhere about. Or at least I sure felt that kind of wondrous magic while floating in the river and then fiercely paddling into the ocean to get past the breakers. The afternoon sun glinting against an incoming cloud bank. Wondrous.
Lumahuli Gardens– Just wow. A relative of the Lydate family gave us a private walking tour and we walked up and overlooked the north coast. This spot of land has some serious sacredness going on. It felt holy. I loved it and return here in my mind often, drawn like a magnet to what, I am not sure. This garden is one of six National Tropical Gardens in the United States. It was interesting to hear the myths of the rock formations and learn that many of the plants covering the surrounding cliffs were invasive species they were trying to eradicate. All of that lush beauty we see as tourists? The plant people see it differently and apparently some of it is not so great.
Steelgrass Chocolate Farm– Oh boy! Up and down hills with a chocolate taste testing at the end. Yippee! The chocolate was really good and I truly enjoyed seeing the organic production. But what I really loved? What really enchanted me? The papyrus forest near the stream. That was really wow. I love that plant! It’s like Dr. Suess meets Avatar. Another fun part was taking the back route because our tour bus, short as it was, wouldn’t fit in their main entrance. We drove on lumpy back roads that were barely more than rutted paths, past what could have easily been hippie squatters living in all manner of ‘homes’. Very interesting!
Have you ever been bewitched by music and movement? I didn’t really think that was possible until the traditional hula group performed traditional for us. I was in love.
Mesmerized, drawn into a spell of aloha enchantment. I realize this sounds ridiculous. I like to scoff at such nonsense. This was as evocative as it was real. Again, no reason trying to explain an experience like that. I can’t begin to describe it.
But the hands down best? Best ever and ever yet? The hula show made me tear up, but the helicopter ride with Sunshine Helicopters?
Indescribable. What can beat riding in a little helicopter taking in some of the best scenery in the world? Well, edging up over a ridge and being surprised by a beautiful rainbow when there’s no rain in sight.
Again, it was magical, enchanting and it made me cry. We hovered over the cliffs of the Napali coast. We swooped into the womb of a fertile sacred Hawaiian site and rotated in a circle. A little nerve wracking but so worth it. It was the ride of a lifetime and I had to wonder if the driver ever got bored, doing this a few times a day, five days a week or was he living his dream? He performed with a nice old hippie Zen quality. It was the most enduring memory.
I also want to mention the roosters. They are the Kauai mascot and if you’ve been here you know you will see and hear them often. There’s a story about how they became so populous but I think it’s because there are no natural predators for them. They’re pretty and they don’t bother anyone unless you are not an early riser. You might not appreciate them then. They are fine.
Quick run-down of the hotels we visited-
Aqua Kauai Beach Resort– spacious and nice but a little dated. This resort would be excellent for corporate or affinity groups. A lot of rooms and ample meeting space. The staff was very welcoming and the food and drinks at their reception for us set the bar high when it came to moving on to other resorts. I would stay there again.
Aston Aloha Beach Hotel– Set by the Lydgate Park and its excellent beach, it was on the verge of a major renovation. It has very good bones to work with and I look forward to returning to see the results. I would stay there.
Sheraton Kauai– This resort is split in two with some of the rooms on one side of a road and some on the other. The beach area is very resorty with Bali beds you can rent and a protected cove area with vigorous surf to play in.
There is a beautiful area for an oceanfront wedding and a nice selection of oceanfront rooms, on the ocean side of the street that is. I would stay there.
Kauai Marriott Beach Resort– beautiful grounds with a lovely, very large pool.
The one bedroom master suite probably had the best view from the suites in the resorts we visited. It was large and lovely and I would stay there.
Kauai Grand Hyatt– paradise on earth. Glowing heavenly paradise to the nth degree. The grand lobby is stunning, which is the hallmark of any Grand Hyatt. The pools are is multilevel and just incredible.
Their club for the Club Level rooms is something I want a membership to. There is also a hospitality area for you with locker rooms if your flight leaves late and you need one more hour on the beach. But the spa. I have been to many spas now. This one is over the top. The gym is for serious gym people but the spa, it is for serious spa people. It has a waterfall, little palapa style huts for treatments. I honestly can’t describe it beyond it beyond saying that thinking about it makes me feel sorry for myself for not being there. Sigh.
Overall, the grounds are of the resort are large and there are plenty of elegantly Hawaiian themed rooms, so this resort would accommodate large groups or be the perfect honeymoon hideaway. Another feature of their rooms is how large the lanai are. I want to stay there please. Pretty please.
The Westin Princeville– gorgeous resort with very nice pools and upscale accommodations overlooking the ocean. No beach at this resort, but nice ones close by. Condo accommodations in a variety of bedding options to allow for larger families.
This is a Westin that is more than typically fabulous because of the views. There is a lawn large enough for a big wedding or smallish convention. I would stay there.
The Cliffs of Princeville – This is a very nice family oriented resort where everyone brings their lawn chairs to watch the daily sunset. Music is often being played and if you look down to the sea, you can see turtles in the surf. The one thing that surprised me was that there was no air conditioning. While there, Kauai was experiencing a heat wave that wasn’t normal. These units have two stories with slatted vents and fans for cooling. The heat we experienced while there was not normal so I’m sure it is not normally a problem. Stunning views from the back of the property and a great value for families because they have two and three bedroom options also. I would stay there again. Great jump off point for all things North Shore.
We had our wrap up at the perfect Courtyard by Marriott Coconut Beach. Everything was fabulous, including all the gifts they gave us- delicate leis, books, lotion, etc., until the very end when we were all saying a little something and a lot of us blubbered like babies. When it was all said and done, I walked out one final time to say good bye to the dear ocean. A rogue wave came up and soaked me to above my knees. A message for me? Don’t go? You’re all wet? Anyway, I had to change because our transfer was coming to take us to the airport. It was so HARD to say good-bye to the group, the Aloha and the island.
As a seasoned traveler, I am not that easy to impress. Please don’t think I am being arrogant because I also like to tent camp and enjoy visiting Detroit. But as an agent, many of our FAMS offer us the best of the best in the hopes that we take that experience back to our clients and generate revenue for the people who host us so graciously. Being alone on Kauai for a couple of days and then in a group experiencing everything I did, I can only relay what a wonderful experience it was, how truly grateful I am for all of it. I am an observer and an absorber, willing to mix it up with an experience to get a deep experience. I got that on Kauai. I told you how I ate pork to be kind. You might be able to tell I am thrifty to a fault at times, and you can probably tell I love to ride bike. But who knew how deeply Kauai would change me with the hula and the rainbow and the Aloha of it all? I didn’t. I had no idea this would be MY experience, jaded traveler that I can be, used to be? Mahalo Nui, Kauai. I am a true convert and have drunk your rainbow kool aid.