|Mention Hawaii, and people immediately conjure the iconic images: sandy beaches, thundering waterfalls, sheer cliffs overlooking pounding surf, foliage growing wild, suntanned surfers, blue skies and bluer waters. In reality, not all of Hawaii quite fits this fantasy. But Kaua'i's North Shore will not disappoint.
The most scenic stretch lies from the Hanalei Bridge to the End of the Road at Ke'e Beach. I'm currently staying in Hanalei, a surf town since the 1970s. For years the town remained small and slow.
"If you were sitting in the middle of town, ten or fifteen minutes would pass between each car passing through," says one woman who moved here in 1970. "And sometimes it might take an hour! We had only a small grocery store and a bank that opened three days a week, three hours a day."
But now a steady stream of traffic whizzes by. First, the North Shore is home to a number of great surf spots, which beckon surfers from across the island. Second, the highway leads to the legendary Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast. Third, the area is simply gorgeous and growing ever more populated by the wealthy.
Pierce Brosnan owns property near the water in Wainiha. It's interesting to hear the range of comments regarding his presence:
"He spends weeks or months here, with his family. No one really pays attention to him." (Inn manager in Hanalei)
"He's been in my shop. Nice-enough guy. Hmm, he might have bought something for his daughter." (Small jewelry/gift store owner in Wainiha)
"He wanted to build ponds on his property, and now the water that used to irrigate the small taro fields are diverted and ruining the farmers. What's a person to do?" (Longtime North Shore resident and B&B owner in Wainiha)
"He's good friends with the owner [of a thriving local real-estate firm]. See all the pictures of them together." (Staffer at real-estate firm)
Regarding hiking and surfing: Bear in mind that both depend highly on nature. During the rainy winter season, the Kalalau Trail is way too slick to cross. Much of the trail is rocky, and when mud and water coat the smooth boulders, it's over.
It's November so showers are likely almost daily. I decide to try the first couple miles of the Kalalau Trail the day after I arrive in Hanalei (and my timing is right, as it rains more during the subsequent week).
While I see only a handful of other hikers on the initial, steep ascent, I am surprised to see dozens on my trek back: retiree-type couples, kindergarteners, parents toting babies in slings, and many folks who probably never exercise at home. I see an overweight woman in Neoprene water shoes, and an Asian woman wearing glossy, black-patent-leather flip-flops. I see a pregnant woman along with the rest of her family. I see a man carrying his preschool-age son uphill in his bare arms. (And I wonder how he will survive the slippery descent without free arms.)
The views along the trail are spectacular, so carry a walking stick (you might find branches at the trailhead) and go for it. The drier summer season is the best time to hike the Kalalau Trail—but expect crowds.
As for surfing, the seasons are slightly reversed. While surfing is possible 10 months of the year in Hanalei Bay, it does go flat in the middle of summer.
At 8am one morning, I take a surf lesson with—of all people—world-class, big-wave, pro surfer Titus Kinimaka. At about age 50, he still ranks among the top 10 big-wave riders. He runs the Hawaiian School of Surfing on Kaua'i, and you cannot miss his guys' trucks full of boards and their unmistakable red rashguards parked at Hanalei Pier.
Titus is 89.5% Native Hawaiian, according to his wife, Robin, who says they had to research his genealogy to live in Anahola on Hawaiian Home Lands. Having virtually 90% Native Hawaiian blood is as pure as you will find today.
Everyone, young and old, knows Titus. The day before my lesson, I stroll on the pier and ask a couple of little surfer girls where people learn to surf. They point to the waters on the left.
"Who are you taking a lesson from?" asks one girl. "Uncle Titus?"
An excellent surf spot for beginners, the water near the pier is shallow with a sandy bottom. I can swim, but surfing is 100% new to me—and, trust me, it's way harder than it looks.
For my first lesson, I use a large soft board and focus just on the pop-up. (Hmm, before then, I'd never really wondered how surfers rise from a prone position onto their feet!) If I were alone, I'd have to deal with much more: paddling out to the right spot, turning around, choosing a wave, paddling to catch it.
"Start paddling," Titus shouts, giving my board a big shove. "Okay, now stand up! Up! Up!"
On many surfing-lesson brochures I see a "guarantee" that students will be surfing (that is, standing on their boards) in one lesson. So I feel compelled to get on my feet!
Titus says I must attack the wave and stand without a pause. Now or never. He's right. If I hesitate, I miss my chance. He is encouraging (he's seen it all and taught hundreds of people) and aside from countless klutzy wipeouts, I do "surf" a bit, and on my final attempt I ride in all the way to the beach. I'm sure skateboarders and snowboarders would find surfing to come naturally. As for me, I'm way more comfortable in the water rather than on it!
I know my surfing attempt is comedy-show material, but still it is a blast. I'm thrilled that I tried surfing instead of, say, taking a yoga class. Certainly I would have felt right at home in the yoga studio and decently adept in the poses. Certainly it is a relief to stick to what you know you can do. Certainly surfing is scarier. But I am always grateful (in retrospect) when I step out of my comfort zone.
In a way, travel can work the same way. If you go to an unfamiliar place—especially if you are alone—you become the new person in town. Your old identity matters little here. Your old achievements, your old skills, your old reputation—who cares? You must be okay with being an oddball, with being a novice, with being a non-surfer in a surf town.
Afterward, it might be barely perceptible, but you are a different person. And to me the change is good.
FOOD OF THE DAY
A "frosty" is frozen fruit blended in an industrial-strength juicer (a particular brand that I cannot recall). Its texture resembles that of ice cream, but it's 100% pure fruit and thus healthful. The best frosties are found at Banana Joe's, a longtime roadside produce market in Kilauea. It's my favorite produce stand, too, with an excellent selection of reasonably priced, locally grown fruit—and owned and operated by a real-life guy named Joe Halasey.
From the Hanalei Bridge to the End of the Road, there are seven one-lane bridges. The etiquette? All the cars traveling in one direction go at once. So if you are trailing a car that's crossing, don't stop—follow it across. Exception: If you are already the sixth or seventh car about to cross, it is polite to stop and let the other side go.
At the vast majority of hotels/condos/inns/B&Bs, toilet-paper rolls are positioned with the paper falling "over" rather than "behind" the roll.