I crouched down on some sand and snapped off a few shots of a pair of threatened green turtles. The turtles, known in Hawaii as Honu, were sunning themselves at Poipu Beach Park, on the south shore of Kauai.
A firm voice blasting from a loudspeaker at a lifeguard stand a few yards behind me shattered the calm.
“Move away ... from the seals,” the voice commanded.
Seals? What seals?
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I gazed right and 30 yards away, two giant Hawaiian monk seals were basking in the sun.
I hit it big coming across two of the most storied and highly protected species in Hawaii at the same moment.
Kauai, the oldest of the large Hawaiian islands, doesn’t get the kind of attention bestowed on Maui, Oahu or the Big Island of Hawaii. But with a population of just 66,000 and an estimated 6,000 tourists a day, it may be the best place in Hawaii to see nature at its finest.
The eight days I spent on Kauai in May marked my first trip to the Hawaiian Islands. My friends Viviane Gilbert Stein, who grew up in Emmett, and her husband, Richard, a Nampa native, invited me to come stay with them, which, of course, cut down greatly on expenses.
The Steins, who both work for the Garden Island newspaper on Kauai, live in Lihue. With a population of 6,500, about the size of Emmett, Lihue is the county seat and also contains the airport where planes from the mainland and other Hawaiian islands land. The largest town on the island, Kapaa, 10 miles north of Lihue, has only 11,000 people.
A grand red canyon
Travel stories often mention that Mark Twain dubbed Waimea Canyon the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” The trouble with that yarn is that Twain never set foot on Kauai during his 1866 trip to Hawaii. And it was another 42 years before the Arizona wonder became known as the Grand Canyon, when President Teddy Roosevelt named it a national monument.
No matter. Waimea Canyon, accessed on the island’s south-central point, provided some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. Ten miles long, a mile wide and 3,600 feet deep, the canyon tantalizes visitors with shades of red, green, brown and sand, with each layer of the etched walls representing a separate volcanic eruption.
Waimea Canyon Drive rises 4,000 feet during the 20-mile drive up the canyon. There are numerous paved lookout points along the way and other wide spots to pull over and gaze. Each offers a different view.
Hikes cross through lush jungles
From the Puu Hinahima Lookout past milepost 13, I hiked three miles along Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls. The trail — one of dozens of hiking trails along Waimea Canyon — cuts through a lush jungle, and even on a warm May day the shaded canopy kept the temperature down and prevented me from getting drenched during occasional rain showers.
The path included many native trees, including koa and ohia. There were also numerous flowers in bloom, such as fragrant Awapuhi ginger.
Like a lot of trails where you’re climbing and descending rocky, root-lined paths, the trek to Waipoo Falls seemed longer than advertised. I asked a fellow coming back whether I was almost there and he said I still had a ways to go. “Whatever you do, don’t turn back. The views at the end will be spectacular.”
He may have underestimated that.
Eventually, the jungle gave way to a red-tinged ridge (Waimea means reddish water) with a steep cliff on one side. Looking out at the sweeping vista, it appeared I was on top of the world.
Only a small portion of the 800-foot waterfall could be seen from the top. A smaller falls set back from the main falls was visible, along with a wading pool. Other locations along Waimea Canyon Drive provide good views of the waterfall.
While other hikers soaked in the shallow pool, I heeded the advice of health officials in Kauai, who urge visitors to stay out of freshwater pools, streams and waterfalls. Doing so carries a risk of exposure to Leptospira bacteria, which can cause flulike symptoms: chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches.
Back on the road, the most spectacular views greet visitors at the Puu o Kila lookout near milepost 20 in Kokee State Park. It looks out on the Kalaulau Valley on the Na Pali coast. You won’t get a better look at Na Pali unless you hike in, take an air tour or enter by boat or kayak. The colorful cliffs of Na Pali were formed after millions of years of erosion and they’re completely inaccessible by road, increasing their charm.
Air tours highly recommended
Speaking of helicopter tours, guidebook author Andrew Doughty, who lives on Kauai but who writes tourist guides for all of the major Hawaiian islands, says Kauai is the only one where he recommends visitors take an air tour by helicopter or airplane. “Going to Kauai without taking a helicopter flight is like going to see the Sistine Chapel and not looking up,” Doughty writes in “The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook.”
Much of the island can’t be reached by car, and a helicopter tour is the best way to see everything. Manawaiopuna Falls, which appeared in the opening scene of “Jurassic Park,” is located on private property and can only be viewed from the air. Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali coast and Mount Waialeale, the highest point on the island at 5,066 feet, are just a few of the tour highlights.
Mount Waialeale receives more than 35 feet of rain per year, the second-highest total in the world. Luckily, lower elevations don’t get nearly as much. Storms there generally don’t last long and if it’s raining on one part of the island, it’s likely clear somewhere else.
I took a one-hour tour with Jack Harter Helicopters. Harter was the first company to offer helicopter tours on Kauai, in 1962, and remains one of the leading tour operators. I went with his company because they offer a doors-off tour that cuts out the window glare when taking photos.
I recommend taking the tour early in your trip. I went up my second day. It allowed time to reschedule in case weather kept the copter grounded. And the sights I viewed provided suggestions for places I wanted to explore further on the ground.
Dog adoptions, farmers markets, art night
Doughty’s guidebook suggested dropping by the Kauai Humane Society outside Lihue for an unusual tourist experience: taking a shelter dog out for a day.
I chose Suzy, a mixed-breed dog, to the Spouting Horn blowhole at Koloa and to Kalapaki Beach at Lihue, where she loved walking across the sand and floating in the water on her 6-foot leash.
Los Angeles Times reporter Martha Groves wrote more extensively about this wonderful free program.
Farmers markets are held in different towns on the island every day but Sunday. Fresh produce and flowers abound, and there are food carts serving up island cuisine. I discovered the Sugarloaf white pineapple at the Saturday Lihue market at Kauai Community College. Sweet, without the acid of golden pineapples, it’s the best pineapple I’ve ever eaten, and you can bring pineapples back on the plane.
Every Friday night, a town on the southwest side of the island holds Art Night in Hanapepe. Galleries stay open until 9 p.m. and there are plenty of streetside diners and carts to attract the crowds of people walking the town’s main street. Read this account from Brian Cantwell from the Seattle Times.
Hawaiian cuisine unlike the mainland
Before I visited Kauai, I had never eaten Spam. Not once. Since Spam is so closely associated with Hawaiians, who consume more Spam than anyone, I was willing to try it but wasn’t expecting anything great. Spam in Hawaii is most often eaten in musubi, Spam sushi made with a fried slab of the canned meat, teriyaki sauce and rice and wrapped in nori, a sheet of seaweed.
Every grocery store and convenience store on the island carries Spam musubi, as well as many restaurants. It is served warm and, surprisingly for me, it was quite good. I even brought back a case of a Portuguese sausage variety of Spam, sold only in Hawaii, so I could make my own at home.
Another Hawaiian specialty I tried was poke, pronounced poe-kay. It’s a raw fish salad typically served as an appetizer. Ahi tuna is used in the most popular poke and is often seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil and green onions. Fish Express, 3343 Kuhio Highway in Lihue, has some of the best.
The plate lunch is also uniquely Hawaiian: an entree such as kalua pig, lau lau pork, chicken katsu or kalbi ribs served with two scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad, which often also includes potatoes. Mark’s Place, 1610 Haleukana St. in Lihue, has an excellent selection.
Saimin, Hawaii’s take on fresh noodle ramen soup, is wildly popular. It dates from the early 1900s, when Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Filipino immigrants working the sugar fields brought it for lunch. While the broth is not as flavorful as those of Vietnamese soups such as pho or bun bo Hue, saimin is quite good and comes loaded with sliced ham, fish cakes, green onions and a sliced, hard-boiled egg.
Hamura Saimin, 2956 Kress St. in Lihue, serves hundreds of bowls daily. Locals and tourists alike crowd onto the bar stools of the tiny cash-only shop’s serpentine counter. In 2006, the James Beard Foundation named Hamura an American classic. Order a slice of the lilikoi chiffon (passionfruit) pie. It’s also excellent.
Fragrant flowers at every turn
Flowers were in bloom nearly everywhere, from the fragrant yellow, pink and white plumeria blossoms to the red lobster claws of the heliconia, the orange bird of paradise, the red anthurium and the ever-present hibiscus, the state flower of Hawaii.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden near the south shore town of Koloa, the Limahuli Garden near Kee Beach in the northwest corner and the Princeville Botanical Gardens on the north shore are among the most popular gardens.
I visited the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens near Kilauea because it waived the $35 cost with my membership to the Idaho Botanical Garden. It featured thousands of different flowers, tropical plants and trees. There was also a hedge maze created from 6-foot-tall syringa plants, the state flower of Idaho. The guide said the orange-blossom scent is so strong when the plants bloom in July that some guests have to leave the maze.
Kauai features more sandy beaches per mile of shoreline than any other Hawaiian island. Great ones are everywhere. Many are located right off the highway that brings guests to the three of four shorelines accessible by car. More secluded beaches can be reached by hiking.
Black Pot Beach on Hanalei Bay on the north shore was my favorite. The crescent-shaped bay and an old pier dating from at least the early 1890s provides a wonderful backdrop for photos. Just west of the bay is Lumahai Beach, another gorgeous beach made famous by the 1958 film “South Pacific.”
My friends, the Steins, particularly like Anini Beach Park, located six miles west of the Kilauea Lighthouse, the northernmost point of the major Hawaiian islands. With a protective reef, Anini Beach provides some of the safest swimming on the north shore. It’s also a popular snorkeling spot.
Poipu Beach Park, which I mentioned earlier, and nearby Brennecke Beach, are both popular for people looking for sea turtles. Poipu Beach Park is also safe for swimmers, and there is a shallow area perfect for children that is under the watchful eyes of lifeguards.
Getting there, staying there
From Boise, Alaska Airlines and United offer the most convenient flights, connecting in Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles and flying directly into Lihue on Kauai. Other flights arrive in Lihue after stopping first in Honolulu. Expect to pay between $520 to $700 a person round trip. United offers its lowest rates ($518) in January and February.
Hotels and condominiums are the most popular lodging choices, but large families or groups should consider renting a house. Some condominiums go for as cheap as $125 a night, a bargain in Hawaii. Rack rates at resorts can start at $400 a night.
A rental car is a must on Kauai. The good news is that the rates are some of the best around. I paid $17 a day, including all fees, through Hertz. All major companies are represented.
John’s Top 5 Kauai attractions
1. Waimea Canyon: spectacular views of the etched volcanic valley
2. Na Pali coast: rugged landscape with a challenging hiking trail
3. Hanalei Pier at Black Pot Beach: beautiful backdrop for scenic photos
4. Kilauea Lighthouse: fabled sentry on the northernmost point of the major Hawaiian islands
5. Poipu Beach Park: sand, surf, swimming and protected sea turtles and monk seals.
Hawaiian pronunciations easier than they look
When missionaries came to the Hawaiian islands, they found no written language. They created an alphabet that included the five English vowels along with seven consonants, H, K, L, M, N, P, W.
The hardest thing for non-native speakers to grasp is the use of the okina, represented by an upside-down apostrophe. When pronouncing such words there should be a noticeable pause. Kauai is most often pronounced kuh-wye-ee, although some people will pronounce the “w” sound as a “v.” Poipu is pronounced poe-ee-poo, with an accent on the final syllable. The falls at Waipoo are why-poe-oh.