KAUAI IN 36 HOURS: DRIVING AROUND THE ISLAND
Mark Twain wrote that Hawaii is “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” Of the eight major Hawaiian islands, Kauai is most often considered to be the most beautiful. I’m a rain-lover, and Kauai is also one of the rainiest places in the world. I’d always wanted to check it out if I had a free weekend. As I’ve always found islands to be a kind of soft prison, 36 hours would be enough. In and off.
When I was working an an urban designer in Berkeley, California, I was part of a team redesigning and regenerating US military residential neighborhoods on the island of Oahu, just east of Honolulu. I liked working on the projects, as the many sites had an interesting history, dramatic location, great vistas and the overall project had a social justice in improving the lives of many single mothers (and some fathers) whose husbands (or wives) were out of the country on duty. And, well, I was able to go to Hawaii a couple of times. When your team leader pops his worried head over your partition and asks if you’re “free to go to Hawaii on Thursday”, it is a very welcome change of pace from the working week. “Yes”, yes I am.
One particular Thursday / Friday trip to Oahu for a design charrette gave me an opportunity to check out a new Hawaiian island over the following weekend: Kauai. After our meetings on Friday afternoon, I hopped a flight on Go Airlines and made the 35 minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue Airport on Kauai’s south shore. Lihue is the urban center of the island, but is set in the least spectacular of Kauai’s geography.
At the airport, I checked into Hertz Car Rental, my usual, and I was feeling tired and spontaneous. So, I splurged for the Ford Mustang Convertible. The weather was perfect, the breeze was nice and I needed the sun. The insurance was expensive, as I was not yet 25, but it was worth it to cruise the island in true tropical fashion: a big, stupid car. I only had two nights and two days, so I might as well make the most of it.
The only way to see Kauai is by car, so rent or steal one immediately. Kauai is such a small island that only two highways wrap around it: 50 (heading west from Lihue) and 56 (heading north from Lihue). As the sun was setting in the west an hour or so after I picked up the car, I instinctively headed down Highway 50 in that direction. I was heading towards Polihale, a beach considered by many to be the most dramatic in the United States. It’s secluded, and the only way to reach it is down a five mile dirt road where Highway 50 ends. When it rains, it turns to mud. Hertz said I could not drive the car there, due to the sandy road. This warning grabbed my attention and interest and I made Polihale my first destination.
The sunsets at Polihale are legendary and I was in a hurry to reach it. Upon reaching the beach itself, the bumpy, dirty drive was immediately forgotten and forgiven. Polihale is vast and spectacular. It is about 300 feet wide from waves to end of the sand (what’s the opposite side of the beach called, anyway?). The beach is also 15 miles long, making it one of Hawaii’s longest. The waves here tend to be enormous. Standing on the beach, the water looked uninviting for swimming. Ironic, making so much effort to arrive at a coast that just wants to toss you back, as Jerry Seinfeld would note.
There were only about nine other beachgoers there with me that late afternoon. They were human, but small and miniscule in scale when viewed on Polihale Beach. I could feel a deep sense of isolation that made me feel a bit uncomfortable.
When I arrived, there was a rainstorm just starting up about 10 miles off the coast. I was not sure which direction the weather was moving. This made me a bit nervous, considering the five miles of potential mud I’d have to drive the Mustang through if I wanted to sleep in a comfy hotel and not set up home in the car that evening. The thought crossed my mind- calling Hertz and explaining that their Mustang was stuck at Polihale and that I’m a horrible person. I decided to get back to Highway 50 before I got caught in any storms. and five miles of orange mud. I missed the sunset.
Back on Highway 50 and with the stars coming out, I had to find a place to sleep. I’d forgotten that Hawaii is a resort place, with most rooms running between $150 and $200. I hate paying a lot of money to sleep, shower and maybe build a little fort with my sheets. So, I drove about 25 miles to the opposite side of the island to the very cool Kauai International Hostel in the little town of Kappa. Dorm ($20) was full, so I opted for a private single room @ $50/night. Nightlife does not abound in Kapaa. I took a long look at the stars and went in on 11 hours of sleep.
The next morning it was time to drive north up Highway 56 and see the famous north coast of Kauai. The highway leads to Na Pali Coast, where Jurassic Park and Tropic Thunder were filmed. The road leading north is half the fun, as it takes a driver past wild white horses and the photogenic Kilauea Lighthouse.
A nice surprise driving north were the white horses that wer trotting across the road. They appeared to be wild, but this seemed unlikely, since Kauai is a small island and its belongings are generally accounted for. I like to assume they were though. I stopped and they quietly allowed me to take some photos.
I skipped hiking the Na Pali coast. Looks spectacular, but no time.
After regretfully not having time for the Na Pali Coast, I set back towards the west side of the island to check out the Poipu Beach and to try the Hawaiian-made beer at the Waimea Brewing Company. While Polihale Beach is the most spectacular in setting, Poipu, on the south coast of Kauai is the favorite for peaceful swimming, as the waters are calm and the winds minimal. It was a beach. I’ve sometimes went far out of my way to visit “spectacular” pristine beaches for swimming, but rarely do they excite me. I prefer my coastline rugged and wild.
One place that didn’t disappoint, however, was the Waimea Brewing Company, located off Kaumualii Hwy (#9400) near Waimea (808) 338-9733. 11AM–9PM. I had a wheat ale that was perfect for the hot May afternoon. Cats and peacocks prowled the premises. Breweries are always worth visiting.
After the beer, it was time to head back to my little room and wake up early for my flight back to Honolulu. I wouldn’t want to stay in Kauai. I’d go mad. As a weekend getaway, there are few places on Earth less spectacular.
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Jurassic Park (1993); Tropic Thunder (2008); Donovan’s Reef (1963); Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011); Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1983); Avatar (2010)
Elvis Presley, Blue Hawaii (1961)