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Flying over Oahu

Following eight months of hesitant journeys to its owner’s head, authoritative use has finally been made of the author’s fine summer fedora.

After years of travel to places cold and dense, I find myself someplace that is neither: Kauai, the Garden Island.

First the journey. Hawaiian Air had disappointed us with four hours of delay at Oakland International for lack of a “part” which, it was promised, was hastily making its way from SFO. One finds that it’s easy to imagine a nameless “missing part” to be the one absolutely necessary for the act of flying and landing a plane (the throttle? the wing? the flux capacitor?). More likely, it was probably the lid to a luggage compartment, or perhaps a missing bottle of bathroom hand-soap.

Even for those accustomed to microclimates, Kauai is extreme. The island itself is about 85 miles in circumference, and it’s four distinct shores offer incredible variation.

The “Sunny” South Shore receives an average 18 inches of rain per year, making it a Mediterranean climate not unlike Southern California save for the humidity. The beaches and bays of Wiamea and Poi’pu ascend gently inland, creating a vast and sloping grassland which eventually rises into modest foothills which then heave skyward and rip apart to create the astonishing Wiamea Canyon. Wiamea Bay, it should be noted, is home to some of the heaviest waves in the world, while the beach at popular tourist destination Poi’pu is the temporary home to some of its heaviest people. Along Highway 50, Jo-Jo’s serves what is considered the best of the Island’s signature treat: a cup of shaved ice showered in colored sugar water served atop a pile of ice cream, “Shave Ice” is only one element away from a sugary island Turducken.

Driving east along the shore you’ll see the ruins of industries old and gone, mostly sugar plantations, that conjure up a tropical Pittsburg. Hardly of an eyesore, these rusting behemoths make up the island’s most interesting architecture. One will also pass the Kaua’i Coffee Co., whose beans, visitors are told, account for 60% of all coffee grown in Hawaii. If the tasting room is to be trusted, this is an unfortunate state of affairs. Of the dozen or so blends on sample, each was somehow too bland and too bitter. I was, however, so enamored with the site’s stately groves of coffee trees, that I’d rather blame inattentive staff for simply burning the coffee rather than attack the dignity of the noble beans. Like the South Shore, this area has few trees and is instead dominated by the bermuda grass that grows tightly across lawns and fields alike, covering the area like a giant putting green.

The Koloa Rum house is located on a former sugar plantation, which offers free tastings of four different types of rum along with a lesson on making and drinking Mai Tais. All are good, but the dark rum is particularly impressive. I recommend taking the $18 train tour of the grounds, which is today growing fruit, vegetables, and nuts since sugar cane, a highly labor-intensive crop, is no longer cost-competitive.

One passes the grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants of the East Shore and heads North to Hanalei, which (to non-surfers) is probably the most well-known part of the island. The North Shore looks and feels much more like the tropical destination you expected: it receives much more rain than the South, and is covered in mist and jungle flora. Here you’ll find the island’s established cluster of gift shops, shave ice stands, and art galleries. Petrified lava cliffs bank the road to Ke’e beach, each striped with the dangling, rope-like roots of trees harnessed to bluffs hundreds of feet overhead. The houses are on stilts, some of them appearing 15 feet high. Locals say that the area is inhabited mostly by wealthy transplants from the mainland, with several long-established Hawaiian families tucked here and there.

Ke’e beach is perfect for snorkeling beginners. Its sands plunge 20 feet deep into a calm pool surrounded by a reef which ascends to about 4 feet below the surface. This allows one to plunge and explore the miniature canyons of the reef, and spot all manners of fish, coral, and, if you’re lucky (I was), giant sea turtles. Snorkel Bob’s rents prescription goggles (!).

As we spent the entire day at Ke’e, I’ll spend a word here on the tropical Sun. A Californian will note that the sun is hotter in Hawaii than at home, even when the temperature is cooler. You might not have before considered it, but even in a triple digit Fresno August, the Sun’s heat is dispersed and your surroundings are like that of a convection oven. Hawaii is more like a microwave: cool except for (you)r meal, the atmosphere is mild but in direct sunlight you can actually feel yourself cook.

The road ends shortly past Ke’e beach, marking the beginning of Kauai’s world famous Napali Coast. Napali is a 5 mile stretch of cliffs and canyon accessible only by foot, boat, or helicopter. High above Napali sits Mount Waiʻaleʻale, to the East of which sits one of the wettest spots on Earth, averaging over 400 inches of rain every year. Remember, this is only about 15 miles from Wiamea, which gets as much rain as California’s parched San Fernando Valley. The island is controlled by wild roosters.

I’m sure they’d taste great freshly brewed.

If one is renting a car, the first impression of Hawaiian culture will likely be over the radio. There, one will find that not only is Hawaiian music a slow and moaning mixture of standards-era ballads and ukelele, but that it dominates the dial. Though its lack of passion sounds rather eunuch, Hawaiian music is apparently very pleasant for senior citizens, who seem blissfully unaware that this is the hotel-guitarist’s third go at “Somewhere over the rainbow”. Come to think of it, all-encompassing sameness seems to exist with all components of island culture: all paintings are of sunsets and surfboards, while all architecture that is not 1950’s art decco is in the style of bamboo, palm leaves, and coconuts. It would be as if San Francisco radio only played the ‘Dead, it’s art galleries featured only psychedelic abstractions, and it’s buildings were all cheap imitations of the painted ladies. The food was better than expected, with actually decent hotel food and solid BBQ at Scotty’s on the East Shore. The service can be slow and unusual, like the cocktail waitress who actually grabbed the eaten shrimp off our dirty dishes to explain there was more meat yet hiding beneath the tail. Mostly, we cooked at gas grills along the Kauai Beach Resort with fish from the Fish Express and produce from the farmers market at Tunnels.

A surprising number of individuals we spoke with were transplants from the mainland. One bartender was from Seattle, the woman at the Koloa Rum tasting room was from Ohio, and the guy at the rental car agency was from Pennsylvania. Each marveled about life on the island, but complained about both high costs and low wages. While natives exhibit all the variation you know and love and hate about the human experience, transplants are a self-selected batch of seekers and shut-ins. Nobody wears helmets, and the native Hawaiian accent sounds oddly Minnesotan.

Though economically dependent on tourism, people on Kauai are very committed to its relative isolation from the other islands, which they consider urbanized and spoiled. The only way off Kauai is by plane, cruise ship, or private vessel. No ferry service exists, and the locals are committed to keeping it that way, even if it means they can hardly ever afford to leave. Case in point, a ferry service that launched in 2007 failed as its first boats discovered Nawiliwili Harbor embargoed with a ring of hundreds of surfers. The surfers maintained the embargo for 32 hours, paddling out in shifts until the ferries returned to Oahu. Churches from every denomination are everywhere, a legacy from the vast numbers of missionaries sent here by the West during the 19th century. Mark Twain once wrote that there were “More missionaries and more row about saving these 60,000 people than would take to convert hell itself”.

Speaking of, shortly after I arrived in Hawaii I began looking for a copy Twain’s “Letters from the Sandwich Islands”. Twain’s writings for the Sacramento Union during his four month journey in 1866 is considered by many to be the best travel writing on the Hawaiian islands ever published, making it perhaps the best beach reading of all time. As I first combed the internet on my iPad for copies, I came across a May 2006 New York Times article on travel writing which began with the keen observation that upon arrival to a tropical paradise, a subtle feeling of “This is really nice…but that’s it?” can creep in on city slickers used to options. The antidote, the author recommended, was good travel writing to stoke interest in sights unseen and under appreciated. As I tried to purchase a physical copy of Twain’s Letters, I was politely informed by a local grocer that the Island and County of Kauai, population 65,000, didn’t have a single bookstore. Such is the reason why theologians have always had such difficulty convincingly describing heaven: one person’s eternal paradise is, if not another’s hell, certainly their four day vacation. And such is how I discovered Hawaii’s great irony: to get the most out of it, you have to leave.

Overlooking Wiamea Canyon.