Everyone knows that the Hawaiian Islands are romantic. But perhaps you don’t know how much more romantic they are off-season. I recently returned from a September sojourn in Kauai and Hawaii (the Big Island) and the unhurried and uncrowded islands were a special treat.
Like many people, when my kids were young, I had to arrange most of my vacations around my children’s schedule — which meant trips around school holidays. I had gotten in the habit of traveling to Hawaii around Christmas even when I could have gone other times. Big mistake.
This September, we had perfect weather every day of our two week vacation (not so likely in December) and all dining and tourism options were open and easy.
I stayed at the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantations, which is ordinarily a family place but not so much at this time of year. The gardens are mature and gorgeous, the landscaping lush, and we had a unit (160) that while not as close to the beach as I would have liked — compensated by having a huge lawn in front of it and a reasonable ocean view. It was a lovely unit — a full kitchen, a commodious living room and tasteful rattan furniture. The only thing I could fault it on was the bathroom: it was small, basic and uninviting. A real loss for me since I love luxurious two-person bath opportunities.
The restaurant at the hotel is totally romantic. It has very good food in a classic Hawaiian setting — a covered porch, strung lights across the garden, beautiful Koi ponds and splashing water. It feels like old Hawaii and it is my favorite restaurant that does not have an ocean view. The water view, however, was just down the way at The Beach House. It’s no big secret — everyone and their mother knows to go there at sunset — but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful. There are expansive, exceptional views and very good food. (you can also go early, get a great seat for drinks and be positioned for dinner). Or, skip the restaurant entirely and do as the locals do — just go sit on the beach or lawn’s edge and watch the sunset come and go.
Kauai is by its very nature romantic. However, it’s also true that it’s very nature is to be wet, so ordinarily you get all the greenery and lushness at a price. We had dry weather- but it rained hard almost every night. I think that’s very romantic.
If the weather favors you, do what we did: rent a convertible, then go to the beach at the Na Pali coastline where fit hikers walk the 11-mile trail that I have only seen from the sea. Boats will take you to the valleys that open up between the brutally beautiful green mountains whose hard edges slant down to the ocean. I am told that the hiking trail displays an even more beautiful show — but I am pretty sure I will never have that vantage point!
My own kind of exploration was to go to the Allerton gardens. If you like flowers and green plants even a teeny bit, this is where you should go. It’s expensive ($45 entrance fee) but worth it. The estate was bequeathed by a Chicago industrialist and his adopted son to the state of Hawaii. It is a series of rooms that are created by the flamboyant ferns, palms and blooming plants that love Hawaii’s rain and soil, and each section is special.
There is a striking vista as you start the tour on a shuttle that lets you see where the Allerton’s house on the beach was and is (it’s only open to the public on special evening tours). The shuttle drives along a beautiful ocean view road and then descends to the 80-acre garden itself. We unloaded our group (about ten people) and with our extremely entertaining guide Martin, wandered for more than an hour among the walks, plants and fountains that Allerton designed. The tour was educational, beautiful and delicious (there are a lot of wild and cultivated fruit trees and Martin, gave us a few bites to educate our palates). Sucking on juicy fruits, walking through filtered light, sheltered by enormous palms and constantly seeing elaborate hanging flowers and vines makes it almost obligatory to hold hands with your honey here.
You may not need any other romantic experiences after this one but there are so many additional options to explore. For example, get a basket and go to one of the many wonderful farmer’s markets on the island; walk the beach just before the sun is really up and own the coastline. Go to one of the kayaking outfits near Lihue or near Princeville and Hanalei and kayak down a lazy river. Have a drink at the Grand Hyatt Wailea outdoor bar looking over the expansive lawns to the ocean. Take the pretty walkway along the property line and end up at the gorgeous cliffs and public beach at the end of the property.
Five days was not enough on Kauai but our plan was to divide our time and fly to Kona on the big island. We stayed in a Waikoloa condominium complex called Hali’i Kai, a gaited suburban community near a golf course. Golf courses do nothing for me, but our unit, near the beach, had a terrific sunset view and the beach club, right next to the edge of the water, had what seemed like a 180-degree ocean view. Sadly there was no beach access — our coast was a rocky lava promontory and it was pretty much like that within reasonable walking distance. But there was a nice path that went through the lava field to the extensive grounds of the nearby Hilton.
In any case, we didn’t just hang around our immediate area. We took our car and explored the far reaches of the island. We did the requisite trip to the volcano and a few less conventional excursions like one to an area beyond Hawi (a really nice old Hawaiian town that’s gotten modestly yuppified) to see some close friends of some close friends, and then for a fabulous meal at Sushi Rock, a small, unassuming place where the chef and owner have created sushi feasts there that are second to none.
What is especially romantic to do on the Big Island? Just sitting on or near the beach having the breeze refresh your senses; walking along the paths of the ancients — the Pauko petroglyphs managed by the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel are a magical tour; going to the Wednesday through Sunday markets at Kona; and touring the little towns that still have their old atmosphere — not a McDonald’s to be seen.
As for romantic roads, I was especially pleased about a little detour from Waimea on the Old Mamalahoa Highway, which is an alternative route to Hilo off 19. It was a gorgeous cut through some of the Parker ranchlands and we stopped and took it all in for a while. I also think it would be very romantic to ride horses around here. But then I’m a horse person.
Finally, I can’t forget the waterfalls and lagoons. There is something especially sweet about watching the force of water fall from great heights. Rainbow falls just outside Hilo is quite lovely, but my favorite on the big island is between highway markers 13 and 14, also near Hilo. Akaka Falls drops majestically 420 feet and is viewable from the parking lot, but it is much more wonderfully experienced by taking the walkway that circles the falls and the jungle around it. It’s an exotic, almost intoxicating half hour walk over streams, through hanging flowering plants and with peekaboo sightings of smaller falls until you reach the big one. But just one cautionary note: the falls might best be visited during the morning or in the low season because I gather it is frequented by tour buses during afternoons and high tourist times. We saw it with maybe five other people in the park near closing time and it was perfect!
I have always included the Hawaiian islands in my top ten romantic places in the world.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they should be in the top five romantic places in the world. Whatever their ranking, if you don’t feel romantic in Hawaii — see a therapist.