By Rex Armstead
When three generations look for somewhere to spend time together the options appear unlimited – until that is you really start to define exactly what the six-, thirty-six- and sixty-six-year-olds really want from their family vacation.
Having thoroughly enjoyed a previous vacation in Kauai, it was not difficult for the “wrinklies” to convince everyone that it was the perfect destination when the primary requirements were that it be somewhere safe but a little exotic; where we could all enjoy guaranteed warm weather and some “soft” adventure…and relax! We also did not want to break the bank by eating out all the time so accommodation with a good kitchen was essential, as we love good food. Nightlife was not big on the agenda but nature, beaches and snorkeling very definitely were.
Kauai is the most northerly, oldest and therefore most forested of the Hawaiian Islands. Aptly named the “Garden Isle” it boasts a varied climate that, because of its relatively small size, you can manage to your advantage. From lush tropical rain forests to arid near-desert you can almost choose your daily environment. If it’s too hot – take to the hills and rivers; raining – go west to dry Polihale; windy – go to the other side. An hour’s drive can significantly change your day and it all starts with Mount Wai’ale’ale, an extinct volcano rising over 1,500 metres roughly in the centre of the Island. One of the wettest places on earth Wai’ale’ale is usually shrouded in cloud and records over 10,000 mm of rain per year. But don’t worry about that – it doesn’t affect the beach areas and it’s actually a huge bonus as it feeds the unique, permanently flowing rivers.
Kauai’s gentle climate and lush environment are two of its greatest attributes and work their magic on young and old alike – refreshing both body and spirit so that in just a few short days the sought-after state of complete relaxation has been achieved. Our original schedule of trying to do two things each day rapidly declined to one per day and that soon became every other day as the beauty, beaches and balmy weather combined to make it just too much effort to do anything much more than just soak it all in – and enjoy being together as a family and doing those activities which worked for each of us at the time. Frequently a book for Grandad, sun for Mom and Grammy and the pool for Dad and six year-old Tristan and any friends he picked up along the way as kids always do.
If it is frenetic nightlife you yearn for, Kauai is probably not for you but what it does offer is the opportunity to experience and enjoy nature’s bounty your way. You can partake in virtually any outdoor activity at any level or just enjoy the slower rural pace and friendly people, or pamper yourself at one of the many spas. Of one thing you can be certain – at some point in your Kauai vacation you will, as recommended by Grammy, take a deep breath and exhale, shedding the pressure and worries of work and home – and replace them with a deep sense of peace, well being and contentment at being in one of the world’s most beautiful places. Rejuvenation cannot be far behind.
Where We Played
The North Shore: We stayed in the resort area of Princeville for six days and enjoyed the shopping in Princeville Center and Hanalei where Tristan got his bright red ukulele and we all enjoyed Kauai Nut Roasters crunchy delights. The Hanalei Valley, besides being truly beautiful and producing most of the state’s kalo (taro) is also a wildlife refuge with good birding. Tours of the farm are available.
While we enjoyed ‘Anini Beach (very safe) and Hanalei Bay, there are, literally, dozens of great beaches on the North Shore, some of which are renowned for surfing and the snorkelling can also be very good.
We spent a memorable afternoon at Na Aina Kai near Kilauea. The 97 hectares of gardens incorporate a hedge maze, a waterfall, a koi-filled lagoon, a forest of 60,000 hardwood trees, miles of trails and a secluded beach – all complemented by 130 carefully situated bronze sculptures by over 65 artists. The effect is amazing. Six different guided tours are available for groups no larger than ten and we chose the family tour, which includes the “Under the Rainbow” children’s garden where Tristan was able to safely unleash the energy he built up during the tour. Tours last two to five hours and cost between $20 and $85pp.
The Kauai Kunana Dairy outside Kilauea is a family run business and Ryan and Sarah Wooton take great delight in introducing you to their 60 ‘girls’ – a mixed herd of goats who chomp down happily on the supplied feed – and your sleeve. The males are kept way away by themselves as they are grumpy and smelly – Ladies, no comments please! A two-hour tour ($20pp) provides samples of their eight flavoured goat cheeses (the passion fruit is to die for) as well as tastings of more than a dozen varieties of exotic fruits picked as you stroll the certified organic farm.
The highlight of our time on the North Shore was Kilauea Lighthouse – a stunning combination of dramatic cliff and ocean scenery and superb bird watching with albatross, frigate birds, shearwaters, tropic birds and boobies too numerous to count. A great family excursion and worth every penny of the $5 entry.
The East Side: We only stopped once on the “Coconut Coast”, in Hanama’ulu early one morning to sign on for the Kauai Backcountry Adventures’ mountain tubing adventure. KBA have exclusive access to the 6,868 hectares of the Lihue Plantation, which stopped producing sugar in 2000, and the irrigation canals and tunnels dug circa 1870.
Arriving at the drop-in point, we donned our safety helmets and headlamps, mounted our tubes and were immediately off into our first tunnel, bouncing off the walls and each other accompanied by much laughter. This continued for the next, hour or so, until we reached the pull-out point where we dried off in clean field facilities and were served a good, make-your-own sandwich picnic lunch. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable morning for $102pp.
Lihu’e: Just below the Coconut Coast in the southeast corner is the county seat of Lihu’e. Here you will find the major shopping malls and department stores as well as the Kauai Museum, which is well worth a visit. At the Kilohana Plantation we had a delightful family lunch in the refurbished Gaylord’s Restaurant and then took the Kaua’i Plantation Train ride around the estate. Seeing how many of the exotic fruits we had enjoyed were actually grown and jumping down from the train to feed the pigs ranked well up Tristan’s list of favourites. We took the short ride but there is a two-hour one including lunch for those who want to learn more. Afterwards the ladies toured the shops while the men checked out the Koloa Rum free tasting room – all well worth a visit and very reasonably priced.(Train $18pp/children $13)
I have included the helicopter tour here as we boarded in Lihu’e. This year Jack Harter Helicopters, who started it all, celebrate 50 years of operating helicopters on Kauai. They are the only ones to offer full 60- and 90-minute tours, have moved the passenger seat to the right side to give the best view and on some flights have taken the doors off for a more exhilarating flight. According to Dad, the narrative was “fantastic” and unique to the pilot who was obviously a hiker and pointed out many of the trails and “secret” destinations including a picnic table at the top of a cliff. He would recommend taking the tour early in your vacation as the pilot gives all kinds of advice on the sites to see and how best to get there. The scenery, particularly the green walls and waterfalls of the Wai’ale’ale Crater are literally breathtaking – it’s an experience not to be missed unless you suffer from motion sickness, which, unfortunately, spoiled it for both Mom and Tristan.
Driving tip: when heading west out of Lihu’e try the more southerly and much more scenic backroads that take you past the Huleia Wildlife Refuge and Menehune Fishpond.
Kauai Back Country Adventures
The South Shore: We spent eight days in sunny Poi’pu – and were lucky enough to see five of the rare Monk Seals, one of whom the volunteers hoped was a pregnant female. Kudos to the volunteers who put rope barriers around the seals sleeping on the beaches – and the concerned citizens who drew lines in the sand before the volunteers got there to keep away the less informed tourists. Please stay well away!
By the time we reached our condo at Whalers Cove we were on Island Time and activities, aside from the ever-popular pool, had dwindled to one a day – maximum – and they were usually beach related. Excursions to Spouting Horn and Old Koloa Town were interspersed with visits to Baby Beach, Poi’pu Beach Park (the best) and almost deserted Maha’ulepu Beach.
There are good restaurants and shopping in Poi’pu, Koloa and the new, upscale Shops at Kukui’ula, part of a major new development completed just this year.
The West Side: Again our time was limited here and we did not explore the arid West Side beaches except for Salt Pond Beach where they still produce salt in evaporating ponds and where we stopped on our way to “must see” Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park. There are several lookouts at which you can stop, but Waimea Canyon Lookout, where you can watch Yellow-tailed Tropicbirds rejoicing in the thermals created by the 1,000-metre-deep canyon tops them all. Unless, that is, you drive further in – and you should – to the Kalalau and Pu’u o Kila Lookouts where you will be treated to awe-inspiring views of the uninhabited Napali Coast’s Kalalau Valley.
The Koke’e Museum is worth a visit and the adjacent nature trail should be as well but is in need of some maintenance. The park itself is beautiful with great hiking trails for all ages.
Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
Outdoors: This where Kauai truly comes into its own. There is not a single outdoor activity that cannot be enjoyed at its best in magnificent surroundings except jet skiing and paragliding which, thankfully, are both outlawed. While you may wish to bring some of your own gear – anything and everything is available for rent and it’s worth checking out a few locations as prices can vary considerably.
Water: Nowhere else in the Islands will you find the variety and quality of salt- and particularly freshwater, activities available on Kauai. From sunset sailing cruises and powerboat excursions to the fabled Napali Coast to paddle boarding and river or ocean kayaking; from swimming and snorkeling to scuba and SNUBA (no training necessary but you get to swim underwater!); big game to bass fishing; from boogie boarding to surfing and wind/kitesurfing – it’s all good and available if not necessarily cheap. Whale-watching is best from December to April and trips are also available to the ‘forbidden’ island of Nihau.
Land: Again the options are varied and exciting. Just driving at a leisurely pace and stopping at the many scenic lookouts is all well and good, but you can also shake your skeleton on a wild backcountry ATV trip; you can bike the flat first section of the coast path in Kapa’a or you can zoom down the Waimea Canyon Road and there are great mountain biking trails too; you can stroll through peaceful tropical gardens or zip-line the forest canopy. Municipal tennis courts are free but there are also private ones for rent; you can camp and go horseback riding.
When it comes to hiking, Kauai claims the best in the Islands; romantic sunset beach walks can be a daily ritual but there are hundreds of different hikes to suit all ages and abilities. Hiking to a waterfall is a “must do” but perhaps the most special is the 17-kilometre overnighter on the Napali Coast – the rugged Kalalau Trail. We limited ourselves to easy trails in Koke’e State Park that the whole family could enjoy and where the higher elevation kept things cool.
The golf is pretty good, too, with ten courses at seven venues to choose from. Not being golfers we can’t offer personal comment but suffice it to say that they are designed by some of the best (Nicklaus, Trent Jones Jr.), have received accolades from top golf publications and without doubt have some of the most beautiful locations in the world. Fees range from $50 on the Wailua municipal course to $240 at Princeville and Po’ipu.
Air: According to Andrew Doughty, author of the Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, “visiting Kauai and not taking a helicopter trip is like going to the Sistine Chapel and not looking up.” There are numerous helicopter and airplane tours available and you can also fly on a powered hang glider or go skydiving. All you need is a strong stomach.
The Finer Things
Dining: There is no question Kaua’i is home to some really good restaurants representing cuisine from around the world with a strong Asian influence. However, we found dining out for the family a bit pricey so we compromised and frequently had lunch, which is much more reasonably priced, out and then cooked for ourselves in the evening. This also worked well for our grandson who got to sleep at a reasonable hour and still got read to every night – and for the adults who could occasionally get a night to themselves when one couple babysat and one went out.
Farmers’ Markets: Every day there is at least one market and sometimes three. County sponsored ones are called Sunshine Markets, but whatever they are called, the produce is invariably fantastic, albeit not cheap. Get there early if you can because the best sells out quickly. Roadside stands can also be good and we were lucky enough to be there when the lychees were in season. Buy a bag from a local kid sitting under a tree by the side of the road and enjoy a true seasonal delicacy.
Spas: From ultra high-end luxury spas and “well-being” centres in the major resorts to local in-home massage, the choice is plentiful and varied.
Where We Stayed
Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas: Arriving late at night the Heavenly Beds got thumbs up all around and waking to a tropical early morning of sun and birds, including the ubiquitous Kauai rooster, got the vacation off to a perfect start.
With 350 rooms (villas) in seven buildings nestled in seven lush hectares on a bluff 61 metres above ‘Anini beach on Kauai’s North Shore, the Westin Princeville was a great choice with all the facilities our family could need: four pools, including a multi level main pool with whirlpool and hot tub, a keiki (children’s) pool with spouting honu (turtles) and slide (both great hits with Tristan) and an infinity pool looking out over the seemingly endless Pacific. A busy, almost hourly roster of activities, from feeding Koi to Poi Ball dancing; aqua aerobics to introductory scuba and surfing and a Westin Kid’s Club that features a Parent’s Night Out twice a week means no-one should feel left out or bored. Nanea restaurant, a pool bar, full health and spa facilities, a reasonably priced market, weekly farmer’s market and 22 poolside BBQ’s round out the on-site facilities
Whaler’s Cove Oceanfront Luxury at Poi’pu: Perched on a low, lava rock promontory between Koloa Landing (Whalers Cove) and Baby Beach, Whaler’s Cove perfectly met the requirements of our family (ohana) for the second half of our vacation: quiet and laid back with the sound of waves gently breaking on the rocks just a metre or two below the lawn, a nice pool with barbecues and conveniently located for magical Poi’pu Beach Park, Koloa Old Town and the new Shops at Kukuiula, as well as an easy drive to Waimea Canyon.
Our condominium was roomy, comfortable and well appointed and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful.
‘Sea-gazing’ was a major activity, if that is the right term. Green SeaTurtles (Honu) were regular visitors to the cove right next to our condo and we also watched one feeding on a seaweed-covered rock among snorkelers at Poi’pu. Birds in this area were less evident except for a regular flight of feeding shearwaters that appeared each day, but a pod of Spinner Dolphins entertained us for about 20 minutes. Fishermen, paddleboarders and outrigger canoes completed the entertainment
The complex has 38 one- and two-bedroom ocean-front units, most of which have been recently renovated, and has just added a completely renovated three-bedroom penthouse.
Getting There: Westjet offers direct flights from Vancouver four times per week in winter and weekly in summer, and US airlines offer direct flights from a number of US cities. The alternative is to fly into Honolulu.
Who Goes: Pure Kauai; Fun Sun Vacations; WestJet Vacations; Collette; Cosmos Vacations; Globus; Insight Vacations; Monograms; Air Canada Vacations
Information: www.kauai-hawaii.com; www.gohawaii.com/Kauai/about