Long after a visit, the Garden Island of Kauai continues to fulfill the ideal of a tropical paradise, from the moment you step off the air-conditioned plane into the warm, humid air of the out-dated airport terminal, to the rows of palm trees swaying in the ever-present tradewinds. The incredible hospitality of the climate is accented by volcanic soils and their accompanying plantations of fruit (ooooh the coffee!) and lush, impenetrable jungle in almost every direction. The scene is complemented by epic landscapes that rival any tropical alternative and have shown up in everything from Jurassic Park, Avatar and King Kong to Hook, Pirates of the Caribbean and Tropic Thunder. The final piece of the paradise puzzle is the cheerfulness of the locals and their rich cultural and historical stories. Basically, Polynesians (and other ‘nesians) are the most badass sea-farers on our planet and figured out the whole navigation and exploration thing waaaaay before everyone else. In fact, the culture is so immersing that it’s almost possible to forget that you’re in A’murica…
That said, there are definitely some key features of the island that remind you, with a complete lack of subtlety, that you’re in the 50th and most recent U.S. state. Radio stations blare reggae, ukulele and classic rock (Shaka!) tunes from rental Mustangs and Wranglers and the roadsides are littered with McDonalds and Taco Bell trash. The up side to this is that you can buy subsidized gas for $3.00 a gallon and head on down to Costco/Walmart to pick up groceries, but the down side is that you don’t really need that much gas (the island is maaaaybe 50 km across) and most of the food in the big grocery chains has been on boats from the mainland and you’re lucky to find edible produce, which is ironic on an island with such favorable growing conditions. Additionally, the south shore of the island near Poipu, is inundated with palm to palm resort developments and a steady influx of people from the other 49 states looking to escape miserable winter conditions, whether that means too much or too little snow. Fortunately for us, my previous trip to the island involved lots of reconnaissance and helped us evade the tourist traps and head straight up to the north coast for some raw Pacific power.
Our flight arrived late at night and we were unaccustomed to island-time as of yet, so we were vastly confused and frustrated at our inability to find our hotel for the night (not helped by the buildlings’ complete lack of signage). After driving back and forth on the only highway on the island, we finally stopped into another resort; it turned out that our hotel was right next door, but in typical island fashion the only women working there had never heard of it and had no idea where to go. After some frantic/exhausted searching, $25 in data roaming charges and some help from our new friend, we located a narrow driveway that led to a nondescript, low building that was apparently our accommodation for the night. Too fatigued to care or understand why the room came with two twin beds, we dropped bags and passed out only to awake refreshed the next morning by cool ocean breezes and the occasional CA-CAAAAW of the local rooster population (more on that fun … later).
Our first day on the island was reserved for logistics and preparations, but we navigated the barracks of municipal and state operations buildings with surprising ease and were rocketing north to Hanalei with a cooler full of beer and food by the early afternoon. We set up camp right at the mouth of the Hanalei river and proceeded to settle into island time with ease… Food/beer, beach, ocean, beach, repeat. Once this lifestyle is adopted, time seems to slow down and accelerate at the same time. With no real “objectives” other than personal enjoyment, days seem to stretch on forever and a truly impressive amount of fun and relaxation can be had. This continues to be the case until one day you end up back at the airport and wonder where the days and weeks went. Tragic is the curse of the island-time-traveler…
Hanalei itself is often rated as one of the best surf towns in the world, which is supported by the abundance of world-class breaks and surfers that exist within a 15 minute drive. In fact, Hanalei boasts an impressive concentration of surfing royalty too long to mention (or research), but includes Bethany Hamilton, Alana Blanchard and the Irons brothers – Bruce and the late Andy. After spending only a day or two in the area it becomes obvious why so many surfers have found success growing up on the Garden Isle, as it’s home to a diverse assortment of waves that work on a variety of swell directions and sizes. From the smaller summertime south swells that roll into Poipu, to the double and triple overhead winter bombs that detonate on the reefs below Princeville, there’s a wave for everyone.
When we showed up in January, the whole north shore was alive with a long-period, monster west swell, (15-20 feet at 18 seconds,) and we were more than happy to play in the protected and much smaller waves of Hanalei Bay. Between the rented longboards and the Radish Paipo I brought from home, we spent hours bobbing around in the ocean battling for waves with a mixed line-up of locals and tourists. While the beachbreak at Hanalei can get busy in specific spots along the sandbars, the broader line-up is fairly sparse and time between sets is happily spent gazing up in the mountainous amphitheater of Nemolokama and Laau, two sub-peaks of the dominant Waialeale.
After a few days of settling into the Hanalei life, we decided to venture out a little farther down the coast and a little farther off the grid. We booked four days of hiking and camping along the Na Pali coast and set off down the world-renowned Kalalau trail. This part of the trip was phenomenal and “life-altering”, but deserves a post of its’ own… Stay tuned!
After the mutual exhaustion and elation of the hike, we arrived back to civilization and found everything rolling along pretty much as we had left it. The surf was still huge, and on the walk out we heard rumors of a massive pulse of swell that had big-wave surfers racing into town and charging out into the ocean on jetskis to meet the challenge. As it turns out, I left my jetski and big-wave board at home (full disclosure, I don’t have either of those things) so we decided to hop in the car and drive the coast to check out some new beaches and the Grand Canyon of the Pacific – Waimea Canyon. The term waimea means ‘reddish water’ and is an apt description of the canyon which cuts a vibrant red and green trench 16 km across the island that’s up to 900 m deep.
The drama of the landscape takes any average day and cranks it up to awesome and inspiring, and this power translates across the whole of the island… Even considering the early morning rooster alarms, (I’ve never wanted to kick a bird so much,) the idyllic surroundings and ever-present sound of waves washing the sand are enough to lull one back to sleep, whether it’s morning, afternoon or night. As easy as is it to relax and tune out, the landscape also demands your constant attention via those amazing vistas highlighting dramatic cliffs and peaks, verdant blankets of jungle foliage with every shade of green, super-blue oceanscapes that fade into the horizon, and flashes of colour as tropical birds flit through palm fronds. And that’s just the view above water…
Whether it’s with a snorkel and mask or just having the ability to open your eyes underwater while paddling a surfboard or paipo, the undersea world is endlessly entertaining thanks to the abundance of lethargic Monk seals, chillaxing sea turtles (honu), nervous reef fish and the occasional shark lurking in the distance. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the above-water beauty, but Hawai’i exists as a few tenuous islands thriving amid the raw and immense power of the Pacific ocean that demands respect and appreciation before you can fully immerse oneself in paradise.
After some time to reflect on the trip, the memories that continue to permeate my thoughts are those of profound contentment and peace through complete submersion in the moment that, at the time, seemed so natural. Whether it’s a huge, fiery sun dropping behind some clouds to the horizon or massive set of waves slamming into the base of an unbelievably steep and green mountain, the landscape draws you in and washes all other thoughts from your mind. Cell phones and instagram posts disappear to be replaced by beach blankets and surfboards, rushed meals are replaced by casual snacking on chunks of fresh tuna, followed up by drawn-out meals prepared in the dying light of another endless day. Most importantly, any stresses or concerns related to absolutely anything at all drift away on the tradewinds.
The unfortunate result of those drifting concerns is that they are carried by the dreaded Pineapple Express all the way back to the Coast Mountains, where they somehow raise the temperature enough to turn rain to snow and expectation to disappointment. I’m no meteorologist and I’m not saying that happy people in Hawai’i are the reason for warmer winter temps in the PNW, but it’s no coincidence that those winds are the same ones that ferry our magical flying aluminum tube all the way home. I’m the first one to acknowledge that I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in paradise, but I’ve learned that the only thing better is realizing that paradise also means the family, friends and comfort that result from being home. Now it’s just a matter of combining the two and moving those family, friends and homes to Hawai’i…
Mahalo for reading and for the unending support from my extended ‘ohana. Much love and ALOHA until next time!