Monday, November 07, 2005

KAUA'I: Idyllic Days Chasing Fun 'n Sun on Paradise Isle

On the occasion of our tenth – by some reckonings, our twentieth! – wedding anniversary, we had a special reason to splurge and celebrate for a few (painfully short) days on the “Garden Isle” of Kaua’i, the fabled, northernmost and fourth largest of the Hawaiian islands at 550 square miles. We treated ourselves to five days of drive-by sight-seeing and casual exploration, hiking local nature areas and visiting sites of historic, geologic and cultural interest.

Kaua’i is one of the most topologically and ecologically diverse places, mile for square mile, on earth; and its central highlands, high atop Mt. Waialeale, reigns as the wettest place on the planet. The island is an outdoor lover’s uber-paradise. It's said that 70% of Kaua’i’s terrain is inaccessible by foot. We were probably lucky enough to cover a mere few acres of the big rock.

Kaua’i was just as I had imagined it – verdant hills and jagged mountains, lush eroded valleys and sprawling meadows, rugged uplands, spectacular lithified coastlines and South Pacificesque beaches – 113 miles of shoreline -- thunderous waterfalls, surfin’ dudes, hipsters and hippies, and a low-key, laid-back local vibe. In fact, first thing the rental car woman said to us was the people of Kaua’i were the friendliest and most easy-going of all the islanders. She wasn’t kidding. Everyone was genuinely super-nice. (As contrasted with more than a few sourpusses on Maui.)

We arrived during unsettled weather – liquid sunshine – but it made for dramatic scenes and occasional rainbows. Freshened skies cleared to marshmallow cloud, azure horizons one moment, then tempestuous but hospitable weather would suddenly set in. Most rain in Kaua’i falls over the high ranges, but today, one second it was raining, the next second the sun was out. One day the ocean was roiling, with waves crushing the shore so loud you couldn’t talk, the next day it was gentler, allowing for some easy but no less fascinating snorkeling episodes. The rains had swollen the watersheds of magnificent Mt. Waialeale, Kaua’i’s highest massif at 5148 feet, and where the annual rainfall averages well over 450 inches. This created huge gushing waterfalls in every canyon, ravine, gorge, fissure leading down to all sides of the mountain to the ocean. Basal pools gathered in a turbulent, muddy swirl. The downpours also made hiking treacherous, slickening up already rugged trails. You didn’t want to test the elements too much. We did manage to sneak in a couple of memorable hikes, though, and not so surprisingly, we managed to stay one step ahead of the storms and generally enjoyed exquisite days. (But oh so painfully short.)

Once we settled in our hotel, in Kapa’a town, on the island’s east shore, I suggested a short drive up Highway 580 – quite a different 580 from our local eight-lane mega-highway CA 580 leading out of Oakland – to visit Opaeka’a Falls. In about four miles we came to a pull-out where five huge humming busses idled while their occupants milled about at a look-out, snapping photos and oohing and aahing at the sight, which, frankly, I was not all that impressed with. The falls were set too far in the distance to truly appreciate them; set off and apart, inaccessible as though a postcard backdrop, which it was for most of these inactive tourists. Through the binoculars, they appeared at low flow. I would have liked to take a crack at the tough trail that heads down; maybe up close and personal, under rainbow spray at a blue green pool, away from the obnoxious, noisy, polluting busses, Opaeka'a might be more impressive. Certainly it would be. But by now we were getting annoyed with all the tourists. I snapped a photo or two and suggested we head on up the road, see where it takes us.

In several minutes we came to a pull-off, with a perfect trail heading into the, until now, impenetrable and off-limits wilderness. The Kuilau Ridge Trail was a thing of beauty, that it was. After nearly ten hours of traveling, a tremendous wave of relief washed over us to be out in the sweet-smelling open air, walking a lush, overgrown trail, enchanted by the exotic high-pitched calls of a myriad of birds whose names I didn’t know and who remained completely out of sight for the most part. (Lots of bird listening, not so much bird watching!) The sweet decaying smells of over-ripened vegetation, the lovely birdsong, hand-in-hand with Mary, gentle breeze blowing, dramatic stormy / sunny views stretching into a jungly expanse of hills. . .it was an intoxicating walk, I’ll have to say.

The trail climbed for a mile or so to a plateau, a lea like I’ve never seen – a flat expanse of green, green grass surrounded by majestic upland tropical scenery, with magical Waialeale poking its summit northward through a shredded gauze of clouds. Flinging my Tevas aside, and stripping down to my underwear, I pranced around on the field, unbridled, reborn in that moment, so pulsating with life, amid such peaceful solitude in the wilds of Kaua’i, no one in sight, but two mountain bikers who came riding through just as I had slipped my shorts back on. Where was everybody I wondered. . .oh, yeah, back on the bus! I rejoiced and gave thanks that, although I too may be an out-of-shape tourist (!), at least I was blessed with the gambolin’ gumption to seize the day, take on some sort of adventure regardless of “advanced” age, or foot and back pain, or some such excuse to be soft and lazy and tame. I feel blessed, actually, to be forever spurred on by an unquenchable thirst to seek out hidden nooks and secretive sacred spots in nature, no matter the topographical obstacles. Ridge? Get over it. Roaring stream? Ford it. Deep pool? Do the butterfly across it. Rugged landscape? Deal with it. Rutted, muddy steep trail? Do the funky glissade. Yeah, I gotta admit that my largely frivolous exploits must have their inspired roots from the motto of renegade explorer Percy Fawcett, “Nec Aspera Terrent” (Difficulties Be Damned!).

The day was passing; regretfully, we put our shoes back on and headed down the trail to our tin can of a car. That night, although quite exhausted from our long first day, we went out to dinner at a place called The Blossoming Lotus, Kapa’a’s very own raw / vegan provender. The atmosphere was wonderful, in a historic old Chinese building, with local jazz-rhythm’nblues musicians getting down on a small stage, and a fun mix of clientele. We ate mung bean soup (too sour), some tasty appetizers, an overly-ambitious seaweed salad that could have served six, and a main curry course that was prosaic, to be charitable. Throw in a couple of glasses of wine and some dessert and boom – there’s your $71 bill. We sat next to Ted, a 17-year resident / escapee from New York City who gave us the inside scoop on the music scene (“See that guy I was just talking to? He’s a very famous jam musician.”); the real estate scene (“Just a few short years ago, if you’da bought the place I live in now, a modest condo that cost $80,00, you’d be worth over half a mill today.”); and best places to snorkel and sightsee. Unfortunately, Ted also gave us an unsolicited earful of his transformation from a leftist socialist to conservative libertarian. I said “so far left you turned right, huh”and he nodded vigorously, chuckling, then launched off on a modulated but vociferous pro-gun rant.. . and being in no mood to have to demolish this poor guy’s personal macho-hero philosophy (he had bragged about confronting and threatening to shoot some local punk blaring his heavy bass boooom car stereo in front of his house), we excused ourselves and bid Ted adieu as quickly as possible.

The next morning we rose early, our bodies adjusted to the three hour time gain, and headed into town to get breakfast, which consisted of tea, coffee and bagels. I was eager to get moving, hit the road. First stop was Wailua Falls, a “Fantasy Island” falls indeed! The vertical torrent lies deep upriver from the slow moving lower stretches where the kayakers ply their crafts. What a jaw-dropping, stunning sight, for such zero effort but for the drive to appreciate it. And were there a lot of people at the little pull-out where the road dead ends? Surprisingly, hardly anyone was around either time we checked the falls out. Signs are posted warning you to stay out, don’t cross the fences to climb down to the falls; people have been swept away. In the olden days, young studs challenged one another, testing their courage and manhood by plunging head-first (poor official estimate) 80 feet to the massive pool below. From my vantage point, it was a suicide jump. Many must have must their match and perished on the rocks or against the jagged cliff faces. The authors of a guidebook claim to have measured the drop themselves, coming up with 173 feet. The pool, they say, is 30 feet deep with big fish. In another season, it would be turquoise blue and calm, inviting enough to scramble down the unmaintained “dangerous” trail. For now, we just gawk. Long-tailed birds swoop and swoon, occasionally seeking perch on a cliff. I snap a hundred pictures, one or two which may capture its animistic vibrancy. All in all, an amazing spectacle to witness, this tour de force of Mother Nature, so accessible that even Stephen Hawking could approach and enjoy its mesmerizing grandeur.

Off we headed up Route 56, the Kuhio Highway, toward Princeville, Hanalei, and exotic points beyond. The north shore of Kaua’i is a treasure-trove of secret beaches – luxurious white sandy stretches of tropical shoreline; cave systems – Waikapalae and Waikanaloa “wet” grottos, and Maniniholo “dry” cave; the famed coast of Na Pali (“The Cliffs”); fantastic reefs teeming with sea life; jagged coastal mountains that knife-edge to pounding surf thousands of feet below. We were planning to hike the fabled Kalalau Trail where it begins at the end of the road, now Route 560, at Ke’e Beach. The trail winds up and down an eleven mile stretch through a supremely rugged landscape with nonpareil views of the Na Pali coastline. We hiked two miles to Hanakapai Beach (rough going due to muddy conditions and the usual roots, rock and reggae), ascending several hundred feet to a look-out spot where I nearly got blown over the edge by a forceful and unrelenting gust of wind. On the trail, we enjoyed hiking in a tropical paradise, through dense overhanging, gargantuan plants, enchanted by Tahiti-like scenery, Tikal-like Mayan pyramid formations; and so many gushing freshets spilling down the hillsides; and mud, mud, red lovely mud.

At Hanakapai Beach we took a break, admiring the river spilling into the rough surf. I approached the edge, got my feet wet, observed and inspected said rough surf, making sure to comply with the sign posted above warning of 83 recent deaths – unsuspecting victims, posing for a photograph or swimming casually before being swept away by a rogue wave like a flea in a vacuum cleaner. I was not going to be number 84, uh-uh, no way. So, I convinced Mary to put her shoes back on for “two more measly miles”of jungle ravine hiking - we were too close to not see the falls, the royal Hanakapai Falls. This spectacle of nature, tucked deep up the lush, green river canyon in a gigantic bowl - amphitheater terminus, is a not-to-be-missed trailside attraction certain to sate the pangs for something magical and mysterious and larger-than-life, aching back and feet be damned.

Two miles might not seem like much, but these were about ten thousand steps on a rutty, muddy, slippery, rooty, rocky trail that took us high above the water, through bamboo and guava forests. We lunched near an old brick taro oven, lying hidden in dignified ruin. Continuing on, we walked through more guava trees, whose fragrant-cum-rotting fruit littered the forest floor,, emitting an aroma at once sweet and sour. I made trail mush by squishing them under my shoes with oddly satisfying stomps.

Eventually, we came back down to the water and must have crossed the stream a dozen times in the course of a quarter mile. Pools, lovely tropical pools, with course cut channels in black volcanic bedrock, welcomed us. Finally, a view from afar – maybe ten more minutes of hiking – of the main falls – a jet stream of water twenty or thirty feet wide spilling two or three hundred feet straight down out of a gouge in the fern-hairy cliff face. On closer approach, wafts of cool mist sprayed about and the sun was nowhere to be seen or felt. A chill breeze emanated from the crashing swoosh of water. We enjoyed the raw power in absolute silence for several minutes, then decided to retreat to the pools and sun on the way back. We luxuriated for the remaining half hour of sun in the refreshing pools before mustering up the fortitude to face the difficult and now muddier three and a half hard-ass miles back to the comfort and safety of the tin can. But, oh, without a doubt, Hanakapai Falls is Top Five!

The next morning we checked in early at JavaKai for our tea and coffee fix, then visited lovely Hoopii Falls, a little “nowhere” place, amid residential development, involving a short, easy but slippery slope of a trail through a lush green meadow with galloping horses, rainbows and expansive views of enticing jungle terrain. The stream and falls were, in the sc ale of Kaua’i grandeur, prosaic; still, they flowed and roared and formed beautiful rapids, channels and pools in a moist, shaded tropical setting.

Continuing on down the road, we passed through old sugar mill plantations, historic towns, nature reserve areas, but never stopping long enough to really appreciate any one place. Our main destination was Kokee State Park and its crown jewel Waimea Canyon, the famous “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” pegged as such by Samuel Clemens while on assignment one hundred and forty years ago with the Sacramento Union. The contrast of wet, lush, tropical, humid versus dry, scrubby, red rock, eroded canyon was startling. You could forget you were in Kaua’i, think you’re in a nook of Arizona. We pulled off at several viewpoints along the road and treated ourselves to some leisurely strolls with tremendous vistas of the severely eroded canyons, squinting our eyes at what must be thundering waterfalls crashing off cliff faces far in the distance, and the Waimea River wending toward the sea 3,000 feet below. Ah, to be down there. A very steep, North Forkian kind of trail goes down, about two and a half miles in lengh, but we had other plans, other destinations, like a sweet drive to the end of the highway at Kalalau Lookout. There, you’re looking down to the ocean some 4,000 feet below, with layered knife edge ridges rising up from the coast at the wild remote beach where the eleven mile Kalalau Trail ends at Nohili Point.

Another day we rose early, got our morning fix, and this time headed south for a day of falls hunting and snorkeling on the south shore at Po’ipu. But first, Kipu Falls -- subtly overpowering. We parked the car down Kipu Road next to the old mossy bridge, alongside the very lazy Kipu River. In a short two-tenths of a mile, though, this lazy river loses enough elevation that the water becomes a furious tropical torrent in no time, raging through cut volcanic bedrock, carving chutes and channels, then plunging loudly over a broad 100 foot wide lip to a massive, murky and roiling pool below. Quite impressive. But for now completely off-limits, despite the ladder and rope swing on the far edge.

At Po’ipu, we finally had a good day of sun. We donned our snorkeling gear and hit the beaches. Colorful fish swarmed in mere calf-deep water. All you had to do was plop down and stare. . .at schools of tropical fish, urchins, coral formations, and the ugly, curmudgeonly rockfish. I had forgotten how fascinating the underwater world is, what an utterly different reality. I felt a part of it, just one of the creatures floating around. But where were the sting rays, the sea turtles? Ah, this little snorkeling outing is but a tease compared to REAL ADVENTURE that eludes me at the moment. . .but still, how can you complain, kicked back with nowhere to go, nursing a cold one on a hot tropical beach?

Back on the North Shore for another day of fun and exploration, we set off to find several alluring beaches with evocative namesakes like Kauapea (“Secret”), Pali Ke Kua (“Hideaway”), Puu Poa and Tunnels.. First, we hiked a short but steep trail (hiking by now had become semi-dangerous due to slippery conditions) down to a place called Queen’s Bath. At certain times of the year, the ocean is calm and forms Olympic sized pools in the lithified channels cut by eons of erosion. This was not that time of year – first clue was a newspaper clipping posted to a tree on the trail telling the sad tale of a Missouri man who drowned two weeks earlier when a “rogue” wave swept him away. We approached the shore cautiously – Mary stayed way back, content to sit quietly near an enchanting waterfall that plunged into a nearby bath. I decided to check out the scene beyond – it was a magical fairyland of Queen and King sized baths, but the ocean waves were mercilessly pounding, spewing spray fifty feet high. Surf boiled and roiled and undertows were treacherous. The possibility of rogue waves was not to be taken lightly. At one point, I strayed too close to get a look and a giant wave inundated me to my calves. Shaken, I scurried back, staying a respectable distance, snapping a few feckless photos before scampering back to join my love, relieved to still be among the living. (OK, it wasn't all that dramatic or close.)

We found beach after beach – sun-drenched one second, tenebrous the next. Beaches of white sand, black sand, brown sand; geologically fascinating, lithified coastlines with red bluffs that made for spectacular hiking along the Mahaulepu red cliff area of the south shore. There were deep caves, and amazing blow holes – “Spouting Horn” – where the surf is forced through lava tubes and then bursts up through holes in the rock with sea spray and foam shooting up thirty feet. There were breathtaking vistas, and intimate scenes. Birds were resplendent and sonorous. Monk seals lounged about on the sandy beaches, sleeping long stretches to reinvigorate for arduous ocean-going forays. Only about 1500 are remaining, and thirty or so are believed to live around Kaua’i. Incredibly, we came upon four or five of them, two scooting toward the water in almost desperate, hapless stabs to regain their aquatic identities.

Much of Kaua’i remains a mystery, spots on a topo map you long to explore. After all, what can you really see and do in a mere five days? We did not bicycle. We did not wind surf or kayak (not that we do much or any of either). There were no triumphant ascents to high peaks, no Na Pali boat trips, no surfin’, no boardin’, and, dammit, not a lot of snorkeling. But we managed to pack in a lot each day, so much so that by early evening, after hearty meals while seranaded by the likes of the Jimmy Buffetesque Lost Pelican Band, we were exhausted. Not enough in the tank even for that glass of champagne we were supposed to hoist in a "salud" to our tenth, or twentieth, depending on how you want to count the years. And though we barely scratched the surface, we had an exciting, exotic, adventurous time. Above all,we had fun and romance, yes we did. We shall return where we left off.