The ukulele-playing, hula-dancing gate agents were a clue that I was on a special flight to Kauai last month. Draped with leis and plied with gift bags of island coffee, Kauai cookies and Hawaiian Airlines luggage tags, I was unexpectedly on the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines flight from Oakland International to laid-back Lihue airport on the Garden Island of Kauai.
Settling in on a Hawaiian flight is like a riding wormhole to an alternate reality: the tropical Pacific. Plied with guava juice and free meals, and lulled into relaxation by a nonstop reel of island music videos, passengers are transported in less than five hours from Oakland's Road Warrior-esque I-880 corridor to Kauai's lush, sand-kissed shores.
Upon landing (and receiving more celebratory leis and musical entertainment courtesy of the Kauai Visitors Bureau), we rode a free hotel shuttle ride to the Kauai Beach Resort, only 10 minutes drive north from the airport (but situated away from the flight zone.) In minutes, I was lounging by a large, uncrowded pool with a tasty mai tai in hand, enjoying the tradewinds and sunshine, and marveling at how, in half a day, I magically shifted scenes to paradise. It was almost unbelievable.
The Kauai Beach Resort is a real charmer. Popular with visitors and Hawaiians, this Aqua-managed resort is a simplified, affordable take on Poipu's grandiose Grand Hyatt Kauai. Surrounded by 25-acres of carefully landscaped grounds, the hotel features a large, airy lobby that opens out to a multi-faceted pool complex with waterfalls spilling off a faux lava rock island, a 75-foot water slide, a pool volleyball set-up, and a kid-friendly saline pool with sandy bottom. The beach, Kauai's longest, is great for a quiet morning or sunset stroll but not for swimming due to a shallow and extensive rocky reef. Luckily, superb family beaches like Lydgate park are nearby and the hotel provides a free shuttle to scenic Kalapaki Beach in Lihue.
I found the resort's rooms, each with a lagoon or ocean-view lanai, to be very clean and comfortable. Prices are reasonable at the Naupaka Terrace restaurant, where you can dine on Hawaiian and Pacific cuisine with views of torch-lit waterfalls, fishponds, sparkling pools, and the ocean. A nearby gas firepit, circled by comfy loungers, invites a late night evenings under the South Pacific stars. The resort's Shutters Lounge features excellent live island music nightly, specialty drinks, draft beers, wines, and a light dinner menu featuring a variety of salads, pizza, burgers and appetizers. By the pools (there are four in all), the Driftwood Bar & Grille offers tasty lunch-fare and tropical drinks.
The Kauai Beach Resort also has a concierge service that's very convenient for Kauai excursion planning, and onsite auto rentals for those who want to explore this small but varied island (you can also take the free shuttle back to the airport's car rental offices.) The only downside to this place: no free wireless in the rooms and a steep $16.95 daily parking fee (self or valet). The Kauai Beach Resort is perfect for families and only one of two Kauai resorts that offer a free airport shuttle. I loved my stay here; it's a perfect way to ease into a vacation on Kauai (or stay before an early morning flight back to the mainland). And it couldn't be easier to escape to Kauai, my favorite of the Hawaiian islands, via my new escape route: Hawaiian Airlines direct from Oakland to paradise.