Strap yourselves in for my mega-account of our trip to Hawaii! At around 3000 words, it might take you awhile to get through it.
After a long day of travel and another of recovery, I’m hoping today (Thursday, Dec. 2) feels a little normal. Weird things happen when you travel nearly 9000 miles in less than a week.
Our Thanksgiving trip to Kauai was, quite simply, amazing. S and I have been super fortunate to have taken some pretty great trips in our lives together. For me, this was the best and most memorable of all those vacations.
The reason is simple: it was Hawaii. It was always a dream to go there, but each time we started planning a trip we would quickly dismiss it because of the cost and distance. Our generation, especially, grew up on TV shows that built up Hawaii to be the dreamiest of all dream vacations. It took 50 years, but I finally made it.
And it lived up to every expectation.
We travelled, for the third time, with our old neighbors, the P’s. They have good friends who live on Kauai and helped to make our trip even better.
The biggest way was by hosting the nine of us, and some other locals, for a Thanksgiving dinner unlike any we’ve ever experienced. Our hosts have a couple acres tucked into the foothills on the northeast side of the island. My buddy M and I stood on their wrap-around deck, drinking beers, and staring up at the mountains in awe.
“Can you imagine coming out here every morning and drinking your coffee to that view?” he asked me. It was beyond spectacular. I made a mental note to start checking how much pediatricians make on the island in hopes of talking S into moving. And this was on our first day!
I need to back up, though. We arrived late Wednesday night (more about travel later) and by the time we checked into our rooms, it was nearly 10:00 PM HST; 3:00 AM EST to our bodies. We went straight to bed. All of us woke often that first night and were ready to get up at 6 AM local. We walked around the property and across the street to Poipu Beach. There were locals out fishing and families gathering to watch the sun rise.
And there were chickens everywhere. I knew a little about Hawaiian chickens from watching Moana, but didn’t realize they really are a thing. Like an essential part of Kauai culture thing. Apparently the Tahitians who arrived 800-ish years ago brought them as a food source and they’ve been there ever since. With no apex predators on the island, native or introduced by outsiders, they kind of took over the island. It’s pretty damn funny.
So we started our first full day on the island by watching the sun come up over the Pacific. Not a bad reminder to take a pause and be thankful.
We headed back to the resort and stopped at the little restaurant by the pool to order breakfast since we were all starving. We ordered a variety of items and were pleased with all, but the banana macadamia nut pancakes I ordered were the best pancakes I’ve ever had. Second place isn’t close. As I type this I’m kind of mad that I never went back and had them again. Although perhaps that is for the best, as the second serving may not have matched the first.
We needed some grocery supplies so S and I found a little shopping area with a market. The lights were on, but when we tried to walk in, the doors didn’t budge. Then we looked at the sign on the door and our watches: the store opened at 9:00 and it was 8:55. So we stood to the side and waited. And laughed how three other people tried to walk in. That first day adjusting to the time difference is a bitch!
Inside we were shocked by the prices. I know Hawaii is more expensive than the mainland for pretty much everything (gas was at least a buck more per gallon). But $11 for a box of sugary cereal?!?! $7.99 for a six pack of six ounce Diet Cokes??? We spent nearly $70 getting the basics to get through a day or so. We learned later in the week, when we went back to a Safeway in Lihue, that these prices were jacked up extra high because they were in the heart of the resort area. Normal groceries were still more expensive than in Indy, but cereal was more like 50 cents to a dollar more and not triple the price.
We met up with the P’s and checked out the pool, then loaded up and went to the beach. It was surreal to walk through a crowded beach and keep reminding myself it was Thanksgiving Day, and rainy and cold back home. The girls all took turns snorkeling and saw some cool stuff: all kinds of colorful fish and perhaps an eel. We heard sea turtles were around but never saw any. A big, fat seal was sleeping in a roped-off section of beach.
The beaches on our side of the island were not great. I mean, they were fine but not like the perfect beaches of Cancun, or the massively wide beaches of Anna Maria or Captiva islands where there is room for large groups to spread out without being on top of each other. The two beaches we went to were fairly narrow and you had to work to find an empty spot. The P’s went to the north side of the island Sunday and said the beaches up there had better sand, more space, and smaller crowds. A minor quibble. The water was still amazing.
Our dinner that night was a traditional, American Thanksgiving. Our hosts have only been on the island a couple years, and most of the others they invited – there were about 40 in all – were either other visitors from the mainland or also recent arrivals to Kauai. There was turkey, beef, pork tenderloin, all the normal sides, and at least eight Costco pies. Costco pumpkin pie is the exact same price on Kauai as in Indianapolis!
Friday was our busiest and most interesting day of the trip. We left early to drive out to and through Waimea Canyon State Park. We stopped a couple times to take pictures of the massive gulch, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and hike along one of the trails. We kept climbing up to the Koke’e Lodge, where we stopped for a fantastic lunch. Then it was higher up to two more lookouts, ending at Wai’ale’ale and some jaw-dropping views of the Na’Pali coast. I’ve never experienced views like we saw that morning, 5000 feet above a steep drop to the intensely blue Pacific, knowing there was nothing but deep ocean water between us and Japan.
On our way back to Poipu, we stopped at the Kauai Coffee Company plantation to sample some of their beverages, eat some ice cream, and buy a few souvenirs.
Our second big event of the day came at dinner time: the proverbial but absolutely necessary luau. The dinner was an interesting combination. The pork, cooked in an imu oven, was phenomenal. You also got mahi-mahi (not great), adobo chicken (very tasty), and a slice of teriyaki beef that was terrific. We all tried poi, but were quickly repulsed.
Then it was on to the dancing portion of the night. The Smith Family Garden Luau has a theater set up for the performance. I liked it all, especially the bad-ass fire guy at the end. Most of our group found the performance to be a little long. “You can only watch so many hula dances,” said one member of our group.
It’s all a little hokey and cliché, but, damnit, if you’re in Hawaii you have to do it.
Saturday and Sunday were largely pool days. The pool at Koloa Landing has, allegedly, been ranked #1 in the US twice. It was a pretty badass pool but I can’t vouch for whether it’s the best in the entire country.
The island was hopping, too, so it was also tough to just walk into places with a party of nine and hope to get seated. Saturday night we went to a walk-up burrito place called Da Crack around the corner from our resort. We ate on our balconies while drinking booze bought at Costco.
Sunday evening we ate at the resort restaurant. I’m sad to say their dinner offerings were not as good as their breakfast ones. Not terrible, but not memorable, either.
Onto Monday morning. Ever since we booked our first, Covid-cancelled trip to Kauai in January 2020, we’ve been kicking around what activities we should do. Pretty much everyone who visited told us we had to take a helicopter ride around the island. I have to admit, as cool as the idea sounded, I was nervous about it. And so was L, who told me several times she thinks of Kobe Bryant every time she sees a helicopter.
This was, likely, a once-in-a-lifetime trip for our entire family. We all needed to suck it up and take the damn ride.
So we did.
And it was awesome.
It might be the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
We made a full circuit of the island, flying into canyons, around mountains, tucking into valleys and gaps amongst the hills, and even flying into the remaining crater of the volcano that formed the island. The views were beyond spectacular. As was the experience. I can’t write much more about it because I can’t put into words just how incredible our 50 minutes in the air were. Sadly the pictures I took can’t convey the views, either. I highly recommend booking a flight if you ever visit to see for yourself.
Despite it being a super windy day – we were worried our flight might get cancelled – it was more gentle of a ride than most airplane flights. I expected my stomach to lurch as we changed altitudes, but it didn’t happen once. Props to our pilot, Max, who kept it smooth for us.
Kauai is called the Garden Island because it gets so much rain. Or at least parts of it do. Wai’ale’ale is one of the wettest locations in the world. Other parts of the island rarely get rain. Poipu is often dry although it does get Florida-like afternoon/evening showers. Monday was the only day we caught any real rain. It rained off-an-on all afternoon in little 60 second bursts. There were more intense showers around dinner time.
We were in our final 90 minutes or so of daylight of our trip, getting ready for dinner, when we looked out our windows and saw a rainbow that seemed to be right across the street. It was like the chamber of commerce realized we hadn’t seen a rainbow yet and punched the rain and sunshine buttons to make sure we caught at least one.
Kauai really might be paradise. The weather feels more perfect than San Diego. Warmer and more humid, but with constant trade winds that keep it tolerable. Our Thanksgiving hosts said in their three years there, the temperatures have never strayed from between 62 and 85. And the 62 feels warmer than a Midwest 62, while the 85 is cooler than a Midwest 85.
They also warned us, and this really held up in our brief experience, that the island is “like 1985 with the Internet.” Things move slow out there. The speed limits are often 25 and 35, even on the state highways. There are lots of buildings that look like they haven’t been updated in decades. Plenty of gas stations can’t take payment at the pump. There are still old, single screen theaters that actually show movies. And the pace of life seems super chill.
Travel. Man, we were all worried for a variety of reasons about traveling over the past week. But it was dead easy. Our only issue was getting out of Vegas 40 minutes late on our final flight home and, thus, arriving at our house at 2:35 Wednesday morning.
Flying out on Wednesday was like flying on any other Wednesday afternoon. Our flight from Indy was at 12:15 so we got to the airport about 10:00. There was no one in front of us to drop bags at Southwest. We got the entire family TSA Pre status, worried this trip might be a total mess because of the federal vaccine mandate hitting a few days earlier. But security was totally fine. It took us three minutes to pass through the Pre gate. Then we had two hours to kill. Apparently S, M, and L got on local TV in a report about holiday travel. They walked through the shot of the main concourse; C and I were ahead of them and didn’t make the shot.
It is, of course, a total haul to get to Kauai. Flying out it was 4.5 hours to Las Vegas, then six-plus to Kauai. I’ve never flown for more than five hours before. But that flight was only two-thirds full so we could stretch out a little. I knocked out two movies and a healthy chunk of a book on the flight and it went by much faster than I expected.
Coming home we flew threw Oakland and then Vegas. We had a tight connection in Oakland, and literally walked into our spots in the boarding group and directly onto the plane, but that was fine. Our bags made it. Other than that delay in Vegas – some of our flight crew was coming from another flight and there were 10, TEN!!!, people in wheelchairs who needed assistance onto the flight – the travel was without issue.
This is a good point to remind you that Southwest messed with our trip a few months ago by cancelling one of our flights home. We were supposed to travel Wednesday-to-Wednesday, but because of the cancelation came home a day early. I would have loved that extra day, but the weather in Kauai was expected to be rainier this week, so perhaps it was for the best.
Hawaii does not play when it comes to Covid. In order to avoid quarantining, we had to apply for a vaccine exception. That meant uploading our proof of vaccination and then answering some health questionnaires the day before we flew. Then, in Vegas, we went through a pre-screen check of our documents. That earned us a wristband that allowed us to sail through the clearing area in the Kauai airport. When I showed the lady in Kauai my wristband, she said “Aloha!” and shot me a Shaka. Dope!
There was a family in the screening area the same time that had not received a test result yet for their six-year-old. They asked the agent what their options were. Her response, “Welllll, I can’t tell you not to get on the flight. But if you arrive and the test result hasn’t come through, they might force you to quarantine. Or they might force you to return to the mainland.”
Yikes, that would suck.
Masks were required everywhere on the island. Even at the airport, which is open-aired, if you were standing on the outside curb, agents came around and asked people to put their masks back on. Businesses made it clear you needed a mask on, no exceptions. At the Koke’e Lodge, they asked to see our vaccine cards before letting us into the building. We heard some people bitching about the rules at the luau, which annoyed us. The islands were shut down totally for over a year. These people live off tourist money. Many of the places are family-run. They were just trying to stay open, earn a living, and keep people safe. Shut the fuck up and wear your masks, dicks.
We had excused the girls from school through Wednesday, figuring getting home in the middle of the night was not a prescription for a day of academic success. But C had been bugging us about wanting to go back Wednesday. “Honestly, that’s when I normally go to bed,” she told us. S got up and took her in at the normal time. I heard them get up and couldn’t go back to sleep, so got up at 8:00ish. L wanted to go in late so I woke her at 10:00 and took her in around 11. M, smartly, decided to sleep in then spend the day catching up. The beauty of assignments all being online! S even schedule patients for the second half of the day and was in the office from noon to five.
There you have it, the biggest, best vacation of our lives, so far. I would absolutely go back to Kauai again. In fact, I’m going to have to insist on it. It might take a few years, and be just S and I and other adult friends, but it is now my mission to return to Kauai if I have a chance.
There are no native snakes to Hawaii. Which is both surprising and awesome. You’d think you would have to be worried stomping on some super-poisonous serpent while walking around. ↩
In the summer of 1986 we visited the Bay Area, looking for a place to live. The first night we ate at our hotel’s restaurant and I got some tortellini dish. I had never had tortellini before, and it was fantastic. So I ordered it every other night we ate there. With diminishing returns. By the third or fourth time I did it more out of resigned obligation than desire. ↩
You know what really blew my mind? Hearing Christmas music while we were in shops. And seeing Christmas decorations. Especially snowmen. Snowmen! In Hawaii! ↩