My lunch companions wore plumeria flowers behind their ears, necklaces strung with black pearls and Ni'ihau shells, and clothing with floral patterns. All signs that they live and work in Hawaii. In this case, Kauai.
[Quiz of the day. Can you name the eight major Hawaiian islands? Answer at the end.]
We on the East Coast often choose the Caribbean or Mexico over Hawaii because those places are closer. But obviously, they can't offer the unique culture and language of Hawaii, which is why it's worth a visit to the Aloha state.
Nowhere else in the world are you greeted at retail establishments with "aloha" and thanked with "mahalo." And, where else can you spend a day swimming with sea turtles, watching hula dancing and attending a luau?
It's a long haul for most people. And it can seem daunting for solo travelers to fly a long way, rent a car and spend beach time alone.
But there are ways to find people to spend time with. For example, snorkel with others on an adventure tour. So many beautiful creatures live in that part of the Pacific, including the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, Hawaii's state fish.
SIgn up for surfing lessons or whale watching. Take a helicopter ride over the Na Pali coast, a stunning natural wonder on the north side of the island that was nothing like anything I'd seen before. And hard to see in totality except by water or air. Chat with the pilot if you're the only passenger.
Watch a cooking demonstration with locals at the Kauai Culinary Market on Wednesdays, from 4 to 6 pm at the Shops at Kukui'ula on the south side of the island. Scout out the best papayas, coconuts, passionfruit, bananas.
Or a newer wrinkle in Hawaiian tourism, learn the roots of the culture through a variety of programs, including visits to, or volunteering at, taro fields. Or rafting tours to ancient fishing villages.
Want even a better sense of Kauai. Rent the movie, "The Descendants." It was filmed there. Pay attention to the scenery and the music. Yes, that means looking *past* George Clooney. He's not likely to be there when you are. The other stuff is.
Quiz answers, spelled in "Hawaiian":
Hawaiʻi, Kauaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Niʻihau, Oahu
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Photos: Ellen Perlman
1. North Shore, Kauai. 2. Waimea Canyon. 3. Taro fields in Hanalei