When I was elbows deep into planning my trip, I quickly realized that I was going to need to rent cars in Hawaii and New Zealand. The bus systems were inadequate and would absorb too much of my already short time in those places. And if I wanted the ultimate freedom as a solo traveler, I would need a car. I have no regrets renting a car in both Hawaii and New Zealand. Although it is not the cheapest option, it has made my trip significantly better and easier. In Hawaii, I was able to carpool friends I made along the way. In New Zealand, I am able to book the earliest tour times and take detours when I have extra time. That being said, I have learned quite a bit about renting cars in the three short weeks I've had one. I would like to share what I wish I knew before I rented a car so that you can learn and hopefully get a laugh from my mistakes.
You're probably wondering what happened in New Zealand. When I was traveling the North Island, I was in a hatchback and quickly realized that I did not like the lack of security with it. I had no way to hide my backpack in the trunk when I left my car. So, a couple of days before I arrived in the South Island, I changed my rental car booking to a sedan. Unfortunately, I did not pay attention to what company the rental was coming from because I was being careless. When I landed in Christchurch Airport, I pulled up my reservation and did not recognize the company, Drive NZ. I googled the name and this image came up:
Yes, I was less than pleased. Yes, my gut was telling me to run for the hills. No, I did not listen to it. I decided I would take the shuttle to pick up the car and just make sure I was not getting ripped off, because it was late and I did not know if I could cancel my reservation (turns out I could not cancel). When I walked up to the counter (which was in a different company's building because Drive NZ does not even have one -- RED FLAG #2), I told the representative to not charge my card yet so I could take a look at the car. I marked every area of prior damage on the contract and was on my way. The car drove fine and I was feeling a bit of relief.
The next morning, I got up early to drive to the coast for a wild dolphin swim tour. I have always wanted to swim with dolphins, so this was an exciting day for me. I placed my bags in the trunk of the 2013 Toyota Corolla and as I shut the trunk's door, I realized my keys were still in there. For a minute, I stared at the trunk in silence. I even checked all my pockets and the ground in case I happened to put it somewhere else. But I knew. I always put the keys down in the trunk when I am situating my bags. It was clear to me that I was not going to be swimming with any wild dolphins.
What happened next was a circus.
I called Drive NZ and they told me to call AA.
I called AA, they told me the car was not registered and it would cost about $150 NZD to come and unlock it (but she did mention the AAA overseas partner program with AA and with an AA membership it would be free).
I called Chase, they told me it would cost $75 to unlock the car (which I later found out was only in the United States, the first guy just misheard me say I was abroad).
I called Drive NZ again to tell them the car was not registered, they told me to call a locksmith (A LOCKSMITH?! WHAT THE HECK?!).
I called AAA to get my membership card emailed to me, they told me my membership expired.
I called my lovely father, and he got me added to his AAA plan immediately.
I called AAA, they sent me my new membership card.
I walked 30 minutes to the nearest AA Centre and signed myself up for an overseas membership, which they then told me it would take 24 hours to activate.
I called AA immediately (I mean, I got this far so why not at least try?) and thankfully they did not care that I had just signed up for the overseas membership. AA told me someone would be by my car in 15 minutes to an hour. I sprinted back to my hostel (30-minute walk, remember?) and made it back as the AA serviceman was coming out of my hostel back to his van. The man (I wish I had got your name, kind sir!) unlocked the car in .5 seconds and I was free to finally drive to the coast -- three hours later. No, sadly I did not make it to my dolphin tour.
This is the first and hopefully only time I lock my car keys in the trunk. Although the experience was not pleasant, it was a minor bump in the course of my trip. I ultimately took it as a sign that I will need AA's assistance again on my trip, so I might as well get it right at the beginning when I am in a city center. Future Michele here! Turns out, I did need AA's services again. While driving back from the coast, I felt really tried and sick. I decided to listen to my body and pull over to take a nap. Unfortunately, it was raining and I accidentally left my headlights on. While I was asleep, my car rental's battery died and AA literally saved me from being stuck in the middle of nowhere.
My experiences only solidified that Kiwis (nickname for New Zealanders) are some of the friendliest and nicest people I have ever met. Every Kiwi I came into contact with that morning was incredibly kind, helpful, and understanding. From the woman at the hostel who printed my AAA membership card for free and recommended a delicious coffee shop to stop by, to the barista who asked me if there was enough flavored syrup for my liking, to the AA employee who was patient, and the AA serviceman who was a ray of sunshine while unlocking my rental car.
I would also like to give a special shout out my dad. Thank you for advising me and adding me to your AAA membership so I can reap the benefits. You are the real hero of this story!
“It all starts with words,” said an older gentleman at a popular vegetarian restaurant, The Greenery Cafe, in Kauai. He was the third local to strike up a conversation with me as I ate my lunch. The locals at this particular establishment were kooky, but extremely friendly and for that I was grateful. I had just landed in quiet Kauai from bustling O’ahu, and was already feeling the friendly and laid back vibe on the island.
I couldn’t help but smile at what the old man said. It was such a simple and true statement, especially in relation to my trip. If I didn't strike up conversations with the strangers around me, I would be left traveling by myself and quite lonely. Sometimes I purposely won't talk to people if I know I want a day to myself, but for the most part, these random conversations are the start of memorable experiences with like-minded travelers.
When I was younger, I considered myself an extrovert. As I have matured, I now consider myself an ambivert. I like to be around people but I need time to myself to recharge. This trip has unleashed more of my extroverted side but has also helped me embrace my introverted side. The last few days I have spent mostly solo and it's been really pleasant. I am learning to check in with myself and respect if I need time socializing or alone. On this particular day in Kauai, I was starving for socialization and these kind locals were just what I needed.
Kauai is known as a slower paced Hawaiian island. In comparison to the others, it is also the greenest — but it comes at a price. On Kauai, it rains a lot and this particular time of year is its rainiest. It’s tallest mountain, Mt Waialeale, is actually one of the wettest places on earth, getting almost 10,000 mm of rainfall a year. Aside from beautiful and lush greenery, when I look back on Kauai I will always remember the rain, as well as mud and roosters (more on that later).
After grabbing a bite to eat at The Greenery Cafe, I made my way to Island Helicopters for a helicopter tour of the island. When budgeting for my trip, I made a point to include what I like to call “once-in-a-lifetime” activities and this was one of them. Kauai is home to some of the most beautiful mountains and waterfalls in the world, and helicopters provide the best perspective on its landscapes. And considering the most coveted part of the island — the Na Pali Coast -- has been closed due to landslides from flooding earlier this year, helicopters are the only way to see all of the island in its glory.
The helicopter ride was surreal. We flew through Waimea Canyon and saw the beautiful Waipoo falls, which was featured in the original Jurassic Park. The canyons have layers of red soil contrasted with patches of green trees. Then we flew over the Na Pali Coast and Koke’e State Park. I was in awe of the ginormous mountain ridges and the crystal blue water. At one point, we flew into one of the mountain’s ridges and I swear I almost cried. I blame it on the fact that they were playing cheesy movie scores and at that exact moment, Tennessee by Hans Zimmer was playing, i.e. the classical love song from the movie Pearl Harbor. I feel very blessed to have been privileged enough to see Kauai from the helicopter and would definitely recommend the experience to anyone who visits. If I had to do one thing differently, I would choose a tour that has the doors off. The windows were fine, but wow it would have been really spectacular without them!
After the helicopter tour, I made my way to the Kauai Beach House Hostel in Kapa’a, on the east side of the Island. Kauai has Koke’e State Park in the northwest, beaches and laidback towns in the South, small towns on the east, and beautiful beaches and private golf clubs in the North. Similarly to O’ahu, cars cannot drive around the entire island because mountains block the northwest corner.
The hostel is situated right in the middle of Kapa’a and on the oceanfront. Aside from the beautiful ocean views right from my dorm room, the hostel was not that pleasant of an experience. We described it as a rundown treehouse, with an open-air concept and beds wherever physically possible. The room I was in permanently had the windows and the sliding glass door open. At night, we would get eaten alive by mosquitos. One night I got my hands on a fan — Richard, if you're reading this, thank you! — and it was the best thing since sliced bread. I woke up with zero new mosquito bites. Despite all of this, the sunrises in the mornings were unbeatable — and trust me, I saw everyone one of them because there are wild roosters on the island that wake everyone up at 4:30 am — and the company staying there was great. I made good friends with a group of girls and we traveled around the island together, going on hikes and exploring beaches. I also met two guys that are going to be in Tokyo the same time as me, so we are planning to meet up there. Everyone at the hostel also made most of their breakfasts and dinners back in the hostel kitchen, which was great for making plans in the morning and relaxing in the evenings.
My first full day in Kauai, it poured buckets. We ate our breakfasts and checked the weather around the island to see if any of the sites would be clear later in the morning. The weather forecasts were gloomy, but we decided to venture to Queen’s Bath anyways. Queen’s Bath is an area along the north shore with rocky pools of clear blue water. It’s a magical place with stunning views of the mountains in Koke’e State Park and sea turtles that munch on the algae growing on the rocks. The trail to Queen’s Bath is another story though. Remember that rain from the morning? Well, the trail is a downhill slope through slippery mud and tree roots that create large muddy pools. It was a slow and dirty trek to the pools, but well worth the slips and falls along the way.
Exhausted from the muddy trek back to the car, we made our way to Hideaway Beach nearby. This was by far my favorite beach on the island. It’s a tiny, secluded beach that looks like it’s from a movie where the main character is stranded on a deserted island. We walked through some bushes and down a very steep hill lined with ropes for balance to find the small beach, encased by large tropical trees. It even has a small view of Koke’e State Park. I found this beach so appealing that I spent my last afternoon there reading a book and swimming with sea turtles.
The next day we spent exploring the waterfalls nearby Kapa’a. The first was Wailua Falls, a large waterfall that people hike down to and swim in. Remember that rain again? Well, the trail was extremely steep and slippery, and the waterfall was way too powerful to event consider swimming. We also found out at the bottom that we accidentally took the more difficult and dangerous trail down — sorry mom and dad! We were extremely careful and definitely took our time, but the adrenaline was pumping. Feeling defeated, we made our way to Hoopii Falls, an easier trail to two waterfalls. The first waterfall had a short cliff jump and a lazy river feel to it. The second had a large pool of water for swimming and a rope swing. My favorite part was the middle part of the trail where we were surrounded my ginormous trees, covered in these beautiful prehistoric-looking vines.
Nearby our hostel was Nounou Mountain, which has a great trail for sunrise hikes. I gathered up the two guys that I'll be meeting in Tokyo and we worked our way up the Sleeping Giant Trail in the darkness, as the sunlight slowly seeped into the sky. The view from the top was stunning, with mountains in the back and the ocean in the front. I’m a huge fan of a good sunrise hike, and this definitely did not disappoint.
After almost ten days of nonstop hikes and activities, I was more than pleased to spend the rest of the day doing less strenuous site seeing. We visited Kilauea Lighthouse, which is a reserve for all types of tropical birds, and made our way to Kauapea, or “Secret”, beach. We bought a coconut along the way and cracked it open to scoop out the meat while watching the waves crash in the distance.
The next morning, the weather was finally supposed to be nice in Koke’e State Park, so we made our way around the island to attempt the Awa’awapuhi Trail. The trail takes about an hour and a half downhill to the end of a mountain ridge and supposedly boasts incredible views of Koke’e. Well, when we hiked it we were completely encased in clouds and the hike back up the ridge was exhausting. It was a fun hike nonetheless because we kept each other busy talking about anything and everything. We finished off the day on the beach in Polihale State Park. To access the beach, we had to drive down a very long gravel road at a snail’s pace.
For the second half of my trip to Kauai, I stayed with my high school friend, Emily, who recently moved to the island. She lives in Koloa, a cute town in the southern part of the island, with her boyfriend. Luckily, she is still exploring the island herself so we got to try new trails together and she also showed me some of her local spots. It was a breath of fresh air to stay in her home, considering I was getting eaten alive back at the hostel. I am so grateful for her hospitality and had so much fun catching up!
Our first day together, we hiked the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail along the Poipu beach coast. The hike starts on Shipwreck beach and follows the coastline. The weather could not have been more perfect and the hike was stunning. The terrain felt like a mix of Hawaii, Maine, and what I imagine to be Arizona. There were rocks, sand, pine trees, colorful cliff sides, and of course the gorgeous blue water. This was one of my highlights while staying on Kauai.
The following day, we took advantage of the sunny weather in Koke’e State Park and spent the entire morning there. We started the Kalepa Ridge Trail right after sunrise and it was the perfect timing. The morning fog hadn’t begun and we had unobstructed views of the most beautiful mountain ridges. I’m talking “best hike of my life” views. The hike was pretty terrifying since it walks along a ridge with steep drop-offs, but it was incredible. I seriously felt like I was on top of the world looking down at Koke’e State Park and watching the “tiny” helicopters fly by below us. We finished the hike just in time to do the Waimea Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls before it started to rain. The canyon was even more breathtaking from the inside of it, as it was from the helicopter tour. The trail ends at the top of Waipoo Falls. We had the best day hiking and most definitely spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing back at Emily’s, aside from catching the sunset from Salt Ponds Beach nearby.
On my last two days in Kauai, I was no longer staying in the hostel and Emily had work, so I was on my own. I spent my last two days visiting local farmers markets, eating way too much tropical fruit, snorkeling with turtles and tropical fish, reading books, and relaxing on different beaches. It was delightful and I indulged in every second of it.
Watch my video blog from Kauai:
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!