Five Weeks on Kaua‘i

Where on earth have I been for the past month or two? I’m guilty as charged for not having updated this blog for way too long. But I have a legitimate excuse—I traveled to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i for five weeks to completely immerse myself in research for my next book on this magical destination.

Before you roll your eyes and think “extended vacation” I can assure you that my trip to Kaua‘i was work, not play. Almost every day, I rose well before dawn to capture sunrises all over the island with my camera. In fact, I took over 12,000 images while I was there, explored practically every nook and cranny of Kaua‘i, and conducted more than 60 interviews with people from all walks of life. It was deliriously exhausting, exhilarating, enlightening, and enthralling. Although I had researched Kaua’i in detail for the past four years for my book, I returned from this trip with many discoveries and shattered assumptions. As it should be.

 A horse pasture in the Lumahai Valley on the north shore of Kaua'i 

A horse pasture in the Lumahai Valley on the north shore of Kaua'i 

Kaua‘i is a place where change comes slowly. It’s designed that way, and I am grateful for what it isn’t. Tourism has been on a tear there of late (up 10-15 percent year-over-year), filling planes flying to the island and maxing out the capacity of local hotels. Yet there are only so many cars its main highway can accommodate, only so many hotel rooms and vacation rentals that can be filled. By contrast, the more popular islands of O‘ahu and Maui have much more room (and are built up dramatically), but that’s exactly why I love Kaua‘i by comparison.

Instead of glossy buildings, multinational corporations and illuminated signs, Kaua‘i is a place where small businesses and often hand-painted wooden signs are what catch your eye. Whether it’s a farmer selling the best tree-ripened mangos I’ve ever enjoyed from the back of his truck by the side of the road, or world-class pizza made on a food truck, small matters here. Despite the fact that as many as 2,000 visitors per day hike up to Hanakapi‘ai Falls and parking at Ke‘e Beach can be a nightmare, you can still find yourself on beaches where you might be the only person for miles.

 The Nāpali Coast at sunset

The Nāpali Coast at sunset

Still, controversies and concerns exist. As I drove along an almost endlessly long lava rock wall that marked the property line for Mark Zuckerberg’s new Kaua‘i estate, I wondered how the popularity of the island with the world’s one percent billionaires could bring changes to paradise. My only hope is that Kaua‘i will change them, not the other way around. Will new estates and resort developments negatively change the character of this island? Or will its people successfully assert their Hawaiian ancestry and heritage? Only time will tell.

 One of the many spectacular delicacies at the JO2 Restaurant in Kapa'a

One of the many spectacular delicacies at the JO2 Restaurant in Kapa'a

I met with a variety of fascinating people, from cultural experts, geologists who study the island’s environment, surfers, business owners, even the mayor. I pounded poi, hiked, explored, learned how chocolate is grown and processed, discovered how plants introduced to Kaua‘i have dramatically changed the island, and much more than I can mention here.

That’s why I’m writing my book.

One big lesson I brought back was Aloha. No, I don’t mean the common word used to describe “hello” and “goodbye,” because Aloha means so much more. Aloha literally means “in the presence of the breath of life.” But not even a formal definition of Aloha does it justice. Aloha is a way of life for the people of Hawai‘i, a description of the affection, peace, compassion, and joy evident in almost everyone I met.

 Waimea Canyon at sunrise

Waimea Canyon at sunrise

When you greet someone on Kaua‘i, you don’t simply shake hands. Nope. Even a total stranger will greet you with a warm, sincere, big-time squeeze hug. They really mean it. At first, you are startled, because a Midwestern born and raised boy like me was taught to be polite and formal. That wouldn’t cut it on Kaua‘i because people genuinely care. That’s Aloha.

 These baby African tortoises will grow to be the protectors of a grove of endemic trees being reintroduced to Kaua‘i's forests. I met these little guys at a facility operated by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens.

These baby African tortoises will grow to be the protectors of a grove of endemic trees being reintroduced to Kaua‘i's forests. I met these little guys at a facility operated by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens.

I’ll give an example. In California and elsewhere in the continental U.S., driving is a form of war, competition to see who can get ahead at all costs. On Kaua‘i, it’s customary to stop and let someone cross the road or get into the flow of traffic. Driving Aloha is the norm on Kaua‘i, something I wish the rest of us could learn. People take the time to enjoy life, to talk story, to smile and laugh.

If I could sprinkle something on everyone around us, especially self-important politicians, it would be Aloha. We desperately need it. There’s still time, and it’s a feeling that I hope goes viral across the world.

My goal is to have the Healthy Trekking Guide to Kaua‘i available early next year. As I learned from writing and publishing 300 Healthy Travel Tips, orchestrating a book is a herculean effort, a marathon. And it’s the best challenge I have ever faced in my career.

Over the next several months, I’ll keep you up-to-date on my progress. And now that I’m back at my desk, no more excuses. There will be many blogs to come.

Aloha, my friends!