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Monday, August 20, 2012

Visiting the Garden Island of Hawaii

You are lazing on the beach, watching the sapphire ocean curve against the pale yellow sands as far as you can see. The white frothy waves swell and break apart at the shores, going back and forth in a tireless rhythm.The palm trees, tall and dark against the azure skies,  whisper to the mild breeze, long forgotten stories of the ocean. A refreshing sip of pina colada soothes your senses. All the worries and frustrations melt and vaporize into a peaceful, carefree mist that envelopes your entire being. The paradise of your dreams exists in reality. A mere speck on the Pacific Ocean, it is called Kauai, the Garden Island of Hawaii. Four of us, couple of guys and girls, big and small, took a five day tour from Denver to this tropical island. We had a brief stop in the mainland at the LA airport and headed straight to the Lihue airport in Kauai. When we came near the group of islands, the pilot provided us a brief history of Hawaii. My heart missed a beat when I thought of the underwater volcanoes forming these islands in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean . Our airplane was hovering in the air before landing. I could see the beautiful coastline in the twilight, promising us an exciting vacation.
Night 1 : Finding a nest for the night
The time was around 7:30 in the evening when we landed. The airport was not very big. After collecting the luggage, we headed towards Ground Transportation to pick up our rental car. Our hotel in the south side of Kauai, was a good 45 minutes drive from the airport. Getting out of the airport was a little tricky but we managed to figure it out after taking a full circle around it.  It had become quite dark by then. The road signs were in English but the names were Hawaiian. These road names were a little hard to get used to at first. There was an abundance of the letters W, L, A, E, K, O, U and I. A little less common were the letters P, N, M and H. Most of the road names were long and seemed to be a combination of the above letters. The roads had hardly any street lighting. At one point, when the big guy turned the head lights to the high beam setting, I saw huge tree trunks, lining both sides of the road as far as I could see.  The trees were growing in such close proximity to each other that it seemed like we were  driving through the middle of a dense jungle. I have to admit that I felt relieved and happy when we saw the big sign for Poipu and later the dozens of tiki torches burning in the courtyards of Grand Hyatt. As our car pulled in at the entrance, the valet welcomed us with leis made of shells and beads.
After finishing with the check-in at the front desk, we headed to satisfy our gastronomical urges. Our concierge had helped us with the bookings, ahead of time. We enjoyed dinner at an Italian restaurant called Dondero's. The ambiance was quiet and romantic. Many young couples were enjoying a date night.We sat inside but right next to the opening to the outside.We could hear the tireless sound of the lashing waves. The sea wind blowing through the leaves seemed like soft words to our ears.  The girls ordered pasta. The small guy ordered a grilled eggplant dish. The big guy ordered the fresh fish of the day. Even though I was exhausted after the long flights, I thought the food was very tasty and refreshing. From the happy look of the others, I had a feeling that the verdict was unanimous. It was 10:30 pm local time when we scrambled to our hotel room. We had planned to do more but were absolutely ready to crash.......
Day 2: Morning light
I woke up early, before dawn, mainly because there's a four hour difference between Hawaiian and Mountain time. I sat in the balcony waiting for the sun to rise.The only sound that gave me company was the pitter patter of  the rain drops. I was glad to see the early rays of the sun light up the sky and the courtyard, the dark lanky coconut trees outlined by the orange glow, the lush green grass spreading like a clean carpet over the black island soil and the abundance of hibiscuses and birds of paradise. I even heard the rooster's crow. However, it was much too cloudy that morning to capture any picturesque sunrise. 
Exploring the West
Using the time difference to our advantage, all four of us got showered and ready by 8:00 am. We had planned to hike in and around the Waimea Canyon State park that day.We had our car in the valet parking. A medium aged lady, with a white flower in her hair, greeted us with a smile and "Aloha" and brought us our car keys.  She explained that in Hawaii, people say "Aloha" to mean hello, goodbye, love and more. The morning air was fresh and mild. It made us hungry. We had some breakfast bars in our backpack but we did not have anything to drink. We stopped by a grocery store to buy some muffins and drinks. The grocery store was not very big but it had all the things we wanted. The store keeper was very nice and complimented the girls about their outfits. I wore a loose fitting white top with sequin flowers and long earrings to match with the "hang loose" island attitude. The petite one wore a yellow frilly top with white flowers on it. She stuck a pink flower in her hair, Hawaiian style. On the way out, I saw a chicken,  for the first time, wandering about in front of the grocery store. It reminded me of remote village areas in India. Inside the car, we relished the muffins with the drinks. With minimum delay, we were again headed towards our destination.
Waimea Canyon
We took the Koloa Road and then Kaumualii Highway (Hwy 50). On the way, there were a couple scenic lookout points. These areas had reddish soil and uneven terrain, characteristic of the western part. When we took the turn into the Waimea Canyon Drive, our GPS acted up and started to take us the wrong way. The road had a steep slope downward and at one point we started to see the ocean at a distance. Luckily, the big guy sensed something wrong and decided to turn the other way. He was smart to argue that the canyon had to be the opposite way. The Waimea river cut through the high terrain before it headed down to the ocean. That logically meant that our way should be up the slope and not going down. It took about 20 more minutes on the Waimea Canyon Drive to get to the Waimea Canyon lookout point .
This canyon reminded me of the Grand Canyon but of course was smaller in scale. In some ways that made it more interesting. It felt like you are looking at a zoomed out view and was able to fathom the features of the landscape in totality. The river was visible way at the bottom, between the steep hill like sides of the bank.  We could see the water marks, striated on the eroded banks indicating the former courses of the Waimea river over a few million years. We saw helicopters flying over the top of the canyon to give the visitors a closer look. The little guy got very imaginative seeing the various formations and suggested  names for them. As I looked in the direction he pointed, I thought  it really looked like a elephant's head with a long trunk. Near the lookout, there was a small makeshift shop selling various dry foods, unique to the island. We bought mango strips and sweet potato chips. They were delicious! 
Kokee State Park
Going further north for a few more minutes we reached the Kokee State park. It  had a huge park area with picnic tables set on a rolling lush green carpet. Some of the tables had a nice shade of big trees making it a perfect place to enjoy a picnic. It also had clean restrooms at one end of the picnic area. We liked the place a lot and actually came back to enjoy our lunch there.We also saw numerous chickens and chicks roaming about. We obviously got curious about these wild chickens. The Kokee State park had a nice visitor center and a plethora of information about hiking trails in and around Waimea canyon and other interesting general knowledge. We saw a model that showed average rainfall in Kauai at various locations. The place that records the highest rainfall for the past 12 years is Mt. Waialeale, with a record rainfall of 683 inches in 1982, making it one of the wettest spots in the world. We also saw a jaw bone of a full grown shark and a vertebra of a whale. Each shark teeth was the size of an adult human thumb. The whale vertebra was about a foot across in diameter. We saw displays of local birds in taxidermic models. We also saw wood specimens of local trees like Koa, Hala, Kapok and Kukui. Some of them, especially that of Koa tree, were very dense and heavy. It is there that we heard about the Kalalau lookout point that was only a little way further north on the Kokee road.  The lady at the store adjacent to the visitor center enlightened us on the mystery of the feral chickens, now seen everywhere in Kauai. A powerful cyclone, Iniki, had struck Kauai in 1992. It had destroyed all the chicken coops. The chickens got released at that time and are running wild all over the island, ever since. We wondered if  people caught them for meat. Unfortunately, these chickens were more muscular and less tasty. The story has it that if you boiled a Kauai wild chicken and a lava rock, most probably the lava rock would taste better. Obviously after hearing that we started to look at them a little differently.
Kalalau Lookout

It was a treat to visit the Kalalau lookout point. It had breathtaking views of the northwestern edge of Kauai, the Na Pali coast. A series of dark steep rocky cliffs jutted out right from the edge of the beaches and contrasted against the unending expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Away from the coastline, the water had variations in the blue color as if from shadows of giant clouds. These were lava flow submerged beneath the ocean, cooling over time to form beds of coral reefs. I was thrilled to see the beautiful aquamarine color of the waters which seemed to turn a bright turquoise green near the edge of the land.There was very little vegetation on the rocky slopes especially at the top parts. The colors black, blue and green was spectacularly laid out to create a picture from a different world. We could see the small white tour boats passing by at a distance. I wondered what views of the Na Pali coast those people in the boat were admiring from the other side. We were scheduled to take the boat ride the next morning.  Having seen the trailer, we were charged with curiosity and anticipation about what was in store. 
A little surprise
 Close to the lookout point was NASA's geophysical observatory . A little southwards from there was the Puu Hinahina Lookout point. It had a view of Niihau island and the tiny uninhabited island of Lehau.There was a lot of cloud cover and so we did not get a very clear view of them. Niihau is a privately owned island and is off limits for general tourists. From our spot, it seemed like a flat rectangular dark rock among the clouds. However, it was reassuring to see a landmass close by. As we started to descend towards the south, we stopped at a location that did not have boards or parking spaces but a few cars were stopping there anyways. Luckily, at this point we saw a fantastic view of the canyon terrain with the ocean waves in the background. It seemed like our little surprise gift from Nature.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed in the salt-water lagoons. We tried out our snorkeling gears in preparation for the next day. That night we had dinner at the Sea View Terrace. It offered light dinner entrees and snacks, a great view of the Poipu beach and live entertainment. We lingered over our Mahi Mahi sandwiches, watching the sunset and enjoying the Hawaiian music and dance. It was the perfect way to end our fun-filled day.
Day 3: Na Pali Coast
Natural beauties have a special appeal to my aesthetic senses. Among them, Na Pali coast belongs in a class by itself. The Hawaiian words "Na Pali" literally translates in English to "many cliffs". The northwestern part of this Garden Island is very pristine. There is no road access to this part. The only two ways of approach are through sea and air. For the benefit of the tourists there are several boat tours and helicopter tours to enjoy this unique landscape, preserving its primordial grandeur. We took a boat ride on the Southern Star. We started early and reached Port Allen in 20 minutes. The boat tour was scheduled to leave at 7:30 am.We were made aware of the possibility of sea sickness and asked to take a medicine for that. Our Captain was a jovial middle aged gentleman with a very relaxed disposition. At his signal, we all followed him across the road to the dock. A big white high-end catamaran was waiting out there. It had leather sofas and tables in the cabin and the back, restrooms on either side in the lower level, a full kitchen, grill and bar. There was a trampoline right in front of the deck where we could sit or lie down. We were given strict instructions not to jump on it. The reasoning was very simple. We would jump off the trampoline but land in the sea. We left our bags in the cabin and went to the back of the boat and got settled in the cushy sofas. For breakfast there were sweet rolls, fresh cut pineapples, guava and pineapple juice. Everyone helped themselves generously. The crew members consisted of the Captain, the chef, the snorkel instructor and a hostess. The service provided was top notch. Within half hour of leaving the coast, we slowed down to enjoy the dolphins playing around the boat. After a while, the flat shores disappeared in a distance and we could see the black rocky cliff rising close to the edge of the land and the lovely emerald waters. The top of the cliffs were so high that they were hidden in the clouds. This coastline was the shooting location for many famous movies including the Jurassic Park. Even though we saw a few waterfalls from the vantage point of the boat, the famous waterfall pictured in Jurassic Park was not visible from the sea. We would have to take a helicopter ride to see that. There were areas where we saw green vegetation growing at the bottom half of the cliffs. There were not tall but provided ground cover and added beauty and color to the steep slopes. We saw beautiful white sandy beaches formed in parts of the shore line. A few people with special permits were camping out there. At other places the rocky cliffs went right into the sea. The powerful waves lashing at the igneous rocks over the years formed sea caverns. The catamaran stopped near one of these caves. We had come prepared in swimsuits and light clothing to cover. The snorkel instructor took care to explain how to use the gears. We had brought our own specially because we wanted to get comfortable using it earlier. We put on our gears and got in the water. It took me a while to adjust to moving slowly in the water and navigate in different directions. I could see big fish about a foot or two long. Some were bluish gray with yellow and black stripes near the tail and around the eyes. Some were a dark bluish green color with a red tail. Many of them were moving in groups, together. They were coming so close that I was sometimes touching them even though not intentionally. At one point, a bunch of them made a sudden dash to the other side of the boat. I wondered if they got scared somehow. One could not rule out the possibility of predators. After all this was in the open ocean. Our hostess accompanied us in the water, on top of what looked like a kayak placed upside down and kept a sharp watch over the group of snorkelers. We were free to enjoy in the waters but was told not to go up to the caves or touch the coral. The water was a little murky here. When I looked at the bottom, I still could see the pale white coral formations. The brief stop was approximately half an hour. We showered before we got back on board. Almost immediately after that, warm lunch was served to the hungry tourists. I started to feel sea sick and did not eat. The hostess brought me crackers and ginger ale and packed the lunch for me to take home. I could feel the waves bumping against the bottom of the catamaran with a load thud, as we picked up speed on our way back.We got back to Port Allen at around two o' clock. I drank some Gatorade as the hostess suggested and was feeling good in no time. I then enjoyed the lunch after coming back to our hotel room.
Spoiling ourselves
We had a packed schedule that day. Around 4 pm we headed to the Poipu Beach Park, at stone's throw distance from our hotel. It was interesting that in Kauai the beach areas are referred to as beach parks. I found out a rationale for it. Poipu beach had an adjacent park area with picnic tables and restrooms. It can be really convenient for the visitors. We played with the sand on the beach. For the first time I noticed that parts of the sea floor was a black  rocky surface and not a uniform smooth cover of sand. We still had not gotten reservation for the place where we really wanted to have dinner. As we were aimlessly squandering away time on the beach with no worries, I saw the big guy busy on his iPhone.From a distance I could not tell why he was unable to just chill. I had no idea that he was working on our reservation. Unfortunately, it is someone's stress and hyper-activity that can sometimes bring peace and relaxation to multiple individuals. The big guy had finally managed to get the reservation at the much anticipated Tidepools. We rushed from the beach to quickly get cleaned up. We had sand in our swimsuits and all over our body. We made a huge mess in the bathroom. Surprisingly, the girls got dressed on time and rushed downstairs to honor the reserved time. Tidepools had thatched roofs made of coconut leaves, a clean well maintained pool all around it, wooden furniture and a muted but color coordinated decor. The whole eating area was an aggregate of open-air huts. Sitting at our table, I was delighted to see a multitude of colorful Koi fish schooling in the fresh waters. Though tempted, we were asked not to feed the fish. I ordered a Hawaiian tomato onion salad,  a spiced Opah and a glass of Pinot noir. This restaurant undoubtedly had the best food, service and ambiance I have ever experienced.
Day 4: Haena Beach
On the fourth day, we got out of Grand Hyatt at around 8:30 am. We had to take the same road as we took from the airport on the first day, this time driving in the opposite direction. After couple turns from Poipu Road, we entered the Maluhia road. There, we were driving through a mile long tunnel of  large eucalyptus and mahogany trees. In the daylight, it looked "peaceful" and majestic. We also saw that there was a flat grassy pasture beyond a few layers of trees. It definitely was not the dense forest that we imagined at night. It made us look a little foolish.We knew by now that the posted speed limits on the island were relatively lower than what we are used to in our hometown. Twenty five and thirty miles per hour were very common over there. A little before 9am, we stopped by a McDonald's near Kapaa for breakfast. The menu was quite different from the mainland restaurants. I had an oatmeal with fruits and nuts in it.  Most of the other restaurants were closed or just starting to open. It was a slow, long, tedious drive up to the north. There was a lot of road work going on that diverted the roads and forced slower speeds. A unique "feature" of the north were the narrow one way bridges. The traffic on the other side had to stop and yield. This was getting tricky at places where the bridge was winding and had up and down slopes. The poor driver was getting frustrated and muttering expletives, one worse than the other. We were joking that those beaches should really be worth the frustrating drive. Thankfully, we were not disappointed. The Haena beach looked like the picture perfect beach of our imagination. The clean wet sand was a lovely pale yellow and the waters were a light greenish-blue. The beach had an moderate slope where it met the water. Many people were relaxing on the beach. A couple of young people was busy with the wet sand making a big sand structure. A bunch of people were snorkeling. I noticed that they were a couple feet out in the water and swimming parallel to the shores. It was when we got in the water that we experienced the tremendous sea currents. Just a few inches into the water, I felt the sand shifting away under my feet. The depth increased abruptly compared to any beaches I had ever been. The waves were high and thrashed me powerfully on the sands. Even before I was recovering from the hit, the wave pulled me into the waters and no amount of digging in the fingers into the sand, helped. Haena beach presented an equal mix of beauty and power right before our eyes. Understandably, the beach had coast guards watching out for the safety of the swimmers. It was a lot of fun playing with the energetic waves. After a while though, we got pretty exhausted.
Tunnels Beach
We were also looking for calmer waters to snorkel. Right adjacent to Haena beach was the Tunnels beach. It was quite a package of surprise. Standing at the beach we could see the dark rocky patches alternate with sandy tunnels, like black and white stripes under water. When we arrived there, we found a man snorkeling in one of those sandy tunnels quite close to the shore. He told us that he was able to see lots of big fish. I stood there, taking his words with a "grain of salt", thinking how that could even be possible. But when we started to snorkel there, we were quite amazed. The patches of submerged rocks were the home of lots of colorful fish and vegetation. There were small and big fish. The variety was amazing. The longer we lingered under water, the more different kinds of fish were visible. With the tide coming in some of them were disappearing into small nooks and cracks in the rocks. Our favorite was a pale yellow and green striped one. We had brought an underwater camera and busily took pictures of the fish. Some people, swimming further out in the sea, claimed that they had seen sea turtles there.  I thought twice before dismissing their claim this time.
Grand Luau
We could not spend too long there as we had to get back to Hyatt by 5 pm for the Grand Luau.It was scheduled to start at 6 pm but people lined up from 4:30pm to get good seats. We had pictures taken with models dressed in traditional hula costumes.The women wore grass skirts and coconut shell bras. The men wore a long cloth skirt. They wore leis and ornaments on wrists and ankles. The Luau was held in a big courtyard which was now packed with several  rows of long tables and chairs on both sides, enough to seat at least couple hundred people. As soon as we entered, we were offered unlimited drinks of mai-tai and fruit punch. At one end of the courtyard, was a big stage where a band was performing songs and dance. The host of the show explained that a Luau is arranged to celebrate big occasions like birthdays and marriages with a feast. The main highlight of the grand feast was the pig roasted as per the traditional Kalua style of cooking, in an underground oven. In this style of cooking, a fire is made of Koa wood in a sand pit. The fire is covered with rocks. The seasoned meat is wrapped in ti and banana leaves and placed over the hot rocks. It is then covered with more rocks and cooked for several hours. A group of men brought the whole cooked pig and paraded around the tables before cutting it up and serving it on the buffet tables. Though the host warned us about the purple tasteless but healthy paste made from the ti leaves called "poi", it actually went quite well as a sauce with the pork. Soon an elaborate buffet dinner was laid out and people were asked to line up in groups.We absolutely "pigged" out. It was twilight, when we were savoring our desserts and admiring the hula dancers perform many Hawaiian numbers on stage. One of them was a dance about the fire goddess who lives in the Big island. The dancers wore beautiful amber colored costumes and were chanting a prayer. This reminded me of an Egyptian prayer I had learnt. I thought of the natives of the Hawaiian archipelago over ages and their struggle with the forces of nature: water, earth, fire and the wind. I figured they finally found peace in submission. By the time it got dark, we got to see the amazing fire dance. We were warned to keep clear off the stage and surounding areas.  A fellow dancer came and handed a pole with the fire burning at one end. The fire artist maneuvered the pole twisting and turning it around his body. He managed to get both the ends lighted at some point. He then lay on his back and did a few tricks with his feet. After performing with one "knife of fire", he dazzled the audience, towards the end, by juggling  around two knives of fire. It  looked quite dangerous as he was throwing both the poles simultaneously, starting with one hand and catching with the other hand, at a fast speed. The timing had to be so critical for this to work. We stood up and applauded the fire artist on his tremendous feat.
Day 5: Brunch
We were just getting a hang of the laid back island attitude when it was time to go. On the last day we woke up late. We took showers and packed our suitcases. After the huge dinner, the night before, we were not hungry till it was almost 9 am. It was a wise decision to go for a single combined meal that day, both from food and time standpoints.We chose to have a heavy breakfast at the Ilima Terrace. It had options of buffet or a la carte. I tried out the buffet. I specially liked the chicken sausages, smoked salmon and miso soup with tofu and rice. You must have gotten an idea by now the kind of heavy breakfast that was.
The Wailua Falls was in the central part of Kauai, literally at the end of Maalo road. The river took a huge double dive and formed a pool about 80 feet below. The hike down was very steep and had warning signs about loose and slippery grounds. Down below we saw some people bathing in the pool, formed at the bottom. They looked like tiny dolls.We opted for safety and enjoyed the view of the falls from the road level.  The word Wailua means "two waters". Going northward, we took a boat ride on the Wailua river up to the Fern Grotto. We had a band playing live music on the way to the Fern Grotto. There were couple of young girls in    long flowery dresses, dancing to the songs. It was really fun when they made all of the tourists on the boat do some basic hula steps together with the music. On our way back, we heard an informational commentary about the vegetation, the river and the Kapaa mountain. Some people were kayaking on the river. It was a very relaxing and fun ride but a little toned down when compared to our Na Pali coast expedition. Further north off of the Kuhio Hwy was the Opaekaa Falls. This waterfalls had three branches of water falling together in close proximity. However, the view from road was quite far from the falls itself. We had just enough time for dinner before heading to the airport at Lihue. The true food lovers ended the trip with a dinner of fresh Ahi tuna at "Oasis on the Beach" near Kapaa.
The sign at the airport said "Mahalo (thank you), till we meet again..." Leaving the Garden Island was hard. The reality however is that all good times have to come to an end. This vacation was nothing short of  an adventure. I learnt about the age old customs and traditions of the island people, the dances, the music, the food, the hospitality, the gratitude and the love. It broadened my views of the world. Mother Nature showed us her bounty and power. I had never imagined such picturesque landscapes even existed. But somewhere in our human bones there is an avian homing instinct. Home always represents stability, comfort, familiarity and other nebulous feelings hard to describe. I guess nothing really compares to coming back home....Home sweet home.

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