Sunday, July 22, 2012

It's so hard to say goodbye to Kauai

Waimea Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific"
Aptly referred to as the Garden Isle, Kauai makes New Jersey's moniker as the "Garden State" seem almost laughable.  The oldest of the main Hawaiian islands, it is home to the exotic Na Pali coast, the setting of much of the filming of Jurassic Park and South Pacific, as well as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific".  If limited in time on Kauai, the best investment I could recommend would be renting a car, tuning the dial to one of the local independent music stations (I am still searching much of what I heard on iTunes), and simply driving.  This island is completely laid back...  there was often a 15 second gap between songs on the radio, and I had to use an 80s-style arcade skeeball token to exit the gate at the car rental place, where after realizing there were no economy cars left, my attendant grinned and said, "awww... just pick whichever one you want."  So we pulled out in a full-size SUV at no extra charge.  Every corner turned holds a new breath-stealing scene, and it will only take a few miles to fall in love and see why so many who visit choose never to return home.

But be ye forewarned, this island paradise is marked by one slightly unnerving surprise to one ornithophobe such as myself (imagine a much younger Bradley building a sand castle in Florida while unbeknownst to him being dusted with bread crumbs by a tormented sibling--a retribution which I admittedly deserved--rendering me a seagull smorgasbord, henceforth scarring me for life)... and that surprise is that the entire island is run by wild roosters.  Yes, run by them.  I half imagined them separating into Sharks and Jets, engaged in a dance-off for corners of the parking lot.  My first encounter was at the car rental desk at Lihue Airport, when a technicolor cock went strutting behind the counter.  Unmiffed, the attendant explained that it was quite common, and that my rental car was in a portion of the lot many of the roosters call home.  If you, too, fear feathered foes, allow extra time for fowl confrontations.

Much to the amusement of my friend, Matt, there were several times where I was trapped in the car waiting for ravenous birds to move away, realizing I did not come bearing snacks as so many visitors apparently do.

The flight itself to Kauai is shorter than a subway ride from Queens to Coney Island, and if you must choose between a helicopter tour of one island and a flight to visit a different island, absolutely choose the latter (several low fares are available if you check for specials).  The Hawaiian Airlines team somehow finds a way to serve local snacks and a glass of that addictive POG (Passion-Orange-Guava) during the seeming five minutes the plane is neither ascending or landing.  And you simply must see more than just one island.

Gazing jaw-dropped out the window makes the cost of an inter-island flight worth the ticket alone.  I doubt any helicopter ride could have made me gasp in awe nearly as much as this surreal view from my window seat flying between islands.  I'll keep saying it... if you've already traveled out to see at least one island, you should definitely try to visit as many as you can... it's mind-boggling how unique they each are.

Any food-lover visiting Kauai should plan an off-the-beaten-path detour to Hamura's Saimin, a tiny little noodle shop tucked behind a Salvation Army.  No, literally when I called and asked the address for my GPS, the woman on the other end paused, and said, "I'm not sure... but we are behind the Salvation Army."

Saimin is a noodle soup dish unique to Hawaii, a sort of island wuzzle of Japanese udon, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit.  It includes a thin wheat egg noodle in dashi, garnished with a myriad of toppings, inluding, you guessed it... diced Spam.  The "special saimin" at Hamura's is also loaded with homemade dumplings, fish cakes, diced green onions, and hard-boiled eggs, among other goodies.  The menu is displayed on a concession-stand style push board over the kitchen window, with other dishes of note including wontons and the delicious chicken yakitori skewers we devoured.  The counter is like a never ending zigzag weaving through the brightly lit room, with families of locals squatting practically back-to-back on low stools eagerly slurping noodles.  This isn't fine dining... it's just good ol' fashioned yummy soul food.

And no matter how full you think you are, order a slice of the lilikoi chiffon pie, like a delicate, fluffy mountain cloud of passionfruit with a dollop of whipped cream on a flaky pastry crust.  Packed the entire time we were there, the whole communal-style restaurant has the nostalgic charm of a sixties school cafeteria, with a group of middle-aged women giggling in the kitchen, lovingly ladling endless bowls of noodles.  And for one of my favorite dining experiences in Hawaii, everything came to just about $10 per person.

Hamura Saimin on Urbanspoon

The Kauai Marriott Resort is a destination all on its own, as well, situated on 800 acres facing Kalapaki Bay in Lihue.  Hawaiian architects seem to be experts at concealing, because the entryway indicates not even the slightest hint of the spectacular hotel beyond the front doors (a theme we noticed all over the islands).  After descending a grand escalator from the front lobby, you travel through what seems like an endless lush garden of waterfalls and koi ponds to the front desk area, which gloriously opens to sunlit vaulted ceilings like a grand museum of Hawaiian sculptures, paintings, and giant wood-carved canoes.  Beyond that sits one of the largest pools in the State of Hawaii, with a palm tree island at its center, and several "petals" of the pool, each complete with their own jacuzzi under grand roman pillars.  At night-time, the dramatically lit effect is that of a giant Gatsby pool party, with stone statues spewing fountains into the glowing water.

This is actually just a small puddle about a foot in diameter.  I held the camera low, creating the effect of a desert pond.  The red clay is actually oxidized, iron-rich, volcanic rock.  Definitely don't wear new white shoes if you go hiking.
Though the resort tempted us to stay and sunbathe and sip cocktails at the pool and pristine private beach, Kauai is far too beautiful not to explore.  We left the hotel at around 7 a.m. to head toward Waimea Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" (see the photo at the heading of this post).  The canyon road to the summit seems hopelessly endless... at the end of one hill, a slight dip leads directly to another, as you perpetually ascend this Pacific Mt. Olympus.  And as you glance off the side of the road, trees, waterfalls, and birds grow infinitesimally smaller below.  But the drive is one of the most scenic I have ever taken, and an absolute must for any visitor.  I cannot fathom visiting Kauai and not driving it again.  We pulled off several times for some off-road hiking, which is where we took the photo above.

For scale perspective (and because I get a wee bit queasy at heights) I stayed back to snap this image of my friend, Matt, who bravely trekked way off the beaten path.  In this image, he's belting out the Crossroads anthem (don't act like you don't know the movie), "I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman" as the whole scene looked a little bit like the Britney Spears video.  But in all seriousness, Waimea Canyon is a majestic site that made a profound impression on us both.  Had we much more time, I could have spent the whole morning sitting in the crisp, thin air, staring at the sunlight poking streams through the clouds into the green canyons.

For lunch, we decided to stay close to the hotel, and try out a favorite recommended to us by a local at the airport, Duke's Barefoot Bar.  Named in honor of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, the famous Olympic swimmer and "Father of International Surfing," the open air patio and indoor gardens overlooking the beach make an ideal setting for an oceanfront lunch.  The crab and macadamia nut wontons are exceptional, especially dipped in the tangy plum mustard sauce.  While I was torn on a main dish (there's a Hawaiian pizza with Thai chili sauce and Kalua pork), I decided to take the initial recommendation our new friend had suggested, and went for a burger.  But not just any burger... one with an island twist.  The Mango BBQ Bacon Burger is crazy tasty, with a sweet mango BBQ glaze, cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and grilled onions on a patty of local grass fed beef.  I could have easily devoured more than one, but saving room for a large dinner later on, this lunch was the perfect satisfaction for a midday craving.  And the name lived up to itself, as customers left their slippers (not flipflops... slippers) at the door.

Duke's Kauai on Urbanspoon

Matt enjoying some water time at the pristine Tunnels Beach near Hanalei, where South Pacific was filmed.
After lunch, we drove along the north side of the island.  Several excursions are available to see the Na Pali Coast by water or air, but we didn't have the time... but definitely wanted to see as much as we could.  We kept pinching ourselves at the Garden of Eden landscape, half expecting a pterodactyl to fly across the sky, or a velociraptor to scramble across the roadway.

Why did this view make me somehow want to watch The Goonies?
The drive along the coast is incomparably gorgeous, passing through forests, over cliffs, past a lighthouse, and through one-lane bridges (a sign informed us that island courtesy is to allow five cars to pass before proceeding across the bridge... could you imagine that in Manhattan!?!), the whole while turquoise-blue-aqua water glistens like an ocean of opals to the right of you.

There are even hidden caverns carved into the mountains on the north side of the island.  Not dressed for spelunking, we cautiously ventured in as far as we could.  I took this shot from deep inside the cavern.  That's a full-size SUV parked on the street, for reference.  And the passengers that accompany that SUV disappeared much further into the darkness...

After cleaning up for dinner, we discovered that another unique natural site was located just a few minutes down the road from our restaurant destination, so before heading to Beach House in Koloa, we took a slight detour to visit Spouting Horn.  Crashing waves push water upwards through holes in the lava rock as high as fifty feet, creating rainbows in the mist just before sunset.  A nearby blowhole that shoots only air creates a mighty hissing sound as the water sprays, creating an even more dramatic effect.  It's hypnotic, and you find yourself watching much longer than should probabkly be captivating,

Seared Island Fresh Ahi Poke in crispy lumpia bowl with Asian slaw, wasabi mirin aioli, and tobiko...

Eagerly arriving at dinner, it became quite evident that Beach House is the optimal viewing spot for the sunset.  A tip: do not argue with the hostess or try to pay her off for an actual window table.  In this open air restaurant, they have thoughtfully terraced the levels, so no matter where you are sitting, there is an unobstructed view of the sunset and waterfront.  I watched as the host staff extremely professionally handled a smackably rude guest barking that his wife had traveled to Hawaii just to sit at a window table at the Beach House at sunset (yet he had miraculously neglected to make a reservation for his soul mate's midlife sojourn to mecca!)  We happily dined on one of the inner and upper levels, and it was perfect.  The restaurant could have easily been named Honeymoon Hut, or even Noah's Ark, as most guests seem to arrive by twos.

For starters, the wasabi-kissed ahi poke is delicious, especially served in the lumpia bowl, from which you can tear away little wafers of spring roll wrapper to pinch bits of seared tuna with the crunchy Asian slaw.  The ceviche, beautifully presented in a coconut, is one of the most delicious preparations I have enjoyed anywhere, with tiger prawns, scallops, and fish marinated in citrus and passion fruit with crisp cucumber medallions and juicy cubes of tomato and creamy avocado.  And while your mother may have always warned you not to fill up on the bread, the ciabatta is especially addictive, served warm and prepared with red alaea sea salt, a Hawaiian salt said to contain over 80 minerals, turned red from actual bits of volcanic clay.  Also kissed with sea salt is the delicious beet salad, with gorgonzola crumbles, macadamia nuts, and a drizzle of truffle oil.

Though we enjoyed the wasabi crusted opakapaka "lobster of the sea" with lilikoi lemongrass beurre blanc, the trophy goes to the miso marinated monchong with richly layered flavors from shitake mushrooms to daikon, cilantro, ong choi, and delicate fish fume.  The subtle Asian flavors deliciously accented this meaty fish, and it was a beautiful presentation.

The molten chocolate cake with espresso creme anglaise was as gooey and decadent as any I've enjoyed, but the dessert that sent our heads swimming was the bananas foster, which arrives on a flaky puff pastry in caramel sauce with macadamia nuts and vanilla bean ice cream.

Truly a special meal on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, the service was exceptional but never overbearing.  I have rarely seen such teamwork from a staff, which was refreshing.  As a guest, it is usually obvious which head server, busser, and food runner fall into which teams and sections throughout the dining room.  At Beach House, the staff appears to treat the whole floor as one section, ensuring each guest is taken care of regardless of placement on a floor plan.  All of that, with the setting, and brightly colored contemporary oil paintings decorating the walls, it's easy to see why guests flock to this restaurant.  And then we flocked straight back to the hotel to decompress in the jacuzzi under the starlight, making a perfect Hawaii evening.

Beach House on Urbanspoon

The next morning, with little time before our flight to Maui, of course we made one final road trip to try the highly-acclaimed Puka Dog. That's "pooh-kah" as opposed to the alternative tragic mispronunciation.  Set in yet another concealed shopping center called Poipu Village, this little hot dog hut had a line winding into the courtyard.  My friend laughed, and said, "so we've found the Hawaiian Shake Shack," referencing the Danny Myer phenomenon in NYC that always has a line down the street.  Maybe we'd be frazzled running to our flight, but this would surely be worth it.

As puka is island for "hole," they take a squishy fresh bun, and then spear it over a heated prong sticking up from the stovetop, which not only pokes a hole, but then toasts the inside of the bun to crispy deliciousness.  The inside is then slathered with a secret garlic lemon sauce (available in degrees of mild to crazy spicy), as well as your choice of fruit relish.  I went with mango, but patrons choose from banana, starfruit (which is seasonal, and was not available), papaya, coconut, or pineapple relish, as well as sweet or tangy mustards available in passionfruit or guava.  After gooped up with goodies, they then stuff a polish sausage, and presto, you a Hawaiian Puka Dog.

When you can take an All-American comfort food and creatively transform it to juxtapose sweet, savory, spicy, tart, fluffy, and crunchy... all for the price of a roundtrip subway fare in NYC... well, then you've won me over.  Add this fantastic frankfurter to one of their chilled plastic cups of state fair fresh squeezed lemonade, and it was the perfect little pat on the back from Kauai as we departed an island that will forever remain one of my favorite places on earth.

Puka Dog (Poipu Shopping Village) on Urbanspoon

We did all of this in about 36 hours!  And remember, you can enjoy Beach House on Kauai courtesy of Urbanspoon, with flights generously provided by Hawaiian Airlines and gorgeous accommodations by Marriott just like I did.  All you have to do is click here to learn how (it's easy--you just make a reservation on Urbanspoon for a chance to win your own trip!)


Anonymous said...

Staying at the Marriott is what did us in. It's so hard to say goodbye to Kauai, we moved here! This is the most beautiful place on earth!

tlhanger said...

This so reminded me of my first visit to Kauai in 1991. Few more finds, (if they are still there). The Botanical Gardens were so unique and there was a great place owned by a famous lady golfer. Also, a artist colony where I met a lady who does a yearly calendar of the islands. I still get them, but I cannot remember her name at the moment. We stayed at a unique place that was destroyed by Iniki and never rebuild. The coconut orchard behind it had a show every night.

amuse*bouche said...

There were SO many other things I wanted to do... we drove past the botanical gardens, and wanted desperately to stop. They looked beautiful, even from the gate. I would love a month to explore just Kauai...

Unknown said...

You take amazing pictures

amuse*bouche said...

Thank you so much, VP JoshFan... that means a lot... ;o)

Anonymous said...

It is so exciting to follow your adventure - the pics, the food & the commentary are fantastic. Thank you for all your amazing work. I've loved reading about your trip.

Laura - Urbanspoon Social team.

Anonymous said...

So lucky... im from Maui... Been to Oahu for shopping lol but now in Afghanistan ugh cant wait to come back home and hopefully ill visit your Iskand!

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