Called the ‘Garden Isle,’ Kauai has – just like the other Hawaiian Islands – a unique vibe and character. While Oahu is more cosmopolitan and friendly (yet beautiful as well), and Maui a bit overrated and touristy (yet very scenic), Kauai is more of an ‘Eden,’ unspoiled and underrated, with a chiller, ‘local’ vibe to it.
Is Kauai sunny all the time? No.
Does Kauai have rainbows everywhere you go? No.
Does Kauai have wild chickens crowing in the middle of the night, inducing insomnia? Yes.
Still, this is the island that’ll leave you with the strongest impressions.
That said, Kauai is famous for being the filming location of over 70 movies and blockbusters, like Jurassic Park, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Descendants (there’s even a book covering all the local movie sites).
The oldest of the Hawaiian Islands and the smallest of the 4 large ones, Kauai has a population of 70,000, as opposed to Oahu’s 1 million, with plenty of space for everyone to scatter. Most visitors stay in Lihu’e, Po’ipu or Kapa’a areas.
We choose Lihu’e, a small town in the southeast corner of Kauai; the commercial center of the island and home to the airport.
It takes all of ten minutes to get to our 3* condo resort. While in Maui we were received by turbine-force winds blowing the tops of palm trees maniacally around, here, drumming playfully on the windows of our Jeep is a light drizzle coming down from grey skies.
Not that we’re not used to it at this point.
To get a better feel of the town, we take a little walk.
Lihue’s Kalapaki Beach is covered by washed-up driftwood, the water is of the same dreary color as the sky. Looking back at us with blind eyes is a handful of houses perched on the hilly side of the cove. There’s no ship in the cruise terminal.
Fifty shades of grey, literally. I take 3 pictures.
Why in the world would anyone want to shoot movies here?
No peace for the wicked! There’s always more driving, more hiking, more beaches to explore.
Starting off early to get ahead of the clouds, we take Route 50, one of the two highways that almost circle the island. Though Kauai is round in shape, there’s no way to drive completely around it – standing in the way is the rugged and beautiful Na Pali Coast, accessible only from sea.
Gas tank filled, fusilli cooked, windshield wipers wiping – all’s set to go. We get into the jeep.
“The seat is wet!” I leap up like a shot deer. “How did the water get in?”
It rained last night, turns out, just like it does every night on this island, rainiest of them all. Which explains the lushest greenery and most luxuriant foliage.
And the spray of water I get from the leaky door frame (leaky only on my side) every time the car pulls out.
Located inside the 4,300-acre Koke’e state park, the Waimea Canyon is one of Kauai’s great natural wonders, a stunning fissure nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Full of striking cliffs, incredible colors and cascading waterfalls, the canyon is 10 miles long, one mile wide and 3,000 feet deep. A must-see.
It’s about 20 miles to get from Lihu’e to the start of the 18-mile Waimea Canyon Drive, a scenic road with a 4,000-feet elevation change, that winds along the renowned geologic marvel. It does have some curves and turns but nothing of the hairpin, cliff-hanging switchbacks of Maui’s North Drive.
We’re surprised to see many locals around. I worry they’ll take up all the park’s parking spots but after leaving their cars by the roadside, I realize they’re here to pick raspberries and what look like purple plums. Some also have guns. Not to use on us, hopefully (even though some of those feral pig hunter types … ).
Damn, we really have to lay off that pasta!
There are a couple of lookouts along the drive that offer views of the Canyon’s iconic landscapes of red-clay hills, rugged cliffs and deep valley gorges; the highest waterfall on Kauai is found here, too, falling down 800 feet.
Providing a large panoramic angle, Mile 10 is the most popular lookout. The scenery from the concrete viewing platform is so grand that spontaneously, we strike up a conversation with two guys travelling together. Chatting away, we take pictures of each other and share travel tips until we make the mistake of referring to them as a gay couple.
The next several lookouts are the starting points to a number of Canyon trails – the Pu’u Hinahina, at the 13 mile marker, is the start to Waimea Canyon Hike with vistas into the canyon through a narrow gorge.
Located at mile marker 18, and another mile further down the road, are the two final lookouts of the drive – the Kalalau Lookout and the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. Some of the most jaw-dropping points on the island, they offer sweeping views into the Kalalau Valley, the widest and largest on the Na Pali Coast, and
Carved by centuries of extreme rainfalls cascading down from the slopes of Wai’ale’ale, the island’s central peak, the canyon was formed by erosion and the collapse of the volcano that created Kauai. Like the other Hawaiian islands, Kauai is the top of an enormous volcano rising from the ocean. After collapsing, it formed a lava-filled depression.
Over time, the exposed lava has weathered from its original black to bright red and verdant green, Waimea’s signature colors. At the bottom of the gorge flows the Waimea river, which gave the canyon its name – Waimea means ‘reddish water.’
The Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls is a 3.5 mile moderate hike, one of the most popular here. It starts off easy, descending nearly vertically down a steep, slippery trail through a shaded forest exposing hundreds of treacherous tree roots. Nothing out of the ordinary, except having to climb uphill on return sucks. Fog is beginning to spill over – we have to be quick.
We skip a trail or two, branching off and stop at a small lookout.
Then, we break out into a large bare ridge, struck with stunning, vivid views. Carefully, I move closer to the red-clay edge, dropping 700 feet off into the canyon valley, and take some pictures – the fog is closing in fast.
The Kalepa Ridge Trail is said to offer the most spectacular views of the Na Pali Coast and the Kalalau Valley outside of a helicopter tour. Probably just a lot of hype, though the entire time we are on it, the intense panoramas of red, green and blue spires rising up to 4,000 feet and giving momentum to Middle-earth-like waterfalls are breathtaking.
(Have you two yo-yos never heard of a multi-purpose fashion?!)
Unlike Driver, who’s American and therefore paranoid that Hawaiian police are going to jump from the bushes, I have no problems squeezing through the slim opening and sneaking into forbidden territory. No one can own Mother Earth!, but most importantly, one’s childhood is like a letter carved in stone – though the communist regime and the ‘no private land’ doctrine in my country have been obsolete for more than 30 years now, no one would think of putting up fences along highways and no trespassing signs in the country unless they were looking for trouble (try to stop all the dog-walkers, joggers, bikers, hikers, mushroom-pickers and metal detector treasure-hunters!).
For part of the hike, you’re walking on a sketchy ridge that has large drop-offs on either side, meaning one wrong move and you’re done. It’s windy out there, too, so if you slip or are blown over the edge by a gust of wind, there you go, free as a bird.
Next on the itinerary is a sweet beach with fun waves. We drive far west but instead of going all the way to the end of the deserted road, we stop at Kekaha Beach, a section of the longest sand beach on the island. We walk down to the pounding shore break with steep, dangerous waves – I’m thrilled to see there’s hardly any people around, not even surfers!
Being the only place in Hawaii where natural salt is produced, the Salt Pond Beach back down the road is a small family beach with rocky outcrops at both ends and a natural reef ridge creating a small lagoon.
There’s no condos or hotels in the area, just what seems like a homeless encampment. My eyes lock with the eyes of a blond, homeless woman sitting at a picnic table in front of her tent. Sizing each other up, she enters the public showers, washes her hair and puts rollers in. Going partying with your boyfriend tonight, aren’t you! I wish my social life was that busy.
We swim in the pool-like area with other children. When we venture a bit far out, to play in the waves, the sharp sound of a whistle blows through the air and the commanding voice of the lifeguard invites us to stay just where we are.
I look at the seal lying on the sand near me – sure, if a huge, 6-feet seal can enter the protected area, so can all the gigantic tiger sharks lurking on the other side of the rocky barrier, can’t they!
Na Pali Coast, Kalalau Trail
Sensuous tropical floral scents … In California, when you drive through Gilroy, you smell garlic; when through Salinas, you smell cannabis.
Kauai’s east coast is referred to as the Coconut Coast because of the groves of royal coconut palms that grow everywhere here. Unable to resist rows upon rows of tall parade sticks swaying in the wind, I fall flat on the ground, taking up a photographing position.
It doesn’t take long for a car to stop by and a nice local guy to explain to me that the coconuts growing at the end of the 80-feet long trunks tend to occasionally fall down, killing people.
What a killjoy!
The Wailua/Kapa’a area is the most populated area on the island – about 16,000 of the island’s 70,000 residents live here. We stop at one of the lookouts that form part of the Kauai Coastal Path Ke Ala Hele Makalae, or ‘the path that goes by the coast.’ Following a former railroad used to haul the island’s sugarcane, the 8-mile oceanfront paved trail is used for walking, biking and running. It offers access to the ocean, several sand beaches and picnic pavilions.
After going through some stunning countryside, Route 56 ends in town of Hanalei. From here on, it’s Route 560, a 10-mile scenic road with many lookout points, wild beautiful beaches and one-lane bridges, some constructed more than a hundred years ago.
The road ends at the Ke’e Beach, the goal of our drive and the start of the famous Kalalau Trail, that runs along the Na Pali Coastline. Because the number of visitors in the past became too much, online parking permits (that take weeks to get) have been enforced; an alternative is taking a shuttle from Hanalei (we got our permit online the night before – quarantine has its perks!). With so many obstacles in the way, one would think the trail must be something unparalleled!
The Kalepa Ridge Trail we hiked the day before gave us a glimpse of Na Pali Coast; now, I can’t wait to start the Kalalau Trail, even though we’re doing just the first 2 miles of the otherwise 11-mile hike (a pretty grueling hike judging by the look on the faces of the hikers we pass bent under heavy frame packs and short of $30 they had to pay for the camping permit).
Spanning 17 miles of Kauai’s north shore, the Na Pali Coast National Park is Kauai’s most striking geographic feature. Known for ‘pali’, a range of sea cliffs towering thousands of feet above the Pacific Ocean, Na Pali is a display of rugged emerald valleys, multiple waterfalls and hidden sea caves.
The trail’s two-mile stretch we do climbs along the coast from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach and is packed with breathtaking views of the ocean on one side and jungle-covered, cascading mountain slopes on the other.
The unprotected beach the hike ends at is really something – its yellow sand is hot enough to set your butt on fire, the crashing waves would make a great 10 hours of relaxing music, the unreal turquoise waters will get you depressed you don’t have those views every day of your life, and the crisp stream that flows from the falls two miles up into the ocean below, separating you from the beach, can only be crossed by giant boulder-hopping.
My bad – based on raving reviews, I expected more, I guess; reviews that called the hike “spectacular,” “a treat,” “splendiferous” and “as unique as a beautiful and funny woman.”
Not to mention pictures made by drones – they should be banned from social platforms, too!
Kuilau Ridge Trail, Hanalei Valley, Polihale Beach
All good things come to an end. A giant bottle of champagne never opened, a condo with no air-con, bed bugs feeding only on odd nights of the week and especially the endless supply of funny Hawaiian names. Take the Na’wili’wili Road for example, or the Kaka’ako district (wouldn’t dare try the new donut truck there!), and did I mention the town of Kealakekua (why do I feel like I’m in Finland?).
Having seen all of Kauai’s main regions – the Coconut Coast aka the east side, the north shore, the south shore and the west side, we’re taking it easy today. The plan is to head back east to do one last hike and then go around the island and relax on as many beaches as we can take on.
A very peaceful setting if it wasn’t for the feral chickens that, contrary to the cowardly stereotype, keep chasing after us like predators after a pray. The whole bloody island seems to be their hunting grounds!
Heading into Kauai’s interior, we get on the old Kuamo’o Road. It runs through several small rural neighborhoods and past a small reservoir and ends at the start of the Kuilau Ridge Trail.
Kauai’s small rural neighborhoods look the best of all – they’re clean, have lots of vegetation, decent-looking houses and no cars dumped on the side of the road (you can tell people here are trying). They’re also said to pose no difficulties in navigation; still, we get lost here.
Not being exactly ‘10 small German towns you’ll want to get lost in,’ we get our bearings back as quickly as we can and make it to the hike’s parking lot with 4 spots just in time to grab one.
A comfortable forest walk rather than a steep killer hike, the easy trail leads through a thick, impenetrable vegetation, restricting all views until the walls of the giant trees open up and offer spectacular panoramas of jungle hills rolling into the distance and around Mount Wai’ale’ale.
Filling up the horizon are wide-screen landscapes of lush canopies and verdant valleys, creating some of the most beautiful tropical backdrops in the world. I’m so impressed by the views I generously pass over the snickering smiles of a group of local girls walking on the muddy path barefoot. Yeah, I’m aware that with two cameras around my neck I couldn’t look more like a tourist, but the pictures! They’ll be passed down for generations of Hawaiians long after you’re gone!
Back in the car, we proudly declare that out of Kauai’s 8 state parks and 67 county parks, we’ve hiked all of 4!
The Hanalei Valley is an important taro-growing region – 60% of Hawaii’s taro production comes from here. The Lookout right off the road overlooks extensive mosaics of paddy fields against the backdrop of the verdant Namolokama Mountain, with waterfalls tumbling down its slopes.
What the hell is taro? A quick google search reveals that taro is a root vegetable with a brown skin and white flesh with purple specks, a staple diet in Hawaii. When cooked, it has a mildly sweet taste and the texture of potato.
Had no idea, and apparently, neither have the people in my country who grow taro as a decorative plant – something about the dramatic contrasts between its large green leaves and blooming perennials.
Backed by 4,000-feet high green jungle hills and $3.4 million beach-front houses, we’re feeling like a million bucks ourselves with swaying palm trees above our heads and super white yachts in the ocean before us.
One of several scenic beaches near Hanalei is Tunnels Beach, a popular beach, even though a rock shelf lines its bottom. Imagine crystal-clear waters, lush views, great snorkeling and no services at all – simply the real Hawaii!
Polihale Beach is one of the longest beaches in all of Hawaii, a seven-mile stretch of remote sand along the west shore. It could have 15 miles, if standing in the way wasn’t the Pacific Missile Range Facility, a military base where access is allowed only to people with ‘a special pass that has to be applied for in advance, involves a criminal background check and costs $25.’
Or you just walk up to the gate and tell the heavily-armed military guys you want to go surfing.
Getting to Polihale Beach is easy – after driving through a handful of small towns and villages, like Ele’ele (the Hawaiian names!), you come to a bumpy dirt road lining old sugar cane fields. The 5-mile dusty road, rutted with potholes the size of Moon craters, gives about 30 minutes of a very rough ride, even in a 4×4 drive.
At the monkey pod tree, we turn left and leave the car in the shade of a small, thorny grove. We climb over a dune to the expanse of beach and say: hosanna! This is the best beach on Kauai, no, the best and most beautiful in the world!
Ok, ok, ok, let me explain.
Miles and miles of pristine sand backed by yellow dunes, some of them 100 feet high, meet with waves after waves of wai lapping onto the beach, hypnotizing in their effect. The sand in the water is the best you’ve ever felt under your feet, pure aloha in every grain. When camping, the night sky above your head is a crazy disco ball glittering with millions of stars, the sunsets are unmatched.
Sure, some poopers might say swimming here can be a hazard, the beach has a terrible road to get to and no natural shade, locals drive their trucks on it and the only part protected by a reef from open ocean is the Queen’s Pond, a shallow pond with a sandy bottom where everybody swims.
Still, the water is warm and clean, the beach huge and open and the location isolated – what more do you need? We’re definitely coming back (even if just to justify renting a Wrangler for the whole stay!).
Taking the old Hulemanu road, a relaxed pleasure road through Lihu’e’s farming countryside and the harbor area, we’re faced with beautiful panoramas of sugarcane fields backed by lush green hills of the Ha’upu Ridge.
Aloha nui loa!