We have a habit of spending holidays doing very non-traditional things, taking advantage of inexpensive hotels and less-crowded places. Thanksgiving 2011 was no different as we took the long holiday in our favorite island destination, Kaua’i.
We’ve been here several times together and have found it one of the absolute best islands to pursue adventures like we had hiking around Kaua’i in July 2011, and camping around Kauai in August 2009. We’ve covered most of the island that is accessible by foot and by car, with the exception of the Na’pali Coast, the enormous park that prevents the highway from circling the island. We’ve kayaked the rivers and coast and consider many islanders as friends, undoubtedly because they feel our enthusiasm for their home. Because Kaua’i is much less touristy than other islands, it doesn’t have the same distance between its visitors and the people who live there.
With the holiday dinner still a ways off, we had a few things to accomplish before sitting down to eat:
This is a great hotel. We wouldn’t rank it as fancy but it isn’t pretentious either. We have always been able to have a walkout room on the first floor that faces the ocean. Mornings and evenings feel like we have a personal patio on the sea in a way that is very un-hotel-like. It has been recently renovated (not that it was bad before) and has a warm and friendly feel in what could be a very touristy place. It sits on Poipu Beach but at the end where the lava reaches out to the sea and makes for great wave breaks so near to our room. From the hotel, there is an excellent five mile run along the sea to the north that we’ve taken many mornings. It passes Spouting Horn as well, a blowhole that spouts both water and makes a ghostly howl regularly.
I don’t know why we love driving off road, whether it be dirt tracks or sandy beaches, but it somehow touches a need to do something out of bounds and maybe a bit unacceptable. Since we ride dirt bikes in the mountains and deserts around LA, we often feel too hemmed in when we leave home for places where we can’t take our motorcycles. Polihale Beach is one of the few that allow cars to drive on the sand, although you do so at your own risk. We usually have a four wheel drive (required) and reduce the air pressure in the tires to get better traction. Most importantly, however, we don’t stop unless we need to, and we avoid the deep, white sand that lies beyond the highest tide line. The part of the beach that can be driven is several miles long, mostly deserted, and great fun.
Flying over Kaua’i
After so many trips on the ground in cars, kayaks and on foot, we finally decided to take a helicopter flight. We had witnessed the helicopters dipping into the valleys and providing views of mountains and waterfalls that can’t be approached any other way. We’re no fans of noisy machines interrupting nature, but Kaua’i has such vast stretches that are uninhabited and essentially unreachable, we made an exception. Afterward, we agreed that it was a great exception to make. This was an exceptional adventure that we didn’t expect to have in a place where we normally do much more physically demanding activities.
The flight was what Island Helicopters called an ’earlybird special’ at 8:00am from the Lihue Airport, the main airport on the island. We were up at sunrise, which is never a bad thing on a tropical island. After a quick safety briefing, we boarded the helicopter and met our pilot. From the moment the flight took off, nose low and moving rapidly toward the northwest and back toward our hotel in Poipu, we knew this was no tame adventure.
Isaac, our pilot, was a young, native Hawaiian who was very comfortable skimming low over Kaua’i's jagged ridges and flying in tight to canyon walls to give us the best view. We saw more waterfalls than we could possibly remember, a feral goat perched in the center of an enormous, nearly verticle cliff, and circled over humpback wales breaching off the Na’pali Coast. The last waterfalls we viewed were some of the most amazing…the wettest spot on Earth at Mount Waialeale, where over 1000 cm (400 inches) of rain falls every year.
It was well worth the $173 per person ‘special’. If you go, request Isaac, an excellent pilot who chose the perfect music and provided interesting conversation through the flight. We can think of few better ways to spend a Thanksgiving holiday morning than with a great guide flying over an island paradise.
With a few adventures knocked out, it was time to decide how to have our meal.
Maybe not, but a great way to have the holiday. We called around to several hotels and restaurants before deciding on the Thanksgiving buffet at the Grand Hyatt Kaua’i in Poipu. I doubt we could have made a better choice. This hotel and its services are truly grand. Of course, there were the standard turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and cranberry. There were apple and pumpkin pies as well.
But what about several kinds of ribs, crab, shrimp, omelettes, breads, cheeses, fruits, and many different salads. With a view of the ocean and lush gardens, it was a feast for the eyes and stomach. It would be hard to image a better place or setting for a holiday meal away from home. After several hours and too many trips to the buffet tables, we staggered back to our car for the short trip back to the Sheraton. Another holiday well-celebrated.
With Thanksgiving celebrated, it was time to explore more of the island:
Getting around to the North Shore of Kaua’i is like flying to another island. The wet side of Kaua’i is lush and the vegetation crowds the roads, a green wall only broken by beaches (where parking is anywhere under the trees on the shore) and one lane bridges with a local custom of 5-7 cars alternating passage in each direction. Just before the end of the road, there is even a place where cars cross a shallow stream, reinforcing how much water comes to this side of the island, thanks to Trade Winds that ‘collide’ with the high peaks that dominate the Na’pali Coast and center of the island.
We decided to spend some time at Haena Beach Park, one mile short of the end of the road at Ke’e Beach, the start of the Kalalau Trail. We picked this spot because it has bathrooms, a lifeguard, and amazing views of the Bali Hai peaks just to the west and a fantastic surf break just to the east at Tunnels Beach. Tunnels, unfortunately, is where a female surfer lost an arm a few years back to a tiger shark. We stayed much closer to the shore than she did, not that we were worried.
Few developed places are more beautiful than the Hanalei Valley. The ancient taro fields that fed the islanders before better choices were introduced by outsiders were in abudance in this very fertile and well-watered valley. The local joke is that taro is only fed to tourists at luau’s, as the islanders find it awful and won’t eat it. If true, that has to be one of the funniest ironies in tourism. We haven’t had any yet, and this didn’t convince us to try it, either.
Kaua’i isn’t the place to get hamburgers or even steak. It is the place to get some of the most creative and tasty seafood…especially the fish. It tastes just as good inland, but has a special flair when you can eat with a view of palm trees and blue water. Dinner at Brenneke’s in Poipu is a special treat if you show up early (by 5:30pm or so) and can get a seat along the windows. Our apologies for the low-quality phone photo, but you’ll get the idea. The wind in the trees and the open-air dining were enough to make this a delightful evening. Brenneke’s calls themselves a “beach broiler” and that’s exactly what you can expect, as the meals are simple and the alaskan king crab appetizer is perfect for two.
In keeping with our more ‘civilized’ vacation, we scheduled a cruise with Captain Andy’s Charters in Port Allen and ended up with Captain Rick, our boat captain who was part seaman, part stand up comedian, part encyclopedia of all things Kaua’i. From his pre-cruise briefing to being the last to say goodbye at the top of the gangway leaving the boat, he was absolutely great and helped make our trip very enjoyable.
Besides Captain Rick, we enjoyed an exceptionally friendly crew, including Tara, a hard-working mate who shared our passion for hiking and has many adventures similar to our. Our crew successfully brought us to Hawaiian spinner dolphins, humpback whales and nearly to Kalalau Beach on the Na’Pali Coast despite large swells and very strong winds from the north. We were able to look up the deep valleys that make up this wind and wind sculpted part of the island and to watch waves crashing into sea caves and rocky cliffs.
There were very few dry places on the luxurious 20 m (65 ft) Southern Star catamaran but if you didn’t mind getting wet (and who should in Kaua’i at sea?), it was a fantastic ride. We stayed in the very front of the catamaran for the entire trip, even during our steak, shrimp and asparagas dinner that was brought to us by the crew. Being in the front meant riding the swells more than any other part of the boat, and at times we were dropping and rising 3 meters or more with sea spray hitting us every few minutes. We don’t think sunset cruises are normally such a wild ride, and we were grateful that our captain was able to take us so far up the coast despite the conditions.
Sunset over Ni’ihau on the way back was a spectacular sight, as all Kaua’i sunsets are, but when you stand at the rail, wind blowing steadily, looking at only water between you and the sunset, it takes on a special meaning.
We love the island of Kaua’i and think every day in our lives should end like this. Now to figure out how to make that a reality…