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Fern Grotto? Not so Ferny.

Wailua River

Wailua River by fadedpictures on Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the midst of fern grotto Mother Nature made her home…” — Beautiful Kauai

It takes a little less than an hour to arrive at Fern Grotto via Smith’s fern grotto river cruise. The destination is a place of legend and somewhat kitschy romance. This natural amphitheater was once a popular location for weddings, and the acoustics are still quite impressive, but sadly, the ferns are sorely lacking. While I wasn’t disappointed with the hospitality or charm of the staffers on the boat trip, the grotto itself is… well, it’s a little tired.

I thought of this the other day when I stumbled across a picture postcard sent from Hawaii in the early 70s. The grotto was lush and green, aloha shirted men lined the walkways accompanied by ladies dressed in matching muumuus. The walls were draped with greenery, water dripped from the reddish rock. It was exactly the kind of place Mother Nature might make her home, a cool refuge from the Hawaiian sunshine.

Sadly, the site was afflicted by drought and most of the reviews are accurate, if unhelpful, in their “you should have seen it 20 years ago” assessment of the site. It’s still fun to take the boat and be suckered into the somewhat uninteresting marketing point of this being “Hawaii’s only river” because really, who doesn’t like a leisurely ride on the water?

For the less lazy, one of the many kayak rental places will set you up and you can paddle your own way, taking as long as you like to travel the two mile stretch. But make it about the journey, not the destination.

As for the song Beautiful Kauai,  it was written in 1967 by Randy Farden — surely fern grotto was bursting with plant life in ’67.  Don Ho made the tune famous — his classic lounge version of it is here.

The Island Wants You

Aloha: Welcome to Hawaii via MPD01605 on Flickr

Aloha: Welcome to Hawaii via MPD01605 on Flickr

When we first arrived many people said to us, “Well, if you got here the island must want you.”  “If things work out easily once you’re here, like finding a car easily, you’ll know the island wants you.”  “If the island doesn’t want you here, you’ll know- stuff will happen to you and you’ll leave.”–The Little Travelers

Budget Travel: Reader’s Best Photos

Here on Holoholo Wale I try to look into the corners and behind the usual sun, surf, and sand stories about Hawaii (though I call that beer, beaches, and babes). But every now and then, I remember — Hawaii is freaky gorgeous, really, just breathtaking, and the sun, surf and sand, while not the be all end all of Hawaii, is what draws a lot of us there in the first place.

There’s an excellent reminder of just how remarkable the islands are on Budget Travel — they’re running a slideshow of their readers’ best Hawaii photos. Have a look and be amazed.

No More Sugar on Kaua’i

On our first trip to Kaua’i, we photographed the rusting sugar mill near Koloa  and watched the bulldozers turn the island’s red earth into flattened out plots. When we returned last winter, there were loads of new condos and vacation homes standing on land that had once been agricultural. Now, according to this KGMB report, Kaua’i’s last sugar plantation is pulling up stakes, laying off most of their staff and making plans to lease their 7500 acres of land to… well, it’s unclear.

Koloa has a little open air museum — the old buildings that make up the town bear plaques that tell of their history while Kaua’i was becoming established as a sugar producer. There are a few exhibits that show what life was like for the plantation workers, some tools and clothing are on display. There’s a concise history of sugar in Hawaii on this post about The Sugar Monument — a bronze sculpture depicting the diverse plantation workers. If you still want to learn more, there’s a good movie about the Japanese sugar plantation workers called Picture Bride. It was filmed on Oahu, though I imagine the lives of the workers were much the same on Kaua’i.

When I was a kid, there were still C&H sugar ads on TV, the jingle sung to the tune of Pearly Shells. I found a montage of their romantic ads of the sugar cane “lifestyle” on YouTube, of course. The Kauai plantation is run — or rather, has been run by — by Gay and Robinson, a company that’s been growing sugar on the island since 1889. There’s talk of the land going to biofuel crops, but having seen the speed with which farmlands are transformed into real estate, it’s hard not to wonder what percentage of the cane fields will be condos the next time I find myself on Kaua’i.

Here are the C&H ads, you’ll probably have had enough by the time you get through the third one.

Bali Hai

I’d meant — and had forgotten — to rent South Pacific immediately upon my return from the Garden Isle. (Hold, please, while I add it to my Netflix queue. Okay then.) It’s not that I’m such a crazy fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, though truth be told, I’m a sucker for a kitschy musical. Nope, it’s that I wanted to see the scenery, to see if I could name any of the locations where the movie was filmed.

IMDB states, minimally, that it was filmed on Kauai but this press release — which reminded me to rent the movie — names a few more specific sites and says that the landscape is “easily recognizable in the movie and visitors coming to Kauai’s north shore today will note how largely unchanged the area remains five decades later.”

I can’t tell from the clips I found on YouTube if it’s the landscape is truly familiar, but I love the completely tropics-struck expressions on the faces of the sailors in this bit. Oh, I’ve felt like that. I heard you the first time, Bali Hai. No need to hit redial.

Bali Ha’i may call you, any night, any day, in your heart, you’ll hear it call you: “Come away…Come away.”

Beach Safety is No Joke

Kauai is notorious for it’s crazy riptides — they took a Polish tourist on August 29th and every year, there are terrible tragedies as beach goers get swept out to sea. It’s not just about being a good swimmer, it’s about awareness of the dangers of the sea and the surf.

Kauai Beach Explorer is one of the best sites I’ve seen for educating visitors about beach safety. Back when I was working on my little guidebook, I spoke with one of Kauai Beach Explorer’s editors — they pleaded with me to include a section on safety, peppering me with stories about recently married brides watching their grooms get swept away or family members standing by helplessly when one of the kids disappeared. On our last visit to Kauai, the rental place declined to set us up with snorkel gear because the surf was doing something dangerous and was predicted to do so for the next few days. I didn’t get to see the fish, but hey, I got to live another day. For that, I say thank you, Kauai snorkel gear rental place.

It’s almost too awful to think about, but denial is not the solution. Read up, don’t swim alone, ask about the conditions and act upon that information, visit beaches with lifeguards, and pay attention. Better to stay dry than, oh, the worst case alternatives are too heartbreaking to bear.

Hanalei Is America’s Best Beach: Really?

Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay

OK, it’s a beautiful crescent of golden sand. It’s wide and clean and almost aggressively picturesque. There’s no denying that it’s an archetype of what a perfect beach should be. And it was recently selected as the “Number One Beach in the US” by Dr. Beach, a self-declared beach expert. He seems to have gained quite the cred; my Google alerts are crowded with mentions of Hanalei Beach’s new “honor.”

But I’ll take this diagnosis with a grain of salt — or maybe sand would be more appropriate? Here’s why: I think that selecting a “best beach” is dependent on what you want to do when you’re on that beach. For watching the pounding surf, sprawling in the sun, strolling at sunset hand in hand with the object of your affections, generally wallowing in a state of tropical lethargy, Hanalei is indeed fantastic.

But my favorite beach happens to be right here in Washington. It’s the always breathtaking Ruby Beach, on the Olympic Peninsula. It doesn’t matter what the weather is, I’m always blown away — sometimes literally, if the wind is up — by the unreal rugged landscape, the sea life exposed at low tide, the staggering power of the gray Pacific. I also have a very soft spot in my heart for the beach in Santa Cruz, California, for the kitschy boardwalk, the rattle of the rare wooden roller coaster, the smell of the sea mixed with popcorn and tanning oil and corn dogs. And I’m sure there are vicious advocates for the Jersey Shore or the Gulf Coast.

Is Hanalei America’s “best” beach? It might be the best tropical beach but for me, there’s an emotional undercurrent that solidifies a beach in my affections. That’s not as measurable as water temperature or wave size, but it’s just as critical.