I have just completed a vacation with some friends, where we travelled to Kauai, the westernmost of Hawaii’s islands, for a week of hiking, biking and ocean kayaking.
Kauai is small. It is only about 110 kilometres around the whole island, with a permanent population of less than 70,000 people, so not much more than a village really. However, each year over 1.2 million holiday-makers find their way to this otherwise insignificant dot in the Pacific Ocean, and once you have been there, it is easy to see why.
The island is obscenely beautiful: one vista after another of bright, lush greenery, framed by a brilliant blue sky, turquoise sea, and a constant backdrop of towering volcanic peaks. The weather is wonderfully warm all year round, and picture-perfect beaches reveal themselves around every corner.
Kauai has only one coast-hugging main road, which connects the island’s sleepy, sun-bleached villages. Pick-up trucks are the most common vehicle you will see. Traffic moves slowly and pedestrians, even slower. Total strangers, who ordinarily wouldn’t give you the time of day, cheerily call out “aloha!” as they pass you in the street. And, even though the last time I checked Kauai was nowhere near the Caribbean, the island’s radio stations seem to play nothing but reggae music.
Not to mention that standard issue dress-code in Kauai is bikinis, swimming trunks, sunglasses and beach sandals; every menu lists a mouth-watering selection of fresh seafood and exotic fruit platters, overflowing with berries and mangoes and pineapples; and holiday-staple cocktails, like mai-tais and pina-coladas, flow like water, served ice-cold and decorated with little pink umbrellas.
In short, Kauai is the epitome of what a tropical island getaway should be – a celebration of everything that is sand, sun and surf. The island oozes with a relaxed, friendly vibe, of the kind you only find in those places that peddle good times, happy memories, and souvenir t-shirts.
Which brings me to a most basic rule of vacation travel I have observed over the years, which is this: wherever you find tourists in vast numbers, you will also find equally vast numbers of printed t-shirts on sale, designed to allow said tourists to memorialise, on their chest, every waking moment of their trip.
And that they do. Tourists seem to have a near limitless capacity to buy up the most hideous rags imaginable, at over-inflated prices, even though (i) they are, without question, low-quality crap, most often emblazoned with a stupid picture and/or idiotic slogan; and (ii) they know that when they get home, they will look with fresh eyes at t-shirts purchased on vacation and invariably ask themselves: “what the fuck was I thinking?”.
Kauai is no different and the souvenir t-shirts available were plentiful all over the island, a constant reminder to me that yes, indeed, I was on holiday in a place where having fun is a serious business. Of course, I succumbed, and by the end of a week I had amassed a small wardrobe’s worth of utterly useless holiday tees. Back home I know that they will be banished to the bottom of my t-shirt draw, to languish there, unworn, forever. But for now, if you can bear it, allow me to share my collection with you, and to take you on a short t-shirt inspired tour of my week in Kauai…..
T-Shirt One: Kauai Island Brewery
We spent the first few nights of our stay at the small seaside town of Waimea, on the less developed west coast of Kauai. One night we visited the Kauai Island Brewery and Grill for dinner, which apart from offering up burgers and really, really good ribs, boasts of being the world’s western-most brewery. Or, as their slogan rather neatly puts it: “the last beer before tomorrow”.
I don’t drink beer, but I still felt a powerful urge to acquire an original Kauai Island Brewery t-shirt. Why, you may ask? Well, the logo of one of the beers brewed there, called Captain Cook’s IPA, as featured on one of the t-shirts available for purchase, is of a tall three-mast ship. This is in homage to the Resolution, a ship sailed by Captain James Cook and in which he became the first European to reach the Hawaiian Islands, in January 1778.
Waimea Bay, where we were staying and just up the road from the brewery, was the first place Captain Cook anchored the Resolution and stepped foot on Hawaii’s soil. To commemorate this, a small statue of Cook stands in Waimea’s town square, and a plaque on the bank of the Waimea River marks the exact spot where he first came ashore.
The discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Cook was a happy by-product of sorts, as his journey was actually one in search of the Northwest Passage, which at that time many had theorised about, but no-one had yet proved its existence. Apparently, Cook was very frustrated with the lack of success on the voyage, and became quite irrational in some of his decisions as a result. One account has it that he decided to make his men eat walrus, a meat so disgusting that it prompted a near mutiny. Presumably the sun, sand and fresh guava juice in Kauai was therefore as welcome to Cook’s crew back then as it is to the legions of holiday-makers today.
Captain Cook also met his eventual end in Hawaii, but on a different island to Kauai. After getting into a quarrel with some native islanders and attempting to take hostage their King, Cook was stabbed in the back as he tried to climb aboard a row-boat. He thus quite literally died on a beach, which at least is as good a way to go as any. (As an aside, his body was taken away by the locals, and underwent burial rites normally accorded Hawaiian chiefs and elders as a sign of respect. This included disembowelment of the body, baking it to remove the flesh, and then cleaning the bones for preservation as religious icons).
And why the fascination with Captain Cook?
Well, Captain James Cook was also the first European to make contact with the east coast of Australia, landing in the Endeavour at Botany Bay in April 1770. In so doing, he ensured that for all eternity thereafter, every Australian child would be required to learn of his exploits, in tedious detail, in school history lessons. Not to mention that half of Australia is now named after him – as Bill Bryson said in his book Down Under: “when Australians get hold of a name that suits them they tend to stick with it in a big way”. Thus we have Cooktown, the Cook Islands, the Cook Highway, James Cook University, Cook Point, Cook Park, and more Cook Streets, Roads, Avenues and Schools than you can imagine. It is almost impossible to go through an average week in Australia without bumping into some reminder of this erstwhile British seafarer and explorer.
Being in Kauai, a place that Cook had also “discovered” but that wasn’t Australia therefore seemed both familiar and odd at the same time, and I felt a special kinship – call it a secret unspoken bond – with the good people of Kauai. We are practically family. A brewery t-shirt seemed a perfectly sensible thing to buy in this context.
Clearly, I am the kind of sucker that brings joy to the hearts of souvenir store proprietors everywhere.
T-Shirt Two: On the Campaign Trail with Gary and Tulsi
While we were hiking and biking around Kauai, over on the mainland a small matter of the US Presidential election was dominating the news, with Barack and Mitt slogged it out in the lead up to the November vote.
Not to be outdone, Kauai was caught in the grip of its very own brand of election fever, with the Kauai County Council election fast approaching. And, as we drove around Kauai, we discovered that the islanders have developed their own, rather unique form of political campaigning.
On the sides of every road, attached to just about anything bigger than an A4 page, literally thousands of signs advertising the various candidates had been hung up. They were mounted on stakes, stuck to walls, and pegged to fences. On some busy street corners up to twenty different candidates’ posters vied for our eyeballs.
Even more oddly, every now and again we would see a group of cars parked by the side of the road, festooned with campaign stickers and ribbons, and manned by a small group of people wearing campaign t-shirts. As we drove past, they tooted the horn, cheered, and waved to us with the universal Hawaiian symbol, much-loved by surfers around the world (close your fist, extend your thumb and pinkie finger, and wiggle your hand from side to side).
In short, it felt a lot less like a grown-up election and a lot more like a bunch of amateur teenagers, campaigning for election to their high-school student council.
One of the more high-profile candidates for Kauai County Council member, as measured by number of campaign posters, was one Mr. Gary Hooser. I looked him up online, and it appears that Gary has a reputation for being a straight-shooting, honest and hardworking politician. One web-commentator put it as follows: “His presence [on the Kauai County Council] will no doubt bring the level of council discourse and accomplishment, if not to the highest rung of the ladder of good governance, a least out of the existing swirling sewer of percolating pestilence”, which if nothing else suggests that Kauai local politics must be a really tough gig.
Hooser’s web-site describes his long political career in detail – until 2010 he was Kauai’s State Senator – and also some useful background information, such as the fact that Gary is married with two adult kids, as well as having “two dogs (Roxie and Hina), one cat (Socks) and 5 chickens (Dolly and 4 unnamed Rhode Island Reds)”. Good to know.
And then, one day, as we drove past a group of Hooser supporters at the side of the road, we excitedly noticed that there he was, the great man himself. He was wearing an Aloha floral-print shirt, waving and cheering, and from the kerbside he offered up his finest Hawaii surfer symbol. What’s not to love about a candidate who does that? If I was voting in the Kauai County Council election, Gary would take first place on my ballot.
But that does not mean he is my favourite Hawaiian politician. That honour is reserved for Ms. Tulsi Gabbard, who according to the various posters decorating the side of every road in Kauai, is standing as the Democratic Nominee of the 2nd Hawaiian Congressional District. That is, for election to the US House of Representatives, which will take her all the way to Washington DC, baby.
Tulsi, it would appear, is quite the prodigy. Although only 31, she is a seasoned politician. Her dad was a Senator, and ten years ago, at age 21, Tulsi became the youngest ever elected member of the Hawaiian legislature. She is also an Iraq War veteran, having served two tours there as an army medic, where she was awarded an assortment of medals for meritorious service. Today, she remains a Company Commander with the Hawaii Army National Guard. So, this means that young Tulsi knows how to wage war and shoot a gun, even though she is female and a Democrat.
She is also a practicing Hindu, and when she gets elected to Congress (she is almost certain to win – the 2nd Hawaiian Congressional District has chosen a Democrat as far back as anyone can remember) this will make her the first ever Hindu member of Congress, as well as one of the youngest Congresswomen ever. Oh, and did I mention that she is smart, well-spoken, claims to know where Russia is in relation to Hawaii, and incredibly media friendly, possessed of drop-dead gorgeous, model quality good-looks.
Sarah Palin, eat your heart out. Tulsi is, quite simply, the perfect political package in the making. In about twelve year’s from now, when you read about Tulsi Gabbard standing for election as Vice-President of the United States, remember where you first heard about her. Here’s the t-shirt to prove it.
T-Shirts Three and Four: Hawaiian BBQ and Shave Ice
What would a great vacation be without great food?
Often I find that the best food is not found in fine restaurants, but at wherever the locals eat: roadside diners, back-alley holes in the wall and neighbourhood bistros. Kauai was no different, and hands down the best meal we had in Kauai fell into this category, at a road-side shack called Chicken-in-a-Barrel, in the small seaside town of Kapa’a.
Chicken-in-a-Barrel claimed, despite its dubious fast-food name, to do a traditional Hawaiian BBQ, which involved hanging whole chickens, racks of ribs and sides of beef on hooks, and then slowly cooking them for hours inside sealed, smoke-belching old oil barrels that were standing in a small fenced-off enclosure by the side of the road.
It might not sound like much, but the end product was unbelievable. The meat was tender and delicious, and infused throughout with a woody, smoky flavour imparted by the burning logs at the bottom of each barrel. Somehow, Chicken-in-a-Barrel had perfectly pulled off the most unlikely of culinary marriages, blending together the traditional Polynesian cooking technique of slow roasting meat over a low heat in an underground oven, with the American obsession of barbecuing and smoking everything.
After gorging ourselves on barrel-cooked meats, we wandered down the road to the Hee Fat General Store for dessert, where we ordered up the uniquely Hawaiian concoction known as shave ice. Essentially, a traditional shave ice involves shaving a block of ice into light and fluffy ice-snow, fashioning it into a big white ball, and then drenching it in super-sweet fruit flavoured syrups, to be simultaneously eaten with a spoon and slurped with a straw. The modern variant also includes putting a scoop of ice-cream (usually macadamia flavour) at the bottom.
Sounds like a simple enough dessert, but to a Hawaiian, describing a shave ice as being a simple enough dessert is a lot like describing the Mona Lisa as being a simple enough picture – a gross understatement that shows just how little you know about the subject. No, when it comes to shave ice, Hawaiian passions are quickly aroused, and across the islands people are fanatical about their preferred shave ice vendor, in much the same way Israelis might debate for hours who makes the best humus, or like Singaporeans who will drive half-way across Singapore just to sample a particular chicken-rice dish.
It was so scrumptious and refreshing in the hot weather that we wound up trying shave ice at half a dozen different spots around Kauai, and I can therefore report from first-hand experience that a perfect shave ice depends on lots of small factors coming together just so: (i) the quality of the ice; (ii) the manner in which it is shaved and then packed into a ball (it can’t be too fluffy or it melts too quick; but it can’t be to grainy or crunchy either, as then it loses its “snowy” quality); (iii) the syrups (I was told that the best shave ice places make their own syrups, using recipes that are closely guarded family secrets); (iv) the ratio of syrup to ice to ice cream; (v) the combination of syrup flavours (my favourite was the Lava Flow, being mango, pineapple, coconut and vanilla). I could go on, but you get the point: a good shave ice is like a fine wine – complex, rare, and something to be savoured. And, you guessed it, worthy of being memorialised on a t-shirt.
T-Shirt Five: Puff the Magic Dragon
In 1963, the folk music group of Peter, Paul and Mary put out a record called Puff the Magic Dragon. The song was a huge hit, and the opening line is now one that is almost universally known by children and adults around the world: “Puff the Magic Dragon, lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist, in a land called Honalee”.
It was the 1960’s when the song was released, and so it was not long before rumours began circulating that the song was actually a metaphor for smoking marijuana. Drug references were supposedly secretly coded into the lyrics, included the name of the dragon, the “autumn mist” (marijuana smoke); and Puff’s friend named “Little Jackie Paper” (joint rolling papers).
Puff’s home of Hona Lee also came under scrutiny. It was said to be an oblique reference to Hanalei, a small town on the north side of Kauai Island that is famous, amongst other things, for the quality of it marijuana. And, as if more proof was needed, it is said that the cliffs on the far side of Hanalei Beach look a lot like a dragon. QED.
The notion that Puff the Magic Dragon is really an ode to the joys of marijuana smoking is so pervasive that the ever watchful authorities in Singapore (where else) banned the song. Modern pop culture has also perpetuated the view that the song is about a dope smoking dragon from Hanalei. For example, remember the movie Meet The Parents? In one scene the song comes on the radio and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) says to Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), “who’d have thought it wasn’t about a dragon? Some people think that to puff the magic dragon means to smoke a marijuana cigarette.” To which Focker’s soon-to-be-father-in-law replies: “Puff is just the name of the boy’s magical dragon. You a pothead, Focker?”
Turns out that on this occasion Jack Byrnes was right. The composer of the song, Peter Yarrow, has repeatedly insisted that the song has nothing to do with drugs, consciously or subconsciously. It is, according to its author, simply a song about growing up, and the loss of innocence as we move from childhood to adulthood. Puff is, indeed, just the name of the boy’s magical dragon.
Still, why let something as inconvenient as the truth ruin a perfectly good selling point for your town? So I added one Puff the Magic Dragon t-shirt as a souvenir of our time in Hanalei. In the obligatory hippie tie-dye style, of course.
T-Shirt Six: The Kalalau Trail
I may have mentioned that Kauai is insanely beautiful. The island’s jungles are so raw, lush and primitive that the island has featured in more than 50 Hollywood films, from South Pacific to Elvis’ Blue Hawaii; from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Avatar to Pirates of the Caribbean.
No-where is the pure, untouched nature of Kauai more evident than on the remote north-west Na Pali Coast, which is the one part of Kauai that is inaccessible by road. There is only one way to get there, which is by foot along the eleven mile Kalalau Trail. So, on our last day in Kauai we decided to hike the first section of the trail (four miles in, four miles out), from Ke’e Beach to the remote and beautiful Hanakapi’ai Waterfall.
It was, without question, the most visually stunning walk I have ever been on. The trail rises up quickly from sea level, and after about half a mile you find yourself walking along a narrow path, cut through the dense foliage into the side of steep cliffs. Around every turn you see what you think is the most spectacular view of your life – tangled jungles and sheer cliffs falling away into aqua blue seas – until you round the next corner, and that quickly becomes the new most spectacular view of your life. The beauty of it all is overwhelming, and almost impossible to describe.
Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, the trail turns inland, and after a strenuous 45 minutes hike, you find yourself besides a crystal clear pool of water at the back of the Hanakapi’ai Valley. The Hanakapi’ai Falls tower above you, cascading over black lava rock faces, studded with almost luminous green moss and ferns, before plunging 300 feet into the pool below.
You can swim in the pool, and are able to pass right under the falls, emerging to sit on a rocky ledge behind the curtain of water. It is the most extraordinary sensation to sit behind a waterfall, looking out at the world through a curtain of spray and mist, your senses alive from the cold water and the pounding sound of the falls.
We paddled in the pool for a very long time, and enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch on the rocks by the side of the falls. I left Hanakapi’ai feeling completely alive and invigorated. That is, until I slipped and broke my ankle three miles down the track, but more on that next week. For now, here’s the t-shirt to remind me…..
T-Shirt Seven: Wild Chickens
Kauai, being an island more than 2,500 kilometres from the nearest mainland, has a unique ecological system. It has only a couple of native animals, and no native predators, amphibians or reptiles. Many plants are endemic to Kauai, and the island’s flora and fauna existed in delicate balance for millions of years.
All that came to a crashing halt when Polynesian settlers and then Captain Cook found the place, and people realised it was a perfect climate for growing all sorts of desirable commodities, like sugar-cane and tropical fruits. Eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia to try to drain swampy areas, quickly spreading across the island. Sugar-cane was planted, and when beetles threatened the crop, cane-toads were released to control the bugs. Pretty soon people were trying to figure out how to control the cane-toads. Pigs were brought to the island as food, some escaped, and now wild pigs roam the forests of Kauai, their existence unthreatened by anyone or anything, besides human hunters and their dogs. Like in so many places, colonisers seem to have perfected the art of introducing one ecological disaster after another.
In Kauai, the ultimate ecological blood-sucker turned out to be none other than the humble chicken. Originally brought over for food by Polynesians, some got away, interbred with European chickens that arrived later, and it seems that the chickens found Kauai’s warm weather and sunshine to be an entirely agreeable proposition. They also evidently enjoyed the complete absence of foxes and other natural predators, and so their numbers rapidly multiplied.
Today, Kauai is an island of wild chickens. They roam freely, in vast numbers, and are to be found absolutely everywhere. They cannot be eradicated, and so rather than try to beat them, the islanders of Kauai have adopted them, making the wild chicken into their de-facto animal mascot. Souvenir shops abound with chicken memorabilia of all sorts – key-rings, fridge magnets, tea-towels, cups and saucers, and of course, the obligatory t-shirts.
I thought I had reached my natural t-shirt limit and contemplated giving it a miss – I mean seriously, wearing something with a picture of a wild chicken on it? But then I discovered something truly special about Kauai’s roosters and hens. You see, chickens are now so ubiquitous and so at home on the island that they have become completely fearless when it comes to traffic. A whole family of chickens will simply strut out across a street at random, oblivious to oncoming traffic, confident in the knowledge that drivers will slow down or swerve to avoid them. In fact, they are so fearless that the wild chickens of Kauai have a nick-name, and are known as, wait for it, the Road Warriors. How could I possibly resist?
So there you have it. My week in Kauai as told through a collection of t-shirts, encompassing history, politics, Hawaiian BBQ and shave ice, fairy tales, incredible natural beauty, and wild chicken Road Warriors.
No wonder I loved the place.