Poipu Beach, Kauai, with Kiahuna Plantation in the background
Cathy e-mailed me while planning a trip to Hawaii with her husband.
I’m not especially interested in the big resorts, unless they’re really nice, and then of course they’ll cost a fortune. We’re planning to spend 2-3 nights on Oahu, 3 on the Big Island and then 3 on Kauai. We’re not big beachers–more interested in local culture and food and hiking and botanical gardens. On the Big Island, I’m thinking much more Hilo and Volcano and maybe Waimea and much less Kona and Kohala. I wouldn’t even mind not staying at Waikiki in Honolulu, especially given all the construction, but mayb that’s just too perverse.
Cathy lives in New York and admitted she knew little about Hawaii. But she also knew I was an old Hawaii hand with years of experience exploring and understanding the islands. Even Hawaiians admit I know more about their home state than they do.
The couple wanted to visit in late November and early December, which marks the beginning of the rainy season. So first Cathy asked for advice about the weather.
Tom has warned me away from the north side of Kauai at that wet time of year, though I really do hope the weather will be good enough for us to see the Na Pali coast.
Going to give this some cogitation time, but first about the above: The rainy season doesn’t usually begin until December, but December is often the rainiest month of all, with January next. October is often perfect (sorry), but November is one of those in between months when it might rain but might also be beautiful; the first half of the month can be perfect, the second half dicey. Tom is right about the north (and east) coasts, but it’s all the islands and not just Kauai at the rainy time of year, and this is also high surf season when the big waves (and the big surfers) come to the North Shore of Oahu. But know that rainy season is rainy season everywhere; it may rain more or more frequently north and east but the other coasts are hardly immune. Meteorologists will tell you that the distinct rain patterns are due to the phenomenon of orographic lifting. The moist northeastern trade winds crank up at this time of year and collide with Hawaii’s not inconsiderable mountain ranges, which lifts the winds and wrings rain from them. That’s why the rainiest places in Hawaii are on the upslopes and summits of the ranges perpendicular to the trades. It’s why Hilo on the Big Island and the summit of Kauai are so rainy. Probably the best place for virtually guaranteed good weather is the Kona/Kohala coast of the Big Island, but here you have to drive considerable distances to do almost anything else but beach it.
(For more on Hawaii’s weather patterns, see below)
A couple of days later I e-mailed Cathy with my recommendations:
Here goes, Cathy:
First of all, get the University of Hawaii maps of each island, which are invaluable and for sale many places. They combine geographic, historical and cultural elements with a good driving map.
Oahu. Get your institutional culture here, because you won’t find much of it on the other two islands. I bet Tom has mentioned New Otani Kaimana Beach (www.kaimana.com). It’s a good choice in Waikiki because it’s separated from the bustling touristy part of Waikiki where you run into construction by a big city park in an area that doesn’t feel urban, is still right on the beach, has a decent restaurant (also right on the beach) and a couple of others next door, and has very reasonable rates; it’s a longish stroll into “real” Waikiki, past the aquarium, and is also close to the hike up Diamond Head (you’d still have to drive or cab because the entrance is on the back side).
Idealized view toward central Waikiki from the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel
A fine hotel alternative is the Waikiki Parc (www.waikikiparc.com
), which I think is a bargain considering its quality/location. This sister hotel to the superb Halekulani Hotel, which is the only thing between it and the ocean, may be near the construction but it has many of the same luxurious touches as the Halekulani but at a third the price.
There are urban mountain hikes right in the hills above Honolulu (I’d check The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org/hawaii
), and I wouldn’t miss the contemporary arts museum funded by the Twigg-Smith family. Also the Bishop Museum (www.bishopmuseum.com
), of course. Chinatown/Hotel Street area downtown is a good walking area with good restaurants, galleries, etc. Have dinner at Chef Mavro
), a short cab ride (or drive) from Waikiki, and say hello to Geor
ge for me.
Grilled Hamakua Mushroom, Macaroni Gratin
This is probably the best restaurant in town and George is a wonderful chef as well as a terrific person…if you can understand his enthusiastic Franglish.
Also a short distance from Waikiki is Bailey’s (www.alohashirts.com
), my favorite spot for vintage (that is, used) Hawaiian shirts.
George Mavrothalassitis Photo: 34 Chefs Cookbook
I wouldn’t spend much time shopping in Waikiki itself, which is geared to big-bucks visitors from abroad. But while it may be asking too much for 2-3 days, that drive out to the North Shore is well worth the time–particularly when the big waves are crashing at Banzai Pipeline.
Big Island. Here’s where you’re going to do a lot of driving. You probably got the idea that Hilo is beyond damp (deluges are possible), and a reasonably dreary town to boot, and that the island is so big that exploring in 3 days means you’ll be in the car a lot.
If you’re not at all interested in the beach, here’s what I would do: Fly to Kona, rent a car and take the Belt Road (not the coast) to Waimea through mostly empty countryside upslope from the sea; have lunch at Merriman’s (www.merrimanshawaii.com
); continue to the coast and up to Hilo. Stay at Barbara and Gary Andersen’s Shipman House Inn (www.hilo-hawaii.com
), a B&B that’s the best place there in my opinion because the hotels are dreary and not worth it, walk down the hill to the waterfront old town for the farmer’s market, little museum and couple of decent restaurants.
Then drive up to Volcano through papaya/orchid country and overnight up there at the Kilauea Lodge (www.kilauealodge.com
) or one of the many nice B&Bs (www.bedandbreakfast.com/volcano-Hawaii
) while exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (www.hawaii.volcano.national-park.com
) where there’s lots of good hiking and an informative museum overlooking the vast caldera. Make sure you hike down to the surface of the smaller caldera Kilauea Iki (“Little Kilauea”) while steam rises from fissures around you.
From here, instead of the long drive up the coast through vog (volcanic smog) from the Kilauea’s ungoing eruption, backtrack to Hilo (not that far in Big Island context), take the Saddle Road between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa back to Waimea and overnight in a B&B or the small motel in town. Then drop down towards the coast, veering off on the road that takes the high route to the Kohala Peninsula, the oldest, most interesting part of the island from the human perspective (Polynesian ruins, plus great seacoast vistas), then back on the coast road through little towns and onto the coast highway past the tourist hotels to the airport at Kona. Lots of miles, but you’d then have seen the best of the island minus the resort hotels and crowded Kona Town.
Note: Do not forget to bring warmth to fend off the damp chill and mist often present at Volcano and also Waimea, or even a light Gortex pancho for Hilo rain.
Kauai. This is where to hike your brains out. Given your interests, I’d stay at some place on the south coast, probably Poipu Beach, where you’re not too far from Waimea Canyon’s many hiking options. Hard to avoid the beach on this island, since nearly every hotel is on one. Poipu is touristy, but there are some nice smaller condo-style hotels. My favorite is Kiahuna Plantation (www.outrigger.com
), which has had dibs on the area’s best beach for decades and is near several good restaurants.
It’s an interesting drive to Waimea from here, where the clutch of beachfront cottages at Waimea Plantation Cottages (www.waimea-platation.com
) is near the foot of the road that heads up to Waimea Canyon. Make sure you get hiking maps. There are state-run cabins up top too. To and from the airport at Nawiliwili, you can check out Lihue Town and its small museum and have saimin at Hamura (2956 Kress St. off a side alley) in Kauai’s main (but still small) town.
The problem with handling Kauai this way is that you’re so far from the north shore, which you must drive to for the trailhead for the Na Pali hike at Kee Beach, the very end of the road. As Tom has probably advised you, this hike can be a few hours or a few days; you can hike in a couple of hours and see plenty and then hike out. But unavoidably you’d probably have to stay somewhere around Hanalei to do it. (If you haven’t thought of it already, it’s inadvisable to throw all your stuff in the trunk while you’re between hotels and out of the car for some time, as in a hike.)
Plenty of fancy lodging at Princeville, just before Hanalei, but much more interesting in Hanalei Town where I don’t think there’s a single hotel but B&Bs and condos. Five miles past Hanalei and the famous string of one-lane bridges there’s the Hanalei Colony (www.hcr.com
) lowrise condo complex where 2-bedroom, 2-bath units start at $240. It’s not much farther to Kee Beach. There’s a good restaurant next door, originally Charo’s (yes, that Charo) that’s the best (OK, only) good restaurant around.
Have fun. Dick
THE SCIENCE OF HAWAII’S WEATHER
Hawaii’s weather and wildly disparate rainfall results from the interaction of prevailing winds with high mountains. Tradewinds blow in from the northeast and east with an average velocity of 15 mph (and sometimes as much as 25-30 mph) about 70 percent of the year, says Honolulu-based National Weather Service meteorologist Nezette Rydell. From May through October, the trades are reliable, present about 90 percent of the time. They make Hawaii comfortable, providing the natural air conditioning that cools the islands and whisks off much of the humidity. “Hawaii is a paradise because the trades blow,” says Rydell.
On the other hand, Hawaii suffers when the trades die. That occurs when the high pressure system that usually remains stationary northeast of Hawaii, steering the tradewinds, temporarily shifts position, mainly in winter. This opens the door for a so-called Kona low approaching the islands from the south. It brings weaker, more humid winds and creates stagnant, sticky conditions. Even if they are around just a day or two, Kona winds remind everyone that Hawaii without tradewinds would be a far less appealing place.
The steady tradewinds also determine where and how much rain falls. As a surface-based feature, says Rydell, they pick up lots of moisture while traveling over a thousand miles and more of ocean. When these warm, briskly moving winds collide with the Koolau Range in Oahu, or mountains such as Haleakala in Maui, Wailaleale in Kauai, and Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea in the Big Island of Hawaii, they rapidly rise and cool, the moisture condenses, clouds form, and it rains. That’s why the windward sides of the islands are wet. “If we did not have mountains, this area of the Pacific Ocean would see, on average, about 25 inches of rain a year,” says Rydell.
Sometimes it rains a lot. The summit of Waielele, sometimes called the wettest spot on Earth, gets a yearly average of 430 inches of rain. Even the sea level city of Hilo at the bottom of the windward slope of Mauna Kea receives 130 inches of rain yearly.
But while windward is the “rainy” side of the islands, the leeward downslopes and coasts in the rain shadow of the mountains are the “dry” sides. The mountains squeeze the moisture from the trades, creating arid conditions, even desert. “It’s all about orographic lifting,” says Rydell.