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Romance on Hawaii's Garden Island: Kauai

Kauai offers nature, adventure and romance in abundance

Kauai's remote Kalalau Valley as seen from the Koke'e State Park overlook
Photos by Ben Davidson/www.bendavidsonphoto.com

From the air, the remote and wonderfully wild island of Kauai floats in a vast pool of Pacific Ocean. White-crested waves pulse against her shore and a primordial mist lingers over her crest: Mt. Wai’ale’ale, an extinct volcano and the rainiest spot on earth. I’ve been to Kauai a dozen times and I’m always captivated by the magic of this special place.

Hawaii's Garden Island has been beautifully built by nature for adventure and exploration and, combined with a wide variety of pristine beaches and luxury hotel properties, exudes a romantic appeal that makes a stay here unforgettable.

My wife and I flew to Hawaii’s Garden Island on a short connecting flight from Honolulu after a relatively smooth 5-hour flight from San Francisco aboard Hawaiian Airlines. On the ground at the laid-back Lihue airport, we were greeted with warm alohas, a tropical breeze and the sweet scented island air. A quick change into flip-flops and shorts and the pursuit of our get-away goal of romance, relaxation and rejuvenation was on.

Pure, Pristine Poipu

Once in our rental car, we headed southwest from the airport, following the island’s main highway through Lihue, former sugar cane fields and a tunnel of trees to the expansive, resplendent Grand Hyatt Kauai resort, set at the far eastern shore of the popular Poipu area. Our sixth floor terrace overlooked the wide, richly landscaped grounds, which are graced with waterfalls and small gardens (there's even an organic garden for growing some of the hotel’s produce and herbs.) The resort has two fresh water pools connected by a river pool and a beautiful beach called Shipwrecks, but unless you are a highly experienced swimmer, it’s unsafe to swim offshore here. The hotel offers a gorgeous one-acre saltwater swimming lagoon, and, my favorite, a 150-foot “lava tube” water slide for water thrills. Nearby there’s great coastal hiking along petrified sand dunes and past ancient Hawaiian archeological sites. This is a great spot to watch for Hawaiian monk seals, a highly endangered species that inhabits this stretch of coast.

The Grand Hyatt’s renowned ANARA spa offers lomi lomi massage, a traditional Hawaiian technique whose name translates “to touch with loving hands.” The Seaview Terrace is a great place to enjoy pupus (appetizers) such as their deep fried poke (raw tuna) rolls, tropical drinks and to hear local Hawaiian musicians who perform nightly. Their cozy, reading den, Stevenson’s, has books to borrow and awesome sushi; the Ilima Terrace restaurant is the hotel’s open-air breakfast spot, where you can dine alongside a pool filled with colorful carp and a curious white swan. Swinging benches and private cabanas along the hotel’s oceanfront path are perfect for watching the sunrise or sunset. It’s no surprise this hotel hosts hundreds of honeymoon couples each year: it's pure romance.

Adventures in the air, coastside

For us, our ideal romantic day was a mix of activity and adventure followed by relaxation by the hotel beach or pool. Kauai is a relatively small island, only 552 square miles, and small enough to get out and explore its beaches, rivers, and mountains everyday. We wanted to get an exciting start, so first thing the next morning we headed back to Lihue airport to join Island Helicopters for a thrilling 60-minute heli-tour with a waterfall landing.

Of the half dozen helicopter tour outfits on Kauai, Island Helicopters is the only company with rights to land at Manawaiopuna Falls, made famous in the movie “Jurassic Park”. The otherwise inaccessible waterfall is located on private land deep in the island’s lush interior and owned for generations by the local Robinson family. It was the highlight of our magic fairy flight over Kauai, sweeping over the lush hills and canyons of the interior and along the cliffs, caves and remote beaches of the NaPali coast. We tried to fly up and over the caldera of Mt. Wai’ale’ale but were stymied by dense clouds, as is often the case. Nonetheless, we hovered along the mountainside, taking in the lacy waterfalls that streamed down from its slopes.

The following day we joined Captain Andy’s for an afternoon cruise aboard the new 65-foot luxury sailing catamaran, the Southern Star. By motor and sail, we spent five hours exploring the open ocean and coastline, heading northwest out of Port Allen and along the famed 3,000-foot cliffs of the NaPali coast. Several times we slowed to watch humpback whales breaching and dolphins breaching the surface nearby. (Note: Motion sickness pills are absolutely essential for those prone to motion sickness, ensuring five hours of fun rather than an eternity of misery.) Later that evening at the Grand Hyatt, we relived our adventure over drinks and a tasty seafood meal at Tidepools, which specializes in island-style cuisine.

Next on our romance and rejuvenation plan: a hike to Waimea Canyon Waipo’o Falls, with Kayak Kauai. There are great guided and on-your-own hikes in the Waimea Canyon area, including several in Koke’e State Park, high above 3,567-foot deep Waimea Canyon. We joined our tour after checking out the viewpoints of Waimea Canyon (the so-called Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and the breathtaking Kalalau overlook, with its views that drop 4,000 feet to to the NaPali coast. Our 3-mile hike to Waipo’o Falls followed a winding trail lined with fig tees and wild ginger, following narrow switchbacks down the side of Waimea canyon to a set of tiny falls surrounded by tropical vegetation.

Heading to Hanalei

After a few days exploring Kauai’s west and south shores, we headed north to Hanalei Bay and the renowned NaPali coast. Our big treat, the climax of our trip, was a stay at the St. Regis Princeville, one of Kauai’s most luxurious properties. Draped cliffside on the eastern shore of exotic Hanalei Bay, the St. Regis Princeville is one of the most amazing hotel properties in the world.

The view as we entered our room on the St. Regis 9th floor (the lobby level) was stunning. Despite the cloudy weather and occasional makua (mountain) showers, the scene was a wide panorama of Hanalei Bay, whose graceful gray waves peeled off the ocean surface into the crescent-shaped, mountain-ringed bay.

Aside from the sumptuous bed, the huge HDTV screen and beautifully appointed furnishings, the room’s bathroom featured a tub-to-ceiling window that could be made opaque (and private) using liquid crystal technology while bathing.

On our last afternoon in Kauai, I headed to Hanalei Bay for some body surfing in the waves and my wife opted for a visit to the St. Regis’ spa, located right off the main lobby. A custom coconut oil massage by their lead massage technician, Marion, left with her with glowing skin and limber limbs that she raved about for days. It was a fitting way to top off our romantic adventure in this magical South Pacific paradise.

Other romantic adventures in Kauai:

Limahuli Garden and Preserve. Part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, this 1,000-acre preserve is set in a stunning valley at the very end of the road in Ha’ena, right before the road abruptly ends at the southern end of the NaPali coast. A self-guided tour winds along a hillside through a collection of indigenous Hawaiian flora, many of which are threatened and endangered. Be sure to visit nearby Ke’e and Lumahai beaches—two of the most gorgeous beaches on the north shore.

Coconut Coasters: In the funky beach town of Kapa’a, you can rent a cruiser bike by the hour—or day—for rides along the new coastal bike path which brings you on nearly flat terrain along six miles of beaches and scenic beauty. Bring a picnic for a lunch on the beach.

Kauai ATV Tours: Kauai’s iron-rich red dirt looks like it must be good for your skin, so why not “do something dirty” with Kauai ATV tour on Kauai’s south side. With this company motto in mind, their guides lead four-hour group rides, rain or shine, through rugged terrain (plus a dark tunnel), to a secluded waterfall, where you wash off with a swim in the pools at the base of the waterfall (weather permitting).

Getting There

Just a 25-minute jet flight from Honolulu, Kauai is serviced by three inter-island carriers with more than 30 scheduled flights daily. Direct flights from San Francisco and San Jose on United and Alaska are also available.