Live, Laugh, Adventure

……and take lots of photos along the way!

Kauai: Mahaulepu Trail and Beach

The Mahaulepu Heritage Trail on Kauai’s South Shore is a striking coastal hike that takes you from the end of Shipwreck Beach along sand-dune cliffs, Kiawe trees, limestone formations and rocky bluffs and inlets to Mahaulepu Beach and beyond.  It is the last stretch of accessible coastline on the south shore that remains undeveloped.

Mahaulepu’s name (MA-HA OO-LAY-POO) comes from a legendary battle that took place in the 1300’s when Kalaunuio Hua, a Big Island ruler, tried to conquer all the islands.  Legend has it that Kukona, the 7th Alii Aimoku (King or Chief) of Kauai at that time, met the invaders on Mahaulepu Beach, led them on a merry chase inland and then conquered them when they were all tuckered out.  This gave Kauai the historical distinction as an island that was never conquered.

Hiking on the trail is fairly easy with no great elevation gains or losses and you can walk for as little or as long as you want before turning back.  The scenery is stunning.  Some of my favorite photos from the whole island were taken on this hike.

There is no shortage of interesting things to look at and photograph on this trail.  We stopped to watch a local getting into the water (spearfishing?) at a location that I wouldn’t have thought possible.  I was quite sure he was going to get pounded into the rocks by the large waves but evidently he was experienced at it.  You can see him at the base of the cliffs in the photo below.

Towards the end of the first section of bluffs on the trail there are interesting pillar formations.

We found some carvings on some of pillars but somehow I don’t think its from the ancient Hawaiians.

As you continue along the cliffs you begin to get views of the emerald green mountains which lie along the coast between Poipu and Lihue.  At the base of the mountain you can see a little bit of the Poipu Bay Golf Course.

The trail continues past the golf course to Mahaulepu Beach.  We were getting hot and thirsty so we decided to head back to Shipwreck beach and go up to the Hyatt for cold drinks (highly recommended by the way, a cold beer never tasted quite so good!).

A few days later we had the opportunity to visit some of the farther sections of the trail.  My wife had booked a horseback ride at CJM Stables (highly recommended, she had a great time) which is just beyond the golf course.  I’ve long since learned that back problems and horses don’t mix well so while she was on the ride I took my camera for a hike on the trail and beach.  It worked out well since the path taken by the trail riders comes down onto the beach so I got some shots of them there.

If you drive past the Hyatt you pass a gate and enter a dirt road.  This road takes you CJM Stables (turn off to right) and also allows you to drive down and park very close to Mahaulepu Beach.   This is a very good access point for the farther sections of trail but the road is a little rough.  There is a lot to explore in this area including Gillin’s Beach, limestone cave, the lovely Mahaulepu Beach itself and the striking area of trail beyond the beach.  Make sure you get back out past the gate before 6pm, however, since they seem to close it for the night.

The beach area is very scenic with views of sand, water and mountains broken up by very colorful green plants which seem to thrive on the sand. Not a lot of people seem to go there and at one point we had the beach all to ourselves.

I spent some time watching a local spearfisherman getting ready to go out.

Continuing past Mahaulepu Beach, there is another area of rugged coast and gorgeous views.

I didn’t have time to fully explore this area when we were there.  I’m definitely going to spend more time here the next time we visit.  If you love hiking and gorgeous coastal scenery I highly recommend this hike.

Kauai: Shipwreck Beach

Shipwreck Beach is a small beach located in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on the South Shore of Kauai.  It has plenty of sand for relaxing in the sun and lots of great scenery to keep your eyes occupied.

The cliffs at far end of the beach are a focal point for visitors.  They are famed for the Harrison Ford and Anne Heche plunge from the cliff in ‘6 days and 7 Nights’.  Clearly some of the locals watched that movie.

The cliffs are also popular spots for weddings and photo sessions.

The steep shore break on Shipwreck Beach make it a local favorite for body surfing but result in challenging conditions for swimming. Fair warning given that the waves can slam you around pretty good on this beach if you aren’t a strong swimmer or know how to time your entrance and exit.

I watched this lady after she jumped off the cliff and then swam around to get out on the beach.  I was actually a little concerned (the former lifeguard in me) when she got caught between some rocks on shore and a large incoming wave but she got out okay.  I latter zoomed in on the photo and got quite a chuckle out of the look on her face as she watched that big incoming wave starting to pile up.

During one visit to Shipwreck Beach, my wife and I went swimming to cool off after sitting in the sun.  We were looking behind us at incoming waves to time our exit and to my delight (and my wife’s great concern) we could see the image of a green sea turtle riding the wave in.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen my wife get out of the water so fast.  We had a good laugh later about it.  That image was so cool it will remain in my mind forever.

The frequency of waves on this beach make it a good location if you are interested in shooting some longer exposure wave photos.  You will need a tripod, polarizing filter and at least a 3 stop ND filter to cut down the light enough to shoot at 1/4 to 1/2 second shutter speed required to give the waves the impression of motion.  Shoot at the lowest ISO your camera offers.

Public access to the beach is between Poipu Bay Resort Golf Course & the Hyatt.  Also, the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail starts here and is a great hike to explore the otherwise inaccessible coastline.  This is a spectacular trail and will be the subject of my next post.

Kauai: Poipu Beach

The South Shore of Kauai is known for its abundant sun and generally drier weather than other areas of the island to the north and east.  Poipu is the main resort area in the south.  Poipu beach is Kauai’s most popular beach and a highlight of the South Shore.  It was once named Amercia’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel.  Its not hard to see why.

The beach area has large sections of soft sand to park yourself and gaze into the warm inviting waters.

The swimming areas are split by a ‘tombolo’ (known as Nukumoi Point).  A tombolo is a narrow piece of land extending from short to an island.

The tombolo is popular with beach visitors and provides endless entertainment.

The beach has a protected swimming area for kids and lifeguard services.

One of the special things about this beach is its attraction to the Hawaiian Monk Seal.  They are often found basking in the sun on the beach after an active night of feeding.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal is one of the most critically endangered marine mammals on earth and is subject to federal protection.  In a very refreshing twist to the usual situation, its the wildlife that decides where it wants to go and the people move aside.  When a Monk Seal decides what area of the beach is his (or hers) its your responsibility to move and keep clear.  On more than one occasion we witnessed a team of volunteers setting up barriers around the seal to ensure their privacy.  See the Kauai Monk Seal Watch Program for more information.

The area to the right of the tombolo has the best snorkeling.   Large honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) frequent the area.  They are very special to see while snorkeling.  There are also a large variety of different kinds of colorful tropical fish including my personal favorite the state fish of Hawaii, the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (and yes my daughter and I spent time learning how to say the name).

For as popular a beach as Poipu is, it never seemed overcrowded to us.  We enjoyed the opportunity to people watch and let the gentle waves wash the stress away.

In the late afternoon the crowds thin out even further as people head home for dinner.

As the sun begins to set those with a photographic eye will see many opportunities for unique and beautiful photos.

The beach is a great spot to watch the sunset.  We would sometimes stroll down there from our condo with a drink and take in the beauty.

Here are a few photos taken on our last night on Kauai.

Even after the sun goes down Poipu Beach is still a gorgeous place.

America’s best beach?  You won’t get any argument from me!

What’s in my photo bag?

What’s in my photo bag?  Here’s a list:

 

  • Canon 7D: I agonized for months between the 7D and 5DMII but in the end chose the 7D as fitting more of my needs overall.  It’s been a good body for me especially shooting sports.  Now that the 5DMIII is out I’d sure like to try that for its IQ and low light performance. (update: I now have a 5DIII and am loving it)
  • Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS Lens: this is the lens that’s on my camera most of the time.  It’s a good combination of ‘walk around’ zoom range and image quality.
  • Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Lens: this is my favorite lens.  It’s close to being Canon’s sharpest lens and a real delight to use.
  • Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Lens: Under the right circumstances I really enjoy shooting wide.  For a crop camera this is one of the few choices to get you really wide.  Even though it’s not an L lens, many photographers feel it comes very close in image quality.  You have to be careful using it at 10mm though since it does come with significant distortion.
  • Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens:  When I bought this lens I wasn’t sure how much I would get into macro photography.  While its not the main kind of shooting I do its fun to take out occasionally.  While this isn’t an L lens many photographers feel that it comes close in IQ if not in build quality.
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 II Lens:  While the ‘nifty fifty’ has the build quality of a something you’re likely to get out of a cereal box, it’s a dirt cheap way to get a very fast lens for low light shooting.  I don’t use it a lot but for certain low light events (think fire dancers) it will perform where my other f/4 lens fear to tread.
  • Canon 1.4x EF Extender II:  This is a recent addition to my bag.  I use it mostly for shooting sports (rugby) combined with my 70-200.  It does cost you a stop and you take a small hit on IQ but it will get you in closer.
  • Canon Speedlite 580EX II: I don’t shoot flash a lot but when I do this speedlite works nicely.
  • Feisol Tournament Carbon Fiber 4 Section Tripod:  My first tripod was a heavy metal Manfrotto.  After suffering the weight, freezing my hands off on the metal legs and not being able to fit it in my backpack I found that I just stopped carrying a tripod.    To get back into it, I spent considerable time researching a better tripod.  I ended up choosing a Feisol Carbon Fiber tripod.  It weighs considerably less than my old one, is easier on the hands (no metal) and the legs are cleverly engineered to fold back over the ball head to reduce the length to the point where it will even fit in my 22L day pack.  As an added bonus it has no center column which I find to be a tremendous source of vibration.  I love this tripod and would buy another in a second.
  • Markins Ballhead: If you do any shooting off level ground do yourself a favor and get a ballhead. It makes lining up your camera so much easier and less frustrating than a pan/tilt head.
  • B+W 77mm Circular Polarizing Filter
  • Kirk L-Bracket for Canon 7D: An L-bracket allows you to switch your camera between landscape and portrait orientations very easily.  It keeps the camera centered on the tripod and up high where it’s easy to use (important feature for photographers with back problems).  Kirk makes very good quality equipment.

As with most other photographers, I have yet to find the one perfect bag for all situations (does it even exist?).  As a result I have ended up with a number of photo bags that I use depending on the situation:

  • Lowepro Fastpack 350 Backpack:  This is my most recent addition to the bag collection.  I was looking for a larger bag to hold all my gear plus laptop and headphones, documents etc for air trips on holidays.  Overall I like it.  Its suspension is comfortable, its well designed and well made.  My only grip is the silly little compartment in the camera section.  If this was just a little bigger it would fit my 70-200 nicely.
  • Lowepro Slingshot 200 AW Sling Bag: This was the first camera bag I bought and I still use it often.  Its a little small with the 7D but still works.  I can carry my 7D with max 70-200 mounted (but won’t fit with the 1.4 extender on), 24-105, 10-22, 100 macro and filter pack.  Its quick to use as a sling and very convenient.  Don’t plan on long hikes though.  It gets uncomfortable after an hour or so.
  • Kata 3N1-33:  This was the first bag I bought for airline travel.  While the storage is well laid out and it holds a lot, the suspension system is absolutely terrible.  Sorry Kata, but you’re going on Ebay.
  • Osprey Talon 22L and 38L: I love Osprey packs.  After trying many bags to hold photo gear while hiking and snowshoeing I eventually settled on carrying all my photo gear in individual padded pouches and have found this works very well.  I have pouches for each lens and only bring the lenses I think I will be using.  I have a neoprene fitted cover for my camera which protects it from bangs.  The Osprey packs are extremely well made and very comfortable.  They have very well designed suspension, hydration sections and are laid out nicely.  They come in a variety of sizes.  For summer day hiking I use the 22L.  For winter day hiking I use the 38L.  We like these packs so much that every member of my family has at least one.

 

Best Places to Buy Photo Gear

Most local camera or big box stores will stock entry level DSLR bodies and lenses but if you want to move up in quality to semi-pro or pro equipment the list of good places to buy thins out considerable.  If you want to buy in Canada, the list gets even shorter.  Here is a list of places that I have found to be good.

  • My favorite 2 places to buy are The Camera Store in Calgary and B&H Photo Video in New York.  I have found these 2 stores offer the best prices and selection.  Which store I’ll buy from for any particular purchase depends on the currency exchange rate and specific prices.  If the Canadian dollar is strong then often the prices at The Camera Store will meet or beat the B&H price and you don’t have to worry about shipping across the border.  When buying gear in the US you have to be very careful about brokerage fees.  Some of the courier companies charge exorbitant rates which can give you nasty surprise when your equipment is delivered.  Luckily, B&H changed their order process so that the fees (which are very reasonable) are included in the price and shown up front before you buy.  No more nasty surprises!
  • Occasionally I’ll buy something from Blacks Photo.  Their prices tend to be higher and they don’t carry much advanced gear but they will price match if you print something out that lists the competition’s price on exactly the same item but only if the other store is Canadian.
  • I used to check London Drugs but I don’t any longer.  They generally only carry lower end gear, their prices were always substantially higher and I find the search engine on their web site to be very irritating.
  • Vistek.ca is another Canadian camera store that’s big online and in some major cities.   I’ve never bought anything there since I have always found a better price elsewhere.  Other photographers I know speak highly of it though.
  • I used to check Henry’s Photo but I don’t any longer.  I found their prices were usually the same or higher and since their stores are all in Eastern Canada shipping was slower to BC.
  • Ebay.com: I have occasionally bought something off of Ebay.  I’m not sure I would buy a body or lens off the site but I’ve had good luck saving money on things like L-brackets and grips.

One site which I have found very useful in finding the best price on camera gear is Photoprice.ca.  You choose what gear you are looking for and it compiles a list of prices from all sorts of camera stores in Canada and the US.  A particularly nice feature is that it includes all taxes, duties and shipping in the price so its easy to compare.

 

 

Kauai: The Kalalau Trail

The  Kalalau Trail is a stunning 11 mile trail winding its way along the rugged Na Pali coast of Kauai.  National Geographic called this the ‘finest coastal hike in the world‘ and I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

Most people (like us) only hike the first 2 miles into Hanakapiai Beach.  Some folks venture a further 2 miles up to Hanakapia Falls while others continue on to hike the whole trail.

The trail starts at Ke’e Beach which is as far as you can drive on the North Shore.  The area past Ke’e Beach south west to Polihale Beach is so rugged and deeply cut by valleys and knife edged pali (cliffs) that building a road is impossible.  Arrive early if you want to park close to the trail head.

The trail is very well marked and well travelled. From the trail head you steadily climb along a trail mostly in the trees.

About half a mile in you come to the highest point between the trail head and Hanakapiai Beach, about 500 feel above sea level.  This is the first real lookout and you get a nice view down onto Ke’e Beach.

The trail winds its way along the coast sometimes traversing hillsides on switchbacks.

The views back up the valleys are stunning.

As you make your way farther along the trail the views of the Na Pali coast and its azure blue waters begin to tantalize you.

As you approach Hanakapiai Beach you begin to get a taste of what’s in store.

Rounding the corner and heading down to the beach you get some spectacular views of the beach and the Na Pali coast beyond.

Descending down to the beach there is a sign warning of the dangers of swimming here.  The currents are far too dangerous to go in the water and more than a few people have died (check out the hash marks at the bottom of the sign – I counted 82).

To get onto the beach you need to cross a stream.  When we were there it had been pretty dry and so crossing was easy but apparently it can get more challenging after its been raining.

Most people were crossing right where the trail met the stream and had to get their feet wet.  We went downstream a little ways and were able to hop from rock to rock.

Hanakapiai Beach has a wide sandy bar capturing a small pond where you splash around if you like.

For a bit of added interest check out the caves just around the corner to the left.

If you have a thirst for adventure you can continue on the trail another 9 miles, traversing 5 valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach.  I hate heights and exposure so there was no way I was continuing on past Hanakapia Beach.  Check out this youtube video for a view of some of the ‘sketchy’ sections you encounter at about mile 7 (and no that’s not me in the video):

On your way back to Ke’e Beach make sure you take in the views walking the other way.  They are just as spectacular!

Its safe to say that the Kalalau Trail was one of the highlights of our trip.  To fully enjoy it make sure you bring the proper gear and are aware of the risks:

  • Bring lots of water.  The trail is mostly open to the sun and it gets hot.  There is no where to get water on the trail and you don’t want to run out.
  • Bring food.  You will be on the trail for several hours so bring something to eat.
  • Wear appropriate footwear.  Although we did see people in flip flops I don’t think that’s a very good idea.  Runners or light trail shoes will do the trick.  Be warned though, the mud on the trail is very red and will badly stain any shoes.  I brought an old pair of light trail shoes that were ready for the garbage anyway.  Also beware that after rain the trail can get very slippery.
  • Bring a hat.  This trail is mostly open to the sun and gets very hot.
  • Don’t go swimming at the beach.  Many have tried and some have paid for it with their lives.

One final tip: Ke’e Beach makes a wonderful place to go for a swim and cool off after your hike!

More trail information:  http://www.kalalautrail.com/ or http://www.hawaii-guide.com/kauai/spot/kalalau-trail

My Favorite Travel Sites

As I’ve started travelling more over the past few years I’ve found a variety of internet sites/tools which I find useful so I thought I would share them.  These aren’t the only sites for travel information on the internet (or even the best ones), they are just the ones that I have come to rely on.

  1. Tripadvisor.com forums:   This is my single most used site.  The travel forums (e.g. the Kauai forum) are an incredibly rich source of information about a destination.  The information on the forums is provided by travellers themselves so you don’t get all the glossy brochure hype.  The search function is a great way to find the information you are looking for.  Unless your question is very unique, it’s probably already been asked and answered on the forums.  The forums provide information on things to do, places to stay, where to eat, costs, weather etc.  In many cases a forum will be moderated by an expert who either lives in the destination or travels there frequently.
  2. Tripadvisor.com Reviews:  If you are looking to see what others think of specific hotels, vacation rentals, timeshares, restaurants or attractions, the reviews are a very good source of information.  The reviews are written by people who have actually been there so the information is, for the most part, free of the glossy hyperbole you get in brochures and travel magazines.  A word of caution: People’s travel tastes are as individual as they are.  To get a reasonable overall impression you need to read quite a few reviews and be prepared to critically examine travellers comments through the lens of your own likes, dislikes and desires.  For example, one gentleman was slagging an all-inclusive resort in Mexico because their selection of ‘fine French wines’ was very limited. Seriously?  I find that as you read through the reviews an overall impression and pattern forms in your mind.  If 4 out 5 reviewers complain of bad food then I’d be thinking of passing on that resort.  Another good source of information is to look at the travellers photos (as opposed to the “professional” photos).  I’ve researched all our trips using the Tripadvisor forums and reviews and without exception have generally got what we thought we were going to get.
  3. Tripadvisor.com Flights (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Flights):  There is no shortage of travel booking sites on the internet but this is the one I keep coming back to.  They have a research tool to search for and pick your flights (even if you book somewhere else).  It searches many different airlines and returns all the possibilities in a very useful interface.  You can use the sliders on the left side of the screen to refine your search using things like number of stops, takeoff and arrival times, airline etc.  This saves a lot of time so you don’t have to slog your way through hundreds of different variations.  Another cool feature of the site is ability to click on the ‘details’ of a flight and see kind of aircraft will be used.  Look for a link to ‘SeatGuru Review’ and you will be able to see the aircraft seating arrangements (which seats are good vs bad e.g. which are the emergency exit seats with more legroom) as well as other features like in-seat video monitors and AC plugs.
  4. Yapta (http://www.yapta.com).  This free site allows you to track flight prices for trips you set up.  While it can’t predict if flight prices will go up or down, it will track the current price for you to give you some information to go on when to buy.  In some cases its even useful for tracking the price of a flight after you have bought since certain airlines (e.g. Alaska Air) will refund the difference to you if the price goes down before you fly (but only if you catch it!).
  5. Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com):  With hotwire you search for a hotel, car or flight but while you can see the price before you guy, you aren’t told which hotel/car rental/airline it’s with until after you book and pay for it (and no refunds!).  I’m afraid I’m too picky a traveller to be comfortable doing this with flights and hotels but I do use it for rental cars and have saved a lot of money doing it.  Since you are guaranteed a car from a major rental company like Budget or Enterprise and I don’t really care which company I rent a car from (as long as it’s a reputable, major one), it’s worked out well for me.  I’ve booked cars and then when I found which company it’s with checked their website to find out their regular posted rates are 2x what I paid.  Another good way to save money is to delay booking your car until a few weeks before you go.  Often the rates go way down.  Of course this only works for destination that don’t have a shortage of rentals (check the tripadvisor forums for information like this).
  6. Google Earth (http://www.google.com/earth/index.html): Not many people would call Google Earth a ‘travel site’ but I sometimes find it useful when choosing a place to stay.  I’ll locate potential hotels or resorts on GE and zoom in to see what kind of beach the resort is on (we’re beach people) or how far it is from the beach.  I also use it to get an idea of the topography of a place that we are thinking of going to (I don’t like flat places) and to look at local photos that other travelers have posted (GE has photos embedded in it that you can click and view).
  7. Google Maps (http://maps.google.com): Although Google maps is a useful way to see a map of a destination, its killer feature for travel planning is Street View.  By dragging the Street View Icon (a small orange man) onto the map, you enter an interactive world of 360 degree photos that give you a spectacularly detailed view of your destination.  Wondering what the area around your hotel looks like?  Now you can see it before you book.  More information on Street View here: http://maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview.  Google Maps also has the ability to calculate a route from a start and end point.  This is useful to print out maps of the route from the airport to your hotel (although I usually just use my GPS for that).

I hope you find these useful in some small way.  If you’ve found other good sites let me know about them.