From O‘ahu to Kaua‘i: Roadtrippin‘ Hawai‘i!
February 9, 2019

The Asian chapter of this trip ends in Līhuʻe, the airport town on the so-called Garden Isle, Kaua’i. One could consider the Hawai’ian archipelago the midway point between Asia and the Americas for reasons like the people’s ethnicities or maybe the introduced species from both sides, but definitely the location. Technically it is located in Oceania, along with other Pacific islands such as New Zealand and French Polynesia. Culturally it’s a fun and actually very interesting mix-up between Native Hawaiian mythology and stereotypical U.S. American consumerism – among Safeway and Burger King you’ll find the remains of Polynesian sanctuaries, between luxury golf courses hide ancient walls and of course the names of localities, streets and the islands themselves have a very Oceanian ring.

Before coming here we have never heard of the Kingdom of Hawai’i (that existed between 1795 and 1893) or even King Kamehamea I (called the Great), its founder. Some two weeks (and a bit) after we set foot on O’ahu, the archipelago’s most populated island, while waiting for our American Airlines flight towards the American mainland, I finally know why the name ‘Hawaii’ is being shared by both a major island here and the state as a whole: The king that united the archipelago simply chose the name of his home island and that happened to be Hawai’i, or, as it is known today: the Big Island.

But let’s start right at the beginning: After two weeks backpacking through Indonesia’s Sulawesi region we left South-East Asia with a flight from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital) to Osaka in Japan and then headed on to Honolulu. Among Hawaii’s four major islands we picked O’ahu for the culture (e.g. Pearl Harbour and the Japanese attack that led the U.S. enter World War II in December 1941) and Kaua’i for as much nature as possible (saving more romantic Maui and much bigger Hawai’i for another time in the future).

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Looking down on the Na Pali Coast from the Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park – just in time for a rainbow before the clouds swallow everything up.

Costs and spendings

We have been quite aware of the price-shock we were about to experience after all those months traveling through Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia – but now, reviewing the budget situation while hanging out in the airport, it really wasn’t all as bad as we anticipated. We decided to get our own transport (hence rented cars on both islands) and cut accomodation costs with camping in state parks (having permits for about $10 per person per night) and doing couchsurfing. In the end everything turned out slightly different from what we expected, but clearly not for the worse.

We would end up staying in tents for the first two nights on O’ahu (in Malaekahana State Park) and from then on basically slept in the car – the 3 last O’ahu nights, however, having found a couchhost (named Mark) that let us hang out and stay on his farm some 40 minutes drive away from the big city. That place was a delight really – even though it had no running water or electricity Mark provided a comfy mattress within a shack on a hill that came with magnificent sunrise views over Honolulu, Pearl Harbour and the sea. Mark wasn’t blind to our keen sense for adventure and enthusiasm and provided us with a brush cutter to clean the overgrown driveways on the farm. Fun all the way really! Also, he was quite keen himself in letting us know about his permaculture and housing long-term plans – good man.

We didn’t manage to find a host on Kaua’i, but instead decided to leave notes on hostel blackboards looking for fellow travelers to share the ride with us – we still had a tent to spare that we never used again in fact (one couple responded, but we didn’t actually manage to mingle). Either way, with accomodation costs cut we now only needed to worry about food and transport.

Public transport is supposed to be quite sufficient on O’ahu – however, relying on buses on an island where you really want to be as independent as anyhow possible was not really an option for us. And we most certainly didn’t want to stick to Honolulu and Waikiki just because there are buses running throughout the day. Hence we rented cars!

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Truffles, our fancy rental car (a Toyota Camry) n O‘ahu.

Leaves us with the food situation. Most food on Hawai’i needs to be imported from the mainland which probably explains why it really is quite expensive, even for European standards – it rather even reminded me of Norwegian standards. We sticked mostly to big supermarket chains like Safeway and Walmart (preferring the former) plus Longs Drugs (a pharmacy/supermarket hybrid) – quickly realizing that it’s quite worth getting a (free) membership card. Outstanding offers guaranteed! It’s actually hilarious how they push their customers to buy stuff in larger-than-life amounts in the U.S. – you can’t just get a small package of chips or a single can of coke. Nah, you should rather get a dozen cans for a crazy discount! Or two huge packages of chips for the price of one. Really not surprised about the ubiquity of obesity.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

Soon after arriving on day I we went down to Waikiki Beach just to see what all the hype is about. It‘s sweet, but the high-rises in the back don‘t invite to stay.

O’ahu

The island of O’ahu counts around a million inhabitants, more than all the other islands combined – featuring Honolulu as the state’s capital. First thing we did after arrival was getting the car, a dark blue/olive coloured Toyota Camry, and heading to Waikiki Beach for refreshment. Still in Indonesia we organized two camping permits for the first two nights at Malaekahana State Park (on the island’s northern side) and managed to arrive just in time before darkness. We figured it’d be a good idea to have the first nights safe in order to get an idea about how easy it’d be to camp in the wild or sleep in the car.

Noticeable: Coming from Asia and being used to pits filled with (mostly plastic) trash it’s been a more than pleasant surprise to again realize it’s possible to have both: picture-perfect beaches plus a clean and stainless environment. Utterly enchanting!

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

The Kualoa Regional Park and Jurassic Valley – the extraordinary landscape provided the background for various Hollywood movies. One can see why.

We explored the north coast first and that included:

  • Walking to Kahuku Point, O’ahu’s northernmost point
  • Swimming at Backyards Beach in Waiale’e
  • Visiting the Old Sugar Mill in Waialula and grocery shopping in Haleiwa
  • Having cold beers while watching the setting sun at Waimea Bay

There was so much more to discover and among our favourite places were the following:

  • La’ie Point (Wayside)
  • the Kualoa Regional Park (close to the Jurassic Valley where the shot Jurassic Park and King Kong
  • the Japanese Byodo-In Temple (where cK saw his first-ever black swan)
  • the PillBox hike – both the sunset views as well as the people’s cheerful moods were extraordinary
  • Sandy Beach, just north of the Halona Blowhole
  • Hiking to the top of Diamond Head and overviewing the Honolulu coastal and sky line
Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu...

Almost arriving at the top of the Pillbox Hike in South-Eastern O‘ahu…

...featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

…featuring a fabulous sunset right over the valley behind.

After two rather fresh nights in the tent (directly at the ocean) we switched to sleeping in our rental car that we lovingly named “Truffles”. Before meeting Mark (our couchhost), we spent another two nights outside in the car which proved to be rather a hassle on the second night. We ended up in the rather populated Kailua Bay area and decided to try our luck on a Church-owned parking lot which would be closed by a barrier at a certain time, thinking we’d be all safe and sound there until morning. But then a car showed up around 01:30, seemingly from nowhere, and some dude made us leave. We rather apathetically rolled down towards the Safeway car park and continued sleeping for another 2 hours, before security chased us off – again. This time we weren’t as deep asleep luckily and rather unimpressed went on to our last resort: a residential area where we finally got enough rest until the sun was rising again. Certainly a rather difficult night, but nothing really happened after all and we felt awake enough in the morning.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

Watching humpback whales breeding from Makapu‘u Lookout in South-Eastern O‘ahu.

We would have no further issue with sleeping outside in the car over the entire remaining time on Hawai’i. Mark later told us that one option would be to park the rental car close to the airport and then catch some sleep in the baggage claim department – so in case you’re running low on cash or simply want to avoid those ridiculously high accomodation costs on the islands that might be your thing. We most certainly preferred the car – additionally, being on the road again in a warm climate with a beach and inland adventures never too far away reminded me strongly of traveling in Tasmania (or anywhere else in Down Under really). Helping Mark with doing some farm work helped to retrieve memories from back in the days, as well. Utterly delightful.

Honolulu proved not exactly to be a city to funk out about – sure, there are a bunch of good-looking 19th century Gothic-style buildings, but we really weren’t here for that. Especially from a distance one would notice how much of a concrete monster that place actually is. However, the busy markets of Chinatown were a delight – especially when having the opportunity to compare it to South-East Asian equivalences.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

Working with the brush-cutter on Mark‘s farm.

All of the above is true about Waikiki as well – there really is not much of a need to spend more time than necessary at a beach surrounded by grey and boring high-rises. We never returned after day I.

What did interest us instead was seeing the notorious Pearl Harbor, headquarter of the U.S. Pacific fleet in the late 1930ies and ’40ies before being attacked by the Japanese on an air raid in December 1941. The infamous loss of the majority of battleships (in particular the U.S.S. Arizona) and hundreds of marines being trapped within the exploding ships made the U.S. join World War II immediately afterwards.

Inside Pear Harbor, inhaling U.S. and world history.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

A collection of newspaper reprints in the gift shop.

Especially interesting and well presented was a mandatory introduction film that was filled with background information about the reasons and incentives of the Japanese. Right after that we joined a boat tour to the memorial of the U.S.S. Arizona which remains at precisely the place it has been sunk, allegedly still trapping those crew members that could not be rescued back then. All that free of charge.

Our last day on O’ahu we spent hiking: a 9 km return trail to Kaena Point, the island’s westernmost bit. The views were stunning and at the windswept end of it we saw nesting sea birds as well as relaxing seals, enjoying the good times of life while rolling around in the sands.

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Watching Honolulu from afar at Diamond Heads (O‘ahu).

Kaua’i

Flying over to the Garden Isle was a straight-forward affair – Hawaiian Air was playing soothing music, security was rigid as usual, but actually fun and the only thing we thoroughly craved for was having a long shower as soon as we had our new car. And what a car we were given! Instead of a regular hatchback model (or similar) they actually provided us with a pretentious and larger-than-life 4-wheel-drive SUV (a Ford Explorer). We didn’t complain, but simply downfolded the 2 extra backseats and drove off north from Lihue, the airport town towards Kapaa.

The island of Kaua’i is not only slightly smaller than O’ahu (1,421 compared to 1,545 sqkm), but also much less populated: 67,000 people instead of 953,000! Hence we reckoned it to be much easier to find a place to sleep in some backstreet overlooking the ocean. And indeed: we didn’t face problems a single time! It’s been as easy as one could wish for – riding an all-terrain vehicle made things noticeably easier, however.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

First night on Kaua’i: Magical sunset above the charming, if touristic town of Kapaa.

We stayed on parking lots, directly at the ocean, in front of old, but stylish cemeteries, next to horse ranges and caves and also close to the island’s highest (and wettest) point.

It’s not actually possibly to surround Kaua’i by car since there is no actual ring road. This basically meant that (somewhat like on O’ahu) we would drive first to one side (the northern end) before heading down while passing through Kapaa and Lihue (the two biggest towns) to see the southern side. Apart from the slightly exhausting traffic (jam) situation between those two places (unlike on O’ahu there is no real multilane highway on Kaua’i) we got ourselves into another more serious situation.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

Roosters are ubiquitous on Kaua‘i – and this is our second car in the back; we called it “Mr. Kouch”.

In short: There were road work signs beyond a town called Hanalei that we happily ignored (which we shouldn’t), so we ended up in some slow-riding car convoy on our second night that brought us closer to the famous Na Pali Coast (which we planned to hike on the following morning). Once the traffic around us cleared up we would drive into some side road, ready to finally open up two (still) cold bottles of beer. But there was a catch to it and the lady driver from the car that has followed us into that side road explained it to us rather excitedly: Due to a heavy flood in April 2018 most of the northern coast line is off-limits to non-residents and especially to tourists.

Not only did we not know this, we were actually facing quite a severe penalty if someone would catch us in this part of the island. The Na Pali Coastal Trek is closed ever since last spring and wild boars would happily jump around and multiply instead. Also, quite a bunch of meth addicts would not be amused about intruders (especially since quite some locals actually lost their houses due to landslides) and we heard stories of travelers being robbed and seriously injured. In conclusion: We were heading out of the area as soon as the 9pm convoy was being ready for departure – when we were actually being waved out at the end of it (since our car lacked the necessary sticker) we could luckily explain the situation and were send away with the following words: “Please don’t come back.” Word!

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

The lighthouse of Kilauea.

Now, that was a rather unexpected start to it all, but the remaining 7 days were enchanting and filled with beauty and stunning views. This is the list of things you might want to see and do when here:

    get down to Secret Beach on the north coast and get lost in thoughts while watching the waves go wild
    have a relaxed swim and lots of snorkeling at Anini Beach Park
  • Get a rooster shirt at some Kapaa shop and enjoy the town’s architecture
  • See the Wailua Falls and try to find a save way down to the river
  • Hike along the stunning cliffs between Makauwahi Cave and Shipwrecks Beach (in the south)
  • spend some time along the colonial-style buildings of Hanapepe
  • See for yourself where James Cook was landing on the Hawaiian archipelago in 1778: at Waimea Bay
  • Take the dirt road to the Barking Sands at Polihale Beach and spend the night there (that sunset was marvellous!)
  • Last, but not least at all: Enjoy the stunning views of grandeur within the Waimea Canyon State Park, also: do some hikes! (at least the one to the Waipo’o Falls
The Wailua Falls.

The Wailua Falls.

We made not have made it to the Na Pali Coast, but we did manage to see it from above – there are some fabulous lookouts and hikes just north of the Waimea Canyon at the Kokee State Park – from there you actually see the coast from above and if you’re lucky combined with a rainbow. That area is declared to be one of the wettest on the planet!

I’m writing these last bits of the blog being squeezed inside a metro in México City, being enchanted while thinking of those blissful Hawaiian roadtrip days and moments – it feels almost surreal now while surrounded by Mexicans and quite a different culture all along.

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park...

Stunning views at Waimea Canyon National Park…

...and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.

…and our last sunset on Kaua’i at the Salt Pond County Park near Port Allen.