Trip Report: Kauai: The Garden Isle – January 2022 

Our Kauai: The Garden Isle trip started as I presume most trips to Hawaii do. As soon as one realizes that they are heading to paradise they begin to think about winding, white-sand beaches, green and lively mountainscapes, vast ocean panoramas, and, of course, some of the world’s best food. In the end, this trip to the state’s Garden Island would include all of that and more.

Alex Hansen

The landscape was more breathtaking than I had remembered, and the serenity more piercing. But, as the era of Covid has continually proven, modern-day travel is still filled with many road bumps and unknowns. 

The first of these–albeit small–challenges began with travel from the mainland U.S. My flight was delayed an entire day due to insufficient staffing at the Seattle airport; right now, lack of staffing in many work sectors is one of the larger casualties of war that Covid has bestowed upon society. After two full days of travel and an extended stay in the Pacific Northwest, I finally touched down in Lihue, Kauai’s capital. When I arrived, Matt [Meisenheimer] was finishing a scouting mission in Waimea Canyon.

Matt Meisenheimer

Waimea Canyon is only one of Hawaii’s many geological wonders. Waiting for him to finish, I jumped at an early opportunity to sample the local cuisine. Great food is a staple part of Backcountry Journeys trips, and I figured a head start in this department wouldn’t hurt. As soon as I took my last bite, I received a message from Matt that he was in the parking lot. I placed my luggage in the back seat of the rental car as we more formally introduced ourselves. This would be our first time guiding together. He shifted the sedan into drive, and we started our journey to Koke’s State Park where we would be camping for the next couple of evenings. The next day would include the reconnaissance of a couple of key locations to photograph at. The day flew by as we ran from one ridgeline to the next, only stopping for a quick lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Pokê restaurant. Matt and I hit it off immediately, and we were excited to share our passion for the area, cuisine, and most of all, photography, with the guests. Lucky for us, they would all be arriving that evening. 

Having had major travel delays myself, I was concerned that others may have struggled with similar issues during their attempt to cross the Pacific. Thankfully, no one was delayed a full day as I had been, and we were able to start our trip on time. Before we knew it, our entire group of eight was gathered around a table of incredible-smelling food, ready to kick off what would be a fantastic week of travel and photography. As usual, our group consisted of folks traveling from a handful of differing locations. This trip included guests spanning the entire coast of the continental U.S., making for a fantastic array of beautiful personalities and a joyous group dynamic. It was clear to me that we were going to have an incredible week together. 

During our first morning, we photographed Anahola beach on the east side of the island. We watched as distant mountains came alive with early morning light and consistent waves laced the nearby shoreline. It was a peaceful beginning to our trip as we had much of the beach to ourselves. Time slipped away as we photographed a combination of mountains, waves, and black lava rock. Even after the initial sunrise soft light sat gently on the landscape allowing us to continue shooting well past the timeframe we had initially imagined. After, we made our way back south for our first breakfast together. Our first day was busy, offering a combination of photography at different locations and one of the more anticipated offerings on the itinerary: a doors-off helicopter tour of the island. 

Our flight reservations were for late afternoon, the time of day when beautiful light would hit parts of the island including Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast, and the iconic mountainous shoreline on Kauai’s north shore. Anticipation built within the group as our tour neared but looming storm clouds made us nervous that the flights might be canceled. We would be able to postpone to later in the week if the weather didn’t permit flying but knowing what was in store made us hopeful the flights would go off without delay. 

We had made reservations with two separate companies, meaning Matt dropped off our group first and then returned with his group to the secondary helicopter service. My group was ushered into the Jack Harter office, weighed, and then given a safety brief on getting in and out of the helicopter. After, we were shuttled to a base at the airport where we would all settle into a small, doors-off, helicopter. This was the perfect machine to view and photograph many hard-to-access locations, including Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast. These environments can be seen from the water or accessed via long, strenuous hikes, but being able to fly over the top provides an entirely different perspective. 

Alex Hansen

Our ride duration was an hour, but time quickly dissipates when you’re gazing from one natural wonder to the next. Our pilot, Josh, flew us over lush mountain ridgelines and in front of long-dropping waterfalls. From inland, we flew to the coast, following a distinct contrast line made by a deep blue ocean set against the darker hues that made up the Napali. We were speechless, wind funneling through the helicopter as we tried our best to enjoy each moment while simultaneously making great images. 

Matt Meisenheimer

It felt as if we were landing just as soon as we had taken off. Our fingers were crossed in hope that we had made at least one photograph we were happy with. The swiftness of the flight and an ever-changing landscape make aerial photography challenging. Once back at the airport entrance I noticed our rental van parked on the side of the street, the rest of the group sitting inside of it. The timing didn’t align as they were supposed to pick us up nearly an hour later. I knew something was off. Matt informed me that their charter had been postponed to later in the week. We downplayed our experience knowing the rest of the group was disappointed but were simultaneously excited about what was in store for them in a few days. They would soon enough get their chance to experience the island as we just had. 

The second day began with an early morning photography session on Poipu Beach. We shot on a formation of lava rock and found a wonderful piece of driftwood that each of us worked to incorporate as a strong focal point in our images. We photographed until a high sun washed out all the early morning colors. After, we walked back to the hotel where we shared breakfast and swapped stories of past travels. It was fun learning how each guest had found their way into photography, where they had traveled, and where they would like to go in the future. Planning the next trip is an inherent part of being on vacation. After breakfast, we offered a break for people to enjoy the resort and its offerings. In the afternoon we reassembled and made our way to a local arboretum to photograph its stunning Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. The trunks of these trees spread an array of colors and each guest worked to make a unique image. With a cloudless, blue sky above us, we shifted our photography focus to a more macro scale. The day progressed, and that evening we aimed to photograph sunset at Shipwreck Beach. We were optimistic about the conditions upon arriving, but quickly shifting clouds eventually blocked all the light. Content with the day, we made the short drive back to our hotel. We had dinner at Rum Fire, one of the best restaurants in the area. Walking out many of us agreed that we had just had one of the best meals of our lives. 

Having been unlucky with evening light the night before, we returned to Shipwreck Beach on the morning of our third day. We were graced with a beautiful sunrise and worked to shoot a prominent cliff that juts directly into the ocean. After seeing that jagged point for the second time I understood why the beach was named Shipwreck. We photographed for a while before moving into a light breakfast. We then took a longer break and gathered again around noon. Matt and I were excited as we were taking the group to one of our local favorites for lunch. The Kalaheo Café is hands down one of the best places to eat, regardless of the time of day. We enjoyed lunch here together, got a mid-afternoon coffee for the road, and began the drive into Waimea Canyon. Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and is an incredible display of jagged, yet subtle mountains. We photographed the canyon from an accessible overlook before moving to shoot it, and the Napali, from a different perspective for sunset. I took two guests on a short hike down Kalepa Ridge Trail while Matt stayed at a higher elevation overlook with the rest of the group. That evening there was incredible light and each of us photographed until it was completely muted. 

Alex Hansen

Day four meant we were moving into the latter half of our trip, and that meant we were shifting our attention to the north side of the island. But before heading that direction we took the morning to photograph Spouting Horn, an interesting feature of spraying water formed by waves crashing against a unique rock bed that lined the shore. It was fun to watch the tide move back and forth, each time creating a dynamic surge of water upon its return. After spending just over an hour photographing this feature, we shuttled back for one last breakfast at Lava’s, a restaurant at the resort. That afternoon, the group who had flown early in the week relaxed at the resort while Matt shuttled the rest of the group to their helicopter tour. When they returned, we packed, checked out, and moved on to the next part of our journey. Although sad to be leaving Poipu, we were excited about the upcoming locations. 

That evening we drove north to the infamous Tunnels Beach, which was our sunset photography destination. We photographed waves, surfers, and yet again, the wondrous canyons that surround the island. Around every corner in Kauai is a jaw-dropping view. After the sun had fully set, we drove partway back, stopping at Sam’s Ocean View for dinner. This eclectic restaurant – tucked away ambiguously off the main road – provided one of the best meal experiences of the trip. It’s worth a return trip solely for their flourless chocolate torte! 

On the final, full day we raced back north to catch early morning color in Hanalei. We spent the morning photographing the sunrise on the beach, using the Hanalei Pier as a central focal point. It was classic-Hawaii: a perfect pier piercing turquoise water with sharp, green mountains on the horizon. After shooting the pier and its backdrop, some guests took off to capture more subtle images. Although the water and mountains of Hawaii are often the mainstays of photographs, other objects such as rocks, trees, driftwood, crabs, and other, local flora and fauna make for truly beautiful images. When finished, we set back for the hotel, opting again for a light breakfast. Matt and I had an Acai shack in mind for a late lunch and planned to stop there as we worked our way back north for our evening and sunset sessions. It was worth waiting for. On this night, Matt took a group of folks to a scenic lookout while I hiked with one of the guests to Queen’s Bath, truly unique rock and water feature located on the coast of Princeville. Together, we all shot at our respective locations for a couple of hours before reuniting for the drive back and for one last dinner together. This would be at Hukilau Lanai, a restaurant near where we were staying. It was great to gather one last time over a larger meal and to share our favorite stories, memories, and images made from the trip. 

Alex Hansen

The last day of our trip finally arrived. As we had done all week, we woke early for one final sunrise shoot. Each of us was sleepy-eyed as we pulled out our tripods, the long days of photographing dawn to dusk beginning to compound. But just as we had been on day one, we were completely enthralled by the view and the serenity of where we were at. Each of us made a few last images and concluded the photography portion of our trip. We drove back to our hotel for our final meal.

Matt Meisenheimer

As we ate breakfast, everyone talked about upcoming trips, and Matt and I left jealous as many were embarking on trips to such places as Alaska, Africa, and even Antarctica. It seemed each guest had something special planned soon, and it was beautiful to see everyone’s enthusiasm for travel and photography, passions each of us shared. 

Matt Meisenheimer

It was the end of a truly fantastic trip to arguably Hawaii’s most scenic island. Kauai boasts a handful of landscapes unique to the island, and many you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We each said our goodbyes and began moving towards the next adventure. It was sad to watch each person walk away, but exciting to know we had just made memories, and photographs, that would last a lifetime.

Alex Hansen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Hansen is a photographer currently based in Colorado’s Vail Valley. His drive for photography and adventure stems from time spent in our world’s biggest mountain ranges. Alex’s goal with photography is to distill the beauty in the subtle moments we so often experience while out in nature. From extending ridgelines to carved out river basins he has a passion for capturing these places in a raw and emotional way.

Alex is an active climber and traveler as well. Climbing was his initial foray into the world of adventure–and adventure photography–and he has spent much of his life on mountainsides across North America. Before Alex pursued photography full time he was a project manager for an outdoor digital media publication. This is where he picked up a camera for the first time, helping to build brand stories and share them in an authentic way.

As someone who continually aims to push his own boundaries, Alex is passionate about helping others do the same. He loves discussing everything related to travel, culture, and photography, and how we can use these as vehicles to better understand the world and ourselves. This aspect of the journey is inherent to what he does and he’s excited to share that with others.

You can view more of Alex’s creative works at his website alexjosephalpine.com

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