Wednesday, August 22, 2012

8 Places to Stuff Your Face on Kauai

Before Aaron and I went to Kauai, I received a ridiculously long and amazingly informative email from Brandon, whose family has vacationed on Kauai every year for the last 10 years (lucky!).

In it, he listed his top recommendations for activities, his favorite beaches and — of course — the best places to eat. Aaron and I took him up on a lot of his advice, and now I'm here to share with you, in no particular order, the eight highlights from the food-and-drink portion of our vacation.

This bright, sun-drenched café was just two minutes away from our jungle studio, so of course we ate breakfast there three times!

Twice, I opted for my favorite breakfast of all time — Eggs Benedict — which is the café's house specialty and served on toasted bagel halves instead of English muffins. My other breakfast was the daily special, which was a California scramble with hash browns and a toasted corn muffin. I really just wanted the corn muffin so I could slather it with melted butter, but the scramble was incredible, too.

Aaron's mission, apparently, was to leave no carb behind, so he enjoyed pancakes, waffles and a cinnamon roll. He normally sticks to the Paleo diet and doesn't eat conventional carbs, so he was in vacation heaven. I stole bites of everything and can attest to the deliciousness.

Brandon recommended this pizza place, which is right across the street from The Kalaheo Café (there is also a location in Kapaa). We ordered a pizza with half pepperoni and pineapple and half BBQ chicken, and both sides were fantastic.

Aaron has high standards for pizza, and this was an absolute winner with plentiful toppings, gooey cheese and thick, flavorful tomato sauce. The crust was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside — perfection. Be sure to ask them to brush it with garlic butter!

3. The Feral Pig

We scrambled over here for dinner after a tour guide recommended the not-on-the-menu Feral Burger, which comprises a half grass-fed beef/half pork patty, two strips of thick pork-belly bacon, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, spicy house-made aioli and a toasted taro bun.

It was outrageous — the best burger either of us had ever eaten. We enjoyed it twice during our trip!

Run, don't walk, to The Feral Pig.

Located right across from Poipu Beach — a popular, family-friendly stretch of sand to set up shop on a sunny day — Brennecke's offers everything you could want to reenergize after splashing around a bit, plus super-fresh seafood.

I always crave fish in Hawaii, so I went with a pupu platter of ceviche, ahi sashimi, smoked fish, shrimp and king crab one time, and fish tacos another. Aaron really loved his fish 'n chips — the breading wasn't too thick or greasy, and the fish was moist.

Brennecke's is a great place to people-watch, since it looks right out to the beach, and I imagine it's an ideal spot to grab a drink and watch the sunset, too.

When we went to Oahu last year, Roy's in Waikiki was our fancy, romantic date-night restaurant. We decided to hit it again on Kauai because we each received a coupon on our flight for $10 off an entree! We needed no further excuses.

The coupons were valid for the three-course prix fixe menu, so we both went for it. The first course included a BBQ rib, a spring roll and a shrimp skewer. Aaron had eaten to-die-for short ribs at the other Roy's, so we both chose it for our entrees (still amazing) along with heavenly, cheesy potatoes au gratin and roasted veggies. Last, but not least, the dessert I can never resist if it's on a menu: Chocolate-raspberry lava cake. I felt like I was going to burst afterward.

Not only was the food fantastic, but our server was incredible. He was energetic, knowledgeable, fast and friendly. We couldn't have asked for more from the experience! I hope to keep Roy's a tradition for years to come.

Clearly I was a bit sunburned for this dinner at Hukilau Lanai, which is located at the Kauai Coast Resort and looks out onto the beautiful hotel grounds, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the best steak of my life.

This was our fancy-schmancy, romantic meal of the trip (Aaron surprised me with the reservation), and we started with red wine, salad with really tasty papaya-seed dressing and tortilla soup. Aaron sprang for the filet mignon, and I went with surf 'n turf (above).

Somehow, some way, my tenderloin just blew Aaron's filet out of the water. Some sort of black magic was used to sear the most incredible flavor into the outside of the meat, and the inside was perfectly medium-rare. The creamy gravy was divine. The fish was great, too, but the steak made me nearly die of happiness. Aaron's filet was great by any other standard, but in comparison... poor him. Don't worry — we shared bites. : )

7. Tortilla Republic

A Facebook friend of mine recommended Tortilla Republic for great Mexican food and inventive margaritas. Aaron didn't expect much and I just wanted to eat some guacamole, but we were both blown away by what we ate.

First of all, bring a group of guacamole-loving friends and order the Guacamole Tableside. The restaurant's guac specialist will roll a cart full of ingredients to your table and proceed to make you a massive bowl of fresh guac, just the way you like it. Aaron isn't an avocado fan, so I couldn't justify the $16 custom-made guac for myself, but I ordered a regular side of guac and chips and happily polished off the entire thing. I had an octopus appetizer as my entree, which was super tasty.

My cucumber-lavender margarita was incredibly refreshing (and boozy), and I would happily go back just to sample more of the margaritas.

Aaron had something (carne asada, maybe?) that was unexpectedly tender and flavorful — I was jealous. It also came with the rice and jalapeno mashed potatoes in the photo above.

And who can resist crispy-but-soft, melt-in-your-mouth churros with chocolate and caramel dipping sauces? Certainly not I.

8. Lappert's Hawaii

If you're got room for ice cream, Lappert's is the way to go on Kauai. We hit the Koloa location quite a few times, but you can also find it in Hanapepe, Kapaa and Princeville.

This was another recommendation from Brandon that hit the mark. You can really taste the difference between mass-manufactured, store-bought ice cream and ice cream that's made in small batches with the best ingredients. I especially loved Lappert's cookie dough flavor, which was just as good as any I've ever had — and I've had a lot.

Bonus! A place to drinkDuke's Kauai

I don't have much to say about the food at Duke's Barefoot Bar — the nachos and fish tacos were just meh for me — but it does have yummy drinks, a great location right on Kalapaki Beach and a fun atmosphere. It was the first place we went to grab a bite when we got off the plane from Seattle, and the last place we hit up to pass the time as we waited for our flight out.

I really enjoyed the pineapple mojito; Aaron liked the frozen mai tai. Drink up!


Whew! Now I'm hungry for all of the great things I ate on Kauai. We'll probably have to go back someday.

Until then, I'll be dreaming of that Feral Burger...


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Friday, August 17, 2012

Recovery... And a Small Request

When it rains, it pours.

This saying can apply to good things happening... or bad. Unfortunately, it's lately been the latter.

I returned to Seattle from Hawaii early on a Monday morning. By Monday night, I was exhausted from the previous night of flying and eager to flop into bed. But before I could do any flopping, I got a phone call from my brother, who never calls me.

I knew it had to be bad.

My dad had collapsed at work that day and had gone to the hospital in an ambulance. The reason? Excruciating, uncontrollable, crippling back spasms. Hospital staff had given him pain medication, but could do nothing else, and so released him into the care of my brother. My brother drove him home, and now needed me — the jobless child — to stay with him.

For the rest of the week, I helped my dad in and out of bed, cringing as he seized up in pain and feeling crushed because I could do absolutely nothing to help ease it. I bought groceries and collected his mail. I cooked his meals and kept careful track of his schedule of painkillers.

Progress was slow, but after a few days I could see that my dad was in less pain, or had at least learned how to avoid it. My brother agreed to take over his care for the weekend, and I looked forward to spending time with Aaron and relaxing.

But before I could do any relaxing, I got a phone call from Aaron, who never calls me.

I knew it had to be bad.

Aaron had crashed his mountain bike that Saturday morning while swerving to avoid a group of kids on the trail. He had flown over the handlebars and landed on his left shoulder, hard.

He's had enough injuries in his life to know that this one was no joke. He knew he'd probably need surgery to repair his shoulder. And he knew it would force him to cancel his upcoming cycling tour of Iceland.

We both cried a little on the phone — it broke my heart to think of how much that trip meant to him — and I steeled myself to spend time consoling another man in terrible pain.


Getting hurt really sucks. There's the physical pain, and the emotional pain — the pain that makes you feel so unlike yourself. It makes you forget what it felt like to be healthy. It makes it hard to imagine what it'll feel like again someday. It makes you long for all the things you used to be able to do, and angry to think of the limited number of things you now can.

It can be some dark shit.

I don't presume to know what it feels like to be permanently injured, or even to have any injury worse than an ankle sprain. I've only had a small glimpse into those feelings I've described, and I am thankful every day for that.

I've learned, though, that these things are important to get through the kinds of bad times I've described:

  • PEOPLE. You need someone to lean on, literally and figuratively — someone to help you put on a clean shirt and to tell you that everything is going to be OK. I can be a bit of a loner, but I've recently realized how important it is to surround yourself with good, caring people who'll really be there for you when you need it most.
  • PERSEVERANCE. "If you're going through hell, keep going." Winston Churchill said it best.
  • PERSPECTIVE. Most of the time, it could be worse. You are already well aware of all the shitty aspects of your situation. What are you thankful for?
  • POSITIVE OUTLOOK. Most of the time, it will get better. It was so easy to dwell on all the things I couldn't do with my sprained ankle, but it really lifted me up to think about eventually getting back to walking, running and racing. I celebrated each bit of progress — getting rid of my crutches, being able to stand equally on both feet, etc. — with ridiculous fanfare. Try to look ahead to the good stuff. Plan a killer comeback.

Here's the good news: My dad is doing much better. He's back to semi-normal life again and no longer needs one of us kids to help out, but is still working with doctors to determine the root cause of the pain.

Aaron had shoulder surgery on Monday and is recovering well.

I'm still helping this one put on shirts and remember to take his painkillers, but I'm a pro by now. : )

He should be touring beautiful Iceland right now while doing the one thing he loves most — cycling — and he is obviously still crushed about missing the trip.

A bright spot, however, is that Aaron is a top-three finalist in a contest he entered long before he injured his shoulder. He stands to win a trip to the UK for a professional bike fitting in a high-tech wind tunnel if he can get the most Facebook "likes" on his inspiring story about... well... overcoming a devastating injury.

I made a little video about his story to help out.

For Aaron from Devon Mills on Vimeo.

My small request is this: If his story touches you, and you can spare a few seconds to hit "like" on his contest entry here (edited to remove link; contest is now closed), please do so.

I can tell you it'd mean the world to him to win.

I can also tell you that I promised I'd help him win, and I might have even set a goal of getting 1,000 "likes" on his entry. Whoa. (Only "likes" clicked through the end of Sunday, August 19, will count.)

That may be impossible, but I'll never know if I don't try.

It all comes down to the most important thing one hopes to have when he's down and out.



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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Getting Dirty with Kauai ATV

First of all, I can't believe someone let me be in charge of this machine.

But I'm sure glad they did!

Of all the activities Aaron and I planned for our visit to Kauai, we were most excited about doing a muddy ATV tour with Kauai ATV. It ended up being our most fun activity by far, and one of the most awesome things either of us had ever done!

We were up bright and early for our 7 a.m. waterfall tour. After checking in at the Kauai ATV office in Koloa, we drove three minutes down the road to the actual site with all the vehicles and gear.

Our guides, Cole and Josh, got us set up with shorts and tees that could get dirty. We had worn our bathing suits under our clothes, so after a quick change, we were ready to go.

Aaron and I were the only two people in our tour group who had signed up for single-rider ATVs. Other couples had chosen two-seater MudBugs, while families opted for Ohana Bugs, which accommodate three or four people.

We're both too adventurous and adrenaline-seeking to take turns driving a shared vehicle. If I could do it again, I would still choose my own ATV! They just seemed more badass... and we got to wear cooler helmets.

Cole explained all the safety rules and basic hand signals to our group, had us sign paperwork that swore we wouldn't drive dangerously (I gave Aaron some serious side-eye during this part — he likes to push limits) and got us acquainted with our vehicles. I started to get a little nervous.

We began the tour with a lap around a dirt track just to get a feel for our vehicles. My main fear was that I would get going too fast and lose control of the ATV, but I realized it was pretty easy to drive and had great brakes. I was ready to head out on the real trail.

Here's where taking the 7 a.m. tour worked to our advantage: The trail was plenty wet from overnight and early-morning rain, so we had plenty of mud puddles to zoom through. It also helped that it poured torrential rain twice throughout our tour — so much fun!

I drove slowly at first, especially when making turns, but I went faster as I became more confident. We rode in a single-file line, and I was second — right behind the lead guide, Cole — so I felt like I needed to keep up and not slow down the whole group. It was good motivation for me to drive more adventurously.

Aaron, who was right behind me, can attest to the fact that I rode a little too adventurously at times. I might have nearly veered into the bushes a few times, and at one point got momentarily stuck in a really muddy patch. It was nothing I couldn't handle, though. : )

Cole stopped us at a few interesting points during the tour and did a great job of giving us some background info about the land. He told us all about the Wilcox Tunnel, for example, and how it served as a shortcut for trucks to transport sugar cane back when Grove Farm was an operational sugar plantation.

And it was really cool to drive through the half-mile-long tunnel.

Halfway through the tour, we stopped to swim at a pretty waterfall and have lunch. We could even jump off the waterfall, but Cole advised us not to go head first.

Did I mention that Aaron likes to push limits? This was mid-flip; he didn't actually land head first! He nearly gave me a heart attack, though.

I meant to do a cannonball, but it somehow turned into this lame jump. Heh.

It was so nice to rinse off and relax. We enjoyed PB&J sandwiches, chips, cookies, juice and water before heading back out on the trail for more muddy fun.

I felt way more confident during the second portion of the tour and really shredded my ATV. It was just awesome and I never wanted it to be over!

We stopped to take in the most beautiful scene near the end of the tour. Recognize this view from Jurassic Park?

I put this picture on Facebook and people commented that the background looks fake. It looked surreal in person, too! So gorgeous.

I was reluctant to say goodbye to this view, but it was time to head through the Wilcox Tunnel again and back to Kauai ATV. I made sure to hit every puddle on the way for good measure.

The only downside to driving an ATV versus a MudBug or Ohana Bug, if you're looking to get really dirty, is that only your legs and shoes really get muddy; the ATV's fenders protect you from most of the splashing. Everyone else on our tour was soaked and mud-spattered from head to toe.

I was happy to stay a little more clean. : )

We had a fantastic time on our tour with Kauai ATV and highly recommend it if you're looking for an adventurous and scenic activity on Kauai.

Aaron and I now have ATV fever and might even try to ride ATVs wherever we travel. My friend Joel Runyon recently rode an ATV in a desert in Jordan — a very different experience, but equally awesome, I'm sure.

I can't wait to ride again.

Disclaimer: We enjoyed a discounted tour with Kauai ATV. This is an honest review and all opinions are my own.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Living in the Hawaiian Jungle (Plus, Where I'm Going Next!)

Aaron and I are back from our week on Kauai!

Last year, we spent a great week on Oahu, and this year's trip just confirmed that Hawaii is kind of our special place.

We just love piling our beach gear into a rental car, rolling down the windows and blasting Hawaiian/reggae music.

We love the scenery.

Waimea Canyon.

The sunsets.

Poipu Beach.

The waterfalls.

I have no clue what this waterfall is called! It's on Grove Farm land.

The fruity drinks.

Drankin' at Roy's Poipu Bar & Grill.

And the ice cream.

Ohhh, how we love the ice cream. We made several trips to Lappert's Hawaii throughout the week.

One of the things we loved most about this trip was where we stayed.

On Oahu, we went the typical hotel-on-the-beach route. The Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel was nice, but it was full of tourists and surrounded by other hotels and shops and restaurants packed with even more tourists. Waikiki Beach wound up being one of our least favorite beaches (incredible sunsets, but lame for swimming and surfing), and we rarely even hung out in the area. On top of all that, hotels ain't cheap.

Based on positive experiences I'd read about from other bloggers, I suggested we look for a private vacation rental for our trip to Kauai. We scoured sites like VRBO and Roomorama before finally finding our perfect jungle hideaway listed on Airbnb.

For $80/night, we scored a self-contained studio tucked away in a quiet Kalaheo neighborhood just two minutes off Route 50. It featured a fully screened lanai, which housed beach mats, snorkel gear and floaties...

...and the inside had everything else we could possibly need for a relaxing, homey stay!

We really enjoyed the kitchenette with full refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, hot plate, dishes, utensils and condiments.

The comfortable couch was great for watching the finale of The Bachelorette (I'm not ashamed) and the Olympics on the cable TV. Wi-Fi was fast and free, too.

The bathroom was stocked with nice bath towels, beach towels and toiletries.

And the king-sized bed was ridiculously huge and adorned with plenty of blankets and extra pillows. There were also fresh flowers on the lanai, coffee table and bathroom counter when we arrived, but I snapped these photos right as we left, so you may notice that they're all dead. : (

The owners, Neil and Sharon, live in the entirely separate upstairs portion of the house, and we only saw Neil twice: once when we arrived and once when we left.

Aaron and I were up and out of the place early each morning to do various activities, and Neil was out surfing each night. I don't know what Sharon was up to, but we never met her. Apparently, they called us "the ninja guests."

Neil encouraged us to come knocking with any questions or concerns, but we never had any. He started us off on the first day with many wonderful recommendations for local restaurants, beaches and activities, and that was enough for us!

Enjoying the sunset at Poipu Beach, about 15 minutes away from our studio.

Now that we've had a great first experience with a private vacation rental, Aaron and I will probably do a mix of vacation rentals, hotels and possibly hostels on our next trip. Hmm, have I told you what that is yet?

ITALY this fall!

From Milan to the Amalfi Coast, we'll spend just over two weeks exploring, eating and drinking our way through Italy. I'm leaving most of the planning to Aaron, but I have my heart set on two activities: 1) Taking an amazing cooking class; 2) Doing a bicycle wine-tasting tour. Recommendations are welcomed!

Lots more to come from our trip to Kauai. Here's a preview of what's next!

I did not stay this clean for long...


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