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Photo by Neala

Kauai, Hawaii: Experiencing Paradise -- Sky, Earth, and Water

I could almost reach out and touch the sides of the huge mountains. Then, with a turn, I skimmed the top of a rainbow. Soaring over the crest of mountains, peering into the rainbow-hued walls of Waimea Canyon below -- this must be how a bird feels, I thought, as I hovered over the world. I was on Kauai, and exploring the island ... in a helicopter.
Kauai is called the Garden Isle of the Hawaiian islands. Its verdant valleys, sculpted volcanic mountains, and truly blue waters make it a jewel of the pacific. Combine that beauty with excellent hotels, charming towns, and soft adventure opportunities and Kauai becomes a perfect destination. And the weather is gorgeous all year long. For citizens of the United States, no passport is required for this piece of paradise.

Seeing Kauai From the Sky

Much of Kauai is not accessible. The roads run along the perimeter, hugging the coastline with the untouchable majestic mountains rising in the center of the island. That is, unless you're taking a helicopter tour -- such as the one we took, offered by Island Helicopters. For almost an hour we went places reachable only by air. Soaring over the Waimea Canyon, skimming the top of a rainbow, and a bird's eye view of the majestic Na Pali Coast were the clear highlights. In addition to the live narration, there is music soaring, gentle, upbeat by turns to match the sights and experiences.

Seeing Kauai From the Ground

Back on land, we found other pleasures. Do Something Dirty is the slogan of Kauai ATV and their off road adventures. This was pure fun as we took to the rocky trails and bounced our way through forests, gorgeous valleys, and to lunch at a waterfall. We were a happy bedraggled group at the end, grinning with dusty faces. The outfitters supplied all gear, even shirts and pants - but do wear a bathing suit underneath for a dip in the waterfall pool.

Although the view of Waimea from the air was beautiful, you can also see the Grand Canyon of the Pacific through an organized narrated motorcoach tour, or rent a car and drive up and along the rim of the canyon. Hiking trails and a waterfall allow you to see other sides of the multi-hued majestic canyon. However you choose to do it, visiting Waimea is truly a don't-miss part of Kauai.

Another popular drive tour is to visit the locations on Kauai where famous films were made. Your hotel may have maps available to help plan your trips or you can sign up for an organized tour (complete with clips from the film of the sites you're visiting). However you do it, it's a fun way to see Kauai.

Next, it was lunch at lunch at Gaylord's Restaurant at the Kilohana Plantation. Built in 1935 by sugar plantation owner Gaylord Parke Wilcox, the Tudor style manor house at Kilohana was one of the most beautiful homes on Kauai. Today it is a lovely place to eat and shop. Gaylord's Restaurant extends outside into the courtyard of the restored building with the tables surrounding the green open area. The setting was sublime, and the food excellent. And do save room for the fabulous desserts -- well worth the calories.

There are also shopping opportunities throughout Kilohana, and a narrated train tour of the grounds including fields of pineapple, banana, and other crops typical of Kauai agriculture. It includes a stop to feed the goats and pigs kept on the farm that will delight the youngsters. The goats actually stand up on their hind legs to beg for food.

For dinner, it was the aptly named Keoki's Paradise. The building evokes the feel of a dockside boathouse, with a Polynesian atmosphere, lush gardens, and delicious food. The restaurant specializes in island cuisine -- lots of delicious fresh fish, perfectly prepared. And with those wonderful island rum drinks.

On another night, it was a luau -- really, you can't go to Hawaii without experiencing this combination floor show and dinner buffet. Yes, definitely touristy, but tourist flock for good reason. We went to Hiva Pasefika Luau at ResortQuest Kauai Beach at Makaiwa, although there are other places offering this traditional form of visitor entertainment. The show was just pure fun and the hula dancing will amaze. If you love barbeque, you'll also love the smoky delicious flavor of Imu Steamed Kalua Pig. Yep, Hawaiian pit-barbequed pork.

Photo by Neala If you rent a car, there is no shortage of places to visit. My favorite was the charming town of Hanalei on the north side of the island. It's a laid back place with low-key restaurants and some fine shopping. Taking route 56 into town, make sure you stop at the scenic overlook -- the view of the valley is gorgeous. Have your camera ready.

Once in town (and having negotiated the famous one-lane bridges of Hanalei) most of the shops are located in Ching Young Village, and Hanalei Center. The Yellowfish Trading Company is a fun and funky place for old Hawaiian memorabilia and other assorted things.

Hanalei Bay is one of the prettiest on the island and the view from Hanalei Pier at Hanalei Beach Park is beautiful. You can also follow the road (route 56) to the end which is the closest point to the Na Pali coast.

The Kilauea Point Lighthouse and the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is a good stop for bird lovers. The lighthouse is only open once a year for visitors, but the refuge offers sweeping views of the coastline. Free viewing stations allows visitors a look at some of the seabirds such as the albatross, and Hawaii's State Bird the nene. On my visit one of the endangered Hawaiian monk seals was taking a rest on the rocky beach below.

Kauai grows its own mellow and flavorful coffee beans. Kauai Coffee Plantation has a visitors center where you can learn more about how coffee is grown and processed. While you're there stock up on the excellent coffee. If you can't make it to the plantation, you can find the coffee in Big Save Markets around the island. There's a reason people pay a premium for Hawaiian coffee. It also makes a great souvenir. Photo by Neala

Seeing Kauai From the Water

Kauai is blessed with navigable rivers. Riverboat tours regularly take visitors through the waterways, including a stop at the famous Fern Grotto. Or you can sign up for kayaking and explore the rivers on your own.

The other lure of the water is the view of the Na Pali Coast. There are no roads along these volcanic cliffs rising sharply out of the water. Although you can catch a distant glimpse from the highway, it stops well short of the mountains. The water puts you at their base. We did the sunset cruise from HoloHolo Charters. Although the clouds obscured the sunset that day, nothing blocked our view of the volcanic Na Pali mountains. We cruised along the narrow beaches, ventured near the caves and lined the railing to see these famous cliffs. Although there are hiking trails, these are not for the faint-hearted.

And Finally, Chickens

Photo by NealaVisitors to Kauai can't help notice hens, roosters, and tiny chicks roaming free. These feral chickens are a vexation to the folks who live on the island rather than being a free-range food source. They are the descendants of hens and roosters freed from their coops by Hurricane Iniki, which struck Kauai in September, 1992. One of the most damaging hurricanes to hit the United States it destroyed hotels, homes, and businesses. It also liberated many chickens. With no real predators they have thrived -- much to the chagrin of the people of the island.

When You Go

What else can you do on Kauai? Horseback riding, hiking, fishing, mountain tube rides, bicycling, snorkeling, the list goes on. So, for more information on visiting Kauai go to KauaiDiscovery.com

Accommodations Kauai offers the full range of lodging. The greatest concentration of hotels is on the east side, often called the Royal Coconut Coast. The southern shore is also popular, and has a bit dryer and sunnier climate. The north side of Kauai is probably the most idyllic with several luxury resorts. But each side of the island offers pleasures. We stayed at ResortQuest Kauai Beach at Makaiwa, a lovely beachside resort. The Castle Kiahuna Plantation Resort is a condo development that fronts on Poipu Beach -- considered to be one of the best beaches on Kauai.