Boarding happened in record time. The first rows were called at 10 AM, and all passengers were boarded — with seatbacks and tray tables in their fully upright and locked positions — by 10:12.
“This isn’t the flight you want to miss,” the gate agent said as she scanned our tickets.
SAN >> LIH.
It was Thanksgiving Day when Ryan and I flew Alaska Airlines direct from San Diego to Lihue, Hawaii, our first trip to the island of Kauai. An excellent bit of luck to kick off the journey? (Aside from the passionfruit juice spiked by a fun-sized vodka bottle?) An exit row with reclining seats all to ourselves.
When we landed, there was a wild rooster at the Avis rental place, the first of Kauai’s many iconic feral chickens we would see along the roads, by the pool, sneaking into a minivan…
If Maui is the “Valley Isle” and Oahu is the “Gathering Place,” then Kauai is the “Garden Isle.” The place is absolutely shaggy with greenery at every turn: hibiscuses in every color, banyans with aerial prop roots stopped in mid-air, radiant tree tunnels that are crawling with vines of pothos and philodendron — vines as thick as fists and leaves the size of spare tires.
Kauai is a place of geological immediacy, a place of dramatic scales. You’ll see lichen threading itself around the branch of a tree growing on the sheer edge of Waimea Canyon, a colossal bowl coated in a patchwork of green and red. (Mark Twain is credited with calling Waimea Canyon “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” but that nugget’s apocryphal.) Wet, wild storms followed by shocking stillness. Albizia trees (Paraserianthes falcataria) are dangerously invasive and yet dreamy in the distance with their spreading flat crowns; its timber is soft and its frequently snapping branches are deadly.
The green-carpeted mountains dominating the interior of the island overlook sapphire waves; you can almost make out the blades of grass while standing in the water.
At six million years old, Kauai is the oldest of the main Hawaiian islands. It’s small enough so that one-way drives max out at 2.5 to 3 hours — so long as you don’t get stranded on the wrong side of a North Shore flood, which can detain travelers for days at a time. (Thanks to the rugged Na Pali Coast, you can’t drive all the way around this circular island.) We tried to see and do everything we could in the five-and-a-half days we were there…
Here are our top 10 favorite moments, more or less in chronological order — from a hike with breathtaking views and fruit foraging to a farmland B&B to a hotel with horticulture at its heart. In the next few weeks we’ll bring you in-depth tours and interviews, but for now, let’s take a dip…
1. Sunset at Hanalei Bay
After a summer and fall of verrrrrry cold waters at the beaches in San Diego, I was excited to dip my toes in what some friends had called “body-heat beaches.”
Womb-temperature water!? Sign me up.
After our flight landed a little after 2:00 PM HST, we dropped our bags at the hotel and made a beeline for Hanalei Bay, a sensuous incurve on the North Shore. “Did you see Puff?” Our Instagram friend asked us. “We saw him frolicking,” we said, adding a dragon emoji.
On our way there we grabbed an acai bowl and a fresh, fresh, fresh papaya/banana/mango juice from Aloha Juice Bar, a colorful roadside stand. For all intents and purposes, this was our Thanksgiving dinner.
“You bruise, you buy,” read the sign at the stand, which also sold fruit.
At long last, it was time to take my new bathing suit for a spin swim. And quickly, before the sun slipped down behind the mountains.
And the water was…
The water. That water was…
It was freeeeezing!
But we still had a few days — and many more miles of coastline — to go. The only problem was, a raging storm was in the forecast…
2. The Grand Hyatt Kauai
The next morning we got our first full dose of plant education on the exuberant grounds of the Grand Hyatt Kauai. The resort (which kindly put us up for a night) is, plant-wise, breathtakingly imagined.
But first, on our way to the South Shore town of Poipu where the Grand Hyatt is located, we drove through the famed Tunnel of Trees. Located at the start of Highway 520, this magical one-mile canopy consists of 500 eucalyptus trees originally bestowed to the community by pineapple baron Walter McBryde in 1911; the trees have since been colonized by those aforementioned gigantic climbing monstera.
We half expected the tunnel would spit us out into the Jurassic Era.
Instead, we eventually landed in the center of the Grand Hyatt’s wonderland of flora that winds its way from the wide, breezy entrance through the lobby, between and betwixt the pools and lagoons and down to the beach. They included red and green ti plants, extravagantly forked hala trees (including a striking variegated variety), pink cone ginger, towering traveler’s palms, crotons in blazing shades, taro, Hawaiian chili peppers, kukui nut and plumeria trees. The latter’s flowers, scattered on the ground like confetti, just invite you to stick one behind your ear; scents range from buttered buns to a sweet, fleshy musk. And then there were the hedges and hedges of beach naupaka (Scaevola taccada), whose white flower appears to have only half its petals.
There’s a tragi-romantic myth that explains for the naupaka’s appearance, which we’ll get into when we bring you the complete tour — coming soon!
3. Snorkeling in the South
The East Side and the North Shore are on the “windward” side of the island, and tend to be wetter and cooler. The South Shore and the West Side are on the “leeward” side, characterized by warmer, dryer weather.
We stuck around in the south, in Poipu, to do some snorkeling before the storm (predicted to hassle the entire island) was due to hit. We rented gear and gawked underwater in Waiohai Beach, which was full of fluorescent fish. We didn’t spot any turtles in the water, but we did see lots of yellow butterflyfish, long skinny cornetfish, orange band surgeonfish and also the state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a!
The snorkeling got even better a few days later, when we moved a down the road to Lawaii Beach, where we shot this video:
After our Waiohai session, we headed to Lava’s, where we drank handcrafted mai tais as Tony Bennett’s “The Christmas Song” played from the sound system. (Is a better pairing even possible? We don’t think so.)
A little finch missing its left foot hopped around our booth, foraging for crumbs. We ordered a delicious mahi mahi fish and chips, just in time for the storm to show up as promised — a wet, wild, leafy dinner theater that played out just a few yards away from our table.
We visited a few coffee shops on the island, and our hands-down favorite is Small Town Coffee Co. in Kapa’a, a hippie town on the East Side. Their coffee and espresso are excellent, as are their breakfast dishes that include tasty sandwiches and a dish called the Happy Hippie, half of a papaya filled with yogurt and granola, with a side of buttered maple toast.
5. North Country Farms
We swung back up to the North Shore, to Kilauea, to visit the four-acre organic family farm and CSA — with two bed-and-breakfast cottages! — that is North Country Farms. Crops include big, beautiful pomelos, papayas, avocados, several varieties of lettuce, arugula, Ethiopian kale, Swiss chard, and some of the best bananas (apple bananas) we’ve ever had. And guests can graze for breakfast!
The rain was pouring for most of the morning, but that only made the visit feel all the more like an adventure. The property is helmed by New England-raised Lee Roversi, who opened the farm more than two decades ago after moving to Kauai from New York City. (The farm cat, Curly, is almost as old as the house the family built.)
It’s a slice of heaven that can’t be done justice in this roundup — so stay tuned for a full, delicious, veggie-filled tour in a few weeks.
6. The Na Pali Coast
Undeterred by the rain, we headed further into the North Shore, toward for the green cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, whose beauty beggars description. Due to the weather, we weren’t able to hike it, but we were able to explore Ke’e Beach, where the road ends and Kalalau Trail begins.
7. Kauai Fresh Farms
Despite the island’s in-your-face-fecundity, something like 90 percent of the produce consumed on Kauai is imported. Working to turn around that statistic is North Country Farms (see #5) and Kauai Fresh Farms, also on the North Shore, which hydroponically grows much of the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and basil found at Kauai’s restaurants, markets and resorts.
Another stop on the tram tour included a wandering among the organic orchard, growing 13 varieties of avocado, Meyer lemons, tangelos, Kadota figs, breadfruit, apple bananas, and a variegated lemon that we will dream about forever.
Oh, and a community garden and permaculture-guided food forest!
Did we mention that’s where we saw our first bona fide Hawaiian rainbow? Watch this space for even more glorious shots and details…
8. Full-On Fruits
We came to Kauai with plans to do some serious fruit hunting. On Haena State Park Beach on the North Shore, Ryan picked up a noni — a white, potato-shaped fruit and coffee relation (Morinda citrifolia) that turns translucent as it ripens. It also smells and tastes like a Stilton cheese that’s been left out in the sun.
On the flip side, though, it’s excellent for joint stiffness, burns, pain and overall skin health, we learned a few days later at the Hawaiian Organic Noni booth at the Kilauea farmer’s market. The Noni Lavender lotion worked like a charm on my mosquito bites, as did squeezing the fruit directly onto my skin.
But onto yummier fruits. It was on Kauai that we ate our first longans. Dimocarpus longan is a tropical fruit related to the lychee; fruits are contained inside a thin tan shell and the translucent flesh that coasts the seed tastes like cream soda. It is one of the most delicious objects we’ve ever eaten.
At the farmer’s market, we also picked up star apples, star fruit (excellent garnish for champagne cocktails during the holidays…), tangelos and abiu. With these fruits in our back seat, we practically danced our way through the rest of our trip.
Oh, and there was also the matter of the muffin — studded with macadamia nuts, stuffed with chunks of mango — that we had at Sweet Marie’s gluten-free bakery in Lihue. It was so fantastic we had to get a second one for the road.
We now understand where Rawvana gets her mojo.
9. National Tropical Botanical Garden
Another mind-expanding horticulture excursion, our visit to the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the South Shore schooled us on Hawaii’s often-threatened native plants (they’re not what you think!), on beautiful-but-dangerous invasives (et tu, African tulip tree?) and on the 12 or so “canoe plants” brought over by the Polynesians that are now so closely associated with Hawaii that you’d be shocked to know they aren’t endemic.
Believe it or not, kukui — of the iconic nut necklaces and oily light source — is one of them. It’s also invasive.
The others might surprise you. Mike DeMotta, Assistant Director of Living Collections & Horticulture at the gardens, gave us a fantastic fact-packed tour that you won’t want to miss — another story we’re working on for you!
10. Waimea Canyon
Very early in the morning of our Waimea Canyon trip, there was a flash flood warning for parts of Kauai, but luckily our hike through the canyon was filled with blue skies and jaw-dropping views. The paths were muddy (I slipped and fell and contracted what’s known in hiking circles as “mud butt”) and flooded in parts, but we were able to walk a path while foraging strawberry guava (the same Psidium cattleianum that the wild parrots in our ‘hood are so fond of) from the trees that grew abundantly along the way.
We ended our canyon trip at the Waimea Canyon lookout, where we stood and stared, and stared, and stared at the 11-mile-long, 3,000-foot-deep spectacle until we were swallowed by the clouds. How do you describe a gaping green and red cavity in the Earth such as this? We’ll just let the photos speak for themselves…