I have been to three of the Hawaiian Islands and this was my first visit to Kauai, the “Garden Island.” Despite the moniker I was initially a little surprised by the lack of verdant landscape though we started our two week visit on the drier side of the island. That said, the island is beautiful; the landscape is much more expansive than expected and the warm, gentle air is lovely.
We started our trip long before arriving by jumping in for the adventure of booking our first week through Hotwire. We lucked out with the Kauai Beach Resort which sits between Lihue and Kapaa. The beach is great for walking, if not always swimming, and you can self-define an outstanding work-out with a lot of distance (or a little depending on what you want). The sand here is not super soft, but it is also much softer than the hard, coarse sand of the California Coast that I am used to. The deal with this location is that you are off property everyday for dining as the on property options are limited and not great.
From the KBR we ventured out to Waimea Canyon looking for the elusive swamp trail hike. We had a rough description of where to go so drove along looking for the trailhead that we never found. We passed a number of options but were determined to find the swamp trail so finally gave up only when we reached the end of the road and had no other options. As a result we hiked the Pihea trail which is a short mile in, mile out – haha! Two hours later we emerged covered in mud. The trail is rigorous with lots of hoisting yourself up using tree branches and roots, and given that you are hiking on a wet island you can expect at the very least some mist. On a clear day you get an amazing view of the Napali Coast from most of the walk, and the panoramic view from the peak is magical.
We surprised the groundskeeper at the “resort” on the road down the hill by asking to use the hose out front to wash off the red, glue like mud covering our shoes (and making them unwearable), and caked on our legs. Plan to take a change of clothes and shoes if you go late in the day and intend to stop somewhere for dinner!
After four days at KBR we journeyed into to Poipu to the Grand Hyatt. Wow! Walking into the lobby with the ocean framed and a gorgeous garden in the foreground feels like arriving in paradise. It is very much worth a few days of splurging but more than a few days could become tiresome if you want more than cocktails by the pool and deciding what to eat next. Oddly the water-slide, which is what my kids always want in a luxury hotel was described as being fairly small and tame; the reality is a long, curving speedway of watery fun. The pool here is incredible, not great for swimming but so fun for floating and moving through. The lagoon is great for swimming if you can avoid the drunk floaters and inexperienced kayakers. Pool side snacks are very reasonably priced for a resort of this kind, the cocktails are good (though I personally hated the spiked smoothy and was apparently sufficiently annoyed by it that they removed the charge from the bill). The kids and husband all thought the free otter pops that are offered throughout the day were the best thing ever – 300 bucks a night for a free 25 cent otter pop – what a deal! But it does make you feel happy when the come strolling by with the cooler – they even cut the top off for you!
The beach at the Hyatt is not really a swimming beach with a strong current and a rip tide, but it is definitely a locals surfing spot and there were people playing in the water. We felt like the rip was too strong but no one was pulled out to see and died while we were there so maybe we are just overly cautious. You can take some nice walks along the grounds and the beach is long enough for a decent walk, but the fitness facility is great and daily classes, including awesome water aerobics give you enough options for movement without having to be too creative.
One strange disconnect with the Hyatt is the intersection of romantically inclined honeymooners, desperately searching wedding attendants, grumpy bridezillas, and vacationing families. The effect is acute when swimming through the lagoon and popping into one of the “kissing caves” with giggling kids and happening upon the intimate embrace of a newly married pair – ugh! I was also not thrilled with the wedding factory vibe – it was a little Disneyesque as in the evening all the princesses in their white gowns came out (2-3 a day), but it is easy to just slip into a rum induced happiness and smile at everything.
Our second week was at a private rental house in Haena, and by this point I was ready to be back in the kitchen cooking my own meals with all the local yumminess. We rented through Kauai Island Vacations and they do a great job of making the property feel welcoming. I made the mistake of stocking up on groceries in Kapaa and should have waited until I had a chance to inventory the house. There is also very adequate shopping in Hanalei with a great natural food store, a serviceable grocery and a little further away a fabulous (and affordable) Food Land in Princeville.
We were one street up from the beach but there are frequent and nearby access paths and you can see the ocean through the houses across the street so for the enormous savings it was definitely the right choice. The house we were in was shared with another family of four and had loads of room for everyone. Not sure what the name of the beach is that we were on but it was fantastic snorkeling right from the house, or a ten minute walk to Tunnels. One important note about Tunnels: the true ‘Tunnels” snorkeling is to the left of the beach as you stand facing the ocean. My husband and I popped in the water closer to the right side of the beach, had a great time and then floated out toward the left – over a deep and reef-less chasm – scary! When we reached the rather obvious reef and rock formations of Tunnels we had a good laugh and breathed easier. I frankly found the snorkeling in front of our block better – there was less traffic and lots of great stuff to see in shallow water so the kids were able to cruise around with us without fear of being kicked by other eager fish watchers.
For as relaxing as the island can be there is also so much to see and do that if you let yourself you can become pretty busy running from one fabulous thing to the next. Ironically, though I like to be doing something most of the time and am not know for my skills in relaxing I don’t like to have every minute planned, and I really don’t like to be in the car all the time. Fortunately from Haena there is plenty to do that does not require much driving, though I will say my plan for walking everywhere did not come to fruition. Let me digress briefly and say that I ma a walker – I walk to my local farmer’s market which is 1.5 miles up and down hills, I hike with my dogs almost every day 2-3 miles, I park at the back of the lot so I can get the extra excercise walking to the store – you get the picture… so looking at maps of where we going to be and the distances to the things we wanted to get to coupled with the fact that I was on vacation and had the leisure to walk as much as I wanted had me planning to start out before the rest of the group on foot and just meet everyone at the destination – HA! I guess had I been more ambitious I could have done it but the roads are narrow, the distances are lengthened by lots of winding twists and turns, and it just felt impractical. Oh well. So we drove to a lot but fortunately never very far because there is so much to keep you busy!
Most of what we did is the standard fare for a week in Haena: snorkeling at Ke-e beach (the reviews are right, get there early if you want to park near the beach, or park legally at all), stroll through Limahuli Gardens (more educational than beautiful, but there are some beautiful views and it is an awesome learning opportunity for the environmental, social and cultural history of the islands – certainly made me rethink all of the things that I love so much about Hawaii when put in the context of non-native invasive species), and we hiked part of the Kahalau trail – wow!
To do the full Kahalau trail (11 miles in) you need a back country permit and you need to plan to spend the night. You can do a vigorous hike in the first two miles of the trail to a pretty beach, but on a hot day the beach would be a disappointment since it is not recommended as a swimming beach and those two miles would definitely put you in the mood for a swim on arrival. We had the great fortune on hiking on a cool rainy day so by the time we reached the beach really just wanted to avoid the sand as we were already soaked to the bone and feeling sticky – did not need the addition of sand to make it even better. There is a very rustic port-o-potty at the beach so if you have to go you can, we opted for off-trail bushes as we ventured forth on the waterfall trail. And here is the extension of the trail you can do without a permit – Hanakapepie (sp?) Falls – 2 miles up the valley from the beach.
I reviewed the hike on Yelp so will try not to be too redundant here, though I will cover important points: this is not a hike for the inexperienced or occasional hiker. Despite the descriptions as a moderate 2 in to the beach and a valley floor walk up to the falls this is a very vigorous hike with some significantly challenging terrain to get through. Now maybe our walk was made harder by the fact that it was pouring rain about 70% of the time so we were slogging through mud, crossing water with a strong current and climbing onto rain-slicked mossy rocks, but even on a dry day it would still be a vigorous walk requiring you to carry a lot of water. The falls are beautiful and worth the journey, I would like to do it again on a dry (or drier) day so that by the time we get there I want to swim – after four long miles in pouring rain I was so soaked and cold that I had no desire to jump into a cold pool – so we snapped the requisite pictures and started the hike out. All told it was a 6.5 hour roundtrip with about half an hour of that time as trail-side potty breaks and snack breaks to keep the kids going. The great bonus is that the trailhead is at Ke-e beach so after you emerge from your jungle journey you get to bake on the warm sand and have a nice swim/snorkel before taking your achey muscles home. When we left two days later I was still sore but would do it again in a second!
We left a lot of want to do’s on the island, a lot more hiking that sounds fabulous (though I know now that the Kauai miles are longer than mainland miles, and moderate means vigorous), and many beaches that we did not explore. The problem is that when you find a great spot it is hard to get up and move because how much better can it get, right? Perhaps the island lesson for this trip is how to be content with what you have – especially when what you have is fabulous!