The Sights and Sounds of Beautiful Kaua’i
The aloha spirit is alive and thriving on the Garden Isle, Kaua’i. Before planning your itinerary, I highly recommend contacting the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau for the best suggestions about Kaua’i’s history, places to visit, authentic entertainment, and everything from helicopter island tours to romantic locations for your wedding.
My recent trip to the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands was both magical and inspiring. The minute my feet touched ground in Lihu’e the sights and sounds of aloha took hold of me. Every time I visit a Hawaiian Island the scent of exotic flora and sounds of ocean waves tell me my heart is home.
As a hula dancer for 30 years, my visit coincided with the fourth World Hula Conference (Ka ‘Aha Hula ‘O Halauaola) held in Puna. So it was imperative I had close proximity to the weeklong conference at the Kaua’i Community College campus and the lush grounds of Island School. My accommodations were perfect, only a 15-minute drive to Puna.
For the first leg of my trip I stayed at Aqua Kaua’i Beach Resort in Lihu’e, located on the eastern Coconut Coast of Kaua’i. My suite was impeccably appointed, and the lanai provided a magnificent ocean view overlooking the serene courtyard (which came alive during free nightly entertainment) and a pathway leading right up to the white sandy beach, where I greeted each morning with Kauai’s spectacular sunrise. I loved the outdoor fire pit right outside the open-air lobby, encircled with comfy chairs. Each day I returned from the conference I looked forward to strolling through the lobby, where there were displays of implements and adornments of hula amidst décor and furnishings the colors of nature―warm browns, yellows, and burnt oranges of sunset. All accompanied by a warm welcome from the attentive staff.
Always a fan of eco-friendly establishments, I was impressed the hotel had received an award for its recently initiated green programs. Solar panels that now cover the entire parking lot, the resort’s conversion of its four swimming pools from chlorine to a saline system, and a successful recycling program earned the resort Hawai’i’s Green Business Award.
On my last day there, after a full day of Hawaiian immersion classes, friends joined me for light fare and cocktails at Naupaka Terrace, where we enjoyed pupus (appetizers) and late-night Asian-inspired salads. We enjoyed the soft breezes of the open-air ambience deep into the evening in the plantation-style restaurant overlooking the active koi pond and torch-lit waterfalls.
The only thing that tempered my sadness to leave this beautiful resort was my journey to another gorgeous one, the Courtyard Marriott at Coconut Beach. Located in Kapa’a, just minutes from Lihu’e, this resort is a combination of island luxury and natural surroundings. Everything about it says “Kaua’i” from its private lanais and waterfall pools to its untouched natural beachfront. My room was comfortable and homey with warm dark woods, luxurious white linens, and a private office space so I could write my notes from the conference while viewing the garden outside.
Enjoying the ambience is perfect for those who combine work and play. I took full advantage of the complimentary morning coffee and light breakfast before settling into the open-air e-commerce lounge. There, I joined others clad in sarongs, shorts, and flip-flops as we plugged in our laptops and hurriedly did our work so we could return to island play.
Again, every day at sunrise, I took the short stroll to the ocean and passed the hammocks under shady plumeria trees luring me to come and rest my weary soul. I appreciated the staff gave full and courteous attention when requested, and respected my solitude when I was happy to write quietly in my journal amidst the pristine courtyard, sipping the morning brew and listening to Kaua’i’s calling waves. I spent early mornings enjoying the beaches with no other footprints but my own. Off in the distance, I would spot another guest or two spending time alone, something we all need to do more often. Then came the glorious sunrises gifting us early risers with a sky full of deep purples, the official color of Kaua’i.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn the resort proudly sponsors the Kaua’i Music Festival, which occurs every summer and features a Songwriter Conference and concert series where aspiring songwriters can interact with television and film music professionals, industry experts, and some of the best songwriters in America. Come evenings, melodies fill the air with music concerts.
Each day in the hotel lobby, artisans and vendors showcased artwork and accessories, including hand-carved pieces of honu (Hawaiian sea turtles), dolphins, and more. Exquisite jewelry and artwork made by talented locals were available for purchase. Most artists I spoke with do not travel to sell, but only present their wares on their beloved Kaua’i, which guaranteed buying guests receive one-of-a-kind island designs to call their own.
Everyone who visits Hawai’i loves to watch hula dancers, but islanders knowledgeable in its history and tradition see hula as a way of life and the art form takes on an entirely different meaning. In recent history, people from all over the world have taken hula to heart, and to fill their hearts with the proper teachings of this Hawaiian tradition, master kumu hula (expert hula teachers) Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, Leina’ala Kalama Heine, and Hokulani Holt founded Ka ‘Aha Hula ‘O Halauaola (World Hula Conference).
The World Hula Conference was Kaua’i’s pride and joy to host in 2014. Held only once every four years, the Garden Isle waited 16 years for the epic conference to be held on its island. Opening ceremonies included special presentations from the mayor and representatives from the governor’s office. The 10-day conference is open to participants worldwide and has attracted hula enthusiasts from all over the globe including all the Hawaiian Islands, United States, Canada, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, Switzerland, and Tahiti. The conference features workshops, seminars, and huaka’i (island field trips) that allow kumu hula and Hawaiian practitioners to share their knowledge of hula, the island, and insights to Hawaiian culture.
In addition to learning kahiko (traditional ancient dance) and auana (modern hula), enthusiasts learned to chant, make water gourds, make and play their own drums or other musical instrument, immerse themselves in sacred waters, visit hidden waterfalls, and even learn about Hawaiians’ interpretation of dreams and omens. I had the opportunity to go inland to West Kaua’i with songwriters/musicians Mike and Walt Ke’ale, descendants of generations from the islands of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau. From the lush upland forests of Koke’e to the spectacular wonder of Waimea Canyon (known as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”), it is worth getting off the beaten path and visiting West Kaua’I, where in 1778 Captain Cook first landed in the Hawaiian Islands at Waimea Bay.
By closing ceremonies, attendees were equipped with a deep understanding of what it means to live aloha through hula. Participants learned it is not something one should imitate by watching videos or dance the art form without learning the stories behind those graceful hands and footwork. Even seasoned dancers walk away with new appreciation of hula, after visiting some of the sacred places where the history of the dances originated.
For visitors interested in learning hula while on vacation, they can visit the Kaua’i Cultural Center – Ka U’i O Ka ‘Aina (which means “The Beauty of the Land”), located in the Coconut Marketplace in Kapa’a and founded by kumu hula Leilani Rivera Low and Darryl T. Low. The center offers classes on Hawaiian arts and cultural demonstrations for both individuals and groups. They also offer free hula shows several days a week at the Marketplace Center Stage. By calling in advance, visitors can take classes to experience first-hand basic hula, lei making, ti leaf skirt making, beginning ukulele, and a Ni’ihau shell workshop.
One of the best ways to experience the island is through those who live there. During the World Hula Conference, University of Hawai’i professor and resident islander Dr. Kani Blackwell (islanders know her as Dr. B) befriended me. On our way to dinner one evening, Dr. B took the route that led us to the Alekoko Menehune Fishpond, minutes from Lihu’e. Built nearly 1,000 years ago, the ingenious pond is an example of ancient Hawaiian aquaculture. The legend surrounding the fishpond is based on the mythical Menehune, Hawai’i’s mischievous little people who performed legendary engineering feats. They lived in the forest and hid from humans, only to surface at night to work and build. Legend has it they built this entire fishpond in one night. As tourists stopped to take pictures then zoomed off, we stayed as long as we wanted. I truly felt as if there were Menehune hiding within the glorious mountain crevices watching us with curious eyes.
The Menehune Fishpond can be viewed from an overlook off Hulemalu Road about half a mile inland from Nawiliwili Harbor, where we dined at JJ’s Broiler. Locals and visitors love this restaurant and now I know why. Large portions—whether you order salad or steak—plus excellent food and an ocean view of Kalapaki Beach make for the perfect place to lounge and unwind with a good island friend. I enjoyed it so much I returned the next day with hula friends and we enjoyed calamari and Mai Tai’s on the patio overlooking the beach.
Before enjoying that relaxing moment, we had taken a drive up the entire northern coast. After passing at least seven narrow one-lane bridges, where cars automatically stopped at either end to let several cars pass on the bride at a time, we discovered the Maniniholo Dry Cave. Located directly across from Haena Beach Park at the bottom of spectacular rock cliffs and measuring about 300 yards deep, the cave was named after Maniniholo, the legendary head fisherman of the Menehune. We reminisced about all the hula dances we had learned and were now visiting the sites in the verses: Hanalei, Na Pali, Haena, Kilauea. To feel, see, and appreciate the land of our dances filled our hula hearts.
If you are looking for excitement and diversity, experience the Smith Family Garden Luau near the sacred Wailua River Valley on the east side of Kaua’i. After a grand luau feast featuring poi, kalua pork, salmon, chicken adobo, and mahi mahi, guests are escorted to the open-air amphitheatre, just beyond the botanical gardens. The spectacular show takes guests on an international cultural tour with dances from Hawai’i, Tahiti, Samoa, and Japan.
There are so many things I love about Kaua’i, including knowing some of my favorite films—“Avatar,” “Soul Surfer,” “The Descendants”—were shot with the island’s backdrop. But her history, her people, and the feeling I get doing hula on the white sandy beach is what I cherish the most.