Travel Spotlight

Postcard from Kauai

I’ve just returned from my sixth trip to the island of Kauai, where I spent eight days with locals who in many ways define Kauai. It was on this trip to Hawaii, an archipelago I’ve visited many times, that I finally grasped the meaning of “aloha.”

This was thanks to Titus Kinimaka, a legend in the surfing world. Titus was a pioneer in big wave surfing, having ridden some of the tallest waves in the world, and he is deeply respected in Kauai.

Every year I get together with three girlfriends to catch waves at some of the world’s top surf destinations. On our recent trip to Kauai, one of my friends connected with Titus through a mutual friend. Given Titus’s legendary status, we thought he’d pass us off to some cheery teachers in his popular surf school, not actually surf with us.

After our Monday morning arrival at Lihue Airport, we rented a minivan, the better to fit our surfboards, and drove along Kauai’s eastern coast, stopping at the Mermaid Café in Kapaa (4-1384 Kuhio Hwy B1; 808-821-2026) for hearty curry wraps. Back on the road, the grey sky darkened as we neared Kauai’s notoriously wet north shore. It was just after 2:00 pm and drizzling when we arrived in Hanalei and entered Titus’s swanky store, with its blond wood and racks of trendy bikinis.

Standing by the doorway, with flowing black hair, shorts, a faded t-shirt, and flip flops, was Titus. “Do you want to go surfing?” was almost his first question.

Of course we did. We surfed with Titus that afternoon, as the rain abated to reveal sunshine and the first of many luminous rainbows we’d behold, and we surfed with him twice every day after that. Along with Titus, we paddled out with his nephew Kaimi Kaneholani, fellow big wave surfer Clay Walcott and photographer Ry Cowan.

But we did more than surf. We discovered roadside juice shacks owned by one or another nephew of Titus (with 15 siblings, Titus seems to have relatives in every corner of Kauai) including the brightly hued Kalalea Juice Hale, serving up a luscious açai berry breakfast bowl (4390 Pu'u Hale; 808-346-0074). We ate at Bar Acuda, the chicest restaurant in Hanalei, getting the best seats in the house at a moment’s notice. (5-5161 Kuhio Hwy; 808-826-7081)

We nearly circumnavigated the island, traveling with Titus and the crew to look out onto Waimea Canyon, snack on unbelievably fresh poke (Hawaiian ceviche) and surf in the driving rain at a lonely spot called Pakalas. We tailgated by the roadside while night fell and locals passing by in pick-up trucks shouted greetings to Titus.

We had Titus, Clay, Kaimi and Ry over for a barbecue along with their wives and girlfriends, as well as Titus’s niece Kaala Clarke. We grilled local Kauai beef and flaky mahi, made chutney with mangoes from the farmers market and margaritas using juicy, orange-fleshed limes from a nearby orchard. Titus, an accomplished musician, strummed a few chords on his guitar.

On another day Kaala took us to The Barn (, an appointment-only boutique owned by her friend Petra Frankenreiter, wife of the folksy musician Donavan Frankenreiter. There we found plush Australian beach towels and ethereal island-wear. Another day we climbed into ATVs to tour the future Hanalei Club, a cliff-side, ultra luxurious property near Princeville where Titus, Kaimi and Kaala will provide the local expertise.

But above all we surfed. We surfed three “breaks,” or surf spots, within steps of our front door in Hanalei. We surfed the Bowl, one of Kauai’s best-known breaks, and somehow had it all to ourselves. We also tackled steep, muddy roads to reach Rock Quarry, where the bottom of each wave suddenly plunged into a river-etched channel.

On the hottest day we surfed Anahola, a spot accessed through the Hawaiian Homestead, land set aside for ethnic Hawaiians, where non-locals can get chased out of the water.

Once we got out of the water, Duke, a husky local with bleach-blond hair, rushed off to fetch several coconuts, which he hacked open with a machete so we could savor the sweet, thirst quenching liquid inside.

We were touched by how Titus invited us to his local beach and his home in the homestead, by how Kaimi and Clay watched out for us in perilous surf conditions, by how young Ry and his willowy girlfriend Avery Rowan shared local beers with us late into the evening.

At our barbecue, Titus’s wife Robin described their elder daughter Maluhia’s efforts as a current freshman at Stanford to reconcile the way that people treat one another in her competitive university with how they treat each other in Hawaii. It was at that moment that I understood the warmth and generosity of spirit that we had been experiencing all week. It is aloha.

Two days after flying home, I saw a bumper sticker in San Francisco with the words “Spread the aloha.” What might have struck me as corny once, I now understood as an appeal for openness and love.

Published onJune 17, 2015

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