Getting Physical on Kauai

By Rick & Chris Millikan

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Hawaii’s oldest populated island proves ideal for intriguing encounters, invigorating walks and big adventures. Our week-long explorations begin in south Kauai. Our Poipu resort borders 30-acre Moir Gardens, inspiring delightful strolls past exotic succulents, cacti, bromeliads and 1,200 blossoming orchids. Following snorkels with curious green turtles and tropical fish, we commune with a monk seal basking on our golden beach. This endangered mammal is surely tuckered from all-night dives for squid! Everywhere, red cardinals, raucous mynah birds, small doves, whiskered bulbuls and Kauai’s prolific chicken-like “jungle fowl” attract attention.

To the southwest rises Mount Wai’ale’ale, the wettest place on earth, whose torrents helped carve Waimea Canyon, a geologic marvel Mark Twain named Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Lush multi-hued greenery clings to its layered black, grey and rusty lava walls; sparkling Waipo’o Falls cascades 250 metres into the winding Waimea River.

While admiring glorious vistas atop a basalt bluff, our cycle group spots two white-tailed tropicbirds swooping effortlessly in the expanse. Donning helmets and mounting sturdy bikes, we begin our own swoop to the coast. Rolling past plush greenery through groves of feathery bamboo and mahogany, our guide Lucas waves our “nature walk on wheels” to a halt, pointing out endemic Koa trees once used to carve outrigger canoes - now fashioned into quality furniture! Up a short trail, another magnificent canyon view emerges.
Snaking downward, we spy delicate wildflowers and unusual trees flaunting pink, orange and yellow blossoms. Another roadside stop reveals plants introduced into Hawaii after Captain Cook landed. All sniff fragrant paper-bark eucalyptus leaves, nibble purple flowers from mint plants and savour tiny but delectable pineapple guavas. Zigzagging further downward, panoramas of Kauai’s western shore and Nihau Island appear. Zipping into arid cattle country past tall grasses, lacy acacia and spiny cacti, our thrilling 19-kilometre ride concludes with an easy pedal into Kekaha.

Returning through Waimea-town, we spot a lei-draped Captain Cook statue memorializing his arrival here in 1778. Across Waimea River, crumbling rock walls identify Fort Elizabeth, one of three Russian-American fortifications on Kauai. Nearby, we stop at Hawaii’s largest coffee plantation and find out about Kauai’s coffee history. Sampling robust brews, we splurge on aromatic pea-berry roasts for gifts. Central Kauai lies within a flat dry caldera. After diverting water from surrounding mountains, enormous sugar plantations thrived here. Joining a tubing expedition set to float down a main irrigation ditch, an all-terrain truck rumbles, jostling us into the backcountry. Guide Brandon amuses us with local tales and points out the abandoned home of an early irrigation specialist. “His expertise in watering the sugarcane earned him big bucks!” 

At the launch site, Brandon provides safety tips and tube techniques. Everyone straps on a helmet, plops into a giant blue or yellow tube and bobs merrily between the tumultuous greenery. Twirling, laughing and bumping off rocky banks, we float into the first of four tunnels. Switching on helmet lights, we beam and bounce crazily along the dark channel, slowly emerging into sunshine. In the third tunnel, Brandon warns, “Due to early miscalculations, there’s a sharp dogleg ahead, watch for it!” Nevertheless, these excavations prove engineering feats and tributes to hardy shovel and pickax crews!

With all lights off in the last tunnel, we dreamily drift through total blackness. Emerging under sunny skies, the gentle water carries us under shady koas to the landing. De-tubing after this refreshing three-kilometre cruise, we walk up the dirt road to a forested picnic area overlooking a pristine pool and waterfall.  After a swim, we lunch under monkey pod trees.  

Close by, Kilohana recalls the days when sugar was king. This plantation’s restored mansion now encloses glitzy specialty shops, galleries and a gourmet restaurant. Out back, the rustic barn provides ceramic workshops where potters throw, build and glaze creations. In another building, Kauai’s last sugarcane has been processed into premium rums. After sipping white, gold and dark samples at its tasting bar, we add mixes creating luscious Mai Tais!

The adjacent carriage house stages an extraordinary luau. As attendees, we take Mai Tais aboard the sugarcane train and loop a figure eight past sections of taro, groves of guavas, apple-bananas, avocados, rambutan and coffee representing Kauai’s new diversified agriculture. Passing herds of goats and horses, the train stops so passengers can feed countless penned feral pigs - all the while suspecting they’re being plumped up for future feasts! 

A mythic love story featuring theatre-in-the-round intimacy, island music, dazzling costumes, special effects and extraordinary fire dancers follows Kilohana’s sumptuous feast. Beholding a Tahitian maiden and Hawaiian lad overcome ocean perils, contentious spirits, wind and fire to reunite happily on Kauai results in a heartfelt standing ovation.

Our next lodging overlooks Lydgate Park’s golden beach. Along its four-kilometre walkway, we find a colossal artistic “play-bridge” where adventurers of all ages climb and slide. Southward past a man-made lagoon perfect for swimmers or snorkel neophytes, we come upon extensive remains of two ancient temples.
Many kayak nearby Wailua River; we opt for the Smith family’s riverboat cruise. The captain notes, “This lush valley was the ancient home of Kauai’s royalty, once kapu (taboo for commoners). Sixty years ago, Walter Smith began rowing visitors to its sacred Fern Grotto...” Ashore, we discover the Grotto still draped with curtains of lacy ferns and surrounded by sweet crimson and pink-blossomed ginger. 

At Smith’s luau grounds, we feast our eyes on 30 acres of culturally themed gardens from a narrated tram. Later afoot, we survey the Japanese island, crossing the moon bridge to a yellow flowered Brazilian Rose tree surrounded by colourful hibiscus. At the Imu, one Smith recounts his family’s Hawaiian heritage, describes this earth-oven’s traditions and urges us to sample ono - delicious local foods, particularly poi, purple sweet potatoes and lava- guava dressing. After supping sumptuously, we’re dazzled by Filipino, Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian dances reflecting this multicultural society.

Historic Kilauea Lighthouse stands on Kauai’s northernmost peninsula, now serving as a refuge for seven fascinating bird species. Red-footed Boobies cover green cliffsides, looking like white specks in the distance; swooping by us, these odd birds reveal their scarlet legs and blue faces. Nesting on an adjacent bluff, Albatross stumble about awkwardly, thus fondly called gooney birds. Yet airborne, they fly gracefully on seven-foot (2.1 metre) wingspans, reaching destinations over 3,000 miles (4,828 km) away. Shearwaters burrow into lower cliffs; tawny Nene, Canadian Geese gone astray millennia ago, graze on lighthouse lawns. I ask about the red-tailed tropicbird and a docent points to one streaking into view. 

Strolling an adjacent Princeville golf course from our northern digs, an unfamiliar whistle emerges among chirps, coos and yes, cock-a-doodle-doos! Soon, we discover Albatross couples practising mating rituals under a grove of trees: strutting and posturing, bobbing their heads and bowing, clucking and nuzzling. Beyond Hanalei Bay’s patchwork taro fields, quaint village and exquisite beaches featured in the musical classic, South Pacific, our island expeditions culminate below “Bali Hai” at 1000-acre Limahuli Gardens. Dedicated to saving endemic species from intrusive introductions, 40 endangered species thrive here. Modelled after an ancient Ahupua’a, a sustainable resource management system, Limahuli demonstrates how Hawaii might someday lower dependency on food imports. Strolling through flourishing canoe gardens and winding up past mountainside plots, we examine the many useful native plants.
Reluctantly heading homeward, we warmly reflect on Kauai’s abundant natural charm - and our remarkable adventures there!



Planning Your Trip Kauai Visitors Bureau for activity info including our tubing expedition with KauaiBackcountry Adventures. Superb lodgings in Kauai’s three regions. Waimea Canyon Downhill to Coast cycling tours and other south side adventures. A very entertaining luau at this restored plantation. Wailua River cruise, unique luau feast and spectacular gardens.  

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