Sunday, October 16, 2011

Soft and Easy Kauai

Hawaii has been soft, comfortable and easy. Hawaii has English menus, great soft sand beaches and a gentle tropical climate. It doesn't have any bugs, but it does have food we can recognize, Starbucks and Mai Tais. What more could you ask for? Well, it’s been almost too easy.

Those of you who know us well, and, in particular the way we usually travel, will realize that this is not the norm for us.  We haven’t encountered any poisonous snakes, food that would make a Survivor winner blanch, dangerous hikes in the dead of night up a Chinese holy mountain, or any of the other hazards that normally make our journeys more “interesting.” If you don’t remember these, reread our blogs.

In fact, the only danger so far has been too much sun, surf and a surfeit of food.  Well, okay, the hula dancing on a moving cruise ship was a trifle dangerous and the photos were potentially damaging to my reputation, but, other than that, it has been a cakewalk. Why, I remember sliding from side to side in a plastic chair across the floor of our cruise ship in the Galapagos during a gale while trying to watch “Titanic.” Now that was no cakewalk! Staring down a poisonous green viper in Borneo. That was interesting!

Plumeria (Frangipani)
The reality is, however, that this sojourn in Hawaii was meant to be a slow and graceful transition into our arduous seven-month adventure in Asia and Africa.  It’s Carolann’s vacation after working hard to finish up her work assignment before starting her self-funded leave. We know that our upcoming hiking expeditions in Bhutan and Nepal, and our visit to India will test our stamina and stomachs as much as any of our previous trips.

In fact, I had two extra notches drilled into my belt in anticipation of the weight loss I usually experience on my travels to South America and Asia. So far, I’m still at the same hole I was when I left Canada. Which, I guess is a good thing given the amount of luau pork, “Shave Ice” stuffed with Macadamia Nut ice cream and Mai Tais that I have consumed over the last week. Not to mention the American-sized meal portions.

Yes, Kauai has been laid back and soft. It’s just like being back home, but with 85 F temperatures, gentle cooling breezes at night, and surfers on the waves at every beach we visit. Add a luau or two, Mai Tais and a verdant tropical Bali Hai scenery everywhere we look and it’s pretty much the same, right?
Pink Ginger (Alpinia purpurata) 

Spider Lily

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and it has everything, except night life and too much development. The north has rough, rugged surf and mountains, but it’s blessed with soft, golden sand beaches and lush, tropical rain forests. The east coast has sunshine, more beaches and a sedate bike trail along the Coconut Coast. The south shore is gentler and dotted with more beaches and historic sugar plantations and resorts (but not overly developed like Mexico).

The west coast is different again with a dry, arid climate, great hiking trails and a Jurassic Park landscape. In fact, parts of it were used for the films “Jurassic Park,” “King Kong” and the opening scene of M*A*S*H where the helicopter flies over the mountain top.

So, today we drove from Lihue down to the south coast and around the bottom of the island to the west coast to hike into Waimea Canyon. It’s touted in the guidebooks as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” But at 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep, it’s a fraction of the size of the real Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Waimea Canyon

The colours of the red volcanic soil contrasted dramatically with the black volcanic rock and the patches of green vegetation clinging desperately to the sides of the dusty, dry canyon walls. It was even more dramatic when the sun highlighted this colourful patchwork and several helicopters buzzed by so far below us that they looked like tiny mosquitos. They really did demonstrate how deep the canyon was.

But in all honesty, it compares poorly to Australia’s Rainbow Canyon for stunning colourful vistas or even Argentina’s Valle Fertil with its archaeological interest and cathedral-like spires. The views of Waimea Canyon from the few lookouts are limited and restricted.

In fact, the most exciting parts about our visit were when a hunting dog came dashing down the road looking lost, but safely wearing his radio tracking collar (they hunt wild pigs in the mountains) and the sinuous, winding, and quite dangerous 11-mile drive up into the mountains to the canyon.

My friend Gerry would love racing up there on his Harley. Carolann, on the other hand, kept cringing at every corner and begging me to slow down as the car edged closer to the cliff side and the oncoming cars crossed the centerline to try to clip my mirror. It was quite a roller-coaster ride, but the Subaru Impreza that we had rented was more than capable. Not fun for Carolann, though.

Last night, however, was fun for both of us. We did our first real Luau! The Luau Kalamaku at the Kilohana Plantation had pig roasted in an underground pit wrapped in banana leaves for almost 10 hours then unearthed in time for dinner. Later, an avant-garde stage performance told the story of the Polynesian journey across the oceans to Hawaii.
Pig Roasting in a Pit

Pig Wrapped in Banana Leaves
Hula dancers, Hawaiian singers and an incredible flaming baton artist put on a dazzling show. The young flame juggler was actually a Tahitian who taught himself the art of spinning and tossing the flaming sticks. It took him nine years and, as he told me afterwards, “hundreds of burns” to perfect his act. In the darkened open-air theatre, he had everyone cheering. Some of the dancers performed a skit right out of Cirque de Soleil twirling flaming poi balls on ropes. In fact, one of them was actually from Montreal.

The food at the luau was traditional – shredded pork, fish, purple yams and poi. Now, we had been warned about poi, a traditional and very typical Hawaiian treat.  Slightly mauve/purple in colour and with the consistency of gravy, it looked and tasted more like wallpaper paste than any treat I have ever had.

The hostess explained that they had never run out of it at any all-you-can eat buffet. Perhaps, she said, it would go down better with sugar or chili sauce. “What’s the point?” I asked. Well, it turns out that poi is made from Taro and is one of the most nutritious, well-balanced foods on the planet. So much so, that Gerber’s actually puts it into their baby foods. The good news is that the bartender at the open bar made a fantastic Mai Tai, and it almost removed the Elmer’s Glue taste from my mouth. Well, two did.

Part of the luau experience was a ride on the plantation’s authentic train pulled by an original 1948 GE locomotive. It was supposed to be a tour of the plantation’s 103-acre historic plantation’s fruit orchards featuring banana, papaya and other tropical fruit trees. I learned that the banana tree is actually not a tree at all, but rather the world’s largest herb. Hmmm! I also learned that papaya juice is great for counteracting jellyfish stings.

Unfortunately, the train got stuck about a quarter of the way around the track because the rails were too cold and wet from an earlier rain. After several unsuccessful attempts to back up and take a run at the slight incline that bested the 1948 relic, accompanied by all of us chanting “I think I can, I think I can…,” the train that could, couldn’t, and we had to back up to the station.

We didn’t quite make it all the way, however, and had to disembark and walk back to the plantation. Doug, the 25-year old engineer was very apologetic. The glib conductor who was the narrator for the tour, was equally apologetic, but then punished us by doing a terrible karaoke version of one of his favourite pub-crawling songs as we inched our way backwards. Ouch! That was worse than the walk back in the rain.

Oh, did I mention it rains a lot on Kauai. They call it “blessings” here – hence the tropical, lush forests that cover the mountains and line the highway on all but the west coast. Kauai is known as the “Wettest Spot on Earth” and we were told the north shore was the worst for rainfall.

But the winner of the title of "Wettest Spot on Earth" is Mt. Waialeale in the deep interior of Kauai, where the average annual rainfall is an incredible 486 inches (over 40 feet). That’s right near the spot we hiked to in Waimea Canyon today.

Wettest Spot on Earth
We, however, have been exceptionally lucky, because it has only rained heavily at night, and we have had only a few rain showers during the day, with the exception of the one day we took the ruined train ride.

Our own little blessings have been the constant trade winds and the surrounding ocean that keep the climate comfortable all year round and provide a natural cooling breeze in spite of the 85 F temperature. The yummy “Shave Ices” help too.

Slow down, you're movin' too fast
So all in all, it has been incredibly comfortable here in Kauai and we have quickly settled in to the slow, laid-back style of life that Hawaiians and the friendly people of Kauai are famous for.

Tomorrow we are heading back to Honolulu for our flight to Manila. It will be interesting to see how long our state of Hawaiian bliss lasts once we return to the big city.

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