(Filed from Kauai, Hawaii at 10:30 a.m. on January 16, 2000)
I pay a visit to Kauai, Hawaii's "garden isle," in search of secluded beaches, warm breezes and strawberry papayas. As the oldest, and northernmost, of the Hawaiian islands, I figure I'm in the right place -- visions of lush greenery and lapping waves dance in my head. I've also heard that Kauai boasts jagged cliffs which plunge into the sea, making for quite the beach-y backdrop. Double rainbows are common stuff here, I'm told, as are the silken raindrops that bring them on and a people who embody the aloha spirit, tht sense of community and reverence for their island home. Fen, on the other hand, is busily preparing for the First Annual Mai Tai Challenge, a single-judge (him), arbitrary event which will determine the best mai tai on the island. I've never even had a mai tai, yet I'm convinced we will find common ground on this sybaritic adventure.
* * * * *
We take a helicopter ride with Hawaii Helicopters on day one. At the risk of seeming terribly bourgeois or perhaps Kennedy-esque, I agree to go up on this fanciful flying bird. Most everyone back home who had done this on Kauai said it was a must, and that it must be the first thing we did when we got here. Having never even been in a helicopter, I find myself with a case of the willies, but my fears are soon gone -- sort of.
"This is my first helicopter ride ever," I whisper to the pilot, who happens to be seated right next to me in our seven-person bird.
"Well, it's my second," he shoots back, the twinkle in his eye toying with my unease.
Liftoff is an incredible sensation -- I feel as if I'm being lifted into the sky on the lightest of wings. In a matter of seconds we fly over a ridge and are high above a deep valley. Yowza! It's quite a ways down there but our bird is floating steadily and Captain Joseph has us all in Bose headsets which play lulling Hawaiian melodies. The jagged, pointy peaks of my dreams come quickly into view, a succession of emerald-colored cliffs dotting the landscape. Kauai is a relatively small island, yet most of it cannot be seen from the ground since there are few roads which can make it into the inner sanctum of this paradise. Even the "ring" road around the island doesn't form a complete circle, owing to the fact that the northwest coast is impenetrable -- here, the mountains really do go into the sea, making a highway a no-way deal.
Our cool-as-a-cuke captain takes us up to Mt. Waialeale (pronounced 'why-aah-lee-aah-lee') first. The tallest point on the island is also the wettest -- ahem, make that the wettest point on earth. Averaging well over 400 inches of rainfall a year, Mt. Waialeale is pretty much rainy all the time, which is certainly the case during our watch -- gray-green clouds choked with water seem to be hanging right over our heads. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, since this abundant rainfall makes for an incredibly lush and green landscape with a profusion of waterfalls at every turn. These falls, however, aren't to be confused with Niagara Falls-type waterfalls -- here on Kauai, one sees a succession of slivers, pencil-thin cascades which slice a mountainside at regular intervals. If you were collecting 'em, you'd have a boatload.
Next stop -- er, make that flyover -- is Waimea Canyon, the affectionately-dubbed "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Some folks on Kauai say their canyon is deeper then that crevasse in Arizona, while others say it's not quite so. No matter, for the Kauaian canyon is magnificent enough, a pink and orange and brown expanse which is dry as the Sahara. How can this be, so close to Mt. Waialeale? There migh be some magic going on here in Kauai, and this theory isn't too far-fetched, seeing as how Kauaians credit most unexplainable things to the Menehunes, an allegedly leprechaun-like populace which is said to have built island bridges and fortresses that couldn't have possibly been created by man. And maybe this is exactly why a giant canyon happily coexists with the wettest place on earth.
Our last major look-see is the NaPali coast, Kauai's northern slope. Here, the visual treat is the aquamarine sea and a succession of pocket beaches with nary a soul in sight. By this time, I've snapped over forty pictures and Fen, seated behind me (and in a coveted window seat) has snapped over 80 with his spanking-new Nikon Coolpix 950 digital camera. The whole of our 45-minute helicopter ride is one big Kodak moment, and there isn't a man or woman on our helicopter who is leaving the experience to memory -- shutters snap constantly, interspersed with successive oohs and aahs and the soft whirring of our chopper's blades.
"See that red-roofed building down below?" Captain Joseph asks just before touchdown. "That's my son's elementary school -- he's in the fourth grade. He goes to school barefoot every day." A smile starts to form on the corners of the Captain's lips, and I can see that the aloha spirit is alive and well in these friendly skies.
* * * * *
There are roosters all over Kauai. I mean all over. They're red and black mostly -- well, make that black head, red neck and chest and an orange-black hodgepodge the rest of the way down. You see these roosters roadside, beachside, house-side. They cackle and crow morning, noon and night. Kauaians are not only friendly, they must be incredibly patient to deal with these loud and omnipresent birds. Can't they just fly away to Niihau? I mean, there aren't many people on that island -- those folks could probably use some company.
* * * * *
I try snorkeling for the first time on Kauai. Well, I had sort of tried it before, in Mexico. Problem was, I kept getting water into my mask, which made underwater breathing pretty iffy. This time out, Fen sees to it that my snorkel and mask are a perfect fit. Now the only problem is me and my occasional fear of deep water.
We drive out to Tunnels Beach, a locals beach which is found thusly: drive west from Hanalei out towards Kee Beach. Once you see the YMCA Camp sign, look for small beach signs posted on trees. You pass several signs which say "Tunnels No," no doubt put up by concerned landowners who didn't want interlopers in their private driveways. Finally, when you see a cluster of cars parked on the roadside, you look to your right and you see a shady lane that leads down to the beach. Believe me, Tunnels is worth the search, since this beach is quiet, clean and nearly empty. And the waves are easy to boot.
I get my snorkel gear on, fins and all, and start splashing my way into the surf.
"Walk in backwards, it's easier!" Fen yells, already many paces (make that strokes) ahead of me.
"Wait up!" I yell back, not wanting to flounder by myself with all of this new and untested gear.
"Don't worry, I'm right here," Fen assures me.
"Now until I get the hang of this," I implore, "I don't want to get in over my head. I need to be sure I know what I'm doing before I'm out in the deep water."
This I'm okay-you're okay monologue goes on for about ten minutes as I get myself ready (both mentally and physically) for my visit with the fish. Fen shows remarkable patience throughout, which earns him one big gold star in my book.
"Okay, okay, I'm ready now," I wail at long last and put my head in the water, my body floating in the warm sea. My mask proves to be airtight, my breathing is surprisingly modulated and easy and the panorama of fish is breathtaking. My fishy pals seem utterly content, swimming to and fro and high and lo, all around me and then back into the distance to be replaced by a new assortment of their underwater friends. Most surprising to me, however, are the colors and designs that I see. These fish could have been painted by Picasso or Dali, what with their eye-popping shades and pop-art-like brushstrokes. Is this where Dali's surrealism came from? My favorite fish is mostly pink with a squiggly blue vertical stripe on the upper portion of his slinky body. Other fish are half-orange/half white, silvery gray with black splotches or a mish-mash of pink, yellow, and blue a la Jackson Pollock. I paddle around as I try to keep up with my new friends, soaking in the colors and shapes and the feeling inside of me, that sense that I am in the midst of something magical. Did the Menehunes create the sea? Probably not, but they may have dreamed up snorkeling, one heck of a good idea.
* * * * *
You certainly don't need to buy a vowel on Kauai. Case in point: Wailua, Kuamoo, Nawiliwili, Hanamaulu, Kaumualii, Kukuiula, Waiohai, Mahaulepu, Kukuiolono, Waialae, Puuokila, Kalihiwai. Word to Vanna: stay on the mainland.
* * * * *
Princess for a Day, part one: Fen and I head over to the Princeville Resort for cocktails 'n apps. The Princeville is a five-star resort with a ten-star location, high on a bluff overlooking Hanalei Bay, Bali Hai (yep, the one from "South Pacific") peaking in the distance. Since it's late in the day, we plop ourselves down at the poolside Beach Bar in the hopes of catching some sunset action. Fen orders a mai tai and pronounces it a ten. I order a pina colada, which is at least a five and probably an eight. Our sashimi platter is off the charts, some of the freshest fish I've ever tasted. The sky dares to be as pink as the ahi on my plate. And orange and blue and purple as well. The streaks in the sky aren't as impressive as the ones on my favorite fish, but they're pretty darned close. Fen and I look at the sky, the placid Princeville pool and each other. This is paradise, Toto.
We finally tear ourselves away from these proceedings and head upstairs to the Princeville's Living Room, a football-field-sized expanse of lobby which is nicely laid out as a series of comfy-couched living areas. Fen and I find a couple of couches to our liking and proceed to take off our shoes and order more drinks. The Living Room is half-filled with people chatting and drinking, far too many of them trying to be proper and nice. I throw decorum to the wind and get positively gushy, heaping praise on the view (the Living Room has floor-to-ceiling windows which face north and west) and the overall set-up. We order New Zealand oysters next and they prove to be the creamiest, meatiest oysters I've had in a long time. A local couple, Mauli Cook and Johnny Akana, pay a visit to the Living Room and regale us with native dances and chants. We smile, Fen and I. It's a pretty penny to play Princess for a Day in paradise, but it's worth it.
* * * * *
The aforementioned Mauli Cook and Johnny Akana embody the aloha spirit today, ever mindful of those who came before them. Mauli (nee Christina, until her hula teacher got a hold of her) has lived in Hawaii for 21 years and teaches kids at a Hawaiian-language school when she's not acting as historian cum hula dancer. Her husband, Johnny, is a tenth-generation Hawaiian who tends the family's papaya farm when he's not helping Mauli with her hula and chants. Together, they visit the Princeville Resort three times a week and teach the guests (or anyone else who cares to listen in) a bit of Hawaiian history sprinkled with folklore and dance.
"I can't believe that so much Hawaiian history is being ignored," Mauli tells us. "It's so important . If we don't tell people about it, it will all be forgotten and that would be a terrible shame."
Mauli, who is Anglo yet fluent in Hawaiian, is passionate on this subject. Johnny is clearly smitten with his bride, who is as Kauaian as the papaya farmer himself.
* * * * *
We stop in at the farmer's market on the north shore in search of strawberry papayas and get lucky. Then it starts to rain. One of the vendors shrugs his shoulders and says "hey, no rain, no rainbows." Fair enough.
* * * * *
Princess for a Day, part two: Fen and I decide to spend a night at the Princeville, the better to partake of the resort's much-ballyhooed luau. The feast o'plenty begins with mai tais on the house, as many as you can drink -- no wonder we're spending the night, I tease Fen. My boy grabs a drink and we both repair to the pit, also known as an emu , where our pig rests -- er, cooks. This porcine cookout began at 8 AM in the morning, when the emu was dug. In order, the cooks filled the emu with the following things: wood slats, hot rocks, a 130-lb. pig in a wire basket, banana leaves, burlap bags, plastic tarp and lots of Kauai's native red dirt. At exactly 6:15 p.m., the pig is unearthed and the folks at the Princeville are kind enough to give out some samples straightaway. I pronounce the pig done.
We take a seat at one of the long tables set up for this festa and listen to a bit of Hawaiian stand-up while our buffet is prepared. Soon we're whisked away to the chow line, where I ogle the multicolored salads and piles of other foods I can barely identify. I scoop a little bit of everything on my plate but pass on the oft-maligned poi, a native food which can best be described as root vegetable porridge. It's purple , by golly. Fen gives me a taste of his and I wince. Back at the table, I devour the mahi with lemon sauce, chicken skewers, beef, salmon and most of the salads. A trip to the dessert bar is totally unnecessary but I take it anyway. Soon the dancers are on stage, performing set pieces involving various forms of hula by even more varied participants. A young woman dances with a flaming coconut in each hand. Young boys try to do the hula and look more like disco kings, hair slicked back. Audience members are goaded onstage by young hula maidens and are all left feet. Finally, the stand-up comic is reintroduced as a Samoan torch dancer and I am in awe of his facility with fire. Fen sips his last mai tai and pronounces the luau a success.
We awaken the next morning to the sound of the pounding surf below us. Our ocean-view suite, Room 1103, has a glorious view of the Pacific and Fen was wise enough to throw open the shutters and windows before we drifted off to sleep. The folks at the Princeville have smartly positioned the beds in their rooms so that they face outward, toward the sea. At these prices, would you want to look anywhere else? (Speaking of looking elsewhere, the bathroom in our suite has a "privacy window" which allows you to either look out toward the ocean while in the shower or to flick a switch and turn the window opaque for a bit of...privacy? I can't imagine not looking out at this view so this bit of electronic folderol is totally lost on me.) After dancing around our room a bit I plop myself down at my window seat and take in the view and the soft breeze. It's a perfect moment, which Fen turns into a Kodak moment.
Breakfast at the Princeville's Cafe Hanalei is next, and I find the view even more breathtaking here. Situated several levels below our room, I find the Cafe's proximity to the sea utterly endearing. We choose a sunny table and load up on the scrumptious breakfast buffet. I pronounce the macadamia-nut pancakes with guava syrup the big winner.
Pool action is next, a real treat for me since it affords me the opportunity to be a real Princess. I buy the latest issue of Harper's Bazaar at the gift shop and slink into a comfy poolside chaise, sunglasses perched on my not-yet-tan nose. Fen fidgets, since he's not exactly a beach boy. I tell him he is my Prince and advise him to simply relax and soak up the nice sea air. Luckily, Fen has prepared himself for anything and soon he's playing with all his princely goods, namely the Nikon digital camera, Nikon binoculars and a Palm IIIX. Oh, his cell phone, too.
"I think I'll check my voice mail," Fen tells me. I grin. The Prince and the Princess have found paradise -- it's called Kauai.
* * * * *
Results of the First Annual Mai Tai Challenge:
First place: Beach Bar at the Princeville Resort, Princeville; second place: Living Room at the Princeville Resort; third place: Hanalei Dolphin restaurant, Hanalei; fourth place: Ilima Terrace restaurant, Hyatt Regency, Poipu; fifth place: luau at the Princeville Resort.
© 2000 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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