Kauai is a romantic island, perfect for honeymooners with Bali Hai beaches, double rainbows and coconut groves. But a different side of Kauai awaited me, one not typically lauded in the glossy, gauze-lensed brochures.
I was going with my family — my parents, two sisters, Suzy and Kathy, and their husbands, Jeff and Skip, and, between them, six kids, all 6 and younger. My role would be that of accommodating, doting aunt. We were in search of fun and basic food but with a Kauai twist.
At the Lihue airport, we rented two SUVs and piled in for the short ride to the resort area of Poipu, on the southern, sunnier side of the island.
Riding with Kathy's family, I took in calming views of steepled green mountains and chili-red hibiscus flowers, the white tropical sun perched in a translucent-blue sky, the perfectly aligned row of swamp mahogany along the Tree Tunnel. The kids giggled at the moa — Hawaiian chickens — that darted among the roadside bushes, then my niece, 4-year-old Kaylee, began yelling that her older brother Justin was eating her crackers. Kathy hollered at the two to settle down.
My vacation with kids had begun.
I usually travel on my own, typically searching out cultural and historical venues or outdoor adventure, and am not at all used to being around kids. I took a deep breath as I realized how the little creatures changed the scope of travel.
My parents, who masterminded this seven-day trip to celebrate their 40th anniversary last June, chose Poipu as our base because the weather is dependably better than on the island's north shore, with less rain and gentler surf. After much research, they picked Poipu Kapili as our abode — spacious, modern condominiums with fully equipped kitchens and tropical furnishings, amid lush gardens and a lucid pool. The perfect place to sip mai tais, I thought, noticing the poolside tables.
The perfect place to let the older kids roam, my sisters said, while also keeping tabs on napping babies in the nearby condos.
Kid-friendly beachesBeaches, of course, are hands-down winners with children. So that first day, after dropping off our luggage, we piled back into the SUVs — with strollers, diaper bags, plenty of snack food and drinks — and headed for Poipu Beach Park, elected the nation's best beach in 2001 by Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, the guru of beaches, and director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research. Leatherman compiles a list of the nation's best beaches every year.
My discerning 3-year-old niece, Janie, Suzy's middle child, also nominated it as her favorite place on Kauai. She's right: It's gorgeous, with white sands, palm trees and peacefully lapping surf. But, more important to my sisters and anyone with youngsters, it's relatively safe. One side has a secluded cove partly protected by a breakwater, making the water bathtub calm for babies; the other side features a reef with thousands of rainbow fish, fascinating to older kids.
We divided our time between Poipu Park and another popular spot: Sheraton Beach, which fronts the Sheraton Kauai Resort but is accessible because all beaches in Hawaii are public. (It's also known as Kiahuna Beach and Poipu Beach.) The surf there can be rough, but it's still kid-satisfactory. Six-year-old cousins Tommy and Justin loved riding the waves on boogie boards, giggling hysterically as they slid onto the sand. At one point, they stood up and faced the waves, little arms outstretched, yelling, "Stop!" — pretending they could stop the ocean surf before being knocked over. The girls, Janie and Kaylee, didn't like Sheraton Beach much after being tossed by waves one too many times.
One of the most pleasurable aspects of vacationing with kids, I learned, is that you are forced to slow down and examine the simple things. When we weren't poolside or at the beach, we looked for geckos in the bushes and sea turtles on the rocks, ate yummy Kauai-made ice cream at Lappert's Ice Cream & Coffee in Old Koloa, and visited Spouting Horn, a sea geyser that comes rushing through lava rock with the angry roar of a mythical dragon said to have roamed these shores.
At nearby market stalls, I bought two tiny sand-stuffed geckos for the boys and two shell bracelets for the girls. The girls tossed aside their gifts and stared at the geckos with such envious eyes that I did what any adoring aunt would — ran back and bought two more geckos.
One afternoon we wandered around the Hyatt Regency in Poipu. It might sound like an odd activity, but this hotel was fascinating to the kids and adults, with its airy lobbies, ocean views at every turn, and artificial lagoons and waterways scattered across the expansive grounds. In the center of the main building is a veritable tropical garden inhabited by two Amazon parrots. My mother had a hotel photographer take our family portrait with the garden as a backdrop, capturing a fleeting moment of tanned arms and legs, leis for everyone, a big smile on every face.
But the highlight of the trip, at least for Justin and Tommy, was their first deep-sea fishing adventure with their fathers and grandfather. They told the greatest fish tale of all.
"Grandpa was reeling in his line," Tommy related later, jumping up and down. "He had a big fish!"
"Then suddenly there was just red, lots of blood," interrupted Justin.
"It was a shark!" Tommy cut in, his eyes wide.
Indeed, a tiger shark had stolen Grandpa's 30-pound yellowfin tuna, leaving nothing but the head. We have the pictures to prove it.
Besides the head, the boys snagged eight skipjack tuna. Usually in Hawaii the captain gets to keep the catch, but Grandpa finagled a deal so they came home with two enormous bags of tuna — enough for three nights of meals. As delicious as it was, I never want to go near a skipjack again. We had sushi hors d'oeuvres, fresh-fish tacos, stir-fried fish and tuna steaks. The boys loved the fact that they were responsible for the dinners and ate heartily each night.
While the men were fishing, I, my mother Leanne, sisters Kathy and Suzy, and their children Kaylee, Janie and the two babies, Charlie and William, lunched at Gaylord's restaurant at Kilohana Plantation, the 1930s home of Gaylord and Ethel Wilcox. The elaborate Tudor mansion sits on a 1,700-acre sugar plantation, and its elegant rooms are filled with shops, galleries and a living room of Hawaiian artifacts and period furniture.
We dined on the breezy cobblestone terrace overlooking an expanse of green lawn spangled with chickens, surrounded by sugarcane fields and with purple Mt. Waialeale rising in the distance. The girls weren't much interested in their child-sized hamburgers or the tropical fruit drinks. Instead, they chased moa across the lawn, two gleeful screaming tots with flopping arms and bouncing hair, scrambling after tiny bobbing birds.
Naptime hinders exploringWe never strayed far from Poipu, because traveling with kids entails much coordination — and you can't miss naptime. Nevertheless, one day my parents insisted on showing us the north shore, where the 1958 movie "South Pacific" was filmed. My heart quickened at the opportunity to explore, but then I recalled that, as a family, we were interested in more prosaic things, such as the birds at Kilauea Lighthouse, which sits picture-perfect on a bluff at the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. Its clamshell lens was the largest of its type when it was built in 1913; its light once beamed 90 miles out to sea.
The surrounding Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge attracts a diverse population of nesting seabirds. The kids loved looking through binoculars to spot red-footed boobies, Laysan albatross, white-tailed tropicbirds and great frigate birds flitting about. A ranger led us to some bushes where a mama wedge-tailed shearwater sat on a nest, and even Kaylee stopped complaining about her brother long enough to appreciate this splendid gift of nature.
Afterward, Grandpa, Justin and I followed the others into Hanalei Valley, pulling into the lookout to gaze out on the mystical valley. Most of Hawaii's taro (the source of poi) is grown in this lush expanse. Legend says that, way back when, the rainbow came to Hawaii when a piece of colorful kappa cloth was tossed into a pool below the valley's Namolokama Falls, its colors arcing into the mist. All this was lost on Justin, however, who sat in the backseat of the car punching buttons on his Game Boy.
But he perked up as we rolled into Tropical Taco, a North Shore landmark in Hanalei. Robert Kennedy served up Mexican food — specializing in fresh-fish tacos and burritos — beginning in 1978 from his roadside truck. In 2000, he moved into a small restaurant. It took some time to feed our gang, but everyone loved the food.
Onward, the road narrowed and the vegetation became more luxuriant as we traveled across one-lane bridges to the point where the roadway ends at Kee Beach. It was an enchanting ride, but the kids were more interested in swimming. Thank goodness, it was another perfect kid beach, with a reef of friendly fish to explore with Grandpa.
Kee Beach is also the trailhead for the Kalalau Trail — 11 arduous miles up and down the Na Pali coast, past waterfalls, tropical grandeur and world-class views of shadowy cliffs.
This is where I decided to put my foot down, protesting my docile role as aunt and the kid-oriented activities that so far had dominated this trip. I was not going to give up a chance to walk at least a small part of this ultimate hike, among the most famous in Hawaii. I talked Suzy, Jeff and Skip into accompanying me.
Jeff set out at such a breakneck speed that it took all my concentration not to stumble on the roots and boulders. The views were quick flashes of splendor when I dared look up. "I feel guilty leaving the kids," Jeff said, panting over his shoulder.
Skip left us 1.5 miles in, worried about incurring the wrath of his wife. But Suzy, Jeff and I continued another half-mile to Hanakapiai Beach, the quintessential tropical beach in looks but with waves that are treacherous in winter, even dangerous in summer, though we didn't know it then. Suzy dipped and splashed in the surf. Later, we read a sign listing the numerous deaths over the last few years and realized our folly.
On our way back to Poipu, we stopped at Shave Ice Paradise in Hanalei to savor the Hawaiian specialty of powdery ice covered with syrup. As we sat at the roadside picnic tables, Kaylee and Justin banged heads by accident and screamed loudly enough for the world to hear.
"Just ignore them," my father told me, digging into his shave ice. "It'll pass. It always does."
I sat there, thinking how traveling with kids certainly has its share of struggles. Would I do it again? I'm not sure how I would have responded then, amid the ruckus.
But now, all I need to do is look at our family portrait and our radiant smiles, recalling the paradise of Kauai and all the good times the island offered us, and I can honestly say that I would — especially with kids.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, United and American fly nonstop to Lihue, and Hawaiian has connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $492.
WHERE TO STAY:
Poipu Kapili Resort, 2221 Kapili Road, Poipu; (800) 443-7714, http://www.poipukapili.com . We stayed at this complex of 62 furnished condos, with kitchens, in a tropical garden setting. Oceanside pool, tennis courts, herb garden, activity desk. Daily rates: one bedrooms $210-$245, two bedrooms $280-$395.
Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation Resort, 2253 Poipu Road, Koloa; (800) OUTRIGGER (688-7444), http://www.outrigger.com . Has 196 furnished apartments with balconies and kitchens. On the plantation manager's estate with 35 acres of lawns and gardens on a lovely beachfront. Children younger than 18 stay free. Daily rates: one bedrooms $169-$225, two bedrooms $274-$365.
Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa, 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa; (800) 742-2353, http://www.kauai-hyatt.com . A 602-room resort with architecture reminiscent of Hawaii's golden age of the 1920s and '30s. On a 50-acre oceanfront setting on Keoneloa Bay. Two outdoor swimming pools connected by "river pools," five-acre saltwater lagoon, popular waterslide. Doubles $425-$730.
Sheraton Kauai Resort, 2440 Hoonani Road, Koloa; (808) 742-1661, http://www.sheraton-kauai.com . A 414-room resort on one of Kauai's best beaches. Doubles $325-$595.
WHERE TO EAT:
Gaylord's at Kilohana, 3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy. at Kilohana Plantation, Lihue; (808) 245-9593, http://www.gaylordskauai.com . Continental and Pacific Rim cuisine, including a lobster and filet mignon duet, wonton-wrapped prawns. Entrees $18-$45 at dinner. Reservations recommended.
Keoki's Paradise, Poipu Shopping Village, 2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Poipu Beach; (808) 742-7534, http://www.keokisparadise.com . Steak and seafood in open-air Polynesian setting. The $5.95 fresh-fish taco is a good deal, but don't pass up the chocolate hula pie. Reservations recommended. Entrees $20-$35 in the restaurant.
Tomkats Grille, 5402 Koloa Road, Old Koloa Town; (808) 742-8887. American and grill food, including fried appetizers, inexpensive New York steak, seafood salad with fresh catch. Kids' menu includes peanut butter and jelly. In a garden setting in Old Koloa Town, with friendly felines. Entrees $4-$42.
Tropical Taco, Halelea Building, 5-5088 Kuhio Hwy. A, Hanalei; (808) 827-8226, http://www.tropicaltaco.com . Closed Sundays. Well-known Mexican eatery on the north shore, beloved for its fresh-fish burritos and tacos. Entrees $2.50-$7.75.
Remember the surf is usually rougher in winter.
Baby Beach (a.k.a. Waipouli Beach Park and Fuji Beach), Lawai. Protected by a natural breakwater.
Lydgate State Park, Wailua. Two boulder-enclosed kid ponds and a playground.
Poipu Beach Park, Poipu. Swimming is usually safe left of the sandbar.
Salt Pond Beach Park, Hanapepe. Semi-protected section of beach is usually calm.
TO LEARN MORE:
Kauai Visitors Bureau, 4334 Rice St., Suite 101, Lihue, HI 96766 (800) 262-1400, http://www.kauaivisitorsbureau.org .
Barbara A. Noe is an editor for National Geographic magazine.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times