THE BLOG
07/11/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Kauai: Much More Than a Beach Vacation

POIPU, Kauai -- Our first evening here, an endangered green sea turle burrowed into the sand of Poipu Beach Park to add to the excitement of an island sunset shimmering in all shades of yellow, orange and red.

On our last, an endangered monk seal came to visit --K31, volunteer Donna Gray told me, better known as "Trouble" for his propensity of throwing his 500-pound frame onto several beaches in a single day, sometimes forcing lifeguards to clear the waters to protect him.

And so go the rhythms of life on Hawaii's garden island, where the sweet but subtle scent of the plumeria flower hangs over gardens cascading with bouganvillia, hibiscus, tiger lily, ti plant and much more, and white egrets balance gingerly atop rubbery shrubs in search of food. Where mother hens and chicks drink water from beachside showers, roosters crow throughout the day, and spinner dolphins leap acrobatically for passing tourist cruises.

This is a place, to be more succinct, where "paradise" stops being a cliche.

Waves pound the rocky shore, sending showers of frothy spray dozens of feet into the air. Sea turtles swim through shoreside seaweed to feed, poking their green heads up periodically for a breath of air. And surfers, boogie boarders and snorklers share the beaches in search of the perfect wave or perfect school of colorful fish. Stay awhile. Enjoy the steady, soothing breeze. Leave your troubles on the mainland. But leave time, as well, to explore.

For the record, I don't work for the Kauai Chamber of Commerce. I'm usually not even much of a beach guy. I'm easily bored sitting on tropical sands or bobbing in bathtub-temperature waves. But here an ocean swim refreshes (the water stays between 72 to 80 degrees year round, according to The Garden Island newspaper.) Land temperatures, in summer, top out each day in the mid-80s. And the the island, with its dozens of beaches, cascading waterfalls, steep oceanfront trails, mountains rising out of the sea to above 5,000 feet, and endless varieties of trees, flowers and birds, doesn't leave much time to get bored. The trick, in fact, is not to take on too much. (Mind you, even paradise has its traffic jams. Though only 67,000 people live on the island, the two-lane roads, particularly from south to north get crowded. So either leave early or leave the car parked.)

For the rugged visitor, the northern Na Pali Coast offers the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which twists over rocks and red earth climbing to thousands of feet above the ocean and plunging, four times, into valleys. For the rich, there's always a morning helicopter ride, followed by an afternoon floating in the multi-level, salt-water swimming lagoons of the 602-room, 52-acre Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. (The advanced purchase rates offered online range from about $400 to $750 per night, depending on the season and type of room.)

For the rest, there are plenty of paths, places and tidepools to poke around in free of charge (once, that is, you get here), often amidst a steady serenade of songbirds.

Our favorite was a four-hour cruise, complete with dinner and drinks with Holo-Holo Charters from Port Allen in the south to the Na Pali coast (the whole island is but 33 miles wide and 25 miles long). It came with free drinks and all-you-can eat lasagna. But what made the ride were the sweeping vistas -- sharply contoured mountains, rising from the sea with clouds streaming from their ridges, waterfalls and caves -- and the knowledgable and friendly crew (Cost: $100 each, tax included).

Traffic aside, we loved the drive north along the east coast, as well, most notably the extraordinary National Wildlife Refuge at the Kilauea Point lighthouse, where visitors can borrow high-quality Nikon binoculars without ID or deposit and trace the flight of a half-dozen seabirds who nest there, from the omnipresent red-footed boobies, who dot the hillside, to the great frigatebird, whose wing span can reach 7-feet and who pirates other birds' prey by scaring them into dropping it.

But there was much we didn't see. We managed to set foot on perhaps a half dozen of the 53 beaches listed in the index of Lonely Planet. We hiked but the first half-mile of the Kalalau Trail to a magnificent overlook over Ke'e Beach. We didn't drive to the end of the vast Waimea Canyon. We didn't make it to the elegant but expensive Allerton Botanical Garden, a place Jackie Kennedy is said to have visited after JFK's assassination. Nor did we even hike the 4-mile trail to the beaches along the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail near our condominium.

A week, we discovered, just isn't enough time to truly see Kauai yet allow yourself to relax, the ultimate point of being in this lush, peaceful setting.

Each morning we'd walk the Greenway from Poipu to the Grand Hyatt along a beautifully groomed path, then dawdle back along the cliffs, watching waves crashing onto the rocks and through an archway window in the rock. We saw daredevil divers leaping off the 50-foot cliffs at MaKawehi Point and a family build a rock bathing pool at Shipwreck Beach. And in the evening we'd sit on the comfortable balcony of our Nihi Kai condominium, watching the sun glow and then set on the horizon, turning the puffy cumulus clouds pink.

These are memories I'll hold on to as long as possible. For now, mahalo Kauai. Thank you.

We'll come again.