Exploring Kauai

Cannonball or can opener?

We’re at a swimming hole on private land in Kauai that once belonged to a Hawaiian princess where we’re getting a quick lesson in swinging from a rope swing.  A can opener, I learn, is a cannonball with one knee straight.

This very fishing hole, we learn, was used in scenes in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie that was just filmed here.

Beauty and fun at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort

Kauai is Adventure-Central and my daughters, young cousin and oldest friend—a girls’ trip!-are sure seeing that this morning.  “It is the place to come for outdoor activities,” declares Maui Native Eric Dee, who is one of our kayak guides this morning as we kayak two miles up the Hule’ia River where we hike through the woods to the Kipu Ranch, hidden waterfalls, and then our special swimming hole. (www.outfitterskauai.com)

We pass taro and wild ginger, KuKui Nut trees, the shells that once were fashioned into leis for royalty.  Today, our guides joke, we could find them in Wal-Mart.  The wild ginger is called AWAPUHI (squeeze the bulbs and it is great hair conditioner!)

The river is about 40 foot wide and 10 feet deep but was twice as wide before the mangrove encroached, our guide tells us.  We learn Kauai has the only navigable rivers in all of Hawaii  fed from the “wettest place on earth,” Mount Waialeale. We see a lone fisherman junbuliantly pull up a crab.

Some people love Kauai (www.visit-kauai.com)  for moments just like this— kayaking or tramping through the wood past taro root and wild ginger, never mind the mosquitoes.

“I’ve been coming here since the 1980’s,” said Valerie Russell, who says she has been here more than a dozen times since with her husband and two kids.  “That’s how much we love it,” she said, adding they do the kayak trip every time. “We snorkel every day.  There is such untouched beauty here…so lush and so green, rainbows every day, and waterfalls…everything a nature lover could want.”

There’s also everything a resort lover wants, we discover, splitting our stay between the central part of the island and Poipu in the south.

We sample the just renovated (to the tune of $50 million) Kauai Marriott (www.kauimarriott.com) with its 26,000 square foot pool (the largest single-level pool in the Hawaiian Islands a and a new one for the kids complete with water slide), new sushi restaurant and golf course that is being redesigned by Jack Nicklaus. A few days later, we move our digs South to  the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort (www.grandhyattkauai.com) which has just completed the first phase of its own renovation and  boasts one of the best spas in Hawaii (think massage overlooking  lush tropical garden)  as well as a network of pools designed to look like natural swimming holes.  Kids race from one pool area to another, jumping into the pool, heading to water slide, and salt water lagoon that sits in front of the beach. “There is not a better family hotel,”  declares Kim Cheikha, a mom of four who has been returning here for years.

The resorts are teeming with families determined to squeeze every bit of fun out of their hard-earned Hawaiian vacation. Is there really a recession?   Absolutely they’re feeling the pinch, locals and hoteliers say, though this year has been better than last.  All the more reason to come to Hawaii now when your dollars will stretch with all variety of deals.

For those who don’t want—or need all the amenities of a big resort, I loved  the small (just 52-units), casual  condo Hanalei  Colony Resort (www.hcr.com) on the island’s quiet North Shore where there are no phones in the units but a brand new pool and general manager Laura Richards  will know your kids names by the second day.  “We are a step back in time–we haven’t moved into the 21st Century.” She laughs.“ It is relaxed, laid back—only 4,000 people to the end of the road, and we take pride in being the native guardians of the land.”

That includes a discount if you volunteer at the nearby Limahulu Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Wherever you stay or whatever you do while visiting Kauai, the key, says Brad Snyder, the area general manager of the Kauai Marriott resort and a long time resident, “You’ve got to slow down and appreciate the land, the ocean, the environment…that is the true Hawaiiana. …it just takes a few days to wind down and start enjoying.”

I’m trying.  It’s just that there is so much to do. There’s snorkeling, of course, hiking (Waimea Canyon is considered the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) ATVing, helicopter rides,  three National Tropical Botanical Gardens (www.ntbg.org)  to explore, the North Shore with its one-lane bridges and giant cups of shaved ice in funky Hanalei ,surfing lessons, ziplines…the list goes on and on (www.kauai-hawaii.com).

We even spend an evening at Luau Kalamaku (www.luaukalamaku.com) which couldn’t be more different from the outdoor adventures we’ve come here to experience–1,000 people gathered on what once was  Kilohana Plantation, a sprawling sugar operation. Today the historic mansion houses shops and a new restaurant.

Yes, big luaus are the quintessential Hawaii Tourist Experience, but you’ve got to do one once and this turns out to be more fun than I expect with local craftsman displaying wood carvings, jewelry, local spices and syrups. We eat local potato-macaroni salad, Lomi-Lomi salmon and tomato salad (salted salmon was introduced to people here by Western sailors in the 19th century), Kauai papaya and pineapple and taste poi, the Hawaiian staple, fresh baked taro rolls (better than bland poi!), coconut-mashed purple sweet potatoes, and   pork that had been roasted underground in an imu (Hawaiian earth oven).

Honestly, we could have done without the food and just watched the terrific show–the hula dancers in amazing costumes telling the story of the migration here across the Pacific so many centuries ago,   followed by fire dancers  twirling, jumping, and swallowing fire. How do they catch the flaming torches and twirl them so fast–they are circles of fire. The audience loves it.  We do too.

On the way back to the hotel, I ask my tired crew what adventure they’ve got in mind for tomorrow.  “We just want to relax,” they plead.

Some pool time sounds good to me. Mai Tai please!

For more of Eileen’s Hawaii adventure, please read her travel diaries