Mahalo For Your Kokua: Epic Trip Report Part II (Kauai)
Hawaii, from the Northeastern United States, is not, erm, the easiest trip you’ll ever make. Flight time is 12-13 hours, but that doesn’t include the hours spent in the airport (and traveling to and from the airport), which essentially confirms that your entire trip is going to be a 20-24 hour turnaround. The way we did it cut a lot of this out, because we hopped to San Francisco and then actually left the airport for a couple-few days. Even still — it’s not Japan or Australia, but Hawaii remains a destination that isn’t exactly next door.
Besides, can’t one get the same experience from going to the Caribbean? Much closer, after all. Now, to be clear, I have never been to the Caribbean, so I can’t comment.
What I can comment on is that Hawaii is, for me, like no place on the planet. It’s American, yet it’s Asian, yet it’s Polynesian, yet it’s ultimately Hawaiian. No state in the country has its own language, has its own mythology. No state in the country is 2000 miles out in the middle of nowhere, either — at a distance, on a map, it looks like a few crumbs from a malasada donut sitting in the Pacific Ocean.
Hawaii (and Kauai in particular) has its own weird bamboo vibe: a kind of slightly unhinged motif, yet unhinged in a way that engenders relaxation — imagine a screen door hanging literally off one of its hinges, leaning back, the wind whistling through its mesh. Not a care in the world. As they say: hang loose.
Hawaii is old world opulence meets new world riches meets a hard-working middle class planted in paradise meets shantytowns and lean-tos and a sense of decay smack dab in the midst of sub-tropical beauty.
Hawaii is a place where everybody belongs, but nobody belongs: even most of the plants and animals aren’t native. The native Hawaiians may not have even been the first there — what of the Menehune (once thought to be weird little fairy creatures), or the giant Marquesans who landed? More modern history is equally fascinating: Pearl Harbor and missile tests and Russian forts and kings and queens and bloody massacres.
Hawaii has beaches, yes, but it also has mountains and rivers and volcanoes and Martian dirt and black rock and swamps and rainforests and pine trees and deserts and, yes, even snow.
Hawaii is sad and happy and beautiful and strange.
That’s why Hawaii.
Now, all that said? Time for the trip report.
This time, we hit the island of Kauai. Landing in Hawaii always offers an eerie sense of emergence, a kind of giddy freedom, and this time was no different. You’ve been flying over a blank blue ocean for five, six hours, and next thing you know — a little set of islands arise, and before too long out the one side of the plane you’re flying alongside the green peaks and then you see trees and all that blood-red dirt and — wham.
We landed in Lihue (only real option), and stayed down in Poipu — in specific, at the Sheraton Kauai. We picked up Grandpa Buick from the Budget Rent-A-Car, then took a short drive down to the southern shore of the island, passing by dry meadows of tall grasses, passing the Kilohana Plantation, the little junction at Puhi, the cathedral of trees (some eucalyptus, I think, trees that once knitted together at the top until Hurricane Iniki face-raped the island back in the 90s), the intersection at old Koloa Town, and then —
Hey, welcome to paradise.
Poipu is a great area, mostly resorts, admittedly, but it’s hard to find a prettier and more idyllic “beach location.” We stayed at an Ocean Deluxe room (got a crazy good package on flight, hotel and car), which quite literally overlooked the ocean, as you’ll see in this picture…
What you’ll also notice: this room was well-placed to watch the sunset every single night, and further, that couple sitting there? In moments, he will ask her to marry him (and she will say yes, and cry a lot).
Don’t forget about this picture, too:
So, the Sheraton? Totally recommended. Some of the best beach-side real estate you’ll find. The grounds are nicely kept. The staff is friendly, except for the housekeeping lady who felt the need to eradicate the coconut-scented air with an almost profound bowel movement (see post, “I Put My Hoowili In Her Hoonani“). The restaurants onsite, I dunno. Only tried breakfast and some bar food by the pool. Bar food was — well, it was good since we were starving, but in retrospect “cold nachos with gluey cheese” are only so ideal. The breakfast buffet is actually pretty darn tasty but is criminally expensive ($25 per person), but if you neglect housekeeping for a night, they’ll give you a coupon for one free buffet, and you can do this a number of times during your stay.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty. What did we do? What did we see? And, importantly, where did we eat?
(If you want to skip all that shit, just scroll to the bottom to receive the “sum up.”)
Things We Did (In No Particular Order)
Poipu Beach Park: Hey, listen. I’m a little hydrophobic. I’m not full-bore pee-my-swim-trunks-if-water-gets-on-me, but I don’t really like water in my eyes, and I damn sure don’t like the ocean (I know, I know — why go to Hawaii, then? Shut up). But Poipu Beach Park is right up my alley. First time I’ve been in the ocean in — wow, 10, 15 years. Warm like bathwater. Waded out to the sand bar. Watched some douchebag traipse on rocks that read KEEP OFF then go back and not-actually-tend to his nightmare children who were basically ruining a rented umbrella with their sticky jam hands. Good times. Oh, the douche in question:
By the way, there exists a persistent douche factor in a place like Hawaii because, hey, tourists are going there. We went to Spouting Horn and — well, I’ll get to that.
Waimea Canyon: Mark Twain famously called this the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” which is a fascinating thing for a guy to say when he’s never actually been to Kauai. Oops. A total myth, that story. Still, Mark Twain rules. Where was I? Oh, right. The canyon. It was beautiful. Epic. The rich red canyons carved from green valleys and blue rivers — it’s totally worth the long drive up. The first half was populated with lots of fat (and often old) white tourists, mind you. And we also had to make the drive in Grandpa Buick, whose brakes shuddered as if they had suddenly manifested a bad case of automobile Parkinson’s. Still, you get to the end, the Kalalau Lookout and… wow. Hard not to gape. A shot of the canyon right here:
North Shore: Part of me thinks we made a mistake staying on the southern shore. The north shore is beautiful. Wet jungle, cerulean blue coast — loved it. More the look I envision (or at least desire) when I picture Hawaii. Had a more laid-back vibe, too, which is something you don’t get in the Poipu resort area. Image of the Hanalei lookout…
Allerton Gardens: This is a massive botanical garden where they happened to film movies like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a beautiful journey; requires a guided tour, and our tour guide was a laid back, top notch dude named *coughcoughJoeJimJerryIforgetbutitmayhavestartedwithJ* — ahem. Big white beard. It’s a tram ride up to the gardens, then a two hour walk. Meanwhile, you get the whole history of Hawaii’s biodiversity as well as stories about those champions who fought (and are fighting) to keep it safe and sane. Still, this is a pricey experience — $45 per person. Worth it, probably, but it still feels like gouging when they then ask for tips. Might just be me. Maybe I’m a cheap jerk. Anyway — want to see those trees were Alan Grant in Jurassic Park finds the raptor eggs? Here you go.
Limahuli Gardens: Another set of gardens, these from the north shore. Cheaper than Allerton ($15 per person, I think) and purely self-guided. Also not that impressive. Pretty, and maybe better at different times of the year — but it feels a little ill-kept and uncertain. Nice enough if you’re up in that area, but it was a hot, hot day and that probably dinged our enjoyment a wee little bit. Pic:
Opaekaa Falls: Ennnh. Okay, yes, it’s a very nice waterfall. You’ll hear me spout off about this more at the end, but really, I thought the Big Island had infinitely more awesome waterfalls. This one was tourist-choked and viewable only from a very far distance. Can’t say I was all too excited. I may be jaded. No picture because my images from this just weren’t impressive.
Wailua Falls: A much nicer pair of waterfalls. But, I should add: still tourist-choked. Hard to maneuver. Like rats or cockroaches, these tourists. (I was not a tourist. Shut up, you.) Image:
Spouting Horn: Ahh, yes, another douchebag story. So, Spouting Horn is a shelf of lava rock where water blasts through these holes and fires up in this crazy ocean cannon. BOOSH. Sometimes it makes a noise, hence the term “horn.” Anyway, the dude in the image below is wandering around all over the lava shelf, meandering far too close to the edge and worst, stumbling about on the wrong side of the holes. See, sometimes the ocean sweeps up over the shelf? And it has, in the past, pushed many a dipshit into those holes. Sometimes, it kills them. One girl got sucked out to sea (dragged through the lava tunnels) but managed to live. Others have not been so lucky. So here’s this asshole traipsing about and acting like a ham-fisted shitbrick. Good job, jerk. Sorry you didn’t get sucked into the ocean’s hungry maw.
Luau: We bit the bullet this time and shelled out the greenbacks for a luau. This one, at the Sheraton. I had previously opposed the idea but suddenly got a real hankering for the whole kitschporn of Old Hawaii, so a luau was right up our alley — even moreso since some of our original plans and options had gotten nudged aside because of the wife’s morning sickness. The luau, emceed by Dicky “Schecky” Chang, was hella fun. Recommended up and down the pike. The drinks were shit (well drinks that largely consisted of blah mai tais and nuclear-Windex Blue Hawaiians), but the food was incredible, the entertainment was fun, and the host was funny. Though, be advised: you have no reason to shell out for the upgraded experience. Those people got largely the exact same experience but paid almost 40% more for it. (Oh, I ate poi for the first time, along with pipi kaula. The two together are a total win. Salty pork plus very slightly sour taro goo. Yum.) Images of the Fire Knife dude:
Shipwrecks Beach and Lithified Cliffs: Nice beach. Not so much for the swimming or the walking, but for the hiking up onto the fossilized sand dunes and standing in the whipping wind and looking out over the ocean. Primal stuff. Completely recommended.
Kilauea Lighthouse and Bird Sanctuary: The lighthouse — on the north shore, in Kilauea — is not super-impressive, but they’re working on it. The view all around you, however, is priceless. Also great is that it’s a bird sanctuary, so you will bear witness to gulls and albatross and, yes, finally, the Canadian-Goose-That-Got-Lost, the Nene. Also cool was that it was time for the Shearwater nestlings to hatch, so all around were these burrows of these (actually really big) fuzzy gray baby birds. Cute stuff.
Places We Ate (In No Particular Order)
Josselin’s Tapas: This is easily one of the most lauded restaurants on the island, and — can I say it? Easily one of the most overrated. I know. I hate that word, but there it is, floating like a turd in the ol’ punchbowl. Josselin’s is a tapas — i.e. small plates — restaurant, and it approaches these tapas not from the original Spanish/Mexican style, but rather from the Asian fusion direction. We ate a tuna sashimi sampler, the scallop pillows, oxtail ravioli in pho broth, some ramen noodle softshell crab concoction, and a couple others. Had some drinks, too — didn’t try their sangrias, but this whole trip saw me on a ginger kick, so I had the ginger pina crush, which was delicious. Can’t say the same for the food. The servers were great, the atmosphere was elegant, but the food was woefully underseasoned. Even just a little salt would have gone a long way to kick up the dishes, which were so subtle as to be boring. The presentation was beyond elegant, but the taste just didn’t live up. Last comment: we have tapas place in Doylestown called Honey, and it is heads and shoulders above anything we had at Josselin’s. So, there you go.
22 North: On the other side, you have a place like 22 North, which is a total farm-to-table institution (used to be Gaylord’s), and it may have been one of the finest meals had on the island. We had friends who visited Kauai in the past and told us that they spent many nights eating at Gaylord’s, and if it was anything like 22 North, we get why. The food was elegant and lovingly prepared — they dropped off a complimentary ham-and-cheese gougeres (think puffed pastry stuffed with ham, cheese, fennel-honey butter) as we noodled the menu. I had a “red veal” piccata that was delicious (though with a very strong sauce), and the wife had a grass-fed beef tenderloin that was dizzying — so lean, but juicy and flavorful without the toughness that you sometimes suffer with grass-fed. Also had a kabocha pumpkin squash soup which was warm and bacony and the very epitome of the hearth. Odd, though, to be eating that in the warmth of paradise, but still? Delish. Drinks were top notch, too. A starfruit capirinha (I now adore the starfruit, so good) did backflips in my mouth, and a African blue basil Hawaiian plum “mojito” (not-a-mojito) was savory, weird, and fantastic.
Merriman’s: This is how you — from a customer service perspective — take a frown and turn it upside-down. We arrived at Merriman’s thinking, “This is going to rule” because, hey, it was our best dinner on the Big Island. Finding out that they have a second location on Kauai was a winner winner lomi-lomi dinner. Problem, though: they’re still a little rusty. They overburdened our waiter, I think — he took our order late, and then we sat for 40 minutes without anything but a single boozy drink. Meanwhile, other tables of his got bread baskets, appetizers, and so forth. So, I set out my iPhone with a timer on it — not just to be a dick and show them, “Hey, I’m timing your slacker asses,” but also to ensure that my impatience was fair. I could wait two minutes and think it’s ten, but a stopwatch keeps my ass accurate. Anyway. Finally, the hostess came by and asked us how “everything” was, and — I was nice about it — I said that everything wasn’t good because nothing had arrived. Instantly she went into repair mode. Free drink, free appetizer. Free drink had fruit flies in it. Then she came back with other bad news: the dish my wife ordered? No longer possible. So, they fixed it and gave her extra food, and on top of it they also gave us more free drinks, and two free desserts. And the waiter came over and apologized and was suddenly very friendly and attentive. The only final black mark was the dickfaced bus boy who came over and saw me looking at my phone (I was taking Hipstamatic shots) and said, “What? Are you timing me?” Okay, asshole, ha-ha, fuck off. But herein lies a critical customer service lesson: you can get a lot of mileage out of going beyond the call of duty to fix the problem. The night became memorable and wonderful because of that. Oh! Right. The food. Chocolate purse was out of this world. Malasadas were good, but tasted inexplicably boozy. Bacon soup was wildly awesome. Wife’s scallops shrimp over corn and bacon and asparagus was out of this world. My rib-eye had great flavor, but was a little sinewy.
Beach House Restaurant: You ask me, folks have one reason to go here: the sunset. That’s it. The food is fairly nice. The wait staff is friendly. The prices are… well, maybe a little high. The drinks are okay. (Had a honey caipirinha which was a bit of an A-For-Effort, F-For-Execution deal — big golf ball hunk of honeycomb in the center of the drink made it very hard to actually imbibe the drink, and when you did, you got wax bits in your mouth.) My monchong was actually phenomenal, while the wife’s scallops were merely okay. The Beach House ceviche was also good: a little luke warm. Again, let me say: phenomenal sunset. Right over the ocean. Very lovely stuff. Worth it for that. Evidenced by the fact that, at 5:45, everybody and their mother comes rolling into the restaurant. Another downside: valet parking only. Still, you have to do this one time whilst in Kauai. It is, as they say, mandatory.
Puka Dog: This? Is just a hot dog stand. But it’s a tropical hot dog stand. Don’t get me wrong — by the time you’re done a week-and-a-half in Hawaii, you’re going to be burned out on lilikoi and pineapple thrown onto every meal, but before this happens, it is vital you get yourself a Puka Dog. They take a big hot dog? Then they slide it into a — I dunno what you even call it. A bread pocket? It’s like a Snuggie, but for a hot dog. And then they have various sauces and mustards (lilikoi mustard and original garlic sauce for me, please) that they ooze in there with the doggy. It’s delicious. It’s not exactly the cheapest hot dog, but for Hawaii, it’s a low cost lunch.
Tropical Burgers: Ehhh. Ennh. This is somehow “part” of Puka Dog. It’s smack dab next to it. We ate here for breakfast and it was — fine? I guess? Macadamia nut pancakes were tasty, I guess. My wife had eggs which were solid, though her potatoes did have some kind of hair in them. And by hair, I mean “pube.” Okay, probably not a pube, but still — wiry, kinky dark hair wound right around hash browns. Mmm.
Plantation Gardens: We ended up here on a lark, having tried most of the other restaurants in the Poipu area. They were fairly quiet (it was a Sunday night, if I recall), and a lovely breeze was coming in through the surrounding garden and over the deck tables. Very nice atmosphere. The food was — you know, it was fine, I guess. I wouldn’t say crazy memorable, but solid upscale food just the same. Very small menu. Lots of seafood. Corn fritters as an appy were a great start (but I won’t lie: my corn fritters are better). I had the local catch, which was tasty. Wife had ribs which were fall-apart tender.
Keoki’s Paradise: This might’ve been the only place we ate twice (outside of the buffet at the hotel). Listen, this place? It’s Hawaii kitsch porn. It’s that goofy non-existent and never-existed “Old Hawaii.” But let me tell you, you go at night? And the torches are lit? And the wind is blowing in? (The whole place is effectively outside; Hawaii often has restaurants at least partially outdoors.) And the big tall drinks inside the glass skulls of obviously-murdered tiki gods? It’s fun and relaxing and a great place to just shake free the stress. Plus the food? Really delicious. Had fish both nights (the opah, or moon-fish, is out of this world), while the wife ate little Australian lobsters which were sweet and buttery as good corn. Of course, the best thing there is the Hula Pie, which is a glacier of macadamia ice cream cake. Guhh. Drool. Slaver. Gibber. I am simultaneously wetting my chin and my pants while thinking of it. It’s bigger than a human baby, though, so be prepared to eat with a friend. Or a football team.
Kalaheo Coffee Company: Good sandwich, but really? The smoothie. The smoothie. Generic fresh fruit smoothie with a mighty host of fruits put into play: pineapple and apple and mango and passion fruit, and so forth, combined with orange juice and yogurt. Amazing taste. You could taste each fruit. Best smoothie of all time. Here, go on, have a sip, I don’t have cooties (I totally have cooties):
Java Kai: And now we have an award for “weirdest smoothie.” Stopped here on our way back from Hanalei, was thirsty, drank something called a Lava Lust. It had raspberries. It also had raspberry seeds. Approximately 100,000 seeds per square inch. Listen, I don’t like drinking something and having to stop constantly to pick bits out of my teeth. Ennnnh. Wife liked hers, though.
Bubba’s Burgers: Think “upscale McDonald’s,” and you have it. They, uhhh, “relish your buns,” which is to say they have a kind of sweet oniony relish that goes on every burger. It really is like the best McDonald’s burger you’ve had — grass-fed beef, might I add. I really enjoyed the burger, it totally hit the spot. And we walked by the place a couple nights in a row and each night they had a line out the door. So, obviously this is a popular joint to eat. Oh, the Bubba’s I’m talking about is the one found in the Kukui’ula Shopping Center. In Poipu.
Hanalei Dolphin: You ever have one of those right meals at the right time? Just hits the spot? We’d been driving an hour from Poipu to check out the north shore and we were pretty dang hungry. Ta-da! Hanalei Dolphin restaurant. I tweeted to everybody that I was eating dolphin tacos, but no, no, that’s not true at all. Just delicious deep-fried fish tacos (ono, if I recall). And a killer beer, too. Once again, we sat on the deck, awash in the breeze and warm air. Mmm. Wish I could snap my fingers and just — boop! — teleport back there. Michelle had a fried shrimp sandwich, by the by. In her words? “Yeah, it was really good.”
Kokee Lodge: Ate a hearty loco moco here — oh, if you don’t know, this is the restaurant up in Kokee State Park on the way to the Kalalau Lookout. Anyway. It’s the only food choice up here, and as a choice, it’s not a bad one. I wouldn’t give them any awards, but the loco moco was meatalicious. And gravytastic. And ricetacular. Wife had a turkey club. However, best thing about this place? All the chickens outside (a 2-year-old was going apeshit insane chasing chickens) and all the kitschy knick-knack decor inside. Which allowed me to take this, one of my Top Ten favorite photos in Kauai:
Ahhh, unrequited love between toad and human. Where was I?
Joe’s On The Green: We were seeking an alternate non-hotel breakfast choice and tried this place. The service was spotty, we were besieged by flies and birds, and they got our orders wrong. (They also shorted me an egg on my second loco moco of the trip.) That said, the food was fine enough, one supposes, so — ? Do what thou wilt. We didn’t go back.
Ono Family Restaurant: Another drive to find an alternate breakfast joint. This one was a little more successful. Ono Family Restaurant is up in Kapaa, north of Lihue. It’s a family-run joint with a big menu. Wife had corned beef hash about which she was a bit iffy, but that may very well have been because of the persistent morning sickness and uncertain tastes in food. I had eggs over fried rice with Chinese sausage (think greasy, sweet chili-garlic Slim Jim — so delicious), and really enjoyed it. Worth the wait, I’d say, but a bit of a hike from the Poipu area just for breakfast.
Sueoka’s Snack Shop: Plate lunches. I had “fried chicken” which was really just chicken wings, but they were greasy and good and sitting on a mega-clump of white rice. Also had the Hawaii potato salad, which is sweeter and features pineapple bits. Wife had, I dunno. Some kind of burger, if I recall. This food is cheap. This food is easy. And the place was busy — people dig it. You won’t find gourmet cuisine, but you will find a belly-filler.
Brennecke’s Beach Broiler: Eh? Had a breakfast here and then also had a “shave ice” as big as my head. I don’t think it was good shave ice, really. Sticky syrup over crushed, not shaved, ice. The macadamia nut ice cream on the bottom was fine. This place will do in a pinch, but it has to be a damn tight pinch.
Lappert’s Ice Cream: They do ice cream, which is tasty, but if you go at the right time (night, before closing), then bakery goods are half off. When the girl told us that it was like a revelation. EFF YES BAKERY GOODS NOM NOM NOM. Macadamia nut cookies and lemon bars and cappucino brownies and — oh, yeah, diabetes. Good stuff.
To Sum Up?
Obviously, we loved Kauai.
Thing is, we didn’t really experience Kauai the proper way. I got a cold. Michelle was pregnant and morning sick (i.e. sick all day). Couldn’t really hike, couldn’t really kayak, couldn’t really do most of the things you’re supposed to do on this, the most wild of the Hawaiian islands.
So, we missed out a little bit.
Didn’t help that it was fuuuu-huuuu-huuucking hot, either. Way hotter than I think it was supposed to be. We’re talking 85-90 degree temperatures (a week after we left, it was 75-80, goddamnit).
I wouldn’t trade the trip for anything. The sunsets were spectacular. The food was far better than anyone said it would be (Kauai has a reputation for having shitty food options, which is not true now and may never have been true). Falling asleep with the ocean crashing outside your lanai door is an experience that, right now, I long so bad for it makes my teeth hurt. My heart is sad in a way watching winter coming.
Still, and don’t let this be a slam against the island — we liked the Big Island better. It’s a bigger island. I think it’s prettier, too. Feels more like natural Hawaii — uncrowded, unpretentious, unconcerned. And so much to see — jungles, mountains, lava flows, cattle ranches, and so forth. Part of it is, duh, Big Island was our first experience in Hawaii and it is forever branded upon our brains. It’s just more our speed, I think.
Plus, fewer chickens.
Love Kauai, would go back and try to do more of the things we were supposed to do (hike part of Na Pali, kayak a river, take a helicopter ride).
But next time, when we go back, I think we might hit the Big Island again.
Our hearts live there, I suspect.