This summer we had the good fortune to get invited to a wedding on the island of Kaua’i in Hawai’i, the islands in the Pacific home to many fine federal judges. We figured, since we were going all the way there, we might as well make a vacation out of it, and we split our time between Kaua’i and the Big Island of Hawai’i.
The geologically oldest and northernmost of the populated Hawai’ian Islands Kaua’i is also called the Garden Island because of it’s lush, and dense, flora. We spent a total of about four days here and did not rent a car. This was a bit of a mistake that worked out for us only because we had good friends.
If you’re coming here on your own, you probably want to rent a car; if you’re coming in a group, maybe split one. If your method for enjoying the island includes only sitting on the beaches closest to your hotel, maybe you don’t, enjoy the sand. There is a public bus system, but getting around will take quite a while and you won’t be able to access certain places without catching and (expensive) cab on the other side. This was frustrating to us only because we didn’t need the car most of the time we were there and it always stinks to rent a car you don’t use.
That’s all a big aside to bury this lede: Kaua’i is amazing and you should save your pennies and go to there. It’s still staggering to believe that so much spelndor is crammed into 100 square miles. I guess that’s its reward for sticking around for five million years. The highlight from this island was hands down the hike we did to Hanakapi’ai Falls. About 2.5 miles on the Kalalau Trail and another 2 through the valley starting at Hanakapi’ai beach. Then all the way back.
The Kalalau Trail was well maintained, which is good because the ascents were steep. It’s well trafficked enough that you won’t lose the trail, but be prepared to climb some boulders and cross some streams. I wish I’d worn my swim trunks to swim in the gorgeous waterfall you turnaround at.
A lot of people do helicopter tours of the island. “It’s the best way to experience Kaua’i,” they say. A helicopter tour is probably something you can swing if you can afford the flight and lodging in Kaua’i and really want to fly in a helicopter. We just didn’t because helicopters are dirty and kind of a nuisance. At every lookout on Waimea canyon there was a constant thup thup thup of chopper blades as if a manhunt was underway below. It is an efficient way to see basically the entire island at once, without cutting into beach-adjacent activies, though, so if that’s your thing, go for it.
Island of Hawai’i
I’m not usually one to suggest a car is the best way to get around but here we did rent a car and it was a good idea. We took about a week to do a big ol’ loop around the island.
We did a few hikes in Hawai’i, one of them was to Papakoulea, the green sand beach about two miles west of South Point. I’m wagering that makes it the southernmost hike in the country. It’s strange nobody makes a bigger deal about that because just about everything around there that can prove it makes sure to put “southernmost x in the United States” on their sign. There was even the “southernmost coffee trail run” we saw promoted at the “southernmost restaurant” in Na’alehu.
They don’t talk it up because the green sand part is so much more interesting. There are four of these in the world and this is the only one in the United States. Here’s how it works: You have a shield volcano. That volcano erupts starting with the cinder cone collapsing. When that happens, the magma gets pushed below the water table. If you’ve ever left a rock in a campfire and thrown it in a lake, you know what happens next: That shit explodes. The volcano spews forth whatever substances were in the cinder cone along with lava. In this case, a mineral called olivine, also called Peridot as a gem, was deposited on this coast and battered with wind, rain, and tides for about fifty thousand years.
Anyway, this hike was not only southernmost and a good geology lesson, it was windy as hell and tremendously rewarding. You can get there on a harrowing 4WD journey across the sandy shoreline but what fun would that be.
Ecological responsibility of tourism
There was a distinct pattern on this trip: Places that were hard to reach on foot were made accessible by fossil fuels.
While the choppers on Kaua’i were annoying, the most upsetting example of this was at Papakoulea. As a result of all the 4WD vehicles taking people out to the beach, much of the landscape between the parking lot and the beach is riddled with makeshift roads on delicate land. These trucks have ground down the sandy soil into six foot deep tunnels in some areas. The winds and rains are constantly reshaping these 4WD trails making them impassible and forcing the drivers to find new paths west. Taking one of these rides shows a complete disregard for the ecosystems all in the name of getting to boogie board on some green sand.
Danielle reminded me of a line we heard from Nick Offerman recently. He was talking about woodworking and said “the less electricity you use, the more fun your woodworking will be.” The same could be said for exploring nature and no matter what color the sand is, that’s what a beach is: nature. And like woodworking with hand tools, reaching something so spectacular with just your own two legs (and a lot of water and snacks) “makes you feel like a superhero.”