Those who know me know I tend to pick up and go quite easily, as the travel bug has never loosened its hold. This time, I’ve made the ultimate getaway to paradise to escape my regular routine of work and college. I’m talking about Kauai, Hawaii.
I remember looking out the window of the plane to see a lush landscape, one unlike anything at home in Los Angeles — and I was startled how close to the water we were as we touched down at Lihue Airport.
Later on, I’d learn that this flourishing flora, and its fauna, is what earned Kauai its nickname of “The Garden Island.” Kauai is the oldest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands — all of them fixtures on Japanese tourists’ itineraries — and also the northernmost and fourth largest.
Many people compare Kauai with Okinawa, not only because of their similarities in landscape but also for the influence in both places of Japanese culture. However, like Okinawa’s linguistic uniqueness compared with the rest of Japan, Hawaiians have their own dialect of “Pidgin” that’s distinct from mainland American-English.
Though I didn’t get a lei garland of fragrant blossoms placed around my neck when I landed — as I’d romantically imagined — I sensed I’d entered a different world the moment I stepped off the plane.
Unlike the hurried, disgruntled look of people at most big airports, everyone around me was smiling. And instead of the regular muzak I was used to hearing in airport terminals, the soft melodies of island beats floated from the PA. The warm air on my face, too, made me close my eyes and fantasize I was already at the beach.
Over the course of the trip, I would discover so many aspects of the island’s beauty. One minute it seemed we were driving through endless greenery, and the next we’d be going along by the coast with a sandy beach an arm’s length away. On other parts of the island, I’d see the mountains on one side and swampy marshes on the other. Then there were cliffs, vast valleys, canyons — and what looked like the set of every action movie I’ve ever seen.
Even the weather would go from breezy to stormy to hot and dry. It seemed as though the only constant was the people’s laid-back nature and the serene feeling of being able to go at your own pace no matter what part of the island you were on.
As my friend who was living there showed me every nook and cranny we could possibly see, I came to understand why so many call Kauai their favorite island. No matter what type of traveler you are, you’ll have a blast.
For the hopeless romantic, Kauai just might be the perfect place for you and your significant other. You can rent out a cozy loft to hide away from other tourists, or you may choose to stay at the resorts in Princeville. There, you can enjoy a special meal overlooking the sunset on Hanalei Bay. Or how about a cruise off of the Na Pali Coast?
My favorite place to visit at night was the Kilauea Point Lighthouse. I remember getting out of the car and being slightly scared by how dark it was — so dark, in fact, that I couldn’t see where I was stepping. I shared a few words with another visitor standing by his car until I looked up and was speechless. Never have I seen so many stars glittering in the night sky ! All of the memories I had of star-gazing in the countryside in Japan or in Australia or even in Denver, Colorado, paled in comparison with this. I even saw my first shooting star in Kauai.
If you’re an explorer, rent a car, moped, bicycle or whatever other mode of transport you prefer to steer on your adventures. Get to Ke’e Beach and you’ll notice the start of a trail along the high cliffs. This, the Kalalau Trail, will take you to the Hanakapi’ai Valley and its falls. But go prepared, because as gorgeous as it is, the trail can be challenging.
For those who want to pack in as much as possible, there is always the chance to try out a zip-line adventure or a helicopter ride around the island. Or if you’re more of a water baby than an aerial adrenaline-seeker, there is jet-skiing, kayaking, snorkeling and mountain tubing. Never heard of mountain tubing? I hadn’t either, but it’s your chance to float down the island’s waterways as they take you through tunnel after tunnel.
Speaking of the outdoors, no matter what the purpose of your trip, you can’t go to Kauai without visiting Wailua Falls — and it helps that this landmark is easily accessible by car. Made famous when it was featured in the 1970s television show “Fantasy Island,” the best time to view this magnificent cascade is in the morning, when the sun shines on the water.
It is said that men used to dive from the 25-meter falls to demonstrate their strength and worth. You’d be wise not to try this yourself, though if you want to get to the bottom you can hike down from the top or up along the river.
There’s also the Spouting Horn in Poipu, a natural wonder that shoots out water with every wave crashing in under a lava shelf. Then there’s the Sleeping Giant, a huge mountain ridge that looks like … Well, you can probably guess. Waimea Canyon, meanwhile, is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Just when you think the sights are endless, another popular tourist destination proves you right: the Hanalei Valley. At first it might look like any other bunch of rice fields, of the sort you’re used to seeing throughout the countryside in Japan. But this is one of the most famous lookout spots on the island. The valley is 1.5 km wide and 10 km long, and it was a location for the megahit 1958 screen musical “South Pacific.” Most of the taro grown in Hawaii is also grown here.
Speaking of food, your options on Kauai are virtually endless, so go prepared with a bottomless stomach. You’ve got to try poi, a Polynesian staple made from the taro stem. Then there’s Kalua pork, which is the main tourist attraction at luau feasts; poke, a salad with raw tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, chili pepper and other ingredients served as an appetizer; loco moco, which is rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy; macaroni salad; pineapple; and shaved ice. Just thinking about this makes me hungry again.
If you’re a culture junkie, you’ll be pleased by the diversity of Kauai. Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, becoming a state in 1959, but residents continue to observe a deep appreciation for elements of native Hawaiian culture, and its Polynesian roots remain strong.
During my stay, I met residents with ancestral roots in Japan, Brazil the U.S. mainland and all over the world. If you want a deeper look at the island’s history, perhaps a trip to the old sugar mill or to its various museums will give you a better understanding of the waves of immigration and the development of industries on the island.
To be a part of the culture yourself, join in with the year-round festivals or experience a luau, where you can watch hula-dance performances and enjoy seeing the island from a local perspective.
I also strongly recommend checking out an art gallery if you can. Hanapepe is considered the island’s art town, but by visiting any of the communities, you’ll find something unique.
In Kapa’a, for instance, though it might not have been hula, I got to dance the night away to jams by the favorite local band, Revival, who were playing at a bar — and I loved every minute of it !
Now, if this all sounds too busy, just relax. Literally. Think four beaches in a day is excessive? I spent a whole day beach-hopping. One of the neatest things I got to do was look for puka shells at Tunnels Beach, which I used to string my own shell necklace.
By the way, don’t be alarmed if you happen to be sitting (or lying) still, only to be greeted by a chicken. You may think I’m joking, but this happened to me at Ke’e Beach, and the entire island is full of chickens, cats, frogs, wild boar and other animals that roam freely on the roads, the beaches and just about everywhere in between. They live the good life.
If I had more time, I would have liked to have lounged on — or perhaps mixed it up a bit by taking a stab at surfing. I could even have had a quick flight out to the other islands ! Honestly, I don’t know why it took me so long to go to Hawaii to begin with. I know those North Pacific islands will now always feel like a home from home — and I can’t wait for my next “aloha” experience.