"We can never have enough of nature" -- Henry David Thoreau
Is it possible to be homesick for a place you've never been to? You might say I've done Hawaii. I've visited the Big Island, the largest in the Hawaiian chain, I've had a frenzied, fun time on Oahu, the island that calls itself the Heart of Hawaii, and I've checked out the marvels of Maui, the Valley Isl. But eluding me thus far was Kauai, known as the Garden Island. That title alone, conjuring up deep, verdant forests, outrageous tropical flowers and extraordinary birds like the endangered Akikiki (just saying its name makes you smile) was enough to summon me. I had to go.
It doesn't matter how many times you've seen it -- in movies, on TV -- when you arrive in Kauai and step off the plane, a gracious greeter places a lei of fresh orchids around your neck and you feel special. Ok, a bit clichéd but still... special. The island has 553 square miles of beach, rain forests, desert, mountains and plains. At Wai'ale'ale it rains nearly every day, making it the wettest place on earth. Go a few miles west and rain is rare. The north shore is as lush as any place on the planet and the south shore is a sunny playground. Kauai is known as the land of a thousand waterfalls, some tumbling hundreds of feet out of the jungle, some small enough to walk across and then jump into a lagoon and swim directly under a symphony of rushing water. One thing's for certain: Kauai is nature on steroids.
Mana translates to spiritual power and on this, Hawaii's oldest island, mana is a quality both felt and seen. It's palpable in the visual beauty of the land, the quality of air and ocean, and the interplay of natural elements that invigorate, relax, and rejuvenate. Consider this: there's no building higher than a coconut tree. Streams and rivers allow endless opportunities for recreation, and having 50 miles of white sand shoreline is something none of its sister islands can claim.
Let's Get Physical
One of the most satisfying ways to visit the Garden Isle is in harmony with the principles of old Hawaii: respecting the land, caring for the land, and giving back to the land. Ecotourism is practiced on a grand scale here. It inspires volunteerism that enriches the environment and gives residents and visitors a chance to share their worlds and work together. The word limahuli means turning hands -- a reference to offering one's own energy to the land. Sounds like a plan, right? On the first Saturday of every month at Lygate Park, tourists are encouraged to do some beach grooming. I arrived at the park prepared with work gloves, water and sun protection; a rake was thrust into my hand and I joined a jovial and dedicated group to do our (albeit small) ecotourism thing, cleaning up the beach.
Being a fan of soft (very soft) adventure, at the Princeville Ranch I found an activity that suited me to a T: cozily settling onto the saddle of a very old, slow nag named Molly. I slow-walked Molly after Robin, the leader of the group. She was professional and inspired some much-needed confidence as we horse-backed through glorious sights -- cliffs, boulders, mountains -- all reminiscent of Jurassic Park (whose 3 movies were filmed here).
My favorite activity by far was cycling. Run by Outfitters Kauai whose claim is, Our business is going downhill! Our ride was, indeed, downhill for the entire 12 easy, breezy miles (scarcely a car on the road). It took me about 45 minutes, reaching speeds up to 40 mph. Our group stopped several times to gaze at the ocean and the mammoth green/gray canyons that surrounded us. Our trip was further enlivened by van driver, Ka Pono, who also played sweep, following behind our group to make sure no one was left behind. He regaled us with jokes, stories of his Samoan ancestors, and his experience holding the title of four-time state champion bull rider. Yes, it was all downhill and all fun. Wheeeeee...
Romance Is in the Air
If you're not in love when you get here, there's a good chance you will be when you leave. This, after all, is Cupid's playground and it's tailor-made for romance. Whether planning a wedding, honeymoon, anniversary or vow renewal, this is the place. And bear in mind that here in Kauai, fantasy is real. I mean, just consider these movies: Elvis got married at a tropical lagoon in the movie Blue Hawaii and in South Pacific, Mitzi Gaynor just couldn't wash that man out of her hair. Celebration settings are impressive -- from the Wailua River region whose hau trees have heart-shaped leaves to up-river where the Fern Grotto is a ecological wonder, drippy and covered with exotic plants. Listen... can't you just hear in the distance a trio singing the Hawaiian Wedding Song, their voices wafting through a garden of bamboo, ginger, and banana plants as you and your sweetie stroll up to the preacher? Renewing vows? Sign me up!
Bet You Didn't Know
One day I walked down to the water's edge. Just a few feet from me, a fat gray Monk Seal was struggling to flip himself up on the moss covered rocks. After several tries he succeeded and immediately closed his eyes to bask in the morning sun. He looked adorable and sweet -- I wanted to reach out and touch him. No can do. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is among the most endangered creatures on earth. Often referred to as living fossils, this seal has remained relatively unchanged for over 15 million years. There are less than 30 of these guys on Kauai and both state and federal laws prohibit touching or harassing them in any way.
How about this curious (and wonderful) fact: Kauai is relatively insect-free. Whether in dense jungle foliage or hiking over arid plains -- no bugs. Another comforting thought: no snakes! I'm not quite sure why but knowing this sure makes me happy.
And then we have Spam. Spam-a-lot as a matter of fact. Did you not know that Hawaiians have a Spam fixation? On this island, you can find Spam enchiladas, Spam frittatas, and Spam Reuben sandwiches. There's even a festival dedicated to this mystery meat-in-a-can. Spam worked its way into the hearts and arteries of Hawaiians during WWII when fresh meat was scarce. As it needs no refrigeration, islanders stock up on this proletarian pork product and find it comes in handy during hurricanes, tsunamis or other natural disasters. Spam jam, anyone?
This island astounds with physical beauty, its geological drama, its cliffs and rivers, beaches and waterfalls. Yet by far the deepest experience of the Garden Island comes from its cultural richness. Ancient legends of the island abound -- in its history, its archaeology, and in its oral tradition -- lending a spiritual, mystical aura that is palpable. Kauai: it's no place like home.
The Meaning of Aloha
A stands for Akahai, meaning kindness
L stands for Lokahi, meaning unity
O stands for Olu'Olu, meaning agreeable
H stands for Ha'Aha'A, meaning humility
A stands for Ahonui, meaning patience.
Hawaiians believe that it starts with each of us -- that it starts in the heart.