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A Serendipitous Trip to Kauai

May 2, 2012
Personal Finance
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A year ago, I’d never even heard of Kauai. I’d only been to Hawaii once before, and it was a quick trip to Waikiki – Oahu’s commercial and touristy beach haven. I guess at that point I assumed most of Hawaii was fairly similar: full of resorts, surfers and Japanese tourists. But a few weeks ago, my wife and I found ourselves on the island of Kauai, which was nothing at all like Waikiki, and also unlike any place I’ve ever been before. To top it all off, we stayed at the Westin for 60% off, got a huge discount on a rental car, and didn’t pay anything for airfare (more on that later).

To point out the extent of my ignorance, Kauai is actually the oldest island in Hawaii, having been formed by volcanic eruptions nearly six million years ago. And the dramatic landscape of mountains, valleys, waterfalls and beaches reflect its violent geological history. My wife and I took a helicopter tour, a catamaran trip, and a long hike in order to take everything in.

One of the most surprising features of the island was Waimea Canyon, or the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” which is a gorgeous 10-mile canyon carved from the mountains by the Waimea River. Directly beside this Canyon is Mount Wai’ale’ale, which they described to us as “the wettest spot on earth” because the intense annual rainfall has carved out some epic valleys and left hundreds of waterfalls running down the mountain’s walls. We were lucky to be there on a dry day – apparently during the rainy season, the helicopters can’t get close because the mountain is surrounded by a curtain of rain.

But my favorite part of the island, hands down, was the Na Pali coast on the northern shore. The coastline is a 16-mile stretch of dramatic vertical cliffs, often up to 4,000 feet high, that descend directly into a handful of beaches and a series of stunning valleys. The name “Na Pali” refers to the cliffs themselves, which were carved from lava by strong wind and rain coming off the Pacific, leaving rock spires and other severe landscape features that can only really be appreciated in pictures. And the best part is, the coast is completely undeveloped and cannot be reached by car – only by boat or by hiking.

On our second full day in Kauai, we decided to tackle one of these hikes. The more adventurous hikers on the island take the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which covers most of the coast and can take up to two days to complete. But we weren’t quite up to that, so we hiked the shorter and less strenuous first segment of the trail, which leads to the Hanikapi’ai Falls. Even this was an exhausting 5-hour hike, full of steep climbs, stream crossings, and even one dead feral pig (tusks and everything). The scenery was beautiful, and the waterfall was spectacular, but we would’ve enjoyed it more if we hadn’t been hungry and dehydrated on the return trip. This is why we spent the following day enjoying the view from the deck of a catamaran, with drinks in hand!

Now for the fun part – how did we get all this so cheap? My wife and I signed up for the Starwood Preferred Guest program about a year ago since we had some weddings and other trips lined up, and we wanted to get as many points as possible. Then we also signed up for the Starwood American Express card to milk the 25,000-point signup bonus. Not long after that, Starwood mailed us an offer out of the blue to stay at the Westin for 5 nights for only $800, plus they threw in more bonus points and a credit towards a rental car. I think they were trying to sell us a timeshare, but we didn’t actually have to sit through the sales presentation to get the deal.

To top it off, we had some AAdvantage miles saved up, but not enough for the flights, so we transferred 20,000 Starpoints to AA, got the bonus 5,000 points, and then had enough to get our flights for free. For an unplanned 5-night trip to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the flights, the hotel, and the rental car ended up costing us less than $1,000.

Not a bad price for an unforgettable trip!