A look at Hawaii’s off-the-beaten-path treasures.
The North Shore of Kauai looking toward the Napali Coast.
EARLIER THIS YEAR we wrote about a landmark deal between Turtle Bay Resort and residents of the North Shore of Oahu, which guaranteed controlled development coupled with preservation of and access to miles of wilderness. This success story inspired us to find more examples of island areas that are lesser-known and ready to be explored.
Big Island of Hawaii
While Hilo has the highest population on the island of Hawaii, it’s not always on visitors’ radar. It’s the town nearest Volcano National Park (where there’s a zip line that goes over a waterfall); still, this part of the island is usually an “if you have time” item on most itineraries.
Rob Pacheco, however, would like to change that mind-set. Having led tours on the Big Island for more than 20 years, he’s now expanding his itinerary to the Hilo area. He and his wife, Cindy have unique access to many private areas and wilderness refuges. Their Kilauea Volcano Adventure outing has earned awards and loyal word-of-mouth referrals because of the attention to detail their guides bring to the tour. The trip starts at Waikoloa’s Queen’s Marketplace, but you can arrange for pickups at other spots on the island.
Next time you are in Hilo and packing a bit of emotional baggage or even a physical disease or ailment, make your way to the healing waters of Coconut Island, fronting the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. There are a few stories relating to the healing power of the island, like benefits culled from circling it three times, but our favorite goes as follows: if you can make it out to the island without being caught by your pursuers (a wronged lover, for example), you will be freed from the entanglement and pain. Good news is, a bridge has been constructed, so the journey has gotten much less dramatic.
The oldest island in the chain is known for long white-sand beaches, magnificently eroding cliffs and verdant gardens. Two such gardens, which also happen to be on the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) roster, are named for early white settlers to the islands; Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden in the Lawai Valley, on the south shore. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, McBryde Garden was the former ahupuaa (land) of Queen Emma, a beloved monarch of Kauai born in 1856. The natural beauty of this valley has attracted moviemakers in the past few decades for shooting films such as Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s also where the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy brought her kids to recover from the assassination of her husband.
The only tour company able to visit these gardens is led by Brian Ross of Photo Safari Hawaii. “We like to use these rain forests
Brian Ross helps students capture Kauai’s natural
beauty in photos.
for our fine art photography courses,” he says, “because the natural light is constantly changing as it is filtered through the trees.” Ross gained access to the land after working for three years on a documentary about the restoration of the queen’s cottage, which is part of the ongoing cultural and interpretive efforts of the NTBG and Koloa Community Foundation. The classic plantation-style former dwelling, where Queen Emma used to talk story with her friends, will soon be a museum.
For tours on the North Shore, Ross takes clients to Limahulu Gardens, site of a 300-year-old fishing village, or to one of his favorite hidden finds at the end of the road to the Napali Coast trail. “If you park at the auxiliary parking lot at Kee Beach there is a large boulder that marks the path to the Taylor Camp, which used to be owned by Elizabeth Taylor’s brother,” he says. A quick jaunt through the forest leads to a freshwater lagoon and eventually the beach. “There are forests here, too,” Ross adds. “We start with the basics and then move into the Kandinsky visual grammar of objects within the frame.” If you’re lucky you’ll catch the sunset on the waves with the Napali Coast in the background.
Just eight miles from the condo-dense shores of Maui, Lanai is famous for the “no pace vs. slow pace” way of life. There are no traffic lights, the population barely exceeds 3,000 and the charming town square (the only commercial area on the island) is dotted with restaurants, shops and art galleries. In fact, the entire island can be considered off the beaten path.
The tide pools fronting Shark Fin Cove on Lanai
are popular snorkel spots.
Despite the population paucity, one-room delis like the family-run Lanai Poke House serve up some of the best raw fish delicacies in the state. Those who appreciate the unpeopled quiet will be in for changes once Larry Ellison’s plans have taken shape. The entrepreneur, who purchased 98 percent of the island in 2011, has famously pledged to make Lanai a model for sustainability; meanwhile, he’s invested in community infrastructure and made major renovations to the island’s two Four Seasons properties. He’s also hired locals vested in the preservation and celebration of the island to work in his company Pulama (which means “to care for”) Lanai.
A natural hometown personnel choice was Kepa Maly, a keiki hanai to the Kaupuiki family of Lanai. The term means Maly was informally adopted by a Hawaiian family and, despite his pale skin, has blended in, learned the language and studied the culture. Maly also spent a few years living in West Marin’s Bear Valley, working as a park ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore with his family. There he served as a cultural ethnographer, studying descendants of the coast Miwoks (Marin’s native culture) and helping them share their stories. On Lanai, he created the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center in 2007, a centerpiece and point of pride for the community. “Our island is not about flying in and just staying at a hotel, like any other resort,” he says. “I believe it’s our unique history and stories, the rare landscapes, that set us apart from anyplace else.” That extends to pronunciation of the island’s name: Lanai (lah-nah-ee) translates as “day of conquest” and refers to a long-ago king who was banished to the island as a boy, then made the island safe again after one long day of battle. But lanai (lanigh) is also a common word for porch. And, says Maly, “We are not Maui’s back porch.”
Hana was not built for tourists. There are no shave ice stands, no bike guys in spandex and no two-for-one mai tais. And there is also that 52-mile, 59-bridge, 620-curve road from the airport that weeds out the weaklings. But this is also why most people love it.
Today the population is only 1,700, yet Hana was once a bustling sugar plantation center. In the mid-1940s six separate plantations were in operation, and the town had a population of 3,500, two movie theaters, 15 stores, three barbershops, a pool hall and several restaurants. When the sugarcane industry left in 1946, so did the most of the people.
Enter San Francisco–based entrepreneur Paul Fagan, who is credited with saving the town. He bought land in 1944, created Hana Ranch, and two years later famously built the first Hawaiian hotel outside Waikiki, which he called Kauiki Inn, named for a point on Hana Bay. To drum up interest he brought his baseball team, the San Francisco Seals, over for spring training, along with a slew of sports writers who wrote about the enchantment of heavenly Hana for their papers back home. The plan worked.
Then in 2001, Hana’s economy was again spurred by Bay Area influences when San Francisco–based Passport Resorts updated and renovated Kauiki Inn, putting the town back on the map. Today, the 70-room property is called Travaasa Hana and is better than ever. A daily schedule of complimentary activities ranges from early morning yoga and water aerobics to learning to fish from a third-generation local or playing ukulele. The nine-room spa recently added a signature treatment, the Hana Organic Cocomint Body Treatment and Massage. For restaurants the hotel offers two choices, casual and fine dining, and there’s live music seven nights a week. Off-site, the very casual Hana Ranch Restaurant is just up the street, and a handful of ever-changing food trucks is on hand.
Another low-density destination, Molokai has a population of around 7,500 and draws about 75,000 visitors (mostly day-trippers) a year. While as on Lanai there are also no traffic lights, there are even fewer businesses than on Lanai and you’ll find only one official hotel (with a restaurant, currently closed for construction), five lowkey condo complexes, some vacation rentals and a handful of B&Bs. And this seems to be the way the locals like it: “Keep Molokai, Molokai” is the mantra on bumper stickers and signs. That doesn’t mean the locals are unfriendly — actually, this place is known as the “friendly island.”
Examples of that friendliness abound. On Ala Malama (the only commercial street), Kalele Bookstore and Divine Expressions is run by a woman who will insist you call her Auntie Teri as soon as you meet her. The folks behind the counter at 80-year-old Kanemitsu Bakery, famous for late-night piping-hot bread with toppings, are always happy to see a new customer. And local tour companies love to show off the beauty of the island to newcomers.
Clare Seeger Mawae, originally from England, went to Molokai after touring the world as a professional windsurfer, with no intention of staying longer than a few days. That was 21 years ago. She has owned and operated Molokai Outdoors for nearly 15 years. “We run tours six days a week, with driving, kayak and paddleboarding,” she says. The driving tour, designed to work timewise with the ferry that brings passengers from Maui, educates visitors via stops at local favorites like Kalaupapa Overlook, Coffees of Hawaii and Purdy’s Natural Macadamia Nut Farm. The tour also visits churches built by Father Damien — the Catholic priest who won recognition caring for the leper community — and finishes in Kaunakakai town. “Basically, this is a taste of the island, and many of those who come for the day will come back the next time to spend a few more days on Molokai, which then usually ends up being longer than a few days the next time around, because Molokai is Molokai,” says Mawae, alluding to her own experience. “All of this plays an important role in balancing the local economy while keeping the island like old Hawaii and keeping the culture alive and strong for the future generations.”
Approached from Waikiki, the North Shore of Oahu starts with the charming town of Haleiwa, featuring shave ice, restaurants and beach shops. Drive over the historic “Rainbow Bridge” past the boat harbor and you’re on your way to world-famous beaches. Despite the destination celebrity status, these stretches of golden sand are surprisingly approachable and fun, with free parking, turtles slumbering, some shade near the trees and, depending on time of year, gentle waves. Continuing on Kamehameha Highway past Waimea Bay you’ll find fruit stands purveying fresh papaya, pineapple, apple bananas, watermelon, star fruit and coconuts, sliced, chilled and ready to grab for a snack or picnic.
Next up is Turtle Bay Resort, location of the aforementioned land deal, and just a little farther on, the now-famous shrimp trucks of Kahuku. Hans Hedemann lives here. His great grandfather came over as an engineer, and Hedemann makes his living by knowing the best places to surf and stand-up paddleboard. After surfing pro for 17 years, he started Hans Hedemann Surf School, with a location in Waikiki near the hotels as well as one at Turtle Bay Resort. One of the most popular ways to see the beauty of the North Shore from the water is on his downwind SUP tour from Sunset Beach to Waimea Bay, which includes a jump off the famous 30-foot black rock for those who dare. Ideal for intermediate beginners and up, the tour starts at $75 (group rate) for two hours. “We bring masks for people who want to take a break and jump in at Sharks Cove,” Hedemann adds. “It’s a great spot to snorkel or scuba.”
Turtle Bay guests can also head up the road to Goat Island at Malaekahana State Recreation Area for a day of surfing or paddling. But plenty of on-property options exist. “We are so lucky to have such easy access to the beautiful Kawela Bay,” Hedemann says. “Regardless of the ability of our students, we can find a place for them to either learn or just improve.” A third-generation local who’s traveled the world, he loves his hometown. “Great restaurants, fruit stands, gorgeous beaches with very little traffic and congestion — it’s one of the few places where you can really relax and unwind.”