Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kauai: Sublime and Ridiculous

We flew on a small regional jet to Kauai, the westernmost of the major Hawaiian islands.

We had reserved a “subcompact” rental car a month ahead of our trip. At the car rental agency, the sales clerk looked me over and wrote a number on a small piece of paper.

“Would you like to upgrade to a convertible?” she asked. “It will only cost you this much more for the duration of your stay.”

She held up the piece of paper, which had the number “150” written on it. After driving a cramped, underpowered subcompact on Oahu, the temptation was irresistible.

I called my wife, who was waiting outside with the luggage. I begged her to let me upgrade, since I had never driven a convertible in my life, and where better to drive one than Hawaii?

“No,” she told me, quite firmly. Crestfallen, I turned to the clerk and relayed the disappointing news.

“Would you do it for this?” she asked. The sales clerk had no doubt witnessed this exact scenario hundreds of times. During the call, she had crossed out the “150” and written “75” on the piece of paper.

“Yes!” I blurted. We concluded the paperwork and I went outside for the reckoning with my wife. I asked her to follow me and we dragged our luggage through the parking lot to the car, which turned out to be a fire-engine red Mustang. After a brief exchange of unpleasant language, my wife agreed that it seemed like I had gotten a pretty good deal, although the license plate was a bit over the top.

We drove to our hotel, which was old, but well-maintained. Our room was on the third floor, and there was no elevator. We had to haul our suitcases up the stairs, but once we got settled, we were rather pleased.

We drove back to the airport to take a helicopter tour of the island, and were greeted by a goofy character in his early 60s who had really enjoyed the late 60s. He gave us our safety briefing and fitted us with mandatory life preservers. We were arranged in our seats and took off.

Kauai is arguably the most scenic of the Hawaiian islands. It’s the oldest, and therefore the most eroded. It is thick with rainforest on the windward side, and Wai’ale’ale crater is one of the wettest spots on the planet, receiving about 460 inches of rain each year. The mountains are spectacular.

Where you have mountains and frequent rainfall, you also get waterfalls. Lots of them.

This is the one from Jurassic Park.

And this is the one from Fantasy Island.

Another thing you get with lots of rain is flowers. Kauai is infested with them, growing in obscene profusion.

This is the Yellow Hibiscus, the state flower of Hawaii.

And this is the Plumeria tree, also known as Frangipani. It comes in two colors, pink and yellow.

But the tree blooms constantly, dropping the blossoms every day. Somebody has to clean up the mess.

Hawaii is also prone to hurricanes, and in 1992, hurricane Iniki struck. Hawaiians are no stranger to hurricanes, so they take pains to ensure that their homes are resistant to hurricane-force winds. But nobody thinks to hurricane-proof a chicken coop. Hundreds of them were destroyed, and now Kauai is home to vast numbers of feral chickens. They are literally everywhere. One Hawaiian native told me, “You can catch them if you want, but they’re only suitable for stewing.”

During World War II, the military introduced Spam to Hawaii, and now Hawaiians consume more Spam per capita than any other place in the world. One of our tour guides told me that if we eat hot dogs, we have no right to criticize of those who eat Spam. We drove to the grocery store, which offered an astonishing variety of Spam products.

7-Eleven stores carry Spam sushi, called “musubi.”

In Hawaii, Spam is offered on the McDonald's and Burger King breakfast menu. We even found Spam-flavored Macadamia nuts.


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