Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 8: Snorkeling and seafood

Tunnels Beach as seen from the air
Monday, August 17

During our airplane tour on our first full day of vacation, Captain Josh had mentioned that Tunnels Beach on the north side (near Ke'e Beach) was a famously great spot for snorkeling, and we had seen the large reef from the plane.  There was snorkel equipment in our condo, and our snorkeling experience during the Na Pali boat tour had whetted our appetite, so we decided to go to Tunnels with masks and flippers.  On our way out of Kapa'a, we went across the street from our building to Passion Bakery Cafe for their famous macadamia nut sticky bun and a "croisscone," which is supposed to be a croissant-scone hybrid.  Both were very good, though the sticky bun was softer than I expected, and I failed to discern the croissant nature of the croisscone.

Driving north on the Kuhio highway
We again drove north, through Hanalei, until we reached Haena Beach Park and Tunnels Beach.  The reef at Tunnels Beach extends nearly to the edge of the water, and in some spots the water is too shallow to float above the reef, so it took some time for us to figure out a sandy route out into sufficient depth for swimming.  But even before we did so, we could see colorful fish swimming around us, and it only got better once we started swimming in slightly deeper water.  The reef itself was rather bland in color, but after about an hour we had lost count of all the different fish varieties; it was at least 15, in all sorts of vivid color combinations.  There were lots of snorkelers, but the fish didn't seem to mind, though presumably they did mind the spearfishers we saw at one point.

Anyhow, a great morning!  We didn't have an underwater camera, but here's a chart of Hawaiian fish for some perspective.

Our return drive through Hanalei provided a reminder that bad drivers are everywhere, not just in Los Angeles.  Hanalei has many one-lane bridges, on which the etiquette is that about 5-7 cars at a time will cross from one side, while cars going the other direction will pause and wait.  In general it works well, and seems refreshingly pleasant and civilized.  However, there are two bridges near Tunnels that are nearly attached at approximately a 135-degree angle, so cars on both sides have to look very carefully at both bridges before deciding whether to cross.  Several cars (not us!) failed to do so, and we found ourselves in a series of face-offs requiring a balance of caution (backing up into a small off-road area between the bridges) and assertiveness (forcing a recklessly advancing car to back up off the bridge).  Not so fun, but we and our rental car got through unscathed.

After that, some more coffee and lunch was warranted, so we stopped in Hanalei town for coffee and a papaya-coconut-pineapple-ginger smoothie at Hanalei Coffee Roasters, followed by hot dogs with coconut and pineapple relish and lilikoi mustard at Puka Dog (pretty good but forgettable).  We de-sanded at home, rested, and then went to Kilauea Fish Market for a simple but satisfying dinner of salad with grilled Nairagi fish and rice with mochi Ono.

Delicious fish, though maybe ironic after the morning's fish viewing....
The evening ended with one last shave ice at Hee Fat and one last walk along the beach path.

Microclimates at sunset
The next morning we cleaned up the condo, picked up croisscones at Passion Bakery, and then drove to Lihue airport for our flight back to California.  It was a wonderful and much-needed vacation, and we're already looking forward to our next trip to Hawaii.

To my husband: between our wedding and honeymoon, I couldn't have imagined a better beginning to our married life, and I'm grateful every day for your love and our partnership.  May we have many more adventures together!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 7: Botanical mini-golf and Bar Acuda

Kapa'a Multi-Use Path
Sunday, August 16

Our last two days in Kauai were spent relaxing as much as possible.  This morning we slept in, got coffee at the local Java Kai - excellent cold brew coffee and iced macadamia nut lattes - and then walked along the Kapa'a beach path and enjoyed the views and breeze.

With Kauai's famous "Red Dirt"
After getting sweaty in the humidity, we stopped at the Coconut Cup juice bar and got an iced coconut (lots of water inside and a sweet, creamy flavor) before driving to visit the Spouting Horn blowhole in Poipu.  We shared a quick plate lunch of shrimp and mahi mahi at Sueoka Snack Shop (a dubious-looking but tasty and cheap lunch spot attached to Sueoka Market, which looks like it's been there forever), and then got to the blowhole.  Turns out it's kind of a tourist trap: certainly entertaining to see the waves crash and the water vent upward a few seconds later, but that's in fact all there is to it, plus a bunch of souvenir stands.  You could say that it kind of blows.

We returned to the apartment and whiled away some time in the air-conditioning, and I started writing this travelogue.  Around 4:30pm we again drove north, this time to play mini golf at Kauai Mini Golf in Kilauea.  Years ago we had gone to the mini golf course in Redwood City but were sorely disappointed by the underwhelming and questionably maintained course, its proximity to the 101 freeway, and the streams of unruly pre-teens everywhere.  However, Kauai Mini Golf was the polar opposite, and indeed the best mini golf course either of us had ever been to.

It's essentially mini-golf built in a botanical garden, with informative placards at every hole describing aspects of Hawaii's history and the native plants on the islands (and represented in the garden).  Rather pricey at $18/person, but as we weren't planning on visiting any of the large botanical gardens on the island (there are three or four), we thought it was worth it.

We continued into Hanalei, encountering a sudden rainstorm as we parked at the Hanalei Pier and walked out to the covered deck at the end.  The view of Hanalei Bay and the valley is somewhat similar to the view from the St. Regis, but the location is within the bay and, conveniently, comes without a price tag.

The rain passed just as quickly as it had arrived, and we watched the clouds recede over the cliffs and the sun go down while stand-up paddleboarders meandered across the water and a couple small boats puttered by.

Dinner that evening was at Bar Acuda, a modern/local tapas restaurant started about nine years ago by the chef who previously owned the Slow Club in San Francisco.  As the Slow Club was where I had my first Big Foodie Experience, a memorable food festival dinner around 2008 that included the best roast chicken (with oyster mushrooms and polenta) that I had ever had, and since Andrew and I are both fond of the Bay Area food scene, Bar Acuda seemed to be an obvious must-visit for us.  It's a very popular restaurant and was fully booked, so it was good to have reservations weeks in advance. We were seated at a table on the deck - the restaurant is basically open to the exterior, and the "indoors" temperature is actually quite hot compared to the exterior.

We ordered as follows: tropical sangria (white wine with pineapple juice and rum), North Shore honeycomb with Humboldt Fog aged goat cheese (a clear NorCal shoutout) and Fuji apple; pizzetta with oyster mushrooms, ricotta salata, and sweet onion; flank steak with black pepper pineapple relish; and local Ono with daikon, carrot, and cilantro oil.  The honeycomb plate was excellent; I'm not generally a goat cheese fan, but this flavor combination was quite perfect.

The flank steak was also excellent, as it was much more tender and juicy than other flank steaks I'd tried, and the black pepper pineapple flavors lent it a tropical and Chinese (Szechuan in particular) hybrid personality.  The pizzetta was very good, though nothing too special.

The Ono was a little disappointing in that the preparation seemed to render this particular fish too dry.  The menu had advertised Uku fish, but the catch of the day was Ono, so perhaps the Uku would have been more harmonious.

Service was initially polished, but dropped off after the flank steak was served.  There was a long gap before the Ono, which was the last dish, and then after that plate was cleared, our server disappeared for over 15 minutes before returning to ask about dessert.  We had thought about dessert, but after the wait, we decided to simply get the check.  Between the variable quality of the dishes - at these tapas prices, one should expect a local fish preparation to be excellent - and the variable service, I would give a partial recommendation for Bar Acuda.  I think it was worth trying and we did enjoy our meal, but our expectations may have been a little too high.  It doesn't seem like Bar Acuda has much competition on the island, and it was apparently sold out on the night we went, so although it stands out for its style and trendiness within the local food scene, it probably doesn't have to be consistently great in order to thrive.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Kauai vacation recap, Day 6: River kayaking and rum-ful recovery

Saturday, August 15, 2015

For this morning we had planned our last "adventure," which turned out to be more rigorous than we intended, in a different way.  Wailua Kayak Adventures is a friendly, family-run company that has been offering river kayak tours for 20-something years, and at a very reasonable price (a guided tour with them was not much more than the cost of renting a two-person kayak).  Our tour group of seven people assembled at the office to sign waiver forms at 6:45am, and then by 7:20am we were getting into our kayaks at the marina.  Our guide was Judah, a remarkably low-key man who moved from the Los Angeles area to Kauai in 1992, and has since then worked as a kayak guide (both river and sea), a radio announcer, and a wedding officiant.

One of the little tributaries off the main river.
We kayaked up the river for about 40 minutes, which provided a very adequate upper-body workout.  As we were the first group on the river that morning, it felt quite serene and even meditative as we paddled past the tree-blanketed banks and the nearby hills.  We then went on a muddy but easy one-mile loop through the jungle; having our water shoes - purchased inexpensively on Amazon - was very helpful here.

Fern towers
Judah pointed out pig holes (Kauai's wild pig population is three times the size of the human population), a variety of tropical plants (including Awapuhi ginger and firecracker ferns), and also showed us the "green room," which is a mystical-looking clearing with a colonnade of fern towers that once apparently grew together into a huge fern wall, but have been reduced to columns by wind storms.  Then, we kayaked to a swimming hole with a cliff jump, which I didn't try but enjoyed watching:

Not us.

Finally, we kayaked back to the marina, this time against the wind, and really did a number on our arms and shoulders.  My paddling technique probably worsened the more tired I became.  Andrew and I were glad, many times over, that we had chosen a boat tour of the Na Pali coast instead of the 17-mile sea kayak tour, which we had originally considered in a fit of presumption and was the inspiration for "Operation Kauai Thunder."  (Several days of recovery later, Andrew mused that "we could have done it," but I attributed this to retrospective delusion/confidence.  Regardless, go team!  This blog post brought to you by Advil.)

We were back at the marina by 11:00 am and headed home to clean up, followed by lunch at Pono Market and another Hee Fat shave ice.

Then we drove south to Kilohana, a former plantation that is now a historical site / tourist trap / fancy restaurant and also home to the Koloa Rum Company and its free tastings.  I was feeling sub-par because of a combination of Benadryl (to counteract the mosquito welts gained the previous day) and massive lactic acid release from my forearms, though I hadn't yet realized the latter's severity at the time of rum tasting.  The rums were certainly good, though, especially the coconut rum, and it was fun to learn about the differences in color and production.

Because the answer to feeling over-adventured is obviously to eat even more dessert, we went to The Right Slice pie shop in Lihue and got two slices of pie (tangelo and lilikoi cheesecake), which we ate at home before taking long naps.

Dinner was also prepared and eaten at home, followed by back-to-back Netflix viewings of two documentaries about climbing expeditions on K2.  Vivid and somber films about dangerous mountain climbing are a shared interest in our household (we recommend "K2: Siren of the Himalayas" and "Touching The Void," among others).  They certainly put our Kauai day trips into perspective.