After sunset, our plane landed in Kauai, the most western, very rural island of Hawaii. We rented a car, drove away from the glitzy coastal hotels, headed west for an hour through farmland and forest, passed through sleeping towns, and arrived at our seaside home for the next two weeks, the Waimea Plantation Cottages.
As we unloaded the car, we marveled at constellations in the black sky. Someone said, “We’ve never seen stars so bright since we were kids.”
And we’d never heard so many roosters making a ruckus, starting hours before dawn. (More later about the overpopulation of wild chickens on the island.)
By morning light, we realized this was our kind of Pacific paradise.
For nine longtime friends, our gathering spot in early February was a gracious five-bedroom, six-bathroom bungalow. It is set among 60 cozy little cottages, most of which were built in the early decades of the 1900s as homes for sugar-plantation workers. As the sugar-cane business collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, a local businessman and his family bought up the cottages and moved them onto 27 acres on the quiet western coast, beside a former dairy farm and coconut grove.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom cottages were greatly remodeled, including new bathrooms and kitchens, yet they retain painted wooden floors, tin roofs and a feel of bygone times. The grounds were beautified with flowering trees, palms, banyans and fruit trees — the latter providing grapefruit for our breakfasts.
Big-screen TVs in our bedrooms and living room rarely were turned on, except for the Super Bowl and “Downton Abbey.” We entertained each other with tales of past trips together, bad jokes, book recommendations and updates on life. We never run short of conversation.
Oh, sure, we did touristy things amid spectacular scenery and perfect temperatures of 81 degrees day after day. With three cars, the nine of us could head in different directions: a helicopter ride, a luau, art crawls, shopping, whale-watching, dining in fine restaurants and street cafes, swimming at white-sand beaches, golfing and snorkeling. We’re in our mid-60s and beyond and had no trouble declining zip-lines and rugged mountain hikes.
To me, the sweetest times were lounging on the breezy lanai of our house, with coffee in the morning and gin-and-tonics in the evening. Several of our gang are cooking wizards so we often ate dinner at home. We each threw in $250 the first day, and our cooks managed to buy sufficient groceries in the bigger city of Lihue to last most of two weeks, with intermediate trips into Waimea for reinforcements.
Historic seaport town
The first Europeans in Hawaii were Captain Cook and his crew, looking for the Northwest Passage and landing in 1778 in the bay of Waimea (pronounced Why-MAY-ah). Locals joke that Waimea is “Hawaii’s original visitor destination.” Cook’s statue stands midtown.
Just a 10-minute walk from the plantation, Waimea has fewer than 2,000 people, two supermarkets, a coffee shop, inexpensive restaurants and — guess what — T-shirt and sundress shops. It was once home to the Waimea Sugar Co. Because of cheaper production abroad, the state’s last sugar plantation closed last year. Still, the old advertising jingle of “pure cane sugar from Hawaii” bounced in my head.
Tourism now rules on Kauai (rhymes with Hawaii). Its lush vegetation — thanks to rich volcanic soil and abundant rainfall — earns it the nickname of “the Garden Isle.” (Its Alaka’i Swamp is one of the wettest spots on the planet, with more than 37 feet of rain per year. Oddly, a few miles away on the west side, only 20 inches fall.)
Mountains and canyons make most of Kauai’s land uninhabitable. An incredible canyon dubbed by Mark Twain as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” attracts carloads of viewers, hikers and helicopter riders. It’s 10 miles long, 3,600 feet deep and more than a mile wide, with layers of rosy and tan rock.
Movies including “South Pacific” (1958), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Blue Hawaii” (1961) and “The Descendants’ (2011) were filmed on the island’s golden sand and turquoise waters. (Not so at the cottages; the sea there isn’t safe for swimming and the sand is black. A lovely beach is five minutes away, and the resort has an outdoor pool.) With mountains in the way on the northwest, the coastal road stops at Koke’e State Park.
Serene and quiet
Low-key, rustic western Kauai is well suited to a family holiday or a romantic retreat. Travel books say that if you want the high life, go instead to Honolulu.
Even the marketing director of the Waimea Plantation Cottages, Tim Alex, said the trick is to bring in the correct fit of guests. Paying an average daily rate of $240 ($169 for a one-bedroom), some disappointed guests expect marble countertops and clean sheets every day.
“These aren’t hotel rooms; they’re houses,” said Alex. “This place is for people who like cabins in the mountains or cottages on the lake.” The grounds are private, quiet and — as my friends and I discovered — perfect for chilling out and enjoying nature.
Which brings us back to those pesky roosters. A Sept. 11, 1992, hurricane decimated Kauai; 9/11 is remembered on the island for double horrors. Every single chicken coop is said to have blown apart. Surviving fowl thrived in the wild and still do. “Chickens make rabbits look weak for reproduction,” Alex said. No natural predators, such as mongoose, are on Kauai. The resort hands out earplug packages, with a rooster image and the words, “Available to those sensitive to Kauai’s infamous serenading chickens.”
Just on this resort alone, more than 1,500 chickens are trapped and removed each year. What happens to them after removal, Alex won’t say, but visitors may see scrawny birds turning on spits at roadside stands. Flavorful? Some insist if you place a lava rock in a pot with chicken, the chicken is done when the rock is tender.
Unlike the chickens, this kind of quiet, historic-minded, off-the-beaten-path place is an endangered species amid the glitzy resorts elsewhere on the island. It may not have a waterpark, restaurant, spa or even a great beach.
Meanwhile, it does have handsome roosters. Cock-a-doodle-doo to you, too.
Peg Meier is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.