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We knew we were in for a treat when even the airport was beautiful.
Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai is surrounded by lush layers of greenery and reddish-brown earth. A turquoise sea broke against the bluffs alongside the runway.
My wife, Aly, and I started a two-week honeymoon immediately after our October 2015 wedding. We had decided that we should go someplace we might only get a chance to visit once. And since it was autumn, we also wanted to go someplace warm.
We settled on Hawaii, planning an itinerary that would take us across three islands. Soon after arriving in Kauai, we were standing on the lanai of our hotel room, enjoying a view of palm trees and a white sand beach.
“This whole place is basically a postcard,” Aly marveled.
The “Garden Isle” is one of Hawaii’s more sparsely populated islands. Wild chickens may well outnumber the humans there; they’re supposedly descended from the escapees of coops destroyed in a 1992 hurricane.
We stayed at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, a sprawling 50-acre waterfront getaway with a variety of on-site restaurants, a lazy river, an 18-hole golf course, and numerous other amenities. Normally we would have shied away from such posh accommodations, but thanks to a credit card offer our two-night stay was free.
There are plenty of places to enjoy the natural features of the island. One tour took us through Allerton Garden, a former private estate which is now a botanical garden. One of the most impressive features of the site, a group of Moreton Bay fig trees with towering roots, was instantly recognizable from a scene in Jurassic Park. Not far away, waves channeled through a seaside lava tube create a recurring geyser known as the Spouting Horn.
Turbulent autumn seas canceled a sailing tour we had booked for the Na Pali Coast, but this left us enough time to see Waimea Canyon. Plant life gives the imposing red rock formations an almost mossy appearance, and tall waterfalls were visible among the cliffs. A lengthy road curves through the state park, and one could easily spend a whole day visiting its lookouts and hiking trails.
Hawaii is the only state capable of commercial coffee farms, and this crop plays a major role in Kauai’s economy. Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee farm in the United States, is a mecca for those who love a good cup of joe. Dozens of cafes invite visitors to try samples, and walking tours discuss the harvesting and roasting process.
We finished our visit with an island-wide tour by Wings Over Kauai. The pilot guided the small plane over Waimea Canyon, the breathtaking cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, and the untouched jungles and waterfalls of the island’s interior. Although we were scheduled to depart soon after this flight, seeing the whole island made me that much eager to return someday.
“It’s going to feel like someone dropped a piece of Los Angeles in Hawaii,” the Kauai resort desk clerk warned us.
Indeed, it was a bit of a jarring experience going from the Garden Isle to Oahu. The islands are roughly the same size, but Oahu has nearly a million people – about 14 times the population of Kauai. Our congested journey from the Honolulu airport to our Waikiki hotel took us past skyscrapers, sprawling shopping plazas, and a busy port.
Several tours offer an escape from the city, giving you a chance to see more of the island. A guide with Nature Tours led a pleasant hike through the jungle to the secluded Manoa Falls. Turtle Tours offered a whirlwind trip around Oahu, stopping at several coastal lookouts as well as the Dole Plantation. This tour’s signature attraction involves snorkeling with sea turtles, but unfortunately these creatures made themselves scarce during our visit.
Another major attraction is Kualoa Ranch, a large cattle ranch with a gorgeous valley that has proved irresistible to filmmakers. Our tour focused on sets from the TV show "Lost", although it also visited several movie locations. During our visit, "Hawaii Five-O" was filming an episode around the corner from a giant skeleton set up for the production of "Kong: Skull Island".
At Pearl Harbor, we had time to visit the World War II submarine USS Bowfin along with a memorial to the “Silent Service” boats lost during the war. Then we boarded one of the regular ferries out to the USS Arizona Memorial.
The site is a particularly sobering reminder of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Nearly half of those killed in the attack were on the Arizona, and a walkway spans the sunken wreckage of the battleship. The potent smell of leaking diesel still lingers over the site after 75 years.
Fittingly, the USS Missouri is moored just a short distance away. Our tour also took us through the battleship on which Japan formally surrendered at the end of World War II.
Hilo & Kona
We decided to divide our time on the Big Island between Hilo and Kona, two of its larger communities. Eschewing the bigger seaside hotels in Hilo, we stayed at a place called Arnott’s Lodge. Guests can essentially choose their own accommodations, ranging from private rooms to hostel lodging to claiming a patch of lawn and pitching a tent.
Arnott’s Lodge also proved attractive because it offers its own tours at very reasonable prices. The first one took us to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where we were instantly awed by the vast craters and calderas. The tour included a walk through a sizeable lava tube, a stop at a long-cooled lava flow, a visit to some natural steam vents, and finally a walk around the edge of the Kilauea crater. As the sun set, lava deep in the crater produced a fiery glow.
Another tour brought us to the top of Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in Hawaii. The summit rose above a sea of clouds, and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset amidst the mountain’s observatories. The visitor center at a lower elevation was also well above the cloud layer, and we enjoyed some stargazing in the exceptionally clear skies.
Several sites around Hilo merited quick but memorable stops. There was Rainbow Falls, a picturesque waterfall not far outside of town; the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, where free samples abound; ancient trees preserved in hardened magma at Lava Tree State Park; and the black coastal cliffs of MacKenzie State Park.
We took our time driving from Hilo to Kona along the northern side of the island. A brief detour took us to Akaka Falls, a hidden cataract which is twice as tall as Niagara Falls.
Kona, which is not far from a number of historic sites and beaches, generally acts as the tourist magnet of the Big Island. Luaus are easy to find, and we spent our first night enjoying roast pig and bottomless mai tais at our hotel’s feast.
The cancellation of our sailing outing in Kauai had nixed a snorkeling opportunity, and Aly was still eager to try this activity. We decided to book a last minute kayaking and snorkeling adventure through a company called Kona Boys. While they weren’t able to slot us in until the next day, they gave us some snorkeling equipment free of charge and a recommendation to check out Two Steps. Here, a natural staircase descends into Honaunau Bay and snorkelers can enjoy colorful coral and schools of fish.
The next day’s kayaking trip took place on nearby Kealakekua Bay, paddling over to a monument commemorating Captain James Cook’s death. The monument is another popular snorkeling area, with several other kayakers stopping by as well.
One Hawaii guidebook warned us that two-person kayaks have been nicknamed “divorce boats” for the consternation they can cause between couples. Thankfully, we managed to cross the bay twice with our morale and marriage intact.