It’s not all about the beach on Kauai
Visitors to Kauai who venture beyond the beach may be rewarded with a few hours in a town where time has slowed, at a Hindu monastery high in the hills, a small museum chronicling the history of Kauai and a garden of the gods.
On a typical day in Hanapepe, a sleepy town on Kauai’s south shore, roosters strut across the wide main street, a parrot named Tabasco greets you at an art gallery, and a sign on the door of a boutique explains that the owner has gone to the bank but will return soon.
Life is lived slowly in Hanapepe, population about 2,300 and about 16 miles southwest of Lihue off Kaumualii Highway. It’s a delightful day trip, and, to my mind anyway, more interesting than touristy Old Koloa Town to the east.
Hanapepe Road, the main drag, is lined with frame buildings that recall the early American West. These nicely restored buildings have taken on a second life: A former laundry is an art gallery, a onetime service station is a bookstore and café.
The town fell on hard times when the center of commerce shifted to Lihue and Highway 50 was realigned. But recently Hanapepe has reinvented itself as the art capital of Kauai. Friday is Art Night, and from 6 to 9 p.m. galleries welcome visitors with pupus (appetizers) and tunes by local musicians.
A day trip might start with a stroll across the Hanapepe swinging bridge, a creaky, swaying wooden pedestrian bridge suspended by two cables over the Hanapepe River at the east end of town.
Pick up the widely available Historic Hanapepe Walking Tour Map to learn histories of some of the buildings, identified by plaques. The old Serikawa building, once a 1920s bed-and-breakfast ($3 a night, with meals, back in the day), is now a complex of small stores. (Its balconied second story passed for an Australian hotel in the 1983 TV miniseries “The Thorn Birds.”) A former Chinese-owned bakery now houses Banana Patch Studio, where you might find artisans at work.
You won’t find McDonald’s in Hanapepe. But you might try Bobbie’s for pulled pork sandwiches or a local-style plate lunch or Hanapepe Café & Bakery for salad, sandwiches and vegetarian fare and a little ambience — ceiling fans, original 1930s counter and stools. Both serve lunch, as well as dinner on Art Nights.
Downtown Lihue, with its state and county offices and fast-food restaurants, isn’t exactly a magnet for tourists. But the Kauai Museum is well worth the $10 ticket and investment of a couple of hours for those interested in Hawaiian history.
Its eclectic collection gives a glimpse into the lives of those who molded Hawaii — the Polynesians, the missionaries, the immigrants who labored in the sugar cane fields. There’s a good film that puts it all in perspective, including today’s emergence of the Native Hawaiian movement.
Displays include Filipino swords with exquisite metalwork, objects from Honolulu’s Iolani Palace during the monarchy, Chinese lacquerware, a giant sugar boiling pot, stone tools, Japanese musical instruments, early New England furniture brought by the missionaries, feather leis and capes and an outrigger canoe.
The museum, 4428 Rice St., Lihue, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Info: (808) 245-6931, https://www.kauaimuseum.org.
In the hills four miles above the coastal town of Kapaa, this peaceful retreat is home to 21 Hindu monks from five nations. Visitors are welcome to stroll the gardens, which are lush with ferns and flowering trees, and to visit Kadavul temple, on either guided or self-guided tours.
One drizzly morning I took the self-guided tour, following a narrow, winding footpath past a banyan tree housing a six-faced god showing the path to wisdom through yoga. A free map identified points of interest. There are ponds and botanical gardens with trees from India and Sri Lanka as well as Hawaiian tropicals.
Outside Kaduval temple, I watched an orange-robed monk tossing rice to the birds in a ritual honoring the nature god. He stood near a 16-ton black granite statue of the bull Nandi, which represents the perfect devotee of God Siva. Shedding my shoes, I dipped my feet in the temple pool and stepped inside, where there are more than 100 statues of God Siva. A service at 9 a.m. daily is open to anyone.
From the pali (lookout) in the gardens, there’s a view of Mt. Waialeale, the wettest spot on Earth, and the Waialua River valley. Across the way, sun glinted on the golden domes of the Iraivan Temple, a Southern Indian-style structure being built of white granite hand-carved in India. It’s projected to be completed in 2017.
The monastery was founded in 1970 by Robert Hansen, a native of Oakland who danced with the San Francisco Ballet before his conversion to Hinduism. The monks have taken vows of poverty and engage in daily meditation; they tend the gardens, grow much of their own food and keep a small herd of dairy cows.
They are also decidedly tech-savvy. Wearing their hand-woven cotton robes, they sit at their Macs, publishing a quarterly journal, Hinduism Today (digital version available) and maintaining websites, including https://www.gurudeva.org. They have iPhones, they tweet and they blog.
Visitors coming by car must make reservations for the guided tours, which take place about once a week. (Free, donations encouraged.) The monastery is open from 9 a.m. to noon daily; (888) 735-1619.
On the North Shore in a verdant valley in the shadow of Makana Mountain (“Bali Hai” in “South Pacific”) is Limahuli Garden. The setting is spectacular, but this is not just a beautiful place. Here, conservationists are at work undoing damage to the ecosystem from grazing cattle, feral pigs, invasive plant species, insects and fungi for which native species are defenseless.
Visitors learn which plants and trees are indigenous (native to Hawaii and other places), which are native (having reached Hawaii without human involvement) and which are endemic, having evolved in Hawaii from indigenous species and native only to Hawaii. Native plants, our guide told us, came by “wind, wing and weather,” the seeds washed ashore or carried by wind, tropical storms or migrant birds. Many of Limahuli’s native plants, such as the white hibiscus, which is endemic to Kauai, are rare or endangered.
Some of the introduced species — the modern introductions — are a big part of the problem. These introductions began with the arrival of Capt. James Cook in the islands in 1778 and continued through the plantation era, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. They are not to be confused with Polynesian introductions, which were brought in voyagers’ canoes as early as 200 and, for the most part, are useful species that do not tend to grow uncontrolled.
My tour began at the little visitor center, which is painted Hanalei green. There, I borrowed a walking stick (umbrellas are also provided, but this day we got lucky) and met up with our small group’s guide, Kawika Goodale. His degree is in biology, but he’s eminently qualified to take visitors around the garden: He is a sixth-generation Kauai native, and the land that is now the garden was a gift to Kauai from his grandmother Juliet Rice Wichman.
The tour of this peaceful place begins at lava rock terraces constructed perhaps 700 years ago as an irrigation system for farming taro, the food staple of the early Hawaiians. (Think poi.) Canals diverted water from Limahuli stream, which flows for more than 3,000 feet down to the ocean. Goodale told us that the stream is home to five species of Hawaiian saltwater fish that have evolved into freshwater fish.
As we followed a narrow trail uphill, Goodale pointed out a papala kepau tree, which early Hawaiians used as a bird catcher. They would attach a piece of its fruit, together with a flower as bait, to a twig. Birds landing on the twig would become stuck long enough to lose a few feathers, which were used for making cloaks, helmets and standards. Farther along, Goodale pointed out “public enemy No. 1,” the schefflera, or octopus tree, with its bright red branches — an aggressive Australian import that grows like a weed in this valley.
Conservation of rare and endangered tropical species is a priority for the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which was established in 1964; there are four in Hawaii and one in Florida. Here at Limahuli, work is carried on in an adjacent 985-acre preserve that’s not open to the public.
We saw breadfruit, originally brought to Kauai in canoes by Polynesians for whom it was an all-purpose tree: They ate its fruit, caulked their canoes with its gummy sap and used its leaves as sandpaper for polishing the wood for bowls, canoes and surfboards. Another versatile Polynesian introduction growing in the garden is the ti plant, whose leaves were used in cooking, for making sandals and for thatching roofs.
And there is sugar cane, which also came in those canoes. From it came food, medicine and primitive toothbrushes and, our guide told us, its silvery tassels were scattered on hillsides to create a slippery surface for sledding Hawaiian-style.
We saw a kukui, or candlenut tree, that is the official state tree, although it’s a Polynesian introduction. It has spread into Kauai’s forests as rats have carried fallen nuts. Rats are a problem here — “Two rats, three years, 17 million rats,” observed Goodale.
As we paused at a viewpoint and gazed at the ocean, we heard a bit of the legend of Pohaku-o-Kane, which is about a family of rocks — two brothers and a sister — that washed ashore at Kauai. Like most Hawaiian legends, it’s a complicated tale, involving the older rock brother’s arduous efforts to reach the mountain ridge. But there he stands today, a large rock perched in plain sight on the east side of the valley.
The garden is almost at the end of Kuhio Highway north at Haena and is open Tuesday through Saturday, with guided tours ($30) at 10 a.m. by reservation and self-guided tours ($15) from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations can be made online (except for Saturday tours) at tours.ntbg.org or at (808) 826-1053.
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