I have always assumed that Hawaii would be a nice place to visit, but it had never been somewhere I really cared to see. I suppose that, being that it’s part of the United States, I never saw it as exotic so much as another so-called tourist trap.
Despite that, J and I decided we needed to get out of town to somewhere hot for a couple weeks in the winter, and so we picked the tropical locale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Indecisive as to which island we wanted to see, we chose to split our time between Hawaii Island (the “Big Island”) and Kauai.
Within minutes of landing, any preconceived notions I had of Hawaii were washed away by aquamarine water.
We wasted no time on our first day hitting the beach. A short path found us at a secluded slice of sand on the west side of Hawaii Island at the fiercely local Honomalino Bay.
We decided to ditch the idea of a hotel and picked a cute and cozy vacation rental instead. Each day we were greeted by jungle birds, day geckos, wild turkeys and far more local fruit than we could even try to eat in a week – courtesy of our hosts. Did I mention we were staying on a mango farm?
One thing on my “must do” list? A horseback ride. Thankfully I found a family-run farm that was willing to take J and I for a ride to a private beach for a morning snorkel and lunch. Our guide was totally amazing, taught us so much about the Island (his mom’s family had been there since the 1850s) and even shimmied a coconut tree so I could experience the freshest coconut water imaginable.
(Be jealous of my slicked horse-riding hair.)
It’s safe to say that we both favoured the Kona Coast – the sunnier, west side of the island. However, we found the time to make our way the lush, green Hilo side. Akaka Falls is a must-see.
The infamous Saddle Road crosses the island in between volcanic summit and is, hands down, the most beautiful drive I have ever taken. It’s misty, foggy and somewhat eerie when beginning on the Hilo side, expanding to views towards the Pacific Ocean that seem other-worldly.
On J’s must-see list? Volcanoes National Park. To be honest, it wasn’t something I was psyched on but my mind was totally blown once we actually saw a glowing chasm of lava. To see the earth literally being created before my eyes was breathtaking.
We spent an entire day at the park; hiking, learning about how the Hawaiian islands were formed, and the legends and tales about the volcanoes that are so important to the Hawaiian people.
On our last full day on Hawaii Island, we rented a kayak to paddle across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook monument. Our morning was spent diving under the sparkling sea surface to the world below. While this week was my first time snorkeling – ever – J has explored as far away as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. That said, he told me that nothing can begin to compare to the ocean life encircling Hawaii.
As we made the return paddle across the bay, subtle splashes caught our eyes. Within a heartbeat, our kayak was surrounded by no less than 200 spinner dolphins, splashing, diving, flapping their fins and putting on a show for us.
I didn’t take photos. I was too busy crying. It was something so beautiful that I will never again experience.
And our last afternoon? I needed to hit the beach one last time, so we dug our toes into the sand at Hookena Beach.
The next day we boarded a quick pair of flights to Kauai, skipping through Honolulu on the way. As much as I wanted to be psyched to be on Kauai, I fell madly in love with Hawaii Island – hard. I missed our cottage and the ocean views. It felt like home. On Kauai, we found ourselves at a four-star resort outside of Lihue that did nothing but consistently disappoint.
However, less-than-stellar accommodations only encouraged us to go out and explore Kauai. It’s one of the smaller islands in the chain, and the horseshoe-shaped highway is only about 80 miles from end to end, so we saw it all on our first day.
The north shore of Kauai felt quite quaint and familiar – like a combination of Tofino and Hornby Island – especially the town of Hanalei.
Feral chickens and roosters roam freely on Kauai, and I heard that they outnumber the human population about 5-to-1. No joke.
Edged by fantastic beaches for surfing and sunning, Hanalei is as “earthy” as you’d expect. I couldn’t resist the pull of the farmers’ market, offering picked fruit, ice cold coconuts chopped open in front of your eyes and home-baked cookies. Yup, even gluten free. We bought $10 worth.
At the other end of the highway is Polihale State Park. Little did we realize until after that our car rental contract prohibited us from visiting this park with its rough entrance road off the highway. Luckily we had a Jeep and so we decided to ignore that minor contractual detail.
I felt very fortunate to spend my 32nd birthday on Kauai. The weather on the morning of was overcast but warm, so we decided to take the advice of the 70-something traveler we’d met the night before and bought tickets to one of the most touristy attractions you could imagine.
The Fern Grotto boat cruise floats vacationers along the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto, complete with Hawaiian musicians, hula dancers and story telling. The grotto itself was stunning… verdant with wild ginger and vibrant flowers.
Following the boat tour, we stopped in a Kamokila Village – a replica of an authentic Hawaiian village that’s been used in quite a few movies. Across the river was the field made famous by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Start the plane. Start the plane!” Remember?
That evening, in honour of my 32nd, my number one surprised me with an amazing local dinner at The Beach House in Poipu. Our ocean view from the best seat in the house was framed with coconut palms while my hand was never without a strong Mai tai in it. When in Rome, right?
Following a gut-busting meal, in move that was sweeter than the chocolate lava cake we’d had for dessert, J and I became engaged. The details are all, naturally, between he and I so I won’t be sharing them. But rest assured it was all very romantic and lovely, complete with tiki torches and an ocean breeze.
One of my absolute favourite days on Kauai was spent hiking. From the parking lot at Ke’e Beach on the north shore, those adventurous and willing enough can make the trek into the wilds of the Na Pali coast. Accessible only by foot, air or boat, this untouched 16-mile stretch of coastline blew me away. We decided on an 8-mile round-trip hike to Hanakapiai Falls and it was the most exciting, energizing day I’ve experienced in a long time.
Because so much of Kauai has not been developed, if you stay on the ground you’ll experience maybe 20% of what there is to see.
J convinced me that a helicopter tour was worth the hefty price tag and he was right. Viewing the ocean, farmers’ fields and the cliffs of Bali Hai from a bird’s eye view was something I won’t soon forget.
When Rebecca and John came back from Maui at the end of the summer, she told me that returning to reality from Hawaii was “depressing”. I assumed that she must be slightly exaggerating, but rest assured she was not.
I sleep, eat, dream, mourn over and wish for more Hawaii. I eat coconut and pineapple like it’s going out of style. I listen to Native FM on my headphones at work.
Hawaii wasn’t just a nice place to visit. It was entirely perspective-changing.
You can view all of the photos from our trip in my Flickr set.