It’s sometimes said that Kauai is the last remaining vestige of “the old Hawaii” or “the real Hawaii” – the last bastion of island life as it was before much of it was taken over by hotel chains and tourism. Kauai isn’t without its share of commercialism, but it’s true that it’s almost entirely free of high-rise hotels, and that natural wonders abound.
At the same time, some of your old-school stereotypes about Hawaii just aren’t going to come true. Visitors are no longer greeted on the tarmac with a flower lei around the neck, you aren’t going to hear ukulele concerts or witness spontaneous hula dances on every corner, and luaus are no longer organic affairs where people sit around on the beach sipping Mai Tais and picking meat off a pit-grilled pig, scooping three-finger poi with bare hands.
To be fair, your visions of stereotypical Hawaiian nature are still real, while the stereotypes you may hold of Hawaiian culture are probably not.
View Kauai in a larger map
The two blue marker points show where we stayed on our two-week Kauai adventure.
Kauai is encircled – for the most part – by a single road running through a dozen or so major towns. You can drive around the entire island in a couple of hours (note that “driving through” does not equal “exploring,” and that driving the outer rim will only get you to the beach towns, not to the juicy jungles that comprise Kauai’s interior). I say “for the most part” because the insane terrain of the Napali coast has proven impenetrable to road builders – it’s simply not possible to build a drivable road through the mountains of the northwest coast.
You won’t find the “real” Kauai by hanging around in the downtown areas. But if you make an effort to get even a little off the beaten path, you will find yourself surrounded by nature at its most powerful. Kauai is a volcanic wonderland of dense jungle, incredible ocean life, succulent wild fruit, and loose chickens.
Throw yourself into the environment, and you won’t be able to avoid swimming in impossibly blue/green waters, inhaling the cleanest air your nostrils have ever encountered (remember you’re surrounded on all sides by thousands of miles of wild Pacific). You will find that the Aloha spirit is omnipresent and real. You will find yourself slowing down, being reminded why you’re walking this earth, and what nature at its most raw can do for your soul.
In June/July 2010, we spent two weeks in Kauai, staying in two different houses with two different families, in two very different environments. In the end, I shot more than a thousand photos. Thought I’d turn all my vacation notes and photos into a quick blog entry on return; the process ended up taking a couple of days — which was OK since I needed that time just to transition back to “real” life and get the hang of cold weather and the absence of snorkeling grounds outside my back door. Editing the photos down to a “mere” 470 and filling in the details from my notes turned out to be the perfect obsessive/compulsive transitional gig.
Note: I lost my camera on the very last day — turned out I left it under the seat in the rental car — so the set isn’t quite complete. Fortunately I had been backing up the camera’s contents to iPhoto throughout the trip, so had an almost complete set. Super-lucky news is that Budget Rent-a-Car in Lihue found the camera and is returning it to me; I’ll add the final images when it arrives. Thanks Budget!
June 21: Hanalei
Puff the Magic Dragon / lived by the sea
and frolicked in the autumn mist
in a land called Hanalei
Hard to believe we’re actually here – nothing seems real, and yet it’s all so… real. The air is so clean, so deep. Vegetation absolutely exploding from every square inch of this volcanically twisted land. Spent the first week of our trip on the north shore of Kauai, on the brink of Hanalei Bay, home to the Puff the Magic Dragon. Beach just 200 yards from the house, down a narrow gecko-lined alley. Hanalei Bay is a well-protected, wide-mouthed sandy bay. The beach is never crowded, and there are few boats. An occasional stand-up paddle surfer, a team of outriggers drifting by. The water is clear and warm – exactly the Hawaii experience we imagined.
The lot of us dove into the bay almost immediately, warm and enveloping, the soup of life, where it all came from, kids ecstatic to be buffeted by small waves, sand ideal. Town of Hanalei just a few blocks away, perfectly convenient access to snorkel rentals, shave ice, coffee and cheeseburgers. Stocked up on fresh fruit for morning smoothies, which quickly became a staple.
Committed myself to swimming or diving daily… a promise that turned out to be effortless to keep. More often than not, I got wet at least once a day, and often two or three times. Some days found myself snorkeling before coffee – nothing clears the mind like a cool ocean dip, sharing the dawn with the critters of the reef. If night fell and I wanted more, sometimes headed out in the moonlight, skinny dipping just because I could, bobbing with the lights on the masts of sailboats moored in the harbor, feeling for the reef with bare toes, breathing in the salt air like I’d never get enough.
June 22: Uke Fest at Larry’s
Had been looking forward for weeks to sitting up late on muggy Hawaiian porches strumming a happy uke, but intentionally left my Fluke at home. Not that I don’t love my plastic-body ukulele, but had decided it was time to finally get serious and add a real Hawaiian ukulele to the collection.
Plan was to visit the legendary Larry’s Music in Kapa’a and pick up a koa wood Kamaka uke. Got more than we bargained for when proprietor Sam (who was hand-picked for the gig when Larry passed on) started dropping the science of frequency, intonation and resonance on us the minute we arrived. When I mentioned that the cigar box tenor I had recently built from a kit didn’t actually sound all that good, Sam was quick with “Sound is round. Round is sound. What did you expect from a cardboard box?” (I still love the cigar box for it home-made funkiness though).
Sam’s a great player, and knows more about extracting “the perfect sound” from the ukulele than anyone I’ve met. Super friendly guy too. Here he is playing a similar uke to the one I got (I left with a Kamaka pineapple soprano):
Want to learn to play like that? Buy a uke from Larry’s and Sam invites you back for practically unlimited free lessons… an offer I took him up on the last day of our stay. He was able to tell immediately that I play the uke like someone who’s crossed over from guitar. I wanted pointers on breaking out of that pattern, and he had a bunch of great advice (for starters, keep your strumming hand open, and paint the strings, don’t attack them like you might on guitar).
I’m in love with the Kamaka, and fulfilled that part of the dream – played daily wherever I happened to land, on the back porch with the roosters, sunrise with a mango smoothie at my side, or after dinner with a cold one. Now just need to keep up the habit back home.
By the way, the word “ukulele” is pronounced “ooh-ke-leh-leh” in Hawaiian. Not sure how that pronunciation will play on the mainland, but love the sound of it.
June 23: Kalalau Trail
The Napali Coast is the mother of all mind-blowing geological features — 11 miles of impossibly craggy mountains dropping 1,000 feet into the sea, so huge and beautiful it can never be captured by photographs that do it anything like justice, must be experienced to be believed. Kicked off our Kauai experience with a two-family hike along the first 2.5 miles of the coast along the Kalalau Trail.
Parked at Ke’e beach and set off on a hike we’ll never forget, getting vertical straight away. 2.5 miles may be nothing on your favorite mainland mountain trail, but it’s different here. The terrain is a jumble of slippery mud, lava rock shelves and stepping stones, streams to cross, roots to grasp onto with bare knuckles. With every step, you’re suspended mid-way between an unforgiving sea below and equally unforgiving mountains above, rising a thousand feet, rippling with plant life and the surreality of millions years of creative erosion. Plants you’ve never dreamed of sprout from every crevice, strangely angled roots jutting out and under at oddly symmetrical 45-degree angles, bearing fruit and flowers right out of Avatar. The trail is unforgiving of mistakes, forcing you to wake up and pay attention every step of the way.
Maybe that’s why the kids did so well (the youngest in our group was only four) – there’s no opportunity for boredom or whining on the Kalalau – your feet are busy, your hands are busy, your eyes and brain are busy. And yet, it’s completely relaxing. You feel like you’re being washed clean of your workaday life, thrown back into the Pleistocene, being reminded with every step of your most basic organic, beautiful, funky self.
2.5 miles in, we found ourselves at a secluded beach with a small inlet safe to swim in. Good thing too – multiple signs warned us about how many swimmers had been dragged out to sea here, lost their lives to arrogance. My suspicion is that most people who die in Hawaiian waters come from places far from the ocean – people not raised understanding its power even in coastal areas less powerful than this. Also, I’m quite sure that most deaths occur during the big swell months, not in the summer when waves are far less formidable (we never saw the kind of surf that reaches up and grabs irreverent souls from the rocks). Enjoyed a modest picnic lunch and headed back on the return trip.
The most hard-core hikers won’t stop at this first beach though – they continue along the entire 11 miles of impossibly beautiful and challenging coastline to the end, then camp for a day or two before attempting the return trip. Someday I hope to return (perhaps when my boy is all grown up and stronger than me) and do the whole trail.
June 24: Soy Ginger Ono
Mellow morning snorkeling nearby Anini Beach. Water not particularly clear, sea life not particularly abundant, but the kids got their first tastes of underwater life – seeds of inspiration to start a lifetime love of the ocean, the source of all life.
Later, off to see the lighthouse at Kilauea – an inspiring chunk of coastal history that stood for decades as the United States’ western-most beacon, visible 20 miles out to sea burning only a small amount oil, magnified and refracted infinitely through a maze of French-built Fresnel lenses.
Especially fascinated with the bearing mechanism that allowed 8 tons of glass to spin freely all those years. Imagine a bowl half full of water, with another bowl floating in it. Now spin the top bowl. OK, replace the water with 10 gallons of pure mercury, which has a far lower drag coefficient than water, and you get the picture – a nearly frictionless bearing that allowed the lens to rotate with the lightest touch. One pull of a cuckoo-clock pendulum weight allowed the lens to spin for hours. Downside: Mercury vapors are highly toxic, so care was taken not to allow the mechanism to become heated – a challenge when flame in an enclosed space is the whole point.
Great views of red-footed boobie habitat from the light house peninsula, and the thousands of reeling sea birds that live nearby.
Found first Hawaiian geocache in the vicinity, and picked up a travel bug that wants to visit lighthouses around the world, which I’ll bring back to California and set off toward Piedras Blancas.
For dinner grilled tropical Ono with soy ginger, shrimp with lemon and dill, pineapple rice, grilled zucchini and green onions. I love to grill, but am pretty much a propane feller — amazingly, at age 45, this was my first experience working with a charcoal grill.
June 25: Slack Key, Pushups
Up at 5:30, 75 pushups on the beach before 6:00 a.m. Skinny dipping in Hanalei Bay. Up with the roosters and misty morning fog swirling around lava peaks, ribbon waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down straight cliffs. Sunrise golden orange against bottomless blue. Temperature a constant 75-80 degrees night and day. It rains pretty much every day here, but you’re never rained out. Want the weather to change in Kauai? Wait five minutes and it will. When you do get dumped on, it’s that warm tropical rain that dries in minutes, not the cold soaking kind that ruins your day.
To Tunnels Beach by 9:30 with families to turn kids onto “real” snorkeling. Millions of years ago, lava poured down the towering spires and cliffs above, straight into the sea, creating a complex of bubbles and tunnels and twisty passages (“all alike”) beneath the sea. The beach drops off quickly here – you’re bathing deep in moments. One sea turtle, a smattering of tropical fish — but the reef is solidified lava flow, not coral outcroppings.
Combined with the large number of tourista snorkelers, fish don’t seem overly attracted to Tunnels. Still, it was amazing to just dive deep, lingering as long as I could at the bottom of 30′ chasms, snaking slowly toward the surface through stone bubbles frozen in time.
Four days after quitting smoking (last one was at Phoneix airport), lung capacity already returning – amazed to find myself quickly ramping up through 15 seconds, then 30, 45 (didn’t get quite up to a minute but could see it happening with a couple weeks’ practice). Diving was something I did almost daily in my tweens and early twenties, ecstatic to be in the water again, like being reconnected with a long-lost version of myself.
Afternoon performance by slack-key guitar master Doug McMasters, who was playing an afternoon concert at a local community center. The slack-key style is quickly dying, as the younger generation of guitarists are more interested in rock or dance-hall mashups with Hawaiian style than they are in learning the old styles, which are fare more complex and take a lifetime to master.
Slack-key tunings were specific to various Hawaiian families, and kept secret for decades. Not in the family? You’d never learn the tuning. Today there are more then 75 of them documented, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to switch between them at a moment’s notice (slack-key masters are also masters of music theory almost by definition). McMasters blew us away not just with his clarity and precision, but also with has Aloha spirit – he just bubbled with love. Honored to have gotten to hear and see him.
June 26: Wailua Falls, Geocaching
Up at the crack of dawn for 30 minute trip south to Kapa’a, where we hooked up with a raft of kayaks and began a 45-minute paddle down the Wailua River and into the interior. Stopped at a landing pad and hiked another 30 minutes into the forest, through towering kudzu, swinging vines, meandering streams, purple and orange flowers to the “Secret Falls,” so-called because they’re only reachable by kayak and hike. Played with kids beneath water pounding 140 feet from the top, eating a well-earned snack of dried guava and mango, chips and cookies, fresh pineapple.
Back by noon in the midst of a huge rainstorm (the usual Kauai kind – warm and transient, always welcome). Highly recommend this 5-hour trip for anyone exploring Kauai for the first time — word is that people who rent kayaks rather than take the tour rarely find the Secret Falls on their own.
Hawaiian law says no individual or property owner can hog a beach for themselves — all beaches are public by definition. But the question of access to those beaches is a bit more murky. For example, start driving around in the artificial (“planned”) community of Princeville and you’ll find signs all over the place reading “Parking for residents only.” But get close enough to the coastline and you’ll eventually find a much smaller, more subtle sign reading “Public beach access –>” … in other words, you’re welcome to use our beaches, but you can’t park within a mile of them. Then, once you start down the trail, you’ll find signs saying things like “Warning: Treacherous trail ahead. Slippery, steep, falling rocks, unstable soil. You’ll probably die a gruesome death if you choose to continue. Proceed at your own risk. This trail not maintained by the Westin St. Francis condominium consortium.” Ignore the CYA signs written for trail wussies and continue. If you’ve already done the Kalalau Trail, these trails will seem like sidewalks in comparison.
The beaches and views you’ll gain access to are unbelievable – some of the most gorgeous on the island (of course the big money and “planned communities” naturally find themselves where the best beaches and views are… that’s how things work everywhere, right?). Spent three hours geocaching these trails and beaches and found each cove more glorious than the last. The triangular roots of the Hana tree make a perfect protected hiding place for an ammo can.
Peak of the day came toward sunset, when I found myself on the slippery descent to “Queen’s Bath” – a deep natural tidepool in a very wide lava shelf beneath a Princeville community. Unlike the similar configuration at Pools of Mokolea, Queen’s Bath is much larger and deeper – very swimmable.
It also doesn’t surge with the same ferocity, since it’s fed by water occasionally overlapping the sides of the pool, rather than being forced in through lava tubes. There were only a few people here when I arrived, and four of us spent time treading water in the sunset, talking didgeridoo construction and the power of music to clear psychic obstructions. Definitely one of the most spiritually satisfying moments of the trip (and there were many to choose from).
Takeaway: Even though all the places I visited tonight are on the map, and while most of them are listed in all the guidebooks, it was geocaching that got me to them. Over the four years I’ve been caching, I’ve found this true again and again – there is no better way to discover an area’s highlights more quickly, or to get up and close and personal with the wildest terrain a place has to offer. I’ve come to think of geocaching as a sort of hands-on guidebook for adventure tourists – a great way to discover the places the locals love the most. Between this and one other geocaching adventure day on the trip, easily half of my most amazing experiences were had thanks to geocaching.
June 27: Tunnels Beach, Sea Turtle
Returned to Tunnels Beach this morning for another snorkeling dip, not expecting anything more than we got the other day (lots of lava, limited coral, limited fish, limited colors). But one big difference today – finally spotted that elusive sea turtle in about 10′ of water. Dived gently down to it, reached out slowly, and was able to pet its back, then stroke its fins. The turtle’s big eye gazed directly into mine, then he dived down to around 40′. I came up for a breath, then followed him down again. We continued on like this for about 20 minutes, slowly circling the snorkeling area. Me diving and returning to join him repeatedly, him holding his breath for what seemed like forever.
The amazing thing about the breath-holding abilities of the Hawksbill is that he doesn’t hover around huffing and puffing when he returns to the surface. One quick exhale, one quick inhale, and he’s back down for another 10 minutes.
One of the turtle’s rear flippers had been damaged, and was truncated just at the edge of his shell. This didn’t seem to slow him down a bit. Impressed by the lazy ways of the turtle – he just mosies around (at a turtle’s swim pace), nibbling tidbits off the reef edges, meandering and discovering. He never seemed bothered by my presence — possibly accustomed to all the snorkelers in the area, or maybe just an un-botherable kind of guy. Anyway, communing with the Honu was one of the peak experiences of our time in Kauai, and easily counts as a bucketlist item.
June 28: Broken Glass, Moloa’a Bay
Over the past few days, a steadily worsening sore throat has been settling in. Today awoke in the middle of the night to the most clenching pain in the back of the throat every time I swallowed – as though I were trying to chomp down on broken glass. Probably some combination of inner ear equalization problems I had on the plane flight in, followed by lots of snorkeling (which always involves a small amount of salt water gurgling around in the back of the throat), quitting smoking, changing sleep and excercise patterns, etc. All I knew was that I had to get to the hospital. Found our way to the emergency room in Kapa’a and had the most fantastic health care experience in memory – virtually no waiting, everyone super-friendly, my health plan accepted without question. Walked out with a prescription for antibiotics that cleared everything up over the course of the next few days.
Meanwhile, our first week had ended already, and we prepared to say goodbye to close friends who had stayed with us in Hanalei. Made our way down the coast to Moloa’a Bay, between Kiluea and Kapa’a. Our house for the second week was very different from the first. Far from shops and people, we traveled down several roads winding down through the jungle until we found a hidden dirt road leading through goat pastures. At the bottom of a flood plain, found our new house high up on stilts. In the back yard, a thatched massage pagoda and a pair of kayaks sitting in a freshwater canal – our trip to the beach from here on out would consist of a 1/4 mile paddle through arching palms and jumping frogs to the shores of Moloa’a Bay. We moved completely out of cell phone range for the second week (but finally had wi-fi access, which made a lot of the planning much easier).
One morning, strapped an HD camera to the bow of the canoe and recorded my daily “commute” to the nearby snorkeling grounds of Moloa’a Bay along the canal. Unfortunately, the auto-focus on the camera hugged the bow of the kayak, so the canal’s foliage is a bit out of focus, but you get the idea – bliss.
In fact, we were so remotely tucked away that there was simply no question of bad guys ever finding us. For the next week, we never closed a window or door, even when out for the entire day. We woke daily to humid breezes and the crowing of ever-present roosters. Kind of funny – thought I’d do lots of sleeping in on vacation, but did the opposite — I was in bed by 11 and up between 5:30 and 6:30 every day of vacation. And never felt more rested.
June 29: Gilligan’s Island, Ho’opi Falls
As if Moloa’a Bay weren’t incredible enough all on its own, it also happens to be the place where the pilot and first episode of Gilligan’s Island was filmed. Spent a LOT of time in its waters this week, and thought frequently of the professor and Mary Anne building a coconut radio on its shores, Gilligan doing prat falls into the canal.
The reefs of Kauai are all volcanic – you can almost see the lava cascading down from the top of nearby mountains and into the water, or bubbling up from below and freezing nearly instantly into abstract shapes that would be retained for the next 5-10 million years. The lava foundation gives rise to an infinite variety of shapes – tunnels and shelves and caves and blobs and squiggly areas to dive through – an underwater playground very different from the rock and coral reefs I’ve dived on in other parts of the world.
Don’t mean to say that free-diving Kauai is the most beautiful – I never found the water clarity all that stunning, and I didn’t find the variety of sea life as incredible as on the Great Barrier Reef or in Jamaica. But the terrain was unparalleled fun, and I had to prety much force myself out of the water each day – just couldn’t get enough.
Later in the day, made our way to Ho’opi Falls, a moderately sized fall in the midst of dense jungle. Nice hike, nice place to savor the richness of Kauai’s rain forests.
Once upon a time, young warriors would demonstrate their bravery by jumping from the top of the falls into the waters below. Fortunately this practice has stopped – it’s hard to imagine it happening without frequent serious injuries (I always shudder thinking about serious injuries before modern medicine – what it would be like to crack a skull and simply have no hospital to go to).
June 30: Waimea Canyon
Cutting an immense vertical swath up and down the east side of Kauai is Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain called “The Grand Canyon of Kauai.” Like many of the world’s most expansive sights, the experience of being overwhelmed by an astonishing view much larger than any single person’s field of vision is what it’s all about, and no photograph can do it justice (but see Wikipedia for high-res horizontal panorama). You just have to be there.
In a way, this was the third side of the Napali Coast coin – we had seen it close up on our second day (on the Kalalau Trail), then from the water on our Zodiac tour day, then from above at Waimea Canyon. The only perspective missing was the helicopter view, which is allegedly incredible (and is the only way to see certain portions of the island), but way too expensive, but no matter – between these three views, we felt like we were able to take in the Napali Coast in almost every way possible.
As much as Waimea is a must-visit, getting there involves a lot of time in the car – first driving 3/4 of the way around the island (if you’re staying on the north shore), then driving its winding length. That’s not a horrible thing, but we really didn’t want to waste our island time couped up in a car. And after you hit the museum 3/4 of the way up the hill, the road goes to hell – I can pretty much guarantee that this road has more (and deeper) potholes than anything you’ve seen on the mainland in a long time.
Stopped for a nice hike halfway up, but were surprised at how un-Kauai-like the terrain and flora was – it really felt like a trail in the California Bay Area hills, or even Minnesota. Nice, but not the Hawaiian experience we were looking for.
Still, the ultimate pay-off is the view from the top, looking down onto Napali. It’s one of those views you just want to drink in with every molecule of eyeball you’ve got.
July 1: A Date With Fate
Woke before dawn and kayaked the quarter mile to Moloa’a beach to snorkel the reef. Spent 15 minutes trying to coax a reluctant rock lobster out of its hidey hole under a lava shelf, but it wouldn’t budge. Wasn’t sure about the legal – when is it lobster season in Hawaii? What’s the minimum length? Dad says you can “encourage” them out of their holes with a spear pretty easily, but it’s against the law of course. He also noted that if you pull straight out on their antennae they won’t snap off, but if you pull UP or to the side, they break off. Take care!
Struck out – paradise found and lost before breakfast. Kind of tough to feel blue in Hawaii though – islanders say they get depressed when really bad things happen… like if their mango gets a bruise when it falls from the tree in the backyard, or if they only see one rainbow in a whole day.
Off to see the water breathing dragon spout at Pools of Mokolea near Kiluaea Bay — walk gingerly across lava shelf where an old sugar cane processing plant used to be, stepping over rusty old parts from factory equipment. The hole in the shelf is 50 feet from the sea, connected by a long lava tube. Water and air pressure build up in the tube as the breakers roll in, and the upturned hole surges, breathes, spits, and coughs water at whoever is lucky enough to be nearby. Sat with legs dangling into the hole, letting the mist of the dragon’s breath flow over our legs.
I’m sure the Pools of Mokolea are a lot more intense when the surf is up – this is what it looks like in the summer, when the sea is almost glassy smooth (no swells over 2-3′).
Later, found the ultimate smoothie at Moloa’a Fruit Stand, called “Date with Fate,” consisting of mango, papaya, banana, coconut, dates, macadamia nuts, and Rice Dream. Will strive to reproduce this wonder of nutrition and flavor back on the mainland — will almost certainly not succeed.
To Kelia Beach for bodysurfing with Miles. Up to now, we’ve done almost all of our swimming in protected coves, which are great but lack waves. Since this is summer, even the unprotected beaches are pretty glassy, but two/three-footers were a nice improvement over the ripples we’ve been playing in. Miles took to bodysurfing like a monk seal to water.
July 2: Napali by Zodiac, Evening Luaua
Set off with Napali Shore Charters for the coast at 7 am with 13 others in a Willard 27 ft rigid fiberglass hull inflatable – the same boat used by the U.S. Navy (basically a big Zodiac). Had heard that this trip would become one of the highlights of our vacation – maybe of our lives – but was unprepared for just how incredible it would be.
We had hiked the first 2.5 miles of the Kalalau trail when we first arrived last week, so had a sense of how astonishing these mountains were from “within,” but seeing them from the sea was something completely different. There’s so much you just can’t see from land — sea caves, immense blown-out craters, small coves and beaches, and geological formations visible only from the vantage point of the water. And what had taken us half a day to hike on foot we accomplished in minutes from the Zodiac.
Like most great vistas, many of the formations we encountered can’t be done justice by any photograph, or by any number of words – they’re too big, too expansive for any lens or paragraph to describe. One formation that literally took our breath away was an 800-foot-high crater blown out of the side of the cliff by a former volcano. Half of the volcano had long-since fallen away, leaving only the concave contours of its interior. The remaining semi-conical wall provided a cross-sectional view of lava and rock striations, millennia of bird-shit, and punctuated by waterfalls spilling from various points in the cliff face. You know that tiny feeling you get sometimes when looking up at the stars? This cliff face gave us the same sensation of being an insignificant speck in the face of time and space. Captain Gary calls it the “Oh wow” cliff.
The snorkeling grounds were located pretty much at the end of the Napali coast as we headed west. The underwater terrain was somewhat familiar by now – lava that had spilled into the sea millions of years ago and cooled instantly, freezing into its bizarre shapes and twists and shelves and caves… but this area was deeper than similar reefs found at Anini or Tunnels Beach, not to mention less populated. Had less than 45 minutes to dive, but in that time encountered not one but three different sea turtles – one of them more than 3 feet long.
Wanted to see her belly and discovered something interesting – a sea turtle won’t let you! With six feet of water beneath her, tried swimming below and she began to arch and flip, keeping her hard shell back toward me at all times. We did a little dance in the water together, circling and flipping over one another as I tried to get a glance beneath. Turns out this is a defensive move – sharks will attack turtles from below, where they have less protection. So when a turtle spots a large moving mass like a shark or a human, she’ll twist to keep her soft belly facing the opposite direction. Kind of fun.
In 30′ feet of water, under a large lava overhang, found a massive school of 12″ parrot fish, brilliant green with yellow stripes and flourescent blue piping on their fins – so gorgeous to watch, and maddening when you can’t stay with them for more than 30-45 seconds (you still need 15 seconds for the trip to the surface, remember).
Just before returning to the boat, found myself face to face with a white-tipped shark, around four feet long. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to keep up with a shark than a turtle. Started swimming overhand to make tracks, but it was no use – could only stay with him for a minute before he slithered off into the deep. Still, it was a glorious opportunity – first dive with live sharks in my life. Hope it won’t be my last.
The return trip was completely different from the trip out – the wind and sea had risen up to become a soup of waves in random vectors, making it pretty much impossible for our pilot to do anything to minimize the impact of their body blows. So we bounced and flew and just got completely, utterly, joyously soaked for the 90 minute return trip. Miles absolutely loved this, and was grinning from ear to ear the whole way back, while the rest of us gripped the stay-ropes for dear life. Exhausting, but one of those “so alive!” experiences you never forget.
On the way back, in the middle of Hanalei Bay where we had spent a lot of time swimming the previous week, Captain Gary stopped the boat to point out the real “Puff the Magic Dragon.” You sort of have to use your imagination, but if you squint real hard you can see one point of land as the dragon’s tail, a patch of Hawaiian red clay as his eye, a grove of Koa trees as his whiskers, and the mountains surrounding the bay as the humps of his back. Allegedly his tail is ends at the pilsner tap spout in a bar in a resort on the cliffs of Princeville. I choose to reject this reality and substitute my own.
Hoping for an “authentic” Luau experience, made the wrong call and chose the one put on by Kilohana. Not that it was horrible, but it felt more like a Vegas show put on for tourists than an authentic Hawaiian experience. Dinner for ~400 people was served cafeteria style, under a great tent (OK, we were grateful for the tent since it did rain that night).
Once plates were cleared, the show began – not a few uke players and some hula dancers, but an extravagant production telling the story of ancient Hawaii through some hybrid of ancient and modern dance, with a full backing band and amplification. Don’t get me wrong – the show was great – but we were hoping for something more like sitting on a beach, enjoying casual relaxing music and eating from baskets with our hands. Ah well.
Highlight of the evening was watching the Kalua pig being unearthed from its lava rock and banana leaf steam pit.
July 3: Geocaching Kauai Coves
Already feeling the benefits of having quit smoking just under two weeks ago. One of the reasons my progress in the 100 Pushups program had stalled was because my recovery time had gotten so bad. There are supposed to be 60-90 seconds for rest in between each set, but I was finding that I needed much more than that. Amazingly, just two weeks after quitting smoking, I’ve already pushed out of the Week 3 Day 2 range and into Week 4 Day 2 (did 20, 25, 20, 20, 28 this morning).
Amy, Miles and Grandma wanted some downtime today, so I opted for a geocaching adventure. Headed for some coves to the north of Kelia Beach and spent hours wandering the red dirt trails and lava rock coves and bays. Stunning scenery and nice flat hiking (but HOT today!).
Kept overlapping with other geocaching families – something that doesn’t happen often on the mainland. At one point, ended up collaborating on a find with another couple, which was nice until it turned out they wanted to put “Drill Baby Drill” bumper stickers in it. Does not compute. How can a person who loves nature enough to want to geocache have this kind of attitude? And don’t they realize that children are geocachers too? Is this the kind of message they want to send? Threw up in my mouth a little and bit my tongue, said nothing.
After finishing the Kelia Beach circuit, headed for mountains west of Kapa’a, looking for some jungle action. Unfortunately, went without geocaching printouts or proper maps, so was kind of winging it – trying to follow GPS as close as I could to locate trail heads near mountain caches – a strategy that seemed to work at first but turned out … not so good. At top of a mountain road, came to some water towers, catching run-off from the many falls in the craggy mountains above. A local told me that, yes, I could take the trail around the backside of the towers all the way up to the falls, but that I should be careful since it was raining, and that meant flash floods could come down the mountain at any time. Told him I wouldn’t do anything stupid and that I would head for higher ground if rain started.
After experiencing the terrain, I realize that was probably easier said than done. Not that there were any flash floods that afternoon, but every trail I tried quickly petered out into impenetrable jungle. Kept getting stuck in dead ends with no way through the vegetation. Thought I could bushwhack my way to higher ground, but the only way up, it seemed, was to follow the creek bed itself. But that too proved impossible.
The afternoon turned into a comedy of errors as I tried again and again, without success, to make my way up the mountain. Had plenty of opportunities to exercise my Spidey Sense, but none to actually accomplish any elevation. To be honest, it was scary at times – finding myself in jungle so dense I couldn’t tell which way was up, and the sound of the water (my only homing beacon) became too faint to follow.
I’ve gotten myself into some pretty wooly situations in the Berkeley hills, but nothing like this. Finally gave up and decided to enjoy just being in the midst of insane terrain. Did encounter some wild taro patches though, got to ford some awesome creeks, and climb down a few (small but slippery) waterfalls.
Finally gave up and headed in. Had promised to do some grilling for the family, but it was late, so brought home a basket of TnT Steak Burgers from a roadside stand (excellent).
After the family was asleep, headed back to the bay for a late night nudie dip in the brilliant moonlight.
As I was writing this that night, heard a loud chirp, then felt a plop on my arm — a gecko had dropped from the ceiling and landed on my arm, sat there with its tiny eyes staring me down, wondering what would happen next. House geckos are good things – they catch bugs – so set it loose on a wall and tumbled into bed, exhausted.
July 4: Miles the Kayak Pilot
Committed to having live, fresh-caught lobster for breakfast one morning. Kayak’d down to Moloa’a Bay to do some free diving. Last time here, had come face to face with a 12″ lobster, but was unsure what the rules in Hawaii were. Captain Gary on the Zodiac tour had straightened me out on that – any month with a “Y” in it is fair game. Since it’s now July, realized I could go for it.
In 45 minutes of diving, managed to locate two bugs. Unfortunately, both times I spotted them just as I ran out of breath, and when I returned they were nowhere to be seen. Elusive little beggars! Still, I love being in the water so much, could do this every day of my life. Few things make me feel so alive, so in touch with the earth and her bounty.
While finally heading in, spotted a large dark mass about 6′ away. Turned out to be another giant sea turtle – the biggest one I’d seen during our stay. Trailed him (her?) for about 10 minutes, descending and ascending in and amongst the reefs for as long as I could before heading back. It amazes me how trusting of humans the turtles seem to be – not a care in the world (unless you try to spy on their belly buttons).
Taught Miles (7) how to kayak – he’s been riding with us all week, but for the first time he got to be his own pilot. Did an absolutely smashing job. No capsizes, no major frustrations – took to it like a pontoon to water. Really impressed by our little guy.
Evening: Got to try a stand-up paddleboard. As the owner of the board paddled in to shore, I asked “Is that as fun as it looks?” “Probably dude,” he answered, “Try it as long as you want – just leave it on the beach when you’re done.” I’m usually really good at this type of thing, but stand-up paddling turned out harder than expected. Fell off five times in 10 minutes, then gave up. Still, had a great conversation with him later that evening. Ended up talking lobster with him:
“Sometimes the fishermen come in the evening and drape nets over the reefs, then return to snatch the tangled lobsters in the morning. When I see them doing that, I snorkel out and free all the bugs” (“bugs” being a colloquial term for lobsters). I decided not to pull any lobsters even if I do have the opportunity. Continued to seek out lobster hidey holes through the rest of the trip, but contented myself to watch them doing their thing in caves and under lava shelves, but didn’t touch them again – they’re more valuable just as they are, thriving in their perfect environment.
July 5: Zipline Through the Jungle
A “zipline” is a cable strung between two distant trees, along which you hang from a harness and pulley. Almost since my boy was born, I’ve had this bucketlist fantasy that I’d someday visit an “eco-tourism” location and together we’d careen through forest canopies.
Left our place at Moloa’a at 6:30 to meet with Outfitters Kauai on the south side of the island (Poipu) for a van ride to the interior, where we were strapped into mountain climbing harnesses and instructed in the basics of riding the lines. There’s much more to the scene than simple cables – they had constructed a well-planned Swiss Family Robinson array of steps and stairs, platforms and ladders in the heart of the jungle, overhanging creeks and waterfalls and forested wonderlands.
Truth be told, you don’t get a whole lot of zipline time for your money — rides last all of 30 seconds, and we got only five zips on a three-hour tour (“a three hour tour…”). But no matter – those 30 seconds are absolutely ecstatic. Position yourself on the edge of a platform, and when ready, hurl yourself off the edge into a waiting abyss, trusting the equipment with your life.
There are no accidents, there just aren’t. But your lizard brain doesn’t know that – your senses tell you you’re doing something wrong, stepping off a cliff into nothingness — hence the adrenaline. The thrill is in the battle between your rational mind, which knows you’re safe, and your instincts, which tell you you aren’t. The experience is indescribable.
Instructors encourage you to go crazy and hang upside down for max thrill quotient. And if you’re nice and small, as Miles was, they offer to throw you off the cliff (the “pirate toss,” they call it). Milked it for all it was worth.
Decided to shoot first-person video on my last jump (below), but kind of wish I hadn’t. The experience is so short that your attention shouldn’t be on trying to keep the camera upright – it needs to be on the ride. Note to self: If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t attempt to video the experience – I’d just have it. And I would have chosen the five-hour tour, not the three-hour version. The longer one includes an 1800-foot ride, the longest in the state.
Decided to just roll video for my last zipline trip of the day. Maybe a mistake since I was too focused on the video and not enough on the ride, but it is what it is.
Later, found ourselves at Puka Dog, home of what is easily the best hot dog I’ve ever tried. Instead of a typical bun, they push French rolls down over a hot spike to toast the interior, into which they squirt your choice of mango or coconut mustards and special sauces before poking all-beef dogs down into the “puka” (hole). Exquisite. Brought back a jar of their Lililkoi mustard.
Bellies full of awesome dogs, headed for Glass Beach, so-called because glass from a nearby junkyard washes up, ground smooth by years in the sea. What looks like sand from a distance turns out to be millions of pieces of brown and green and clear glass shards, worn down almost to sand by the ravages of water and time. A long way out of the way to see “almost-sand,” but quite beautiful in its own way.
Free-diving Moloa’a Bay later that day, another first – in peripheral vision, caught a black/white spotted fish with very large eyes – followed it into a hidey hole and realized it was a puffer fish (uninflated of course). Hung out with it for a while, wondering whether I could get it to puff up in self defense, but couldn’t. Still, amazing to see a living puffer in the wild. Will never look at the shellack’d variety in shell shops the same way again.
Very same day, spied yet another Honu (sea turtle), this one quite a bit larger than others I’d dived with — its shell more than three feet long. Drifted along with it for 10-15 minutes, trying to experience the sea like it did, bobbing from 30 feet to the surface. She’d stay down for 10 minutes or more, returning to the surface for a quick oxygen exchange without huffing and puffing, while I had to return every minute or so.
Later, heard Walter Egan’s “You are the magnet and I am steel” on the radio and caught Miles singing in the back seat: “You are the magnet and I am Steve.” Hearty laughs.
July 7: Final Smoothie, Kamokila
Time to use up the remainder of the fresh fruits we’d accumulated. This morning’s final (and pretty amazing) smoothie consisted of:
Mini bananas (“apple” bananas)
Strawberry / guava juice
On our farewell trip to the sand and water of Moloa’a Bay, found myself in the midst of a massive school of some kind of silver fish, around 6″ long – must have been thousands of them in rush-hour traffic. I faced into the herd and they bifurcated paths around me, splitting off to left and right. Could actually hear the water rippling as they split their way through.
Tough to say good bye to the bay, knowing it would probably be many years before I was able to play in these waters again.
On the way to the airport, stopped for a few hours at Kamokila Hawaiian Village, an authentically preserved ancient Hawaiian village snuggled between Fern Grotto and the Opaeka’a waterfall on the Wailua River. The village itself consisted mainly of various Hale (houses) made of bamboo and thatch – warrior’s house, birthing house, sleeping house, menstrual house, etc.
But the most fascinating portion of this trip was actually the video shown at the end: Then There Were None – a documentary film on how the kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in a bloodless coup by foreign businessmen over the course of a few decades. Astonishing to learn there are only around 8,000 full-blood native Hawaiians left in the world – a number that’s been diminishing steadily for decades under the influences of colonialism, tourism and interbreeding.
Not available on NetFlix but I wish it were – would encourage everyone to watch (the video is available for purchase however). In fact, was thinking how great it would be if this film were shown on airplanes as optional viewing to all travelers to Hawaii. So many of us visit thinking only of Aloha, great waves and diving, big hotels and expensive groceries, with little to no appreciation of the story of conquest of the islands, which mirrors the wipe-out process of so many native peoples coming into contact with western civ. for the first time.
Extra credit: Vocabulary
Not that I speak Klingon, but was sometimes struck by similarities between the Klingon language and Hawaiian:
Kapplah (Klingon): Today is a good day to die.
Kapa’a (Hawaiian): A town to the north of Lihue airport.
Uncanny. Miles and I made a game of trying to memorize a handful of useful Hawaiian words:
Hale – House
Hanu – Sea turtle
Kane – Man
Luau – Feast
Piko – Belly button
Puka – Hole
Ukulele (pronounced ooh-ke-leh-leh)
Wahine – Woman