by Karla Erovick
Kauai has always held an allure for me. Although I’ve visited the better known Hawaiian Islands, I had yet to visit Kauai, the Garden Island.
I am struck by the lushness of the island and the hundreds of shades of green, its dramatic coastline, pristine beaches and the relaxing and welcoming vibe. My goal was to experience the island from a local perspective and to do that, I chose the North Shore, specifically Hanalei Bay. I have heard from a few “in-the-know” travelers that Hanalei Bay is paradise without the hordes of tourists. My mind was made up to enjoy the “world class” beaches and snorkeling, as well as to find colorful local culture.
While most of the resorts are located on the South Shore, I am seeking the non-tourist experience which I find in the charming town of Hanalei. Instead of the pricey Princeville Resort 15 minutes away, I choose a vacation home rental located seconds from the beach. There are over 2600 well-equipped private rental homes on the island to choose from with great values compared to the $500+ per night you will spend at the big resorts.
Mine is 20 seconds to the beach, surrounded by exquisitely manicured gardens and every toy I could want: body boards, surfboards, kayaks, floats, chairs, blender and more. Each morning I welcome the day by strolling the un-crowded beach of Hanalei Bay and greeting others who are also enjoying the morning sun. One morning after a rain shower I am rewarded with a double rainbow spanning the bay, which I take to be a good omen for my trip.
Kauai was the only Hawaiian Island that wasn’t conquered by King Kamehameha. As a result, it retains its own customs. It rains much of the year, and I am warned that it may rain daily during my trip. The island is sun-kissed and rain-drenched contributing to the lushness of the landscape. Huge mountains and extinct volcanoes occupy the island, and much of the island is inaccessible except by hiking.
Mount Wai’ale’ale towering over the gorgeous Waimea Canyon is the rainiest spot on the Island, receiving 440 inches of rain per year, but the beaches receive much less rain, 20 to 85 inches. The rugged cliffs hugging the Na Pali Coast are beautiful and foreboding. Many movies and television programs have been filmed on location in Kauai. In fact, a “Movie Tour” is offered to show where programs were filmed including Gilligan’s Island, Jurassic Park, Fantasy Island and the one that put the island on the map, South Pacific.
While I am hoping to reach a relaxed state of nirvana on my vacation, I also want to experience the island, the native culture and the many adventures. I choose the following adventures during my sojourn in paradise: snorkeling, helicopter tour, visit to local Farmers Market, Guava Plantation, an island polo match, botanical garden tour, Lomi Lomi Massage, as well as plenty of beach time and the search for the perfect Mai Tai!
Snorkeling tops my daily activity list, and there are plenty of good snorkeling beaches on the North Shore, minutes from my domicile. I quickly slip into the routine of a morning beach stroll, fresh tropical juice followed by snorkeling, sunning, a nap then lunch. Most days I manage to include an additional adventure from my list. By referring to my guide book, I locate the best snorkeling beaches, most of which aren’t very crowded.
My favorite Ke’e beach is located at the foot of Bali Hai Mountains and has good visibility and an amazing beach. It is located at the very end of the road on the North Shore with not enough parking, if arriving late. Another, called “Hideaways,” can only be reached by hiking down a steep, hidden trail. Once there, you are truly in paradise and have access to a coral reef teeming with sea creatures. The largest reef is Tunnels, just minutes from Hanalei offering the best snorkeling on the island.
There are many exceptional beaches and snorkeling spots on the North Shore, which can be found in the local magazines and guidebooks.
Helicopter Tours are a fabulous way to understand the overall layout of the island, since most is remote and inaccessible by car or on foot. After researching the many companies offering tours, I choose Inter-Island because they offer unobstructed views flying with the doors off and are the only company to land at a private waterfall for swimming and lunch. They also have a perfect safety record and fly all of the island’s search and rescue missions.
This is the only way to see the entire island and enjoy the volcanic canyons. My pilot is an “Ace” and not only flies into the canyon, but up close to the canyon face. Wow! I never expected to experience Waimea Canyon quite this way; most people have to drive up the windy road to the lookout point. We fly by a series of five waterfalls, called the Five Sisters, and close to the Jurassic Park waterfall featured in the opening scenes for the movie.
We land at a serene waterfall for lunch and swimming. It is so picturesque that I must swim in the small water pool beneath the waterfall. Floating on my back looking up at the origination of the waterfall fills me with contentment. We enjoy a deli lunch with Hawaiian juices and then it’s off for the completion of the exhilarating two hour tour. We fly over taro plantations, coffee plantations, into canyons, along the coastlines of the famed North and South shores. The entire flight goes by so quickly and I am sad to reach the landing strip. This is a definite vacation highlight!
Local cultural adventures include the Hanalei Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays at 2 pm; Kauai Polo on Sundays at 3 pm across from ‘Anini Beach, and the Guava Plantation in Kilauea. The Farmer’s Market is very competitive. People arrive before the gates open and queue up. There are less than twenty vendors overall and most sell out within the first half hour.
The locals arrive with their wicker baskets and greet each other and keep the newbies in line. There are few grocery stores which are pricey compared to the mainland. I am on the constant look-out for fresh fruit for my morning smoothies. I am able to find fresh mangos, papayas, pineapple, star fruit, and guavas and even enjoy some fresh ice-cold coconut juice right out of the nut.
I am lucky enough to catch one of the last Kauai Polo matches before the end of the season. The setting could not be prettier, located across from ‘Anini Beach. The polo grounds feature a shaded grandstand for spectators, regulation field and score board, stables and views of the beach. The match is well played with locals and a few tourists in attendance, an amusing snapshot into living in Kauai’s tight-knit local community.
One can’t visit a tropical paradise such as Kauai without visiting one of the numerous plantations. The closest one to Hanalei is the Guava Kai Plantation. They offer free guava juice and show an informational video, gift shop and tour of the guava plantation.
Botanical Gardens right before Ke’e beach is one of the three National Tropical Botanical Gardens on the island. Limahuli Garden offers guided and self-guided tours of a dramatic ancient terrace system featuring a plethora of plants, flowers and fruits, with beautiful ocean views and views of the Hanalei Valley.
Lomi Lomi Massage is one of my favorite forms of pampering. Lomi Lomi is Hawaiian for “healing touch,” and this massage has a unique stroke. Some of these massages use fresh flowers and sea salt, others use aromatherapy oils. After my 60 minute massage on my lanai listening to the waves, I couldn’t be more relaxed.
Other local adventures include enjoying local live music at various venues around town and at the resorts. Finding the best North Shore Mai Tai becomes my obsession. Each restaurant/bar has their signature Mai Tai recipe, and I want to find the best one. After visiting 10 restaurants and bars, I can say without a doubt the Zelo’s Beach House Mai Tai and the Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant, top shelf Mai Tai tie for my first place vote!
For Mai Tai purists, however, the undisputed winner of the “North Shore’s Best” goes to Tahiti Nui. While you are there testing their Mai Tai’s, look around at the photos lining the walls featuring the owner with many celebrities.
There are so many additional adventures that I just can’t squeeze into my schedule in a mere ten days: surfing, flying in an Ultra-Light Plane, Zipline Tours, Ocean Tours, waterskiing, windsurfing, hiking, Movie Tours, Luau and touring the award winning Grand Hyatt Kauai. This clearly means that I will have to return to experience the myriad adventures left unexplored. As I leave the paradise perfect Hanalei Bay to head to the airport, I am refreshed and resolved that I will be back!
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Website for Kauai information: www.essentialkauai.com
The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed
Vacation Rentals: North Shore Properties, Ltd., www.kauai-vacation-rentals.com
Rent direct from the owners: www.vrbo.com
Hanalei Bay Resort: www.hanaleibayresort.com
Princeville Resort: www.princeville.com
Zelo’s Beach House – good food, great cocktails, my favorite Mai Tai!
Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant – great lunch spot, dine near the river. Order top shelf Mai Tai!
Bali Hai at the Hanalei Bay Resort for up-scale alfresco dining with stunning views and grounds
Hanalei Gourmet – for gourmet food and live music in the evenings
Polynesia Café – gourmet food on paper plates
Sushi Blues – sushi and Japanese food. Live music at night
Tahiti Nui – great bar and locals hang out- Mai Tais are excellent!
Experts weigh in on Perfect Mai Tai – www.kevdo.com/maitai/maitaihistory.html
Tropical Taco – affordable fresh fish tacos – good lunch spot
Helicopter Tour – Inter-Island Tours located near Hanapepe on the West Shore, interislandhelicopters.com