Mr. Green Car: A green not-so-green vacation

Hey, someone like me! A "green" VW camper.
Hey, someone like me! A "green" VW camper.

By Allen Penticoff

Free-lance Writer

My wife and I recently spent two weeks vacationing on Kauai Island, Hawaii. Mr. & Mrs. Green Car are not rolling in the bucks—this was done on very old frequent flyer miles, a $12.95-per-day rental car and spending all but three days tent camping. (This trip also completed my long-held goal to set foot in all 50 states.)

It was, honestly, not a “green” vacation. The airline trip certainly has a huge carbon footprint. Driving a mid-size rental car 830 miles on a 552-square-mile island is not exactly green, either. Camping is low-impact. No electricity used, very little hot water. Not even cooking. Up with the sun (and roosters) and down with the sun, for the most part. No helicopter or boat tours. Hiking, snorkeling and watching the waves pound beaches were entertainment enough. A nice, simple, relaxing life—breathing very clean air.

While Kauai certainly deserves its name as “The Garden Isle,” and is, in fact, a popular vacation place for people who live on other Hawaiian islands, transportation wise, they could be a lot greener. Speed limits are low, with 50 mph on relatively short stretches the maximum—cruise control is worthless. Probably half the cars on the road are the rental cars of the annual 1.2 million tourists, and of those, Jeeps and Mustang or Sebring convertibles were very popular. Few used their Jeeps on the miles of dirt roads and trails that lace the island.

Locals drive a broad gamut of vehicles, Priuses to monster trucks. Unfortunately, the quantity of “monster trucks” way out-numbered the Priuses. I never did figure out why having pickup trucks you could just about walk under were so popular on an island where gasoline is $3.45 per gallon. One theory is fashion, another is that these giant gas hogs say, “I’m not a tourist.” Hunting and off-road dirt bike-riding are popular, but we did not see any roads that were so bad a regular four-by-four truck, SUV or Jeep could not handle them. There are a few beaches and dunes where one could drive, but these did not explain the monster trucks, either. In the end, it does not matter all that much—they simply don’t have that far to go.

What the island needs, however, are fleets of electric cars, recharged by solar power. With such short travel distances (but hilly), and slow speeds, many people who don’t actually work, but are retired or otherwise not in need of driving every day, sunshine-powered cars would be an excellent option. They have plenty of sunshine. Kauai has regular buses that are used by the locals. It was also not uncommon to see hitchhikers.

Another option, which I saw no evidence of, was ethanol-based fuel. Sugar cane was once the major crop on the island, and it can still be seen growing, but only one place processes it any longer. The decline of sugar cane has led to some of the double-digit unemployment seen on the island. Sugar cane is an excellent source for brewing up ethanol. It delivers much more energy than it takes to grow and process it. There is, of course, talk on the island of doing just that, but that seems to be as far as it has gotten. The leftover sugar cane stalks can be burned to fuel the distilling process or used in power generation. Future cellulosic ethanol may be able to convert most of the remains as well.

Hydroelectric power comprises only 5 percent of their power, despite dozens of waterfalls. Most of the streams run freely to the sea, with the exception of some old irrigation dams. I don’t think damming the rivers would be right, but low-velocity turbines could help green their power grid. Ninety-five percent of their power is from diesel- and oil-fueled generators.

We did see a number of homes and buildings with solar hot water systems, and a few with solar electric systems, but this technology was far from widespread. No wind turbines were observed, even though some areas were regularly very windy. There is a proposal for a 15-megawatt wind farm; however. I would not be surprised to see them ban wind turbines for the sake of aesthetics. Much about Kauai was geared to low-key. Business signage was very subdued—making some hard to find.

The three main “highways” are linked end-to-end, a total of 70 miles—with no four-lane roads. There is a bit of three-lane that gets switched twice a day with orange cones denoting which side has two lanes while the other side has one—to accommodate rush hour traffic. This is called “contra flow,” and could be confusing at times. Most of the road is two-lane—much of it is posted 25 mph. And just like here at home, long stretches with “construction zones” and low speed limits—but no sign of any construction happening. I believe there are more traffic lights on Alpine Road in Rockford than on the entire island of Kauai. Might as well drive slowly and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

One-lane bridges were not uncommon—and everyone was courteous about letting a few cars go, before taking their turn and a few other cars with them. No road goes all the way around—so the highway has dead ends at the extremes. The road west is the westernmost highway in the U.S.—and it ends in a 5-mile-long rough dirt road to Polihale State Park, where you’ll find a sunset beach many miles long and 300 feet wide. Other scenic roads will take you to The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon, and altitudes of 4,000 feet, where there are incomparable views, and it is quite a bit cooler than the usual 85 degrees every day.

This emerald island is lushly green and mostly clean ($1,000 littering fine), with friendly people who do care for it and its sustainability. Recycling was evident in all of the parks. Since life on Kauai is geared around being outdoors—with friends, it is fair to say the overall lifestyle of its 63,000 residents is relatively low impact on the environment, and if you, too, want a relatively low-impact vacation—do well consider this place. Then, when you get home, plant a couple of trees to make up for that long airline flight.

A beautiful green hike along the Na Pali coast.ds
A beautiful green hike along the Na Pali coast.
You can wash your monster truck in a mountain stream.
You can wash your monster truck in a mountain stream.

From the October 7-13, 2009 issue

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