Nothing feels quite as magical as stepping off Hawaiian Airlines ready to begin the Kauai experience. Our adventure commenced from the moment we chose Kauai as our first vacation together.
My beau Mark had never been to any of the Hawaiian Islands; I was excited to share with him the beauty, the aloha spirit of the Hawaiian people and the gorgeous turquoise of the ocean. I tried to explain, as I do with anyone who’s never been there, that seeing a postcard of a Hawaiian sunset is nothing like seeing one in real life for the first time. I was thrilled to be the one to introduce this enchantment to him.
Kauai is known as the “Garden Isle,” because of its truly lush landscape. It’s the northernmost of the Hawaiian islands and the name “Kaua’i” has been translated to mean “season of abundance” or “time of plenty.” After a brief, totally pampered 5-hour Hawaiian Airlines flight from Portland to Oahu, then a mere 25 minutes from Oahu to Kauai, it’s easy to have toes in pristine white sand in no time.
Lucky for us, we were scheduled to stay at The St. Regis Princeville Resort for the initial part of our trip. The sunsets from this northern side of the island are magnificent. The St. Regis Princeville is a gorgeous, recently renovated property located on the North Shore, and is the focal point of Princeville at Hanalei. We arrived later in the afternoon, greeted by fragrant leis, with enough time to unpack, get settled and gaze out of our beautiful room. We were extremely giddy and felt like royalty when we oohed and ahhed our way through the opulent lobby and corridors.
This 251-room haven overlooks Hanalei Bay, with the dramatic backdrop of the Namolokama mountain range. The hotel itself is a delectable experience; aesthetically, everything is luscious and intentional. The interior has been designed to reflect Hawaii’s natural world of sea, sky and earth. The liberal use of koa and other Hawaiian woods, stone and glass, plus open-air access to all the scenic beauty, create an atmosphere of understated luxury.
From the large picture window of our elevated room, we had a view beyond the bay, of steep rain-carved ridges dissolving into the west toward a setting sun, silhouetted beyond the legendary peak of Bali Hai. The room itself was spacious, modernly appointed with a sitting area, a comfy king-sized bed and a marble-infused bathroom fit for a queen. A huge sunken tub and shower was a masterpiece — crowned by high-tech privacy glass which was clear and provided a view to the bay, but with a flip of a switch, turned milky-white and provided privacy.
After we watched the sky, decorated by huge puffy clouds, turn all shades of pinks, purples and oranges, we went downstairs to St. Regis Princeville’s 5-star, award-winning Makana Terrace restaurant for dinner, which was almost better than the restaurant’s gorgeous bay view. The service was top notch. All the waitstaff were attentive and courteous, making sure we felt warmly welcomed.
With so many island-infused culinary choices based on the chef’s use of and creativity with local ingredients, it was hard to decide. I had the Opah, accompanied by wilted bok choy and ginger in a lemongrass broth. Mark had the grilled Ahi, with white asparagus, Big Island mushrooms, charred pineapple relish and bacon emulsion. We topped off our meal by sharing Maui Gold Pineapple Clouds which are doughnuts, pineapple confit and macadamia nut brittle ice cream. An amazing sunset and tantalizing meal constituted a perfect first evening.
Sunrise the next morning was warm, the air was sweet and we were excited to get out on the world-famous Makai golf course. The Makai course has been included in Golf Digest’s America’s Greatest Golf Courses for 17 consecutive years. While I’m a total beginner, Mark has been golfing for over 30 years. Being on a course with such pristine greens and dramatic ocean and mountain views was a dream come true for him. We had a relaxing, awesome time on the greens. Mark had a pretty good game and made a few memorable shots. With the sun on our back, it was hard to imagine that Portland was having a wet, rainy week while we were in paradise.
Later that afternoon, we took a 40-minute drive south to Kilohana Plantation to experience a family adventure of the farm’s train ride. This is a must if you’re traveling to Kauai with your kids; cars are open-windowed and the train travels around the plantation, while the narrator explains the history and characteristics of many of the local fruits, plants, vegetables and animals. It was a nice way to hear and learn more about the farming life of Kauai.
Seeing the interior and learning about Hawaiian life is one of the greatest aspects of being on Kauai. Nearly all air, land or water tours include historical facts and lore about Hawaii and its people. One of our favorite tours there was the Fern Grotto Wailua Riverboat at Smith’s Tropical Paradise.
Though crowding onto a covered, open-air flat-bottom boat may feel a bit touristy, hearing the fascinating stories about the royalty who once lived there while leisurely cruising up the river toward the fern grotto is worth it. What makes it even more special is that once you dock, take a short walk to the famed fern grotto, which is dotted by hundreds of dripping vines, the crew serenades you with beautiful songs and chants. The warm jungle air and sweet flower fragrances surrounds you.
The harmonies of the music, mingled with garden sweetness, stayed with me the entire day after we’d left the fern grotto and driven back toward the St. Regis. After being treated with such hospitality and experiencing one of the most gorgeous hotels I’d ever stayed in, it was difficult to pack our bags, yet it was time to experience the other side of the island, Poipu. In less than an hour, we arrived to the fondly regarded island favorite of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa. Paradise within paradise, this extremely family-friendly property truly offers something for everyone.
Set on 50 spectacular acres with beach access a stone’s throw away, this 602-guestroom resort has endless, beautifully landscaped gardens, meandering salt and freshwater lagoons, cascading waterfall features and sparkling swimming pools for different age groups, including adults only, families and a sand-banked lagoon for small children. Rooms are comfortable and well-appointed; the one we stayed in had a fantastic ocean view. Mahogany furniture adds richness, Grand Beds™ have a plush pillow-top mattress, and amenities such as an iHome stereo with iPod docking station are standard.
Also on the property are the award-winning, 18-hole Poipu Bay golf course, tennis courts, several outstanding top-notch restaurants and a must-do visit to the 45,000 sq. ft. Anara Spa for full-on pampering. The Grand Hyatt Kauai also offers an array of free cultural activities for families, including ukulele lessons and lei, shell jewelry and Hawaiian basket making. If you want to take off with yourself or your honey for alone time, the kids won’t mind, since they’ll be at Camp Hyatt, an active keiki (children) program for children ages 3 to 12. Camp counselors customize the day’s schedule to the group’s interests and integrate play with culture, while learning through art about endangered plants, animal and landscapes.
Since the best way to learn about Kauai’s diverse landscape is to experience it, we scheduled a Waimea downhill canyon-to-coast bike ride with Kauai Outfitters for the next morning. Waimea Canyon is donned the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” It’s difficult to even describe the breadth, scope or magnitude of such immense splendor. The canyon measures 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and more than 3,500 feet deep.
It was carved thousands of years ago by flowing floods draining from the summit of Mount Waialeale (the rainiest spot on the earth, with nearly 450 inches of rain a year). Horizontal lines layering canyon walls depict different volcanic eruptions and lava flows that have occurred over thousands of years. The emerald greens, crimson reds, lilac purples and russet browns constantly change as the sun moves across the sky and afternoon cloud cover starts to form. You could come back a thousand times and the landscape or view would never look the same twice.
We decided to adventure this landscape by riding bikes down from the top to the bottom, on 12 miles of paved road. There were people of all sizes, ages and physical abilities on our tour. The morning air was slightly chilly and full of eucalyptus aroma. Since riders are followed by a van and part of a group, it’s very safe, and the views of the ocean horizon below are fantastic. Learning about the flora and fauna and geologic make-up of the canyon along the many pit stops made for a very unique experience. The Waimea Canyon area of Kauai is a must when you visit.
The last few days of our Kauai adventure were spent hanging out poolside at the Grand Hyatt, snorkeling and discovering favorite places to eat. One place you must try if you go to Kauai is Puka Dogs in the Poipu Shopping Village. A special-recipe bun is toasted, then filled with one of seven unique secret recipe Hawaiian relishes, including sweet Maui onion, spicy Hawaiian pickle relish or spicy garlic pepper cheese. You also have your choice of either vegetarian or grilled-meat premium Polish-type sausage. We had Puka Dogs for breakfast!
Another favorite dining discovery was the Beach House, a Poipu shining-star, fine-dining restaurant with a beautiful sunset view. Mark had the lemongrass and Kaua’i kaffir lime-crusted sea scallops accompanied with saffron rice, chili aioli and Maui up-country baby bok choy. I had a grilled macadamia-buttered mahi mahi with citrus miso beurre blanc. For dessert, we had to fight over the bananas foster in caramel sauce served over a puff pastry garnished with vanilla bean ice cream and macadamia nuts, and the molten chocolate desire, a flourless chocolate tart, baked to order and served piping hot.
Sadly, as all blissful vacations must come to an end, we had just one more night in paradise. We booked the Southern Star prime rib dinner sunset sail with Capt. Andy’s Sailing Adventures. This will always stand out as perhaps one of my fondest lifetime memories. I’m very prone to motion sickness so this particular cruise is geared towards staying in the calmer bay waters which outline the Lawai Kai and Poipu coastlines.
We started our three-hour cruise aboard a brand new, fully custom 65-ft. luxury sailing catamaran with a few “sneaky tiki” cocktails in hand. We were waited on hand and foot by an absolutely exceptional crew. The boat is a work of art, with every immaculate detail crafted for passenger safety, luxury and comfort. As we sailed along, the gorgeous turquoise water glistened like diamonds as the sun made its way towards the horizon. Mark and I watched the Kauai coastline in the distance, awed by the beauty and tranquility of this island.
We dined on fresh, gourmet food including a Kauai mixed green salad of locally grown greens with lilikoi vinaigrette dressing, choice American prime rib beef grilled with Hawaiian salt and secret spices, barbecue jumbo shrimp with a sambal aioli, roasted potato medley and grilled seasonal vegetables. Soft Hawaiian music and even some classic rock such as the Eagles and Rolling Stones accompanied us as the warm wind, beautiful sky and wonderful memory-making enveloped us. The setting sun left streaks of orange and pink brushed across a delicate, crisp blue sky as we pulled back into the dock. My heart and mind were at peace.
The next morning we packed up to come home to our kids, to the rain, and to our busy lives. As we boarded the Hawaiian Airlines jet to head toward Portland, I knew that I’d just had an amazing week, sharing a place I love so dearly with someone who’d never been there, watching him experience for himself Kauai’s warmth, aloha and magical beauty.