By Jim Reynoldson
The cold, wet weather of home cranked up my anticipation to leave for Hawaii. My girlfriend, Stacy, had previously lived in Hawaii – but this would be my first trip. Perhaps some sun and water warm enough to swim would be just the thing to shake the extended-winter blues.
Kauai’s Waimea Canyon
Landing on Kauai, comically, the rain began to pour as we drove out of Lihue, toward Waimea Canyon. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’ve learned not to let the rain restrict my outdoor activities too much; so, we plunged ahead and were rewarded with dry (albeit cloudy) conditions.
On the islands of Hawaii, sun and rain often seem to dance –- gliding by one another and exchanging places with quiet grace. Such was the case on our visits to Kauai and Oahu, with heat often giving way to cooler rain, then cycling back again.
Ironically, my first stop on my first visit to the state of Hawaii was not a beach straight from a postcard, but a canyon that seems to be transplanted directly from the Desert Southwest. Waimea Canyon opens up as a wide crack through the island’s interior, painted in an array of earthen colors.
Conditions were hazy, but our hikes along the Iliau Nature Trail and Kukui Trail nevertheless afforded gorgeous views of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Embracing the Mud on Kauai’s North Shore
The Kalalau Trail into Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is often mentioned as one of the world’s most beautiful hikes. It did not take long to make a believer out of me. Within minutes of climbing the rocky path from the trailhead, we were treated to a view of the turquoise waters of Ke’e Beach below.
Soon, the rocky terrain gave way to thick, reddish mud – a constant companion for the rest of the hike. One exasperated hiker, as he passed by, shrugged and said, “I guess you just have to embrace the mud.”
A bit further along, the trail turns a bend and opens to views of the Na Pali cliffs – a setting so awe-inspiring it was used as the viewer’s first look at “Jurassic Park” in the film. The colors here amaze – from the red mud of the trail to the lush green vegetation to the stunning blues of the ocean below.
About two miles in (our furthest point before returning — the trail extends another nine miles), we were rewarded by the stunning Hanakapi’ai Beach. This postcard-perfect beach, cut into the craggy coastal cliffs, is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch –- but not for swimming. Strong currents make this an extremely dangerous spot, as evidenced by the numerous warning signs.
After the hike, we set about on a snorkeling adventure –– also a first for me — at Ke’e Beach. A bordering reef shelters the cove and provides a safe (yet relatively deep) pool for viewing numerous fish. On several occasions, we were face-to-face with sea turtles as well!
Overnight on Kauai’s East Coast
A short drive north of Lihue, we stayed overnight at the Kauai Sands Hotel (420 Papaloa Rd. in Wailua). For a very reasonable $50, we got a basic, functional room. A bit dated, the hotel nonetheless had grounds radiating retro charm (I could picture this place being the most swinging resort on Kauai’s eastern shore a generation or two ago!), and its location right on the beach is fantastic.
Splurging on one really nice dinner on Kauai, we chose the Hukilau Lanai restaurant (520 Aleka Loop in Kapa’a) and dined on a deliciously impressive array of butterfish, spearfish, moonfish, and cocktails (a cold fudge chocolate martini, among others).
Oahu’s North Shore
Hot, dry weather greeted us for the first half of the day exploring Oahu’s North Shore, turning to overcast and rainy as we rounded the east side and southward. Driving through the very surf-friendly town of Hale’iwa, we came upon a wildlife adventure at the aptly named Turtle Beach.
Two turtles lazily sunned themselves in the sand (ropes placed around them by a conservationist group supervising visitors in order to prevent contact).
Meanwhile, other turtles shared the surf with swimmers – checking each other out, but seemingly keeping a respectful distance.
After watching some surfing at the world-famous Banzai Pipeline, we started down the windward (eastern) side of Oahu. This is most definitely not the Oahu you see in brochures; these are small towns nestled between stunningly rugged mountains and pristine sandy beaches.
One of my favorite places on Oahu is not on the beach at all. The Valley of the Temples (inland from Kane’ohe Bay) is a solemn, peaceful respite from the often-frantic pace of travel. A collection of graveyards, shrines and temples, the valley rests at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains, with a view of the sea off to the east.
A replica of a Japanese Buddhist temple, the Byodo-In is the crown jewel of the valley. A bargain entry fee of $3 gained us admission to the grounds: koi-filled ponds patrolled by black swans and watched over by a giant Buddha, scores of doves, and even a rooting family of wild boars!
I bought a $1 package of food pellets to feed fish and bird alike, and ended up with a handful of tiny doves eating (literally) out of my hand.
Our second day on Oahu would return to the theme of land and sea. The hike to the Diamond Head Crater was hot, crowded, often-steep, and still worthwhile. The views in all directions are stunning – most notably of Waikiki and of the distant, ghostlike figures of Lana’i and Molikai to the east.
Weathered structures, facing seaward along the rim, speak of times (predating even World War I) when heavy artillery was at the ready to defend Honolulu from foreign threats.
That evening, we decided to try the opportunity (offered only one night per month) to snorkel in Hanauma Bay in the pitch dark. On the surface, the idea of exploring dark reefs with only an underwater flashlight sounded creepy and fascinating. The reality was that the bay was too shallow and chaotic in the dark to really enjoy the experience to its full potential.
Oahu’s Leeward Side
Our drive past Pearl Harbor to the leeward side of Oahu showed us contrasting views of the island. The perfectly manicured grounds of the Ka-Olina Resort provided some decent, safe snorkeling in the four man-made lagoons. While most families enjoyed the sandy shallows, we had the rock pilings (built up as shelter from the waves) mostly to ourselves.
Driving northwest up the coast, grandiose homes exist side by side with small, dilapidated houses. Perhaps more striking were the tent cities of the homeless right along the coast, each with a million-dollar view of the ocean. The plight and location of the homeless in Hawaii has been an ongoing controversy.
Not geared toward tourism, the locals enjoy some pretty fantastic beaches all the way up to Ka’ena Point. Here, the paved road ends (replaced by a pretty dicey dirt road) with gorgeous views of the northwest tip of the island extending out.
It is here at Yokohama Bay that I found some of the nicest snorkeling. A very narrow cove of ridiculously clear-blue water, with sun shining down through it onto white sand, created the highest-definition snorkeling experience of the trip.
On the way back down the coast, we stopped for another snorkeling adventure – at “Electric Beach.” The power plant across the road expels heated water that attracts fish. The surf was a bit choppy, which made for a fun bit of bobbing.
While the snorkeling was interesting, it was clear from the groups going out in scuba gear and spear guns that spear fishing is incredibly popular here.
We ended the evening just west of Pearl Harbor, at Germaine’s Luau. Always a tourist trap, but fun nevertheless, this luau was (relatively speaking) one of the most reasonably priced on Oahu at $72. On scenic grounds (right on the ocean), we dined on kalua pig, sipped syrupy drinks, and watched a good show – the Samoan fire-dance by far the highlight.
Oahu’s Southeast Corner
Completing our tour of Oahu on our last day, Stacy’s Dad volunteered to play the role of tour guide. He and his wife hosted us for our stay on Oahu in a wonderful home overlooking the beaches between Diamond Head and Koko Head craters.
Rain and wind did not prevent the locals from enjoying the beaches, and we were game as well, boogie boarding at Bellows Beach (located on an Air Force Base). Bellows is a gorgeous stretch of turquoise sea and pristine sand, shallow and gradual enough to make it feel quite safe for playing in the water.
We continued our tour by visiting the kayak haven of Kailua Beach with its small offshore islands, gawking at the windy-but-breathtaking views from the Pali Lookout, and visiting Pearl Harbor.
Returning to the mainland that evening from a Hawaiian vacation that flew by, I was exhausted but satisfied that we’d been ambitious in experiencing what Kauai and Oahu had to offer, by land and by sea.
Photo by Stacy Bengtson
Jim Reynoldson is a freelance writer and an avid traveler in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
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