Saturday, August 29, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 5: In which we test our adventuring mettle

Outbound view on Kalalau Trail
Friday, August 14, 2015

We knew that hiking the legendary Kalalau Trail, or at least the first two miles of it, was a must-do for our vacation.  The first section of the trail extends from Ke'e beach, which is the end of the Kuhio highway on the island's north side, to Hanakapi'ai beach, which is only accessible via water or the trail.  Less certain for us was the idea of extending our hike by taking the Hanakapi'ai Valley Trail, which is another two miles (each way) from the beach to the eponymous waterfall.  Four miles doesn't sound like much, but various online and print guides described this trail as "difficult," "technical," "can be dangerous," and "for those with the time and endurance."  We had never hiked longer than 6.5 miles together, and that was on two instances: 1) the Awaawapuhi trail from two days prior, and 2) a Pinnacles National Monument trail a couple years prior.  Eight miles with "technical" stretches seemed like, well, a stretch, even with our newlywed honeymoon enthusiasm (go team!).

Near the beginning
The outbound Kalalau hike provides quick satisfaction, as a rapid ascent up along the cliff soon offers big "oohs" and "aahs."  Footing had to be careful, but not dangerously so since we had a dry day.  Crazy views of the coastline and the otherworldly iridescence of the blue water far below:

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Eventually it's a downward hike with switchbacks to the beach, which was quite full of hikers relaxing, and to my surprise also contained a large number of rock towers.  Evidently these are created by hikers, though if I remember correctly, the ancient Hawaiians also made larger rock towers as tributes to the god Lono.

This beach is where the Hanakaipi'ai stream (from the waterfall) flows into the ocean, and it's all very idyllic:

For some unclear reasons involving a back-and-forth of "What do you want to do?" and "Maybe we should try it?" and "Are you sure?," we decided to try out the valley trail to the waterfall.  We initially thought we'd just hike to a point where we could get a glimpse of the waterfall, but as the trail progressed, the waterfall was nowhere in sight, and my mood worsened noticeably.  Let's just say that I was not at my finest in terms of maturity, but reacted by stubbornly insist that we "hike it out."  It was mostly to prove that we could, since we'd already come so far, and we both felt it would be a shame if we didn't get to see the waterfall after all that effort.  (And, I admit, I didn't want to be a wimp.)

Fast forward through a lot of muddy rocks, many pounds of fallen/smashed/rotting guava adding to the slippery terrain (and sometimes perfuming the air nicely if mockingly), much maneuvering over and between boulders, and a couple stream crossings.  We finally got to a point where were quite near to the waterfall and could see it clearly.  This was tantalizingly close to the actual end of the trail, where the waterfall meets its pool below and originates the stream; we were maybe an eighth of a mile away or less, based on later study of the trail map.

Look!  The waterfall!  Let's be extra chipper for a selfie!
But after glancing up the trail and seeing an even more imposing stretch of smooth rock waiting to be climbed, and my involuntary whimper in response, we decided the risk of injury had become too great.  (Actually, I cried a little and said "This is no longer fun."  Andrew was very reassuring about this outburst.)  And so we sat on some rocks in the beautiful stream with terraced pools and smaller waterfalls all around, soaked our feet in the bubbles of clear water, ate granola bars, and reapplied sunscreen.

Best foot spa ever
My husband would, at this time, like to offer his account of this hike, which runs as follows: "We made it [to the waterfall]. It was beautiful, it was paradise, and we recommend it to everyone." (He also thinks that "Operation Kauai Thunder" is a terrible name for an operation.)  We did originally agree that this single staunch sentence would be our shared story from Kalalau day, but my guilt at having actually cried during our hike necessitates the absolution of writing a more honest account for my ~7 readers.

After the bubbly paradise of the hike's midpoint, we turned back toward the beach. At one point we encountered a family with two kids, around 10 years of age, and saw that the daughter had apparently fallen and hit her head on a rock.  She was very upset but seemed physically fine aside from a couple scrapes on her legs, so after a couple easy questions about vision (normal), dizziness (none), pounding headache (none), and nausea (none), we continued along the trail.  Hopefully she was completely recovered after a few more minutes, and I didn't forget to ask anything obvious!

We made it back to Hanakapi'ai beach relatively efficiently, only getting one shoe each soaked during the stream crossings.  At the beach we paused for some more sunscreen and bandaids-on-blisters, and then headed uphill back toward Ke'e beach.  At this point the sun felt particularly strong, along with the humidity - the sea breezes don't extend inland to the valley area near the beach - and we realized that we should have packed more water.  There were two attractive trickles of freshwater coming down to the trail around the last (first) mile, but we didn't think it wise to drink that without filtration.

Fortunately, with some breaks, the eventual strong breezes along the cliffside, and some water rationing, we made it back to the trailhead. Our lunch, packed in a cooler in the car trunk, included some pineapple that tasted like the best fruit imaginable.

It was close to 3:00 pm when we finished, or nearly six hours after we had started.  That works out to about 1.25 miles per hour, which is rather slow, but I think respectable given the climate and trail difficulty, and we passed far more groups than passed us.  Would I do it again?  The first section of the Kalalau trail, definitely yes, as those views can only be seen from the trail or by boat or plane (or helicopter) tour.  With the Hanakapi'ai trail extension, possibly, but with strong caveats: I would want to bring a spare pair of hiking socks in addition to the ones I wore, which were already helpful; an additional 16+ oz of water each; and more mental preparation for the out-and-back nature of the trail.  It might have been good to pack lunch and actually eat that at the midpoint instead of snacking in the middle and eating a late lunch afterward.  Wearing reliable hiking shoes was key (I couldn't believe it when we saw some outbound hikers in flip-flops during our return hike), as was having a great hiking partner.  I will say without reservation that, even with the frustrations mid-trail, it was ultimately a fun adventure to share with Andrew, and I'm very happy that we "conquered" it together.

On our way back to the apartment we stopped at Hee Fat General Store in old town Kapa'a for the first of several shave ices during the weekend.  This store has some of the best shave ice on the island, which I think is because of the fine, powdery ice and also the option for syrups made from real fruit.  Over the next few days we tried the guava, mango, passionfruit, pineapple, and coconut flavors (you can get up to four at once), and always with vanilla macadamia nut ice cream at the bottom.  One shave ice is plenty big enough to share.

For dinner that night we got takeout from Kauai Family Cafe, which advertises local and Filipino food. The restaurant is not much to look at, but prices are very reasonable and the generously-portioned food is delicious.  We got Kalua pork (served with rice and half of a very ripe, bright orange mango) and vegetarian Pancit noodles, and ate all of it with some steamed vegetables and local beer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 4: Na Pali sail and tea at Hanalei

Thursday, August 13, 2015

We drove south again today, this time to the boat harbor in Port Allen, for our sail and snorkel trip on the Na Pali coast.  We had booked a tour with Captain Andy's company based on its solid reviews online, and because the 65-foot catamarans provide a smoother sailing experience than smaller boats or rigid hull inflatables.  The boat felt reasonably but not excessively full, with a mix of couples and families (and some fortunately well-behaved children).  In addition to the skipper, Captain Bernard, there were three other crew members on board (Luke, Heather, and Roy).  All were confident, helpful, and funny.  The cabin area was spacious enough for everyone to stow their bags, and there was plenty of cushioned seating on the exterior decks.  Andrew and I quickly discovered that the upper-level navigation deck had a great seating area that felt quieter than the main deck, so we sat there for most of the tour.

Cinnamon buns, pineapple, and coffee started off the trip as we left Port Allen.  Off the southern coast, near the old sugar mills, we found a big pod of spinner dolphins that are apparently regular inhabitants of those waters.  Some were sleeping, but quite a few were happy to frolic in the breakwater coming from the boats, and provided an exciting show.  We rounded the bend to the U.S. Navy property and then Polihale Beach, and then began our trip up along the Na Pali.  After the buttery white brightness of Polihale Beach, the cliffs are jarring in their beauty.  I'll let pictures do the talking.

Eventually, the crew unfurled the sails, and we sailed south along the coast until we had returned to the designated snorkeling spot.  This was my first time snorkeling, so I was glad of the crew's short lesson (and the fact that Andrew is an experienced snorkeler), and of the calm, clear water in the cove.  There weren't very many fish, but certainly enough to make it interesting, and the adequate depth meant that I didn't have to worry about accidentally hitting coral.  After this first snorkel experience I was definitely excited for more.

Lunch on the boat was a delicious barbecue spread of burgers (or chicken), cole slaw, baked beans, drinks, and eventually some freshly baked macadamia nut cookies.  We basked in the sun for the bumpier ride back to Port Allen.

After cleaning up and resting a bit at the apartment, we then drove north to Princeville, thus nearly circumnavigating the island in one day.  I had made a reservation for afternoon tea at the St. Regis Princeville, which is apparently the only place for afternoon tea on Kauai.  As such, I didn't have great expectations, but we had heard that this hotel, which overlooks Hanalei Bay and the ocean beyond, was possibly the best place on the island to watch a spectacular sunset.

Tea was set up at a low table in the living room-like bar area, facing the picture windows with the valley and bay view.  We chose English Breakfast and Chai teas (bagged but still quite good, with hot water proferred regularly), and also shared a glass of champagne.  Sandwiches were roasted vegetable, roast beef, curried chicken, smoked chicken, smoked salmon, salmon with cucumber, and another which I'm forgetting.  A couple were on the dry side, but all the flavors were clear.  Next came an assortment of scones: chocolate chip with lime zest, pineapple, and guava, served with clotted cream, lemon curd, raspberry preserves, and orange marmalade.  I liked that our server, Jeffrey, paced out the courses in a leisurely but still careful fashion, and also suggested that we take some of the scones home so that we could fully enjoy the desserts.

The scones were excellent, especially the guava scone, and I was happy that they made Andrew's first afternoon tea experience a successful one.  (This, despite the fact that toward the end of tea I made a clumsy movement and knocked over the champagne, some of which spilled into Andrew's half-full teacup.  Kind husband that he is, he gallantly insisted that this new beverage blend tasted fine.)

We finished with an assortment of tarts and other desserts: pineapple tart, mango tart, guava macaron, coconut macaroon, chocolate cream tart (with dark chocolate pearls), lemon meringue tart, mixed fruit tart, and some chocolate cake.  With the exception of the chocolate cake, which was forgettable, the tarts were all freshly made, appropriately delicate and flavorful, and generally pleasing to these fruit tart fans.

After tea, we decided to move to the seating area on the terrace, having heard that it would become very crowded right before the sunset. It was still quite warm and humid as we sat down outside, but sure enough, the place filled up rapidly as the temperature dropped. Eventually we decided on two Mai Tais (their signature drink, and indeed well-made), and watched the entire valley and oceanscape fill with a rich golden-pink glow.

The sunset was every bit as lovely as we had hoped, and we finally headed home after the nightly champagne sabering: amusing if gimmicky, as the director of food and beverage services somehow tied together the St. Regis' champagne sabering tradition with the ancient Hawaiians' tradition of lighting fires on the Na Pali cliffs and tossing burning brands into the ocean to welcome visiting royalty into Hanalei Bay.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 3: Awaawapuhi and Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon
Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Today was our first "adventure" day. We got an early start with a hearty breakfast at the Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee Company: great coffee, as expected, with French toast and an egg scramble.  The drive up Waimea Canyon Road to the Awaawapuhi trailhead at Mile 17 took a lot longer than expected, because it's very winding and sometimes narrow, but there are plenty of scenic lookouts along the way.  We were the third car in the parking area and started hiking around 9:00am. The first part of the trail is through a forested area and quickly transitions into muddy and slippery downhills. Then it levels off somewhat, and views of the surrounding valley and coast start to emerge.  The last section of the trail is quite dry and sunny.

About 2/3 of the way to the lookout

The destination is the Awaawapuhi lookout, which feels like a lookout on the edge of the world.  On the left (south) side is the lush green valley, with a red dirt cliff edge.  On the right (north) side is a dark, forboding-looking cliff, with its top shrouded in clouds.  Directly in front is the open ocean.

Awaawapuhi lookout
Cliffs on the north side
It's quite a spot for a pineapple break and some bird watching before the mostly-uphill hike back to the trailhead, though the uphill muddy stretch was in some ways easier to maintain safe footing than the downhill.

Total mileage was 6.5.  On the return hike we passed about eight other hiking groups, and the parking lot was full at the trailhead, so getting an early start is a wise idea.

Beautiful tropical plants abound.
On the way back down Waimea Canyon Road, we stopped alongside the road for one view of the canyon, and again at the Waimea Canyon Lookout at Mile 11.  This spot affords a spectacular view of much of the canyon, and it's hard to adequately describe the variety of colors and shadows that saturate the panorama.  Mark Twain christened this canyon the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," and it's easy to see why, but at the same time I think the moniker doesn't do this landscape justice.

Wild chickens are everywhere on Kauai.
After returning to Hanapepe town, we stopped for a late lunch at Ishihara Market. Their hot lunch service had already ended, but fortunately the deli was happy to pack up some ahi poke, seaweed salad, and two scoops of rice for us to eat at the picnic tables outside.  Next, we drove to the original Lappert's ice cream shop and tried two of their signature flavors, including the Kauai pie (coffee ice cream with coconut, fudge, macadamia nuts, and a couple other add-ins). It was tasty but actually too sweet for my palate.  Adjacent was a Hawaiian sea salt company and also the Kauai Cookie Company (we liked the macadamia shortbread), and across the street was Wong's Chinese Restaurant, where we picked up a slice of their famous lilikoi (passionfruit) chiffon pie.

Dinner tonight was cooked at home and eaten on our lanai: ravioli with kale pesto and steamed vegetables, Old Fashioneds to drink, and the lilikoi pie for dessert after the sun had set.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Days 1 & 2

View from our condo's lanai
Monday, August 10, 2015

We left Sacramento early this morning and flew to Honolulu, then onward to Lihue airport on Kauai.  Hawaiian Airlines coach seats are definitely more spacious than most other airlines, which was a nice surprise.  Also, they actually served a warm breakfast (a small but reasonably tasty breakfast sandwich), later followed by a snack of Maui sweet onion potato chips, which happen to be a childhood favorite for me.

Lihue airport is rather adorable, and it's hard to believe that large jets coming directly from the West Coast can actually land there.  We had our checked bag and rental car keys in hand about half an hour after arrival, and quickly set off on Highway 50 north toward Kapa'a.  We ate our first local lunch of ahi tuna poke (delicious) and tako/octopus poke at Pono Market, then picked up sunscreen and hats at ABC Store (a local chain that is super convenient), groceries at Safeway.  Check-in at our condo, Wailua Bay View, consisted of filling out a little card saying "we're here," thus alerting the complex manager to leave a parking permit on our door.

For our first evening in Kauai we got fish tacos at Tiki Tacos, which were quite good, with a housemade thick corn taco that held up well to the very juicy fish and copious toppings.  That said, it's admittedly hard to be impressed with Mexican food when one lives in LA.  I got a much-needed and excellent haircut with Kimberly (her one-woman salon is called Shear Neveah), and then we picked up some more groceries at Foodland. The three-hour time difference put us to bed quite easily.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

We woke up early enough to watch the sunrise from our lanai.  It was slightly underwhelming today in that the morning was cloudy, but still turned out to be interesting because we saw several dramatic microclimates within a single hour: rainbows over the island, patches of blue sky above us, and contrasting patches of stormy rain over the ocean in the east.

Rainstorm in the distance
Around 9:30 we drove south to Kauai Coffee Company in Kalaheo.  It's the biggest coffee plantation in the United States and quite stunning, with the massive coffee fields extending toward the ocean on one side and running up against the mountain landscape on the other side.  There is an easy and educational self-guided walking tour and a tasting patio, with about 20 coffees available for [free] tasting.  For a coffee addict like Andrew and a growing coffee aficionado like myself, this was quite fun.  Shipping bags of beans to the mainland was also reasonable, so we did some of that and brought a couple more bags home with us.

Andrew taking close-ups of coffee berries

Our next destination was Lihue Airport for an airplane tour of the island. We had booked with Wings Over Kauai and were pleasantly surprised to learn that we would be the only passengers on our tour (their primary tour plane, the AirVan, seats six). Our captain, Josh, was both professional and friendly, and provided us with a beautiful ride and informative narration. It was particularly stunning to bank toward the Na Pali Coast and see it for the very first time, with its apparently endless cascades of verdant valleys contrasting with the jagged cliffs and the bright blue water below.   Similarly memorable was the flight over the Hanalei Valley, with too many waterfalls to count.

Na Pali Coast

Hanalei Valley

We'd definitely recommend this tour, as it was a good way to see the entire island and get even more excited for the excursions to come.  (Also, a flight tour is much less expensive than a helicopter tour, though the small planes can't fly as low in the valleys as the helicopters can.  This didn't bother us as we planned on hiking in the Na Pali and Waimea areas, anyway, but if we weren't going to hike then we might have considered a helicopter tour.)

Landing at Lihue Airport
Lunch after our flight was at the Kalapaki Beach Hut in Lihue, where the burgers came recommended by Captain Josh and indeed did not disappoint.  The fries were also great, sort of like McDonald's fries but better.

After a quiet afternoon at the condo, we drove the half-mile up the road for a "fancy" dinner at Hukilau Lanai, which had consistently great reviews on Yelp and turned out to be a solid choice for a romantic and scenic dinner.  We were seated at one of the tables on the lawn level, which looks out at a lovely landscaped area and the ocean beyond.  Service was friendly and suitably attentive throughout, and all our server's recommendations were spot-on.  We felt warmly welcomed and quickly relaxed.  There is a tasting menu available from 5:00-5:45pm that is an excellent deal (five courses for $32, or $50 with wine pairings), but we opted for entrees off the regular menu.

We started with the chilled tomato gazpacho with pineapple sorbet, which was delicious, along with warm focaccia.

Next, the charcuterie plate of local pork pate, smoked sausage, and mortadella, served with toasted bread and pickles.

Our entrees were the Hukilau Mixed Grill (snapper, butterfish, and skewered shrimp on a bed of creamy rice and vegetables) and the macadamia nut chicken (with yellow curry and vegetables). Everything was excellently prepared and generously portioned, and in retrospect we definitely didn't need the appetizer(s). The flavors were generally familiar and even comforting, but the preparations were refined.

To accompany, we shared a bottle of crisp Grenache off the "20 wines for 20-something" list (another pleasant surprise).  Our dessert was the restaurant's signature warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and a small box with two dark chocolate truffles was set down alongside.  By dessert, the sun had nearly set and the tiki torches were cheerfully lit.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Operation Kauai Thunder (a.k.a. Kauai honeymoon) summary and recommendations

When we were planning our honeymoon, we wanted to go to a place neither of us had been to before. It had to be somewhere with gorgeous scenery, a peaceful atmosphere, outdoor activities, comfortable housing options (i.e. not camping), and plenty of great food options. We considered traveling internationally, but as we didn't want to spend more than 10 or so days on this trip, and had to factor in travel time between Sacramento and LA on both ends, we ruled out Europe and Asia.  We considered a 10-day tour of New Zealand and got excited when we found a tour package that apparently included all flights and accommodations for a very reasonable package price, but then we read the description more closely and realized that most of the trip would actually be spent car camping in a "cozy" trailer, so that sounded less appealing.  As Andrew had never been to Hawaii, I had never been to Kauai, and this island met all of our criteria, our destination was then set.

We rented a 1-bedroom condo in Wailua Bay View in Kapa'a, on the East side of the island, through Homeaway (thanks to our friends and fellow Kauai honeymooners E & M for the tip!).  The first picture shows the view from our lanai (balcony).  Because the Na Pali coast is car-inaccessible and the rest of Waimea/Koke'e State Parks occupies the Northwest corner of the island, it is impossible to drive completely around the island.  The one highway, Highway 50 / Kuhio Highway, runs from Ke'e Beach in the North (the start of the Kalalau trail on the Na Pali Coast) to Polihale State Beach on the Southwest (near the Southern end of the Na Pali).  Our home base in Kapa'a was a convenient option for the week, being about 45-50 minutes by car to either Hanapepe and the Waimea park entrance on the southern side or to Hanalei on the northern side.

Sunset at Hanalei Bay

Kapa'a has plenty of grocery stores, good coffee, reasonably priced restaurants, and a nice beach path, along with some of the best shave ice (Hee Fat General Store) on the island.  Our vacation rental was also much more reasonably priced than any resort available, allowing us to enjoy more tours and restaurants, and had useful features like an equipped kitchen and beach/snorkel equipment. In summary, we definitely recommend that first-time Kauai visitors stay in Kapa'a.

I'm going to share a day-by-day account of our trip with more details, posted serially, but below are our favorites and our recommendations in a single compilation. We didn't try every option on the island, of course, but I did quite a bit of research before we arrived and I'd like to think that we had a relatively comprehensive experience for our 7.5 days and 8 nights there.

Coffee or other drinks:
Java Kai (Kapa'a)
Kauai Coffee Company (Kalaheo)
Coconut Cup (Kapa'a)
Hanalei Coffee Roasters (Hanalei)

Inexpensive food (<$10/person):
Pono Market (poke and plate lunch, Kapa'a)
Kauai Family Cafe (local and Filipino food, Kapa'a)
Kilauea Fish Market (fish in various forms, Kapa'a, though there is also one in Kilauea as the name indicates)
Sueoka Snack Shop (plate lunch, Koloa)
Ishihara Market (poke and plate lunch, Hanapepe)

Medium-expensive food (~$15/person):
Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee Company

Expensive-ish food ($20-30 entrees):
Hukilau Lanai (Kapa'a; recommended with full enthusiasm)
Bar Acuda (Hanalei; recommended with some caveats)

Hee Fat General Store (shave ice, Kapa'a. My favorite, and not just for the name.  Get the real fruit topping and ask for macadamia nut ice cream at the bottom).
Lappert's Ice Cream (multiple locations. I tried their signature Kauai Pie and it was too sweet for me.  Their macadamia nut ice cream was perfection.)
The Right Slice (pie, Lihue and Kalaheo)
[Not recommended: Ono Ono Shave Ice in Kapa'a. Their ice is way too coarse and just not right.]

Guided tours:
Wings Over Kauai (airplane tours)
Captain Andy's Na Pali boat tours (we did the BBQ sail/snorkel tour)
Wailua Kayak Adventures (we did the 7am kayak/hike/swim tour)

Na Pali Coast

On-our-own activities:

Waimea Canyon lookout: around mile 11 on the canyon road

Awaawapuhi trail: starts at mile 17 on the canyon road.  A difficult but doable out-and-back 6.5 miles round-trip, with lots of muddy sections, and a gorgeous view of the valley and Na Pali coast.  It feels like the end of the world.  Relatively quiet in the morning, so start early.

Kalalau Trail: 2 miles from trailhead at Ke'e beach to Hanakapi'ai beach and another 2 miles back.  The entire trail is 11 miles each way and requires a permit for camping unless you're an insanely fit and experienced backpacker who can do all 22 miles in one day. The first 2 miles is challenging but a must-do for amateur hikers for its unparalleled coastal views. Hiking shoes strongly recommended. I think this trail could actually be quite dangerous in wet weather.

Hanakapi'ai Valley trail: 4 miles round-trip, starting from Hanakapi'at beach and ending at the waterfall. Very difficult; we had read that it had some "technical" sections but weren't really prepared for it, though we got through it without injury beyond a couple blisters and mild heat exhaustion by the time we got back to the Kalalau trailhead, 8 slow miles in total. Definitely need good hiking shoes if not boots for this, with extra water, and be prepared for lots of mud, some clambering, and several stream crossings.

Kauai Mini Golf in Kilauea: The prettiest mini golf course either Andrew or I had been to. It's essentially mini golf in a botanical garden, with informative placards for the plants and regarding Hawaii's history as you go through the course.

Kauai Coffee Company: informative and easy/short self-guided walking tour, plus free samples of about 20 different coffees.

Koloa Rum Company: free tasting with some history about the island's sugar mills and rum production, and details about the different rums.