KAUAI — Even though the agent urged us to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle to explore Kauai’s back roads, my mom and I drove west along the isle’s sunniest stretch in our mid-range sedan. Mom gassed the engine into the Kekaha Beach turnoff, toward a collection of trucks fronted by locals grilling pork and sipping brews. The car lurched, then stopped. As she tried to back up the wheels dug deeper into the coarse sand of Kauai’s most overlooked beach. At first the locals stared, then a whole crew of shirtless men approached.
The sum of their comments: It was hopeless; we were stuck so deep that any attempt to move would make it worse. After the guys cracked a few jokes about haoles (Hawaiian for white people) they started to help. A crew of four pushed until their sweat glistened. Then one man pressed up from his beach chair, attached a thick rope from his flatbed to our car, and towed it back onto the road.
We returned with a case of beer for our new friends. As we were leaving, the driver of the makeshift tow truck told us to stay on the main road — advice I have yet to follow.
A back road is by nature the less traveled path. Yet in Hawaii, real back roads are few and far between. It’s a fact of life on a small island — there is only so much space to explore.
However, over this past year I was researching a guidebook on these less-traveled roads and Hawaii’s spirit of aloha, where everyone is a part of everything. I met a city worker in Maui who scaled a palm tree to deliver a freshly picked coconut for my son, an off-duty emergency room nurse who helped excavate dozens of splinters from my crawling toddler’s legs at a dinner party, and musicians who invited our family to their beach barbecue because our kids hit it off. I would not have found this aloha unless I had veered off the main roads.
Our tour of the state started in Oahu as we took the long way around the jaw-dropping Windward Coast. We bypassed the outstanding restaurants in Kailua and weaved onto Kamehameha Highway’s lesser-used coastal route to find the He’eia Pier General Store and Deli, a storied take-out joint on the edge of a rickety pier.
A couple of fishermen shared their picnic table with us and recommended the guava chicken and pork stew lau lau. My older son made friends with their kids as they attempted to snag tropical fish with string and chewed-up beef jerky. A couple of women sold shaved ice from the back of a truck. Had we opted to hurry to Turtle Bay, we would have missed the chance to talk with these men and hear them strum the ukulele.
We carried this exploring spirit to Molokai, where we jammed with elderly crooners at Hotel Molokai and sipped some of the best coffee in the state at Coffees of Hawaii. On our last day on this island, just off the main highway, I turned down a gravel road and met Mervin Dudoit, caretaker at Ali’i Fishpond, who offered a tour of his aqua farm. He pointed out intricate stonework he had reconstructed, explaining how he uses ancient fishing methods to feed elderly residents, many of whom can’t afford the seafood at the market. Bidding us aloha, he cracked a coconut and offered it to us.
Some back roads are not meant to be braved, even with four-wheel drive, and especially when you are bouncing down hills with a kindergartner and a 1-year-old in need of a nap. After an hour of jiggling our inner organs down one dirt road and then another, my husband and I gave up our search for Lanai’s storied ghost town, Keomoku. We parked and hiked to the water.
Just when we lost hope of finding something to inspire the kids, three turtles popped out of the sea. As the kids and I watched the creatures surf the waves, my husband pointed out a collection of their nests along the sand.
Over on Maui, it is harder to find roads less traveled. The masses take to the Hana Highway each morning, clogging this artery to paradise. Yet there is a rewarding back road, a nail-biter, that locals will tell you not to try. The one-lane ribbon of Kahekili Highway, framed by rock on one side and sheer cliff drops on the other, runs from Kapalua to Wailuku. Most sections require drivers to slow to 5 miles an hour to make the blind curves (and if you happen upon another car, one of you, most likely you, will be taking this road in reverse until you come to a turn-out).
Of course we went for it. It’s treacherous and terrifying, and worth every second of the two-hour drive.
Passing Punalau Beach, Nakelele Blowhole, the ocean baths, and Kakakuloa Head, we descended into Kakakuloa Village for the banana bread that is rumored to be the best in the world. Whether or not Julia’s Banana Bread shack has the world beat with her recipe, the bread is a treat after the white-knuckle journey to get there. As was the kind welcome we got in the village from a pair of fishermen, who after learning it was my son’s fifth birthday, offered him a coconut necklace and a honu magnet.
Over on the Big Island, where roads are being created and destroyed by lava, I never expected to get a lesson in aloha amid a sea of ancient structures at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. The 180 acres of beachfront property were once one of the most important destinations to native Hawaiians. In ancient times, if someone had broken a sacred law, called kapu, they could be sentenced to death.
To mainlanders, the kapu system was extreme — someone could be put to death for touching royalty or eating particular foods — but to Hawaiians, this was how they kept order. Luckily, if the offender could make it to the place of refuge, the Pu’uhonua, he could absolve himself and return to society.
While I was ambling past the newly restored buildings, watching the waves lap the shore, a ranger stopped me. “There is something powerful in this place, meditative even,” she said, “and if you allow yourself to feel the juju, placing an intention into the land, you will find what you are looking for. Aloha.” I wasn’t sure what to do with this advice since I had found aloha at nearly every turn of Hawaii’s back roads.
Later that evening, I stopped to chat with an elder selling her shelled necklaces on the lawn of our rental complex. When I excused myself to go feed the kids, she muttered something about wanting to finish the craft fair so she could eat, too. So I went upstairs, scooped a couple pieces of chicken and some rice onto a plate, and offered her dinner, a serving of the aloha her people had generously offered my family and me.
It was the least I could do.