In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just south of the Tropic of Cancer, the Hawaiian Islands languish in azure blue. Fanned by trade winds and smiled on by the Sun God, they are thousands of miles away from any major landmass and just about as far away from anywhere as you can get.
The oldest and greenest of these tropical jewels is the island of Kauai. Formed by a series of volcanic events about four million years ago, the island was lucky enough to be endowed with peaks that thrust high enough into the glaring skies to snag unsuspecting clouds as they make their way across the Pacific. This encounter between high-flying water vapor and Mount Waiʻaleʻale creates one of the wettest spots on earth and provides the island with enough water to be the tropical paradise that it is.
Back in the mid-twentieth century, the sugar cane trade was the island's major source of revenue. But with the migration of the sugar cane plantations to other parts of the world (cheaper labor), Kauai has turned to high-volume tourism for its major source of income. Most islanders have a love–hate relationship with these money-bearing visitors; they rely heavily on the influx of outside cash but could do without some of the misplaced sense of entitlement that many of the visitors seem to think is included with their all-inclusive vacation packages. But because the Hawaiian people are so welcoming and have such a gracious nature, most visitors (including myself) leave the island with very pleasant memories and without even realizing what butt heads they've been.
In mid-September of 2012, I received an invitation to spend a week with a couple of old friends, Debe and Brett, at their extended-family vacation home right on the oceanfront at Hanalei Bay.
I wasn't sure I could afford it, but after a week or two of soul-searching, I finally committed the four hundred sixty-three dollars for a coach seat on Delta from LAX to LIA (Lihue, Kauai).
The Primetime Van dropped me off at Terminal 5. The night before, I had checked-in online and printed out my obligatory boarding pass, so now the only formality left was to get into the drop bag line and check my "rolling expedition bag." After getting my baggage claim check, I took the escalator upstairs to begin the so-called security process. I always get to the airport early because most of the time I have to endure more indignities than the average passenger. I'm not sure if it is due to my unique facial hair, my demeanor or all the camera junk I'm carrying, that causes TSA to always single me out for a random recheck.
When all the indignities were done, I still had two hours to kill before the boarding process began. The Delta Sky Lounge is located near the middle of Terminal 5 on the second floor. I took the elevator up and took a peek inside. Sometimes the place is so crowded that I prefer to just tough it out in the gate area, but today it was scarcely attended, so I bought a day pass using my Delta American Express Card for $25 (a 50% discount off the normal day rate).
Two weeks before, I'd spent the weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a family reunion. The Monday after, I had arrived early for my departing flight at Tulsa International Airport and found that the section of the airport I was flying out of was mostly deserted. The juxtaposition of functional beauty and the silence of empty space seemed almost like a Bauhaus project in its utilitarian presentation. After sitting for a while, the straight lines and vibrant color began to call to my creative ego. After slipping the D5 out of my bag and making sure it had enough empty space on the memory card, I begin shooting. I expected security to stop me at any moment, but it looked like the regional airlines had cut back so much on personnel that they were relying on my own sense of restraint; but since I am product-driven, I just kept rolling.
A week or so later, when I was reviewing these images up big on my Mac, I realized that this was the beginning of a new and maybe important series.
Continuing in this vein was the main reason for visiting the Sky Lounge. Delta's lounge is well-appointed and nicely laid-out, even if it is beginning to show signs of wear and the need for a thorough all-steam cleaning. It sort of gives off the impression of an Armani suit that's been slept in just once too often.
If you are looking for snacks, the lounge isn't a good investment. You'd do better to frequent the few eating establishments that line the terminal's walkway. But on the other hand, if you just want to be fortified, then this is the place. There seems to be a very good selection of liquor, and since it's self-pour, you're in the driver's seat.
The Delta flight took just about five hours. I was in 27C, an exit row on a 757, which gave me few extra inches of leg room, making me feel almost human on the trip over. The plane landed right on time and Brett was waiting for me at the baggage carousel to guide me to Hanalei Bay.
We wheeled my bag across the street to the rental car hub and boarded the first Alamo bus that showed up. The humidity was right up there, and before I'd signed the rental contract I was already soaked through.
Tourist Warning: Through priceline.com, I had reserved a full-size car at Alamo for $19 a day for eight days. So the car rental fee for the eight days was $159.95 (8 x $19). There was an additional $91.92 for taxes and fees. Even if the sales tax rate was 10%, the tax should have been no more than $16. So that left $75.92 in unaccountable fees. I asked the rental representative about this, and she printed me out a copy of the fee structure.
I'd figured that the fees would be some kind of local taxes, something like a room tax to help the local economy, but what I found is that the seventy-five bucks is a pass-through cost from Alamo to maintain their facilities at the airport. As far as I'm concerned, maintaining a place of business is part of the cost of doing business and should be factored into the vehicle's per-day rental cost. This is a bait-and-switch tactic; the car rental is actually $29.48 per day rather than the advertised $19. Just the way that airlines are now required to include fees in their quoted fares, car rental companies should have to reflect the actual cost of the car's rental, excluding taxes.
I pulled the Dodge Charger out onto the island's main highway and headed north into the coming of night. Designated either Highway 50 or Highway 56 depending on which section of the road you're on, this two-lane blacktop is the Island's main transportation artery and is undoubtedly what you'll be driving on if you visit the island. The island's speed limit ranges from 25 to 50 MPH. You'll need to watch your speedometer, because within a couple of miles the speed limit can fluctuate from 25 to 45 to 35 to 50 and then back to 25. So I'm guessing that some of the local townships make up a portion of their budget shortfall from starry-eyed tourist gawking at the scenery.
Hanalei Bay is a high-end and very laid-back spot on Kauai's north shore. Because of its location near the northern end of Highway 56, it's not overrun with run-of-the-mill tourist groups. The visitors here are a more selective bunch who consider themselves travelers with a participatory sense of leisure rather than tourists. There's a genuine effort here to minimize the disparity in wealth that is equated to living in the area. Most domiciles are showplaces of reverse ostentation, with a cultivated presentation that verges on camouflage.
I was staying at my friends' lovely beach house just up from the waterline. It's one of those things that when you're doing it, it just seems normal. But for the average guy, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime and "budget-busting" experience.
The first is The Yellowfish Trading Co., which specializes in "vintage" Hawaiian items and curios. The smallish shop is filled with some wonderful memorabilia from the time when the Islands weren't so overrun with visitors and speculators. I would have liked to have purchased something here. Nothing seemed overpriced, but most items were unfortunately above my pay grade.
The second is the Hula Beach. Lots of unique Hawaiian wear, not quite to my taste (which runs entirely to black) but the female contingent that I share the house with has an elevated appreciation of old-school Hawaiian fabric design, and would think this place fabulous.
Across the street you'll find the Aloha Juice and Smoothie truck in the parking lot of the Big Save Market. I tried the chilled coconuts. I found the coconut milk cooling but not very appetizing. The pineapple juice, on the other hand, was fabulous.
Lihue is the major population and commercial center of the island, and its airport is the primary ingress and egress for visitors. Kauai's two major shopping centers are also located here, along with all the major fast-food franchises.
If you're one of those people who turns your nose up at the near-mention of a fast-food chain, you might want to sample the fare at Sweet Marie's Hawaiian Bakery at 3-3204 Kuhio Highway, Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii. Good food in a homey atmosphere, served with Hawaiian graciousness. The hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or until sold out. This information seems to be fluid, so I'd call to double check: 808-823-0227.
Waimea is a sleepy little village on the south shore. Every now and then, it becomes the center of attention when the Pacific rolls in big sets of giant waves from the south and surf heroes paddle out to stake a claim at fame. On the town's welcoming sign it says that it's a "walking town." I parked and spent a while walking around. I think this would be a wonderfully picturesque place to stay if you wanted to get away and just mellow out (that is unless the surf's up).
Salt Pond. Just to the west of Hanapepe on Highway 50 is a sign on the left for the Salt Pond. I thought from the name that it would be an inland pond, but in reality it's an ocean pool, formed by a ring of volcanic rocks that form tidal pools. This is a park visited mostly by locals, so remember your manners.
Port Allen. If you take a right off of Highway 50 onto H-541, you'll encounter a small commercial harbor and the mooring spot for the U.S. Coast Guard and a few recreational and sports fishing craft. I met a retired fisherman plying his trade in the harbor waters in hopes of coming up with a tasty lunch. The other memorable point about Port Allen is the Eleele Shopping Center. The major attraction here is the Big Save Market and the McDonald's on the corner. I had the "Big Breakfast" at Mickey D's then wondered around the shopping center for 20 minutes looking to purchase pen to replace the one I'd lost down at the harbor.
Hanapepe. One of the only non-plantation towns on the island, Hanapepe was founded by a community of immigrant rice farmers from China in the late 1880s. Most of these young farmers were bachelors who had to put up with a long work day in tropical heat, and then come home to face an drab existence lacking even prospect of female companionship. To cope, many of these men turned inward and began to "Chasing the dragon" (smoke opium). Re-introduced into China by the British to help balance its trade deficit, opium had worked its way into every nook and cranny of Chinese society, and these farmers were amoung the lowliest victims of the East India Trading Company's greed. During the first half of the last century, this penchant for opium smoking helped to foster Hanapepe's reputation for being a "den of iniquity." A rough-and-tumble place, where you didn't have to try too hard to lose all your money or get your ass kicked.
At that time, Hanapepe was the economic hub of the island, but slowly its economic prowess has been siphoned away by the advent of the large modern shopping malls in Lihue. Today the town is trying to reinvent itself as an artistic and tourist destination. I really like the area, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have the capital to refurbish the town enough to reinvigorate its reputation. 20 or 30 million bucks of redevelopment money could redefine this little neglected jewel and make it the tourist draw it longs to be.
Kauai Coffee Company is nearby on Route 530. There is virtually nothing else on the road except coffee trees, so the visitor center is hard to miss. The Kauai Coffee Company hands out free samples of coffee and offers tours of their plantation and very well-merchandized keepsakes in its gift shop. The company has a very eye-catching logo with an ephemeral hula girl materializing from the steam of a hot cup of Kauai Coffee, reminiscent of the images of "The Genie of the Lamp" from The Thousand and One Nights.
Towards Poipu. Turning off Highway 50 onto 53 "Maluhia Road" you head southeast to Koloa's Old Town and the beaches of Poipu. The first portion of the road is lined with century-old eucalyptus trees that have reached across the void to embrace each other, forming a cathedral-like ceiling. In the guidebooks they call it a tree tunnel, but that is far too crude a term for this, especially when there's a light rain and you can glimpse rainbows through the voids in the embrace.
Koloa's Old Town is what looks to be a completely refurbished plantation town. The first sugar mill opened here in the mid-eighteen hundreds and was the prototype for all the other mills that would spring up across the Islands. I tried to visit, but the place was always packed so I just did the slow drive by. Tourist buses crammed every parking space, while hordes of marauding visitors trudged through the humidity of mid-day, looking for just the right souvenir to complement their Perfect Hawaiian Vacation.
A few more miles south you will find Poipu.
A few more miles south you will find Poipu.
Poipu is the major tourist destination of the island, with giant resorts and giant prices to match. You'll find Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa Hotel, the Koloa Landing at Poipu Beach Wyndham Grand Resort, and other giants of the hospitality trade. The beaches here are filled with frolicking hordes of corn-fed tourists of every imaginable size and shape, determined to wring every ounce of fun out of their once-in-a-lifetime visit to paradise. I admire their ability to ignore the whispers and go for the gusto.
A few miles south on Lawai Road is Lawa'i Beach with its nice snorkeling area, frequented by the guests of many of the small hotels in the area, who cross the road willy-nilly, so watch out as you pass the spot.
A few miles farther on Lawai Road you'll come to the McBryde/Allerton Botanical Gardens. If you're interested in flora, then this will be a treat. You have to decide to do either the walking tour of McBryde (around $15) or the guided Allerton tour (around $35-45), where you'll encounter the prehistoric-looking Australian fig trees used in the movie Jurassic Park. Other locations were used in Pirates of the Caribbean. You probably need to be over 40 to enjoy this, but depending on your sophistication, maybe not.
Wild Chickens. No matter where you roam on the island, just pull over, park and look out your window. You'll find a mother hen and her baby chicks rooting away.
I did get a few good shots of some young surfer dudes, Kyle and Luke. These two were totally fit, running the trail carrying their surfboards with no huffing or puffing.