U’i Kaua’i: Aloha and Mahalo for this Garden Island

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 1.04.40 PMIf you are wondering whether it’s worth that very long flight to take your next vacation in Hawaii, the answer is YES. It’s worth it, so book it today and just GO!

In case you didn’t already know, Hawaiian Airlines has a direct flight from JFK to Honolulu. It’s easy and awesome and yes, well, it was an 11 1/2 hour flight sitting upright in a small space, but it flew by, really. I made friends with my seat mate (no, sadly it wasn’t Laird Hamilton) and bonded with my laptop for many beautifully uninterrupted hours. Then the quick connection to Kauai allowed just enough time to feel that delicious humidity hit our skin, grab a starbucks and put on a real lei. IMG_0002The smell was heavenly. We then boarded the next plane for a 20 min blip of a ride, not even enough time to unbuckle or use the bathroom!

When we landed at Kauai’s airport in Lihue, the first thing that struck me was the airport’s open air design, which tells you everything you need to know: this place is such a tropical paradise that baggage claim has no need for walls or doors! Honestly? Aloha AND Mahalo!

Then came the rental car experience: chickens running wild around the Avis parking lot. It was unsettling at first, all that cockadoodledooing while we tried to sign papers and pile into our bright white pick up truck, but it quickly became unbelievably perfect. 🙂

The 25 min drive to Poipu Beach from Lihue was jaw-dropping. The tree tunnel (a beautiful canopy of Eucalyptus trees that line Maliuhi Road to create a natural gateway to the south shore, including the towns of Koloa and Poipu.) Fun fact: the original 500 trees were planted in 1911 as a gift to the community from Pineapple Baron Walter McBryde.

This tunnel and the rest of the drive felt like it was all straight out of a movie. Oh wait, yes, of course, this “garden isle” has been the backdrop for a million movies! Even the Safeway has a magical setting with views of the mountains that made me suddenly want to find the closest house to buy and move right into, just so THAT could be MY Safeway to shop in! Everything was so lush and green. It really was Jurassic Park. Holy Cow. No wonder they love to film movie after movie here–everything from classics like Blue Hawaii, South Pacific, and Raiders of the Lost Ark to more current releases such as 6 Days, Seven NightsThe Descendants and Jurassic World.

We chose to avoid the big hotel chains and opted for Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort in south coast’s Poipu Beach to take advantage of the better weather on that side of the island, along with the stellar surfing breaks.  I can’t recommend the hotel more highly. It was intimate, classy and peaceful.  And the free flowing pog juice in the lobby hit the spot every single time.

We settled into room 174, which was ground floor and oceanfront, complete with whale watching, non-stop surfer spectating, flickering tiki torches and yes, of course, plenty of chickens and roosters galore.

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This rooster fest, combined with jet lag, allowed us to see every sunrise on the trip! Mahalo! We kept our surfboards lying on the lawn in front of our room…a mere 20 steps from the water’s edge where we paddled out to catch waves each day (or tried to!).  I ate way more humble pie in those waves than felt a surfer’s high, but it was heavenly just to be sitting out there, astride my board, among so many natives doing their daily thing.

We did our absolute best to cram our 5-day stay in with an adventurous itinerary.  We’d planned it out way in advance with some help from the hotel concierge. This included surf lessons for the girls on our first morning by Hoku water sports. They rented boards and gave SUP and surf lessons right from our hotel, and it was just a few steps (so manageable!) across the grass from our room.

After tackling the ocean, we set about seeing the island by ATV, on the “Koloa Tour”, starting off at the old Koloa Sugar Mill. The scenery was epic, but our guide was horrific and our ATV broke down. She somehow seemed to blame us for having to wait for a new one to be brought out to us while we sat in the middle of nowhere. So, I hesitate to promote this experience, but with the right guide, it would have been better.

We finished the day off in better form, with a dinner at the Beachhouse, located on a beautiful surf break on nearby Lawa’i Beach Road. Sunsets from here are insane.

The next day we departed out of Port Allen to see the Napali Coast, aboard a 65 foot catamaran. It was a full day adventure with Blue Dolphin Tours.

We added in the optional scuba diving with sea turtles (of course!), which we captured on GoPro, and it was a total highlight.

The rest of the boat tour was just magical, except for my debilitating seasickness (from the 8 foot swell) and extremely stiff neck (from the scuba diving).  IMG_0019I whined to another seasick passenger that I just couldn’t look left, and his retort was “don’t worry, it’s nothing to see, just the Napoli coast!” That gave us a good laugh while we nursed our ginger ales and watched whales and dolphin from the stern of the boat, covered in throw up.

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We got back to the hotel and I retreated like an injured seal to Kaola Landing for a much needed massage, before we ate dinner in the playful outdoor setting of Keoki’s Paradise across the street.

We started the next day off by admiring the giant sleeping (pregnant!!) Hawaiian monk seal on the beach before breakfast. IMG_0054

After that, we did our usual surf watching then spent the bulk of the day zip lining. The experience was truly thrilling, yet safe, and I can’t recommend it more highly. Koloa zip lining was such a professional outfit. The day was such a success because our guides were truly inspiring, kind and wonderful.

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Later that night we made our way a hundred yards along the beach to the Auli’i Luau at the Sheraton, where we made friends with some local ladies over dinner, then swam in the ocean after dark.

After the Luau, the girls met some girls their own age from California while we were in the hotel’s hot tub in the rain.

The next day was spent helicoptering to Jurrasic Falls, the Napali coast & Waimea Canyon. It took our breath away to get those views from the air.

It’s hard to admit, but the real highlight for me was when the helicopter pilot said, almost as an aside, “and down there is the waterfall (Wailua Falls) that they used in the opening credits of the TV show “FANTASY ISLAND”. IMG_0068What!?!?!  I started to take even more photos than I usually do. I could suddenly hear Tatoo yelling “Da Plane, Da Plane!” Oh my goodness. I was instantly a kid again: I’m in Fantasy Island!?!?! At last!! After spending so much of my childhood hoping to get there, I’d FINALLY arrived!!  Ok, so that added perspective clearly put me in my happy place.

After we got back to earth, we went to do some scenic horseback riding which included trotting around by Secret Beach, on Gillian’s Beach and along Mahalopo Beach.

It was awesome and we had incredible vistas at every turn. The Hawaiian cowboy who led our group was a hoot.

We chose to dine at Merriman’s (upstairs) that night in The shops at Kukui’ula and it was really fabulous. The colonial island atmosphere was created by live music, open air setting and beamed ceiling, ceiling fans and throwback photographs of Hawaiian history adorning its walls. It was a charming ambience mixed with amazing food–the ahi poke was my favorite and the chocolate purse finish was irresistible.

Our last day was reserved for vegging…

This included surfing, snorkeling with the most beautiful variety of tropical fish at Poipu beach, climbing out to lie in little coral pools (and sunburning), getting beach side massages, and shopping for bathing suits and souvenirs at both Poipu Shopping Village and The shops at Kukui’ula. The local puka dogs and shaved ice were big hits. The ubiquitous macadamia nuts and the Honolulu cookies we bought in the airport on our way home were also fabulous.IMG_0092                 …ahhh, and our high school Hawaiian spring break was complete 🙂 IMG_0086

Notes for when you go:

Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines get a thumbs up across the board and especially for offering that nonstop from New York to Honolulu. www.hawaiianairlines.com 

Avis Rental’s rugged white pick up truck was super fun and just perfect for this “garden island.” https://www.avis.com/en/home

Accommodations:

Koa Kea Hotel & Resort: beachfront sublime in the very popular Poipu beach area. Our 6 night stay of April 10-17, 2017 was at a rate of $532/night including full breakfast for 2. I found this extremely reasonable given the location, the amenities and the time of year. Bottom line: I loved this hotel. http://meritagecollection.com/koakea/

Activities:  

Kauai ATV (part of the same outfit as Koloa Ziplining): NOT my favorite. the ATV’s broke down, the guide was actually mean, and the experience was not ideal, but the scenery was still epic. https://www.kauaiatv.com

Blue Dolphin Charters: Na Pali Coast tour with optional Scuba diving. I got soooo seasick, and cricked my neck from the weight of that scuba tank when I got out of the water. So yea, other than being sick and injured it was a fantastic experience! and they guarantee dolphins, so that’s nice. most people snorkel instead of scuba. I wish we’d gone with Captain Andy’s as I’d heard many good things about that outfit. Next time!! https://bluedolphinkauai.com

Island helicopters: just so very professional and fantastic. We felt so safe and we loved the 75 minute Jurassic Falls landing trip that included their Kauai Grand Tour. It’s the only company that has the rights to land there, so that makes it very special. www.island helicopters.com 800-829-5999.

Koloa Zipline: absolutely fantastic fun. What a thrill, and the guides were just amazing!! Such a difference from it’s sister operation (Koloa ATV). https://www.zipline.com/kauai

CJM Country Stables: a great outfit with awesome horses and an unbelievable setting allowing for the “scenic beach and valley ride” to be truly off the charts. http://www.cjmstables.com

Dining:

Red Salt: We ate there the first night since it’s the only restaurant in Koa Kea hotel and we didn’t want to stray too far our first night. It was good, but honestly I was so jet lagged that I wasn’t a great judge of it. Good ambience though. http://meritagecollection.com/koakea/dining-at-red-salt/

Beach House: We loved it enough to go 2 nights (our second and our last night). The setting can’t be beat, as it’s situated right on a surf break with perfect sunset views and an open air setting serving very good food. http://www.the-beach-house.com/

Keoki’s Paradise: a good choice for the live music, warm spinach artichoke dip, Dinosaur Kale salad, and Kimo’s Hula Pie. www.keokis.com/

Auli’i Luau: at the Sheraton hotel in Poipu. It was OK, but felt fairly contrived. The Hyatt might be a better choice. www.auliiluau.com/

Merriman’s Fish House, Poipu: We ate in the upstairs section, which had awesome live music, an open air “island colonial” atmosphere and crazy good food. The whole experience was quite ethereal. https://www.merrimanshawaii.com

What I heard was awesome and will do next time:

+Do Captain Andy’s rafting experience in the sea caves of the Napali coast.

+Check out Opaeka Falls.

+Visit Kilauea Lighthouse.

+Explore the whole Hanalei Bay area.

+Drive in and hike Waimea Canyon.

+Go explore Ke’e Beach and hike up from there.

+Go surf at Pakala (Infinities) Beach, on the west side.

+Eat at Hukilau Lani restaurant.

+Go cliff jumping at shipwreck beach.IMG_0075

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