Kauai is one of the wettest places on the planet, and you can smell it. The rain turns into towering waterfalls—which often tumble into paradisal swimming pools—before it seeps into the earth, releasing rich smells from the wet ground in the process. The wet conditions nurture the tropical plants which in turn add their scent to the mix. It’s a jungle of vegetation I’d never seen in my mid-west home—which, frankly I was glad to leave behind for two weeks. I was feeling overwhelmed by the heat and the concrete sprawl and the to-do lists in Cincinnati, so it was a perfect time to head far, far away.
I was up early one Saturday in June, and then four delayed flights, two layovers, and five bags of mini pretzels later I landed in Kauai with my partner and travel companion. The Lihue Airport is mostly open air, save for some of the gates which are enclosed and air conditioned. We landed at night and walked out into a warm baggage claim area which opened to the passenger pickup. With the dark night around us, my nose picked up the novelty of Hawaii’s oldest island before my eyes could take it in.
When I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning (effortlessly, thanks to the six hour time difference), I looked out the window and saw the mountains and the mist and the dark green vegetation everywhere and started laughing. I could see that the land was as distinguished as the tropical scent that matched it. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Hikes through forests or just hikes down steep, jungly, beach-access trails brought me closer to the island’s smell. When I’m in nature I like to touch and sniff, so I took my time stroking leaves and smelling bark. At one point I picked up a seed or fruit (which I have yet to identify) and carried it around with me for a few hours, sniffing every now and then. It smelled sweet, green, and unripe.
Certain hikes afforded me the opportunity to successfully pick out specific plants that were particularly odorous. One day we drove from our home base at the north shore of the island all the way around to Waimea Canyon. We took several trails for a long hiking day filled with slippery steep climbs, at which time a tree’s sturdy roots were your best friend. The challenge was rewarding and so were the views— especially a close up view at the amazing Waipoo Falls. Somewhere in there I ended up quite a few paces behind the rest of the group when I stopped in a valley of bushes dotted with tiny pink, yellow, and orange flowers in order to scratch and sniff the leaves of these plants—wild sage. Definitely a key element of the spicy, sharp scent of the trail’s atmosphere.
We spent a few days on Maui, too, and took a two-mile hike to what I imagine exactly resembles the Garden of Eden. We came out of a serene bamboo forest into a valley that showcased another massive waterfall. I stood in awe and smelled the heavenly smells, one of which was surely drifting from the white flower just yonder by the edge of the path, just next to the couple taking selfies in front of the falls. It was a white ginger lily, sweet and peppery.
I expect that there’s much more to be discovered in the aromatic corners of Kauai. I suppose I’ll just have to return soon to do more research, this time maybe with a field guide to help me identify the things that really stick out to my eyes and nose. Until then, you might find me ordering some lantana camara and white ginger lily essential oils…
By Katrina Eresman