Paradise for Pennies

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June 4th 2012
Published: June 4th 2012
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In all my life I’ve never looked at a landscape with my own eyes and thought it looked photoshopped; the colors a little too saturated a little too vibrant, rendering it too good to be true. I never would have believed it possible before I laid eyes on Kalalau Valley during the golden hour. I had first seen it in photographs and it was love at first sight, hovering at the top of my to-do list for the past few years, and now here I was. Those photographs I had seen in books and on the internet had drawn me here to one of the best views on Earth. But it wasn’t as simple as that; much of the research had said that with Kauai being one of the wettest places on earth, the valley would be shrouded in mist, covered in clouds and consumed by the anxiety that I should travel all this way and fail to complete the hermeneutic circle. But I did and it revealed itself to me in its entire splendor, and it was wonderful, it was magical, it was more than I expected. And now, I hand the chalice to you, you must go and see this before you die, to know the beauty of this earth you will soon leave behind.

Hawaii’s string of Volcanic islands have been formed over millions of years when plumes of lava escaped from hotspots in the earth’s crust to form volcanic islands in the Ocean. Kauai was formed some six million years ago, and is the oldest of the five main islands. After the emerging volcano had breached the surface of the ocean it grew for a further 500,000 years until it reaches its zenith, a magnificent volcanic cone. It then entered a state of dormancy before inevitably becoming extinct. And, for the remainder of those six million years the wind, rain and pounding seas have sculpted that now long ago extinct volcano into a thing of absolute beauty, with its own rivers, valleys and mountains.

Flying from West Coast USA out to the Hawaiian Islands is about 5 hours away over 2,500 miles of deep blue sea. This string of islands is geographically the most isolated inhabited pieces of land in the world, and one of the last places man called home (300-400AD), and one of the last places “discovered” by white people when English explorer Captain James Cook first arrived in Kauai in 1778.

Our own arrival was no less auspicious, as I’d pulled off one of my great “I think the hotel was called…” tricks, and after picking up our hire car we ended up at the wrong hotel expecting a room. Fortunately Kauai is only 25 miles across at is widest point and there is only one road around the island (which doesn’t actually go all the way round) and in actual fact getting lost around here is rather charming. We eventually found our hotel near Wailua. Due to the six-hour time difference between here and the east coast mainland we were able to watch Thursday Night Football, and then go out and watch the sunset on the beach.

The time-difference also has the added benefit of getting you and all the other visitors out of bed at the crack of dawn and down to the beach for the daily sunrise. A tradition I was more than happy to maintain throughout our stay on the islands.

We had afforded ourselves a single night in a hotel, as these islands can quickly eat into your budget. So the first thing we did after checking out was hit the local Wal-Mart in Lihue, to buy ourselves a new tent, mattresses and general camping gear, as we were about to play our trump card. (Before you ask, Wal-Mart Kauai is the same as your local box store, apart from the fact that wild chickens inhabit the car park – in fact feral chickens seem to inhabit the entire island of Kauai).

After our shopping spree we needed to go buy our camping permits. The Department of Parks & Recreation has eight campsites on Kauai costing $3.00 per adult, per night (Children under the age of 18 years are free). They also have state park sites at $18 per campsite per night for up to 6 persons, and so we visited another building to gobble up some of them too.

Our first night was spent at Koke‘e State Park, up in the north west of the island, and our base for exploring Kalalau Valley. The following morning we woke up for a hike around the valley rim and the scene was no less inspiring. After driving down from the mountains and pit-stopping at Waimea Canyon, we replenished our provisions and headed up to Polihale Beach, a remote wild beach on the western side of Kauai.

Many rate Polihale Beach as the most beautiful beach in all the islands, probably in large part due to the fact that there are no homes or hotels here, just a seven-mile stretch of white sand beach framed by the west end of the Na Pali cliffs, and backed by sweeping sand dunes. We’d hired a Toyota Camry for our time in Kauai, and it stipulated on our rental agreement that if we drove on this road we could kiss goodbye to our insurance coverage. With uneven roads comprising rocks and gravel at the “improved’ sections and deep rutted sand in others, this trip is not for the faint-hearted, Jennifer was certainly not keen on the idea. My only previous experience driving on sand was at Fraser Island in Australia and there the key was keeping a fast-paced momentum going, so she went for that, and it was worth every bump in the road. The beach here is beautiful and intimidating at the same time, the pounding powerful surf means
A beautiful gnarly sunsetA beautiful gnarly sunsetA beautiful gnarly sunset

Polihale Beach, Kauai
it’s not the place for a casual dip, but made for some crazy play in the breakers. The gnarly sunset wasn’t bad either.

The next day we drove ‘all the way around’ to the other side of the island, pit-stopping at various beaches along the way before reaching Anini Beach, where we pitched our tent in the fading light of day. A wonderful metaphor for life in Kauai, this beach used to be called Wanini. Local legend has it, the, "W," fell off the name sign, but rather than fixing the sign the name has permanently changed. Protected by Hawaii's largest coral reef this beach puts the tranquil in tranquillo. Its ‘smooth as glass’ warm shallow water is the antithesis of the pounding surf one usually associates with Hawaii, and was great for our kids, particularly Kiva, who we could let off the leash to paddle about on his own or with new-found friends. I’m not sure if this beach is renowned for its sunrises as it faces north, but the ones I witnessed were a thing of beauty.

Our last base on Kauai was Haena Beach Park, just before the road north ends at the Na Pali Coast. Literally translated as “the cliffs,” and already seen from its other side at the Kalalua Valley, Na Pali offers some of the most dramatic scenery in all of Hawaii, and renders a circumnavigation of the island impossible unless you are prepared to hike. With Kiva now three months into his hiking career, the girls wisely decided to leave the boys to it, as my three-year old loves nothing better than skipping up tracks around anyone who gets in his way, as his father follows proudly in his wake.

We camped three nights at Makua Beach, aka Tunnels Beach, and over and through the dawns and dusks that followed, I developed an intimacy for that beach which I don’t believe I have with any other. Camping inches from the sand will help with establishing such a rapport, but the intimacy really came from my obsession of capturing its beauty in all its glory.

This is generally the time of year when the weather begins to turn, filling the sky with clouds and rain, and so despite the rains holding off, knowledge of this, combined with my estrangement from injected excitement and anxiety into every morning’s nowcast as I strolled along the beach during sunrise with my camera. But what I learned from Kauai (and what will remain with me for the rest of my life) is that the most exciting and potentially beautiful explosion of light and contrast propagates in the immediate aftermath of the phenomenon the weatherman describes as “scattered thunderstorms”. The energy in the air, the menacing Cumulus clouds bunched and bounding through the sky, the bursts of patchy torrential rain; once you add the piercing low angled early morning or late-afternoon sun to ignite this tinder box of celestial ingredients you have something potentially magical.

And Then it Happened

Knowing the point at which the sun rose above the horizon and its subsequent trajectory through the day, and the predominant wind direction and its transport of low lying clouds through the sky saw me literally laying in wait for the magical ingredients on that beautiful Polynesian canvas.

It was maybe an hour or so after sunrise on our third day at Makua Beach. I had already been for a stroll along the beach and was back at the tent preparing breakfast with the rest of the family. Over to the east the clouds had looked menacing and had all but stifled the sun’s energy that morning as it rose above the rim of the planet many miles away. Now those clouds were immediately above us as it began to rain. Yet out east where the sun had risen, the clouds were scattered and breaking and the sun began to pierce through. The stage was set, the outcome was inevitable. As I’d already been for a morning gander, Jennifer grabbed the baton and headed down the beach with her little red point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix ZR3 to frame and capture what was about to occur. I was beside myself with nervous energy as I’d have to watch the story unfold from here, stuck tending the kids, by the tent, in the rain. Would this magical tree fructify, and how would it look from the spot Jennifer stood? Could that little camera she possessed with its lens the size of a fingernail even be able to capture what it saw?

There was one other person out on the beach that morning braving the rain with Jennifer. A lady who had been coming to this spot for 27 years and who by all accounts was just as excited as us when she told Jennifer that she’d never seen a rainbow cast on that beach in all those years.

Scenes of Kalalua valley may have brought me to Kauai but now I am in love with a beach. Whenever I think about it, whenever I see pictures of it, regardless of who has taken them, I want to be there. One day I will return, to capture that magic once again, and at three-dollars a night to camp on that beach I should have the money available to make it happen.

The flight from Kauai to Honolulu, on the island of Oahu (two-million years younger than Kauai), is just 30 minutes. So no sooner had we dropped off one rental car, we were picking up another. We’d opted for an online “Lucky dip” on the assumption that the worst we could do, when the clerk saw our family of four, was an economy car. We bagged a Ford Escape. Not as spacious as our Windstar, but for $17US a day we were more than content.

We’d booked a night in a resort on the drier western-half of the island at Makaha valley for our first night’s stay, allowing us to take a break from camping and camping food with some Cantonese take-out, cable TV and pool action.

I was a bit bummed when we were told it wasn’t possible to drive around the island from here due to road disrepair and that driving over or through the island wasn’t an option either as most of the middle western half of the island is a US army base. This meant doubling back a ways before driving up through the middle of the island to the North Shore “the surfing Mecca of the world,” where the beaches are best known for massive waves, attracting surfers from all around the globe, but not so swimmable for young children.

In Kauai we had been able to procure our camping permits at the various government offices in the capital, Lihue. As we’d arrived to Oahu on a Friday afternoon it wouldn’t be possible to procure similar permits until offices opened Monday morning. We decided to stick to the plan anyway and camp

Polihale Beach
at Kahana Bay Beach Park on the Saturday. If and when the park warden turned up we’d explain our situation and pay the guy directly, after all we’d seen many people do this on Kauai.


Whilst on Kauai, and now Oahu, the anthropological theory was still fresh in my mind and inevitably framing my viewpoint. Similar to my research in southern Ecuador, it seemed that in Hawaii there were many Hawaiians in the midst of a bit of an ethnic identity crisis which seemed to be fanned and complicated by the omnipresent tourist need for authentic Hawaiiana.

I spoke to an expat for a good while at Kahana Bay Beach Park who said he’d only ever heard Hawaiian spoken three times in the fourteen years he had lived there and also an indigenous professor of Hawaiian studies who sent his own children to Hawaiian immersion classes (which he said was a growing phenomenon amongst middle-class Hawaiians).

The very obvious US military presence on the islands creates resentment amongst many native Hawaiians yet at the same time the master narrative of “paradise” seems to be something almost totally internalized by the local residents I spoke to (used to explain away and justify many a random situation and hardship), and undoubtedly influences discontent at the perceived colonization at the hands of the US government, and the whole moral economy aspect.

Basically, without getting in too deep at this stage, I’ve decided that my next big academic project is to get a load of funding to go off and live somewhere rather nice in order to research the concept of “paradise”; the historical origins of the term, its similarities and perceptions across cultures, the contemporary master narrative and ultimately the impact the phenomenon has on contemporary lives in the fieldwork destination. But for now my research is purely of a personal nature.

Our tango with the rain of course did not always end in rainbows. Getting caught out in the downpour while packing up the tent the morning of our departure from Kahana meant a very damp family was packed into the car. But not to be too disheartened I saw this as an excellent opportunity to test drive the 4x4 capabilities of the Ford Escape rental. So up the muddy narrow back road of the state park we went, which led us into territory signed as accessible only to “residents”. However, unlike similar signs in elitist upper-class luxury neighborhoods, the crudely hand-painted trespassing warnings here announced that this was the property of a particular native Hawaiian group. With rusting or broken down vehicles parked outside houses in various states of disrepair, this pseudo-trailer park atmosphere certainly seemed as far removed from the brochures of Hawaiian paradise as it comes.

On a drive down through the island we spent some time at Kailua Beach, once ranked the finest beach in America by Dr. Beach (incidentally Coronado beach was his choice for 2012, see previous blog). It was great for the kids, who never even made it to the sand after eyeing a bouncy castle in the park, but a bit too popular and manic for a prolonged stay.

Next up was Waimānalo Beach, who Dr Beach ranked seven; but then what does he know (my opinion surely carries much greater weight). With an overall length of some five miles, the longest stretch of sandy shoreline on Oahu, it beats Kailua Beach all to hell. Only problem was we didn’t have a permit or any way of getting one until we randomly bumped into a local Hawaiian administrator, sold him our spiel and he gave us the green light, “and if anyone says anything, tell em Mano sent you!”. If you don’t have local knowledge you’d probably miss it. It is amazing how un-crowded it is. Even after all the beaches I’d seen on this trip and my previous trip to Hawaii to get married I rated this beach. We set up our tent right where the sand met the trees. It was amazing to wake up to this beach, roll out onto the soft and luscious sand, and take in the sunrise over that stunning view.

As the population density begins to climb continuing south it really is a different world.. Honolulu is not only the capital of Oahu, but the entire island chain of Hawaii. Our hike up the iconic Diamond Head for a view of the city was not technically difficult even with the kids, and we knocked it off in less than the 1.5–2 hours round-trip recommended time, despite the oppressive crowds and the heat. Ending at a coastal artillery observation platform it provides a nice view out over the ocean and down towards Waikiki and greater Honolulu. With a massive skyline of 470 high rises, this concrete forest is ranked 4th in the United States, only behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

We spent two nights in Waikiki before our departure from these islands, and despite its obvious emphasis on all things tourism I was mostly surprised how family friendly the two mile stretch was, both in terms of the location of related facilities, and the beach’s layout and its child friendly waves; It exuded a feeling of fun rather than cool.

We were in Kauai and Oahu for a total of two-weeks, we stayed in a paid hotel room only twice; what with the camping, and camping food, plus the unexpected two free nights thrown in, and the more than reasonable car hire and the minimal fuel consumed; we were able to keep our costs ridiculously low. Pound for pound this is one of the most beautiful destinations your money can buy. If you’re reading this in Europe, however, I can’t promise the airfare will be too

Polihale Beach

Anyway, I being the only member of the family on a tourist visa, my ninety-days were almost up. Next we journey to a destination many consider to be the most beautiful island(s) in the world. If you can’t wait to discover where that is, go Google image search “most beautiful island” and you’ll not be far wrong.

Additional photos below
Photos: 51, Displayed: 34


camping sunrise camping sunrise
camping sunrise

Waimānalo Beach

4th June 2012

I have to agree with you Kauai does seem photoshopped doesn't it?! Nice blog, reminded me of the 70's when my parents did the unheard of thing and camped the entire chain with us kids. Best times of my life. Thanks for sharing.
5th June 2012

That is a wonderful experience.
And I am certain memories of that time have shaped your beach life ever since! I think the Hawaiian islands really are a perfect entry-level camping destination, particularly if you have kids. The camp-sites come with shower-blocks and are usually right on the beach in areas hotels and homes would give anything to be located. We've been to four of the islands now and I'm pining to get back and explore Molokai with the tent.
4th June 2012

Stunning, absolutely stunning!
4th June 2012

Yes, I've been to Kaua'i
....and loved every minute of it. :)
5th June 2012

I'm really happy to hear that!
Kauai really is the jewel in the crown. Geologically older, quieter and more beautiful than Oahu, Maui and Hawaii.
5th June 2012

Explosion of light and contrast
And the big blue eye said it was most exciting and potentially beautiful...but it was more than was stunning!
5th June 2012

Stunning indeed
And the eye was wide with wonder;-)
5th June 2012

stunning place, I love the photos
my guess for the “most beautiful island” is Maldives :)
5th June 2012

Maldives...the sunny side of life
Never been, though have heard the legend...and if not in beauty, they are as physically far from these islands as it is possible to be!
5th June 2012
Makua Beach

Spectacular location and photo! What luck with the rainbow. :)
5th June 2012
Makua Beach

History and luck repeating
Timing, chemistry, Kauai. Mother Nature uses nothing but the best ingredients. One day I hope to be back!
5th June 2012

really amazing photos
and those with your kids are simply priceless !!!
6th June 2012

must be the best I have seen to date on travelblog! brilliant
1st September 2012

electronic songs
I am so thankful to open this kind of site of yours because you really helped me so much to know how and what to do when there are things that will happen like this..because honestly i really don’t know what to do in terms of same topic .

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