Monday, May 2, 2016

Honeymooning in Hawaii: Highlights from Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island

I got married back in October, and my wife and I decided to start our honeymoon right away. We had discussed a few possibilities in Europe, but ultimately settled on an island hopping excursion in Hawaii. It seemed like heading halfway around the world to a tropical climate would be a nice reprieve from the cooling temperatures in New England, and we wouldn't even need to update our passports.

We planned out much of the trip through the archipelago in advance, but made a few impulsive stops as well. It was an unforgettable experience, and the destinations I'm highlighting here are only a fraction of what the islands have to offer. But if you're planning a Hawaii trip, any of these places are sure to leave you with happy memories.


Grand Hyatt Kauai

My wife and I got an offer to start a Hyatt credit card and earn two free nights in a hotel. We jumped on the opportunity when we realized that this perk could apply to this luxury resort in Poipu, which will normally run you several hundred dollars a night.

If you stay here, the key thing to remember is that you don't want to spend all your time at the resort. After all, it's possible when your hotel includes a beach, several pools, a surprisingly swift water slide, a couple of lagoons, fire pits, several restaurants and shops, a golf course, a spa, musical performances, and an atrium with tropical birds. We managed to enjoy most of these amenities when we got back from a daily excursion. There's also a coastal trail to the east which gives a stunning view of the sunrise.

Allerton Gardens

This botanical garden was formerly the grounds of a private home, so it had more variety than you would see if you were just walking through a typical natural area. Several beautiful water features and interesting structures are spread throughout the grounds. Allerton Gardens has also been used for a few films, most notably the enormous Moreton Bay fig trees that appear in Jurassic Park. We signed up for a sunset tour, which took us on a guided walk through the gardens and a dinner at the usually inaccessible homestead. Definitely a good way to start out the honeymoon.

Little Fish Coffee

We went to this little shop in Hanapepe for a much needed meal after our sailing trip to the Na Pali Coast was canceled due to heavy surf. Located in a small artsy village, this place had a huge selection of healthy meals. I went with a towering fruit bowl which included frozen dragon fruit, pineapple, kiwi, blueberries, macadamia nuts, and coconut. My wife was introduced to taro in the best possible way, as it was mixed with granola and honey and other tasty ingredients. This is definitely a nice place to stop for a meal out.

Waimea Canyon

The canceled trip to the Na Pali Coast also gave us a chance to explore this natural feature, which is nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of Hawaii." It's perhaps the least verdant part of the Garden Isle, although the red canyon walls are covered with enough green vegetation to present an interesting vista. You can also spot some towering waterfalls from various vantage points. It's 10 miles along a winding road to get to the main lookout, but you can find plenty of places to pull over and take in the view or check out the trails along the way.

Kauai Island Brewery and Grill

Craft breweries have been popping up all over the place, and Hawaii is no exception. This one had a nice relaxing atmosphere and a staff that was accommodating in every way. The samplers they offered were enormous (giving you a chance to try something like eight of their beers), and they also had some great sampler plates. An upper level includes a line of classic pinball machines if you feel in need of a diversion.

Kauai Coffee

Given that coffee accounts for a large portion of Kauai's economy, and that Hawaii is the only state where coffee can grow commercially, and that I'm a bit of a coffee fiend, a visit to a coffee farm was practically a given. And man does this place appeal to coffee lovers. While people are waiting for a guided tour to start, Kauai Coffee puts out dozens of carafes to let you try a variety of roasts and flavors. There's also a palpable sense of humor throughout the place, which makes for quite an enjoyable visit. My favorite was the sign declaring a "Big Braddah" special: "Buy two any two drinks, and pay for them both!"

Spouting Horn

This natural feature works in the same way as Oahu's more famous Halona Blowhole: crashing waves send water through a seaside lava tube, causing geysers to shoot into the sky every few seconds. We had much better luck at the Spouting Horn than we did at the Halona Blowhole; the sprays were much more impressive, and the place wasn't mobbed by tourists. A flea market also sets up here regularly, giving you a chance to shop for some local goods.

Wings Over Kauai

Helicopter tours abound in Hawaii. It seemed like one came by every few minutes in Waimea Canyon, both above and through the gorge. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Wings Over Kauai was cheaper, offered an extensive tour, and had a perfect safety record. This was the smallest plane I've ever flown in, but it was an impressively smooth journey (except for a few turbulent points, at which point out pilot was quick to explain what was causing the bumps). Seeing the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, jungles, waterfalls, and other sites from the air was breathtaking. The flight also expertly combined the pilot's narration with a soundtrack piped through headphones, including the appropriate movie music when he pointed out places that appeared in Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Wings Over Kauai deserves all the praise they can get.


Hawaiian Airlines

I'm not sure how many options you even have for traveling between the islands, but Hawaiian Airlines really does deserve a mention. They provided a smooth ride and took a route that let you enjoy amazing views along the way. Soothing music and misters in the cabin added to the comfort. One guide joked that Hawaiian Airlines is the only exception to the concept of "island time," since they have an impressive record for departing on time and coming in ahead of schedule. So make sure you leave enough time to get to your gate if you're flying with them.

Hula Grill

After the laid-back and sparsely populated experience of Kauai, our hotel clerk warned us that Oahu was going to seem like someone dropped a chunk of Los Angeles into Hawaii. Indeed, the clusters of similar hotels and choking traffic of Honolulu and Waikiki were probably the ugliest sights in the islands. We also got a sense of how densely populated the area was when we tried to go to the highly recommended beachfront restaurant Duke's and found that it was packed to the gills, on a Wednesday night, in October, at 8 p.m., with up to an hour's wait.

Thankfully, they directed us to the Hula Grill, a nearby sister restaurant. They got us in right away, had a tasty menu, and offered us a few Kona beer samples to help us choose which one we wanted. Perhaps most importantly, they also had the famous Duke's hula pie, a Matterhorn-shaped pile of ice cream and fudge.

Turtle Tours

We looked at a few options for tours that bring you around the island, and Turtle Tours was definitely one of the most unique ones. The guide offered an interesting narrative during the drive, and the tour managed to squeeze in stops at several beautiful overlooks, the Dole plantation, a macadamia nut farm, and a surfing competition.

The tour is so named because it brings you to a beach where you go snorkeling and looking for sea turtles. This, unfortunately, was the most underwhelming part of the tour. The beach was distinguished by shallow water, rough waves, and a lot of sharp coral. After blundering around for a little while, getting a few painful cuts, and spotting a grand total of one sea turtle (on the beach), we had to give up. The "circle island" portion of the tour is very well-done, but the main feature could use a better beach.

Top of Waikiki

We stopped for a quick jaunt in Seattle on our way home, but opted to check out a few places other than the Space Needle. At any rate, we'd already had a nice experience at this revolving restaurant. Watching the glittering towers of Waikiki pass by out the window was certainly an interesting backdrop to our meal, and it looks like you get a great view of the ocean during the day. The quality of the food and service was also fantastic. It is fairly expensive, though, so be prepared to dip a little farther into your wallet.

Nature Tours "Jurassic Park Waterfall" tour

The name of this tour is a bit misleading. You're not going to see the waterfall where the helicopter landed in Jurassic Park, since that's on Kauai. But Manoa Falls is a pretty good facsimile, and both the guide and tour were excellent. You take a not quite leisurely but not quite strenuous hike through a large tropical rain forest that has been preserved from the Honolulu sprawl. You'll learn about the local plants and wildlife along the way, and be delightfully caught off guard when the falls suddenly become visible around a bend in the trail.

Kualoa Ranch

This active cattle ranch has long attracted filmmakers, and is famous for a beautiful green valley. We took a tour that brought us through several places that were used in the TV show Lost, both on the ranch and in nearby areas. It also stopped in areas that were used for certain films, most notably Jurassic Park and the still present footprints from the 1998 Godzilla movie. Our guide brought along a tablet to match scenes with the location, showing how easy it was to frame a new location by simply turning 180 degrees or taking a few steps to a nearby grove. It was also quite interesting to see some TV and movie shoots going on during our visit, including an episode of Hawaii Five-O and a set for the upcoming King Kong movie.

Buho Cocina y Cantina

A Mexican restaurant in the middle of the Pacific Ocean may seem like the recipe for a disaster, but this one hit all the high points. We chose it in part because of its rooftop location (a perfect place to check out Honolulu's weekly fireworks display) and in part for the intriguing menu of Mexican and Asian fusion. The food was incredible, with generous portions at a fair price. The staff was also exceptionally accommodating; when my wife let our waiter know about her shellfish allergy, he went out of his way to make sure the chef took all necessary precautions.

Pearl Harbor and the USS Missouri

We booked a tour with E Noa Tours, which took us to both Pearl Harbor and the battleship Missouri. It covered some additional ground as well, swinging through the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The stop at Pearl Harbor gave us enough time to wander around on our own for a bit, allowing us to see the submarine Bowfin and an informative memorial on submarine losses in World War II. The tour also included a trip out to the wreck of the Arizona, and it was a moving experience to see this memorial and the respect paid to it. The Missouri included a surprising range of information, on everything from the ship's history to naval life. All in all, this was a very inclusive tour offered at a very affordable price.


Arnott's Lodge

Whether you're trying to travel the islands on a budget or have a bit of money to throw around, Arnott's Lodge can accommodate you. This site has a nice open layout, including picnic areas, open air lounges, and a 24-7 central visitor's booth. The cheapest option is to camp on the grounds, but you can also stay in a dormitory, get a private room, or opt for a larger suite. It was a great place to relax, with a very helpful staff. Arnott's Lodge also runs tours, including the ones we took to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea.

Cafe Pesto

The Hilo side of Big Island seems to draw fewer tourists than the Kona side. Still, there's a booming restaurant and retail space near the shore, and Cafe Pesto had a terrific atmosphere, friendly staff, and a great food and drink selection at fair prices. They started out in pizza, but the other options are delicious as well; I think I ended up going for their poke, paired with a sampler of local beers.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

There are plenty of tour options to see this park (we got one through Arnott's Lodge), as well as helicopter trips to see the lava flows from overhead. You can choose to go with one of these or try the more open-ended way of driving through the various roads and checking out the trails.

There's nowhere else in the United States to see landscapes like the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, so this is not a place to be missed. There are several places to explore, including overlooks of vast craters and calderas; enormous fields of lava, frozen where the flow cooled and hardened; the Thurston Lava Tube, a cavern large enough to comfortably walk through; and numerous steam vents. Our tour ended with a long walk around the Kilauea crater and a visit to the Jaggar Museum, which includes a great deal of information on the geology of the islands. Visiting during the evening always provides an impressive sight, with the crater's glow becoming more pronounced as the sun sets.

Kaimu Beach Park

This was a more popular beach before it was hit by a lava flow in 1990, but the tidal processes are helping to slowly bring back the black sand. Don't expect to go swimming here, as there aren't any lifeguards or other amenities, but it's a good place to walk and reflect. We weren't sure at first if we could enter, since signs claiming the territory as sovereign Hawaiian land mingled with others welcoming visitors; just remember the rule about treating Hawaii with respect and presumably you won't have a problem.

MacKenzie State Park

We didn't know about this park's less than stellar reputation when we visited. When you Google it, the top terms include "haunted" (it's supposedly populated by the ghosts of the prisoners who were recruited to do manual labor here) and "murders" (at least four people have been killed here). The most unpleasant thing we encountered was the fact that there seems to be no parking aside from a few spaces reserved as handicapped spots; we probably missed a larger lot somewhere else.

MacKenzie State Park includes old lava flows and sea cliffs, where you can watch the waves crash into the shore and throw up huge sprays. It's well worth a visit, but you'll definitely want to make sure you stay a safe distance from the ledges. Over the years, several fishermen and other visitors have been caught off guard by rogue waves and swept into the sea.

Lava Tree State Park

It's a relatively quick walk through this small park, where several trees were preserved in a Pompeii-like fashion by a centuries-old lava flow. There's some information at the entrance about how these were formed, and you can peer down into the cavern of a large lava tube in this area. That's also why you get plenty of warnings to stay on the boardwalk during your visit; you never know where you might plummet into a chasm. This might not be interesting enough for you to make a special trip to see, but it's worth a stop if you happen to be passing by.

Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation

Getting to this site in Hilo involves a drive through a vast plantation of macadamia nut trees, though it's easy to schedule a stop here without taking too much time out of your day. Some observation windows and a few short videos at the factory give you a look into how the nuts are prepared and packaged, and the gift shop is very generous with the samples. There are also a few other attractions here, including a small grove of various Hawaiian plants and a small ice cream parlor.

Rainbow Falls

I'm a sucker for waterfalls, so this beautiful site was a must-see. It's easy to stop by during a day trip; the falls are pretty much located right next to the parking lot, but there are still a few walkways that let you see the river and cascade from a few different angles. If you visit on a sunny day, you can keep an eye out for the spectacle suggested by the name of the falls.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea commands attention as soon as you first glimpse it. The enormous shield volcano, studded with telescopes at the summit, is an impressive sight as you come in for landing. It seems most rental car companies don't look too kindly on people taking their vehicles to the summit, but there are plenty of tours that will do this task for you. That lets you marvel in the view of nearby Mauna Loa rising above the clouds, or the brilliant colors of the sunset, or the breathtakingly clear view of the stars and Milky Way at night. Like the volcanoes, this is something you simply can't miss if you're going to the Big Island.

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

This proved to be a pleasant stop on our drive from Hilo to Kona. The gardens nicely balance history and botany, paying tribute to the people who converted the tangled jungle into a diverse mix of plant life. There are several trails to explore, including ones that take you to overlooks of crashing waves and waterfalls. The visitor center is also very interesting, presenting a history of the valley and various artifacts collected by the land's former owners.

Akaka Falls State Park

This impressive cataract requires a bit of a drive from the main road and charges a modest parking fee, but it's well worth a visit. Akaka Falls is twice the height of Niagara Falls, and offers a gorgeous spectacle amidst the gorges and forest in this area. The trails in the state park take you on a vigorous but manageable walk past other sights, including the audible but not quite visible Kahuna Falls.

Big Island Brewhaus & Taco Tako Taqueria 

With a name like that, how can you not stop in? We took the winding, scenic northern route from Hilo to Kona, and ended up stopping at this place in the small town of Waimea for lunch. It's a small operation, but has a good variety of their own beers on tap as well as a delicious menu of local foods offered at unbelievably low prices. It almost seems like one of those places you want to keep secret so it doesn't get overwhelmed with tourists, but at the same time it's too good not to support. Check it out if you're up that way.

Two Steps

Special recognition goes to Kona Boys, a business in Kealakekua that caters to snorkelers and kayakers. My wife was keen on doing some snorkeling (which we were originally scheduled to do as part of the Na Pali Coast sail, and weren't quite able to do with Turtle Tours) and we stopped here to try to schedule a last minute trip. They weren't able to book us for that day, but loaned us some snorkeling equipment and gave us a few recommendations on places to go.

We opted to check out Two Steps, a popular site located near the Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (or City of Refuge for those who broke the island's sacred laws). This oceanfront site is named for a natural ledge, part of an old lava flow, that gives you an easy way to get into the water. It was fascinating to see the coral and tropical fish swimming below, and snorkelers have also reported seeing creatures such as turtles, octopuses, and even dolphins. The lava is slippery when wet, and sharp if you fall, so be careful getting around.

Kona Brewing Company

While there are a few brew pubs that have put down roots in Hawaii, Kona Brewing Company is probably the only one that's well-known in the continental United States. Even here in southeastern Connecticut, Kona brews are readily available and a few bars include its neon sign outlining the Hawaiian archipelago. It turns out the brewery has a partnership where their recipes are brewed on the West Coast for distribution in the United States, so the only way to get a true Kona beer is to go to Hawaii. The brewery tour includes several samples and a small gift (we got key chains with a wooden cutout of Big Island), and you can also stick around for a terrific lunch and dinner menu.

Donkey Balls Chocolate

Because when you drive past a storefront that says "Donkey Balls Chocolate" on it the first time, you laugh and keep going. But when you see it again, you think it might be worth a stop. And that was definitely the right choice. This small confectionery has plenty of samples to try out, and shelves full of chocolates with names like Frosted Ass Balls and Dingle Berries. Even if you're not one for juvenile humor, you'll forgive them for looking so delicious you want to buy up half the store. There's also an observation window giving you a nice look at how they create these treats.

Captain Cook monument

The place where Captain Cook died is pretty isolated, so the only way to get out there is by boat. We opted for a kayaking trip through Kona Boys, with a guide telling us the story about how Cook annoyed the Hawaiians enough to bring about his death. The guide book we used says two-person kayaks have been nicknamed "divorce boats" for their propensity to cause squabbles among couples, but we managed to paddle across the bay without developing any irreconcilable differences. In addition to the beautiful scenery, we spotted several spinner dolphins in the area.

The monument itself is a fairly standard monolith. There's a more subtle marker showing the actual spot where Cook was killed, while the monument includes both tributes left by various visitors and the remnants of attempts to deface the language about how Cook "discovered" the islands. You don't come all this way just to gawk at a slab of stone, though; the site is great for snorkeling, with calm waters and huge schools of fish.

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