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A Tropical Vacation in Kauai, Hawai'i: What to Expect!

Updated on April 18, 2011

Are you planning a vacation to Kauai, Hawaii? Or perhaps you may even be contemplating a move or buying a condo in Kauai? Let me tell you about what I found after living on the island for a little over a month last June.

This land is the blessed land. It flows with milk and honey, salt water and rain water, and for the cultured: smoothies and shave ice. Locals are caramel-colored. Bad weather never cancels anyone’s plans. Schedules are obsolete and calendars are only hung for the pictures. But that’s not all I discovered after a month of living on the island of Kauai, Hawai’i.

Oil Pastel of Kilauea Lighthouse and Anini Beach, copyright A. S.
Oil Pastel of Kilauea Lighthouse and Anini Beach, copyright A. S.


The very air seems nourishing. Or at least it did when I got off the plane from Colorado, where the atmosphere is thin and piercing, and dry as Cabernet Sauvignon. Here, everything is wet, and when it isn’t wet, it’s damp. The covers of my paperbacks curl; my hair doesn’t. I haven’t had to use lotion or Chapstick for weeks except to heal sunburn. I leave my soggy beach towel and swimsuit hanging in the bathroom for days, turning them over ever so often to let both sides cook evenly. 

In Colorado we twisty-tie bags closed to keep food from drying up and getting stale. Here, food will get soggy and moldy if it’s not sealed. I’ve gotten used to using an electric plastic bag sealer every time I put away a snack and dry the dishes thoroughly before closing them in their steamy cupboards. But the damp air that makes food so soft also gives plants an inordinate amount of moisture, making it possible to grow almost anything here. 

Kauai is filled with beautiful flowers. Perhaps that is why it is called "The Garden Island."
Kauai is filled with beautiful flowers. Perhaps that is why it is called "The Garden Island."
Be sure to visit a local farmers market on your next visit to Kauai.
Be sure to visit a local farmers market on your next visit to Kauai.
Papaya has never tasted so sweet as when I tried it on Kauai.
Papaya has never tasted so sweet as when I tried it on Kauai.


The plants are the citizens here, with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in abundance. If they aren’t being discriminated against by the chainsaw and machete (landowners are constantly trying to quell the rebellion of flora over homo sapiens), then they’re being hugged by the earthy people who also befriended Puff the Magic Dragon over in Hanalei. Meanwhile, local farmers harvest papaya, pineapple, lychee, mangos, macadamia nuts, guava, tangerines, tomatoes, coconut, blackberries, bananas, coffee beans, sugar cane, and eggplant. Their owners swing their tawny legs from the backs of their jeeps behind their tables at the farmers’ market. Unrecognizable roots and clumps of leaf are offered to ignorant mainlanders, who politely ask, “What do you do with it?” They answer, “Stir fry!” “What about this?” “Stir fry!” “And this?” “Stir fry!” 

My favorite minority group is the flowers. The white ones smell sweeter than any perfume, especially the plumerias and gardenias. Brilliant shades of pink, which Barbie could only dream of, clothe some of the others: hibiscus, bougainvillea, anthurium, and plumeria. Vivid reds and periwinkle blues, sunny yellows and florescent oranges can be found everywhere and anywhere. A girl wears a flower behind her right ear if she is unattached, behind her left and above her heart if she’s taken. 

Hermit Crab by Kauai's tide pools.
Hermit Crab by Kauai's tide pools.


Tide pool inhabitants can be very grouchy, but with good reason, I suppose. Their homes are always in a state of flux, as their ceilings are constantly rising and rippling, and they never know what unwelcome guest will be suddenly tossed into their home, flopping and squirming on the next wave. I choose my footing carefully, as the lava rocks are rough and sometimes sharp when dry, but slippery with liquid blackness when wet. Little fish dart from their sofas to their closets and hermit crabs retreat within their hoodies when I loom my great shadow over the threshold of their homes. 

While wading in shallow water near the shore the other day I unknowingly stepped on a blob the size and shape of a human fore-arm. No more reading Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie at the beach, I told myself. It sent jitters up my spine and I jumped a few steps away in case whatever it was wanted to take revenge. Later, I found more of them in a shallower, safer pool, where I could actually see my feet and found out they were sea cucumbers, or sea slugs. Not venomous or vengeful, and actually not vegetable either. My friend stepped on someone less hospitable, and received a pinch on each foot. The little grouch was a ghost crab, and translucent enough to get a nice job in a haunted house.

Beautiful mountain views in Kauai.
Beautiful mountain views in Kauai.
Oil Pastel of Lava Rocks and Bali High; copyright A. S.
Oil Pastel of Lava Rocks and Bali High; copyright A. S.


Kauai is a circular island, with tall, inactive volcanic mountains in the center. The highest mountain is usually covered with thick clouds, as it is the rainiest spot on earth. Only a few daring souls have forged their way with machete and rope through the dense jungle to get to the swamp at the top. Down at the base, all the roads circle around the mountain, so I am constantly confused about where I am and which direction I’m facing. I’m used to living at the foot of a straight line of mountains, which are always west and always parallel to the highway. But here, the road is always careening around its center pole like a merry-go-round and when we come around a bend I’m suddenly confronted by a wide-eyed blue horizon. The ocean! The first few days I was here, my mind told me subconsciously that the ocean was a field, and I was looking at flat meadow of blue wheat. Yes, the landlocked soul is pathetic.


And the ocean is a vain and changeful woman. She is always posing for artists, chatting with writers, and humming a few bars of her theme song when musicians are around just to see if they’re listening. She changes color as many times as I change outfits. The subtle hints and breezy comments she drops leave me wondering for days what she means. But she is merely a reflection of the sky, her master, and she submits with fluid grace to every cheery or gloomy theme his countenance reveals. I set her down the other day for a portrait. My oil pastels behaved valiantly in the hot sunshine, only shimmering a little with melted wax, but smoothing themselves nicely under my fingertips on paper. I blended grays and greens and blues and browns for the ocean, and then attacked it with a smattering of hulking lava rock in shades of black. The rock was easy; he was the strong, silent type and hadn’t changed form for thousands of years. The ocean was difficult; she was the drama queen, and every time I glanced up, she had a different shade of color running through her veins or a different glint of sunlight on her curves. This portrait of a lady comes far short in showing who she really is, but I will enjoy it once I’m back at home in dry and rocky Colorado, trying to remember why pages curled for no reason and food grew soggy when it met the air.

© 2009 Jane Grey


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