My new travel post seems to be long overdue. A few pictures from friends visiting Kauai triggered some great memories of my own visits to the Garden Isle. I’ve been there at least a dozen of times, usually staying in Kapaa on the east side.
One disclosure: I am totally biased about this Hawaiian Island. It’s by far my favorite one. A few special things about this island make me happy to return again and again.
1. As Its Name Suggests, It Really Is a Garden Isle
From the moment you land on Kauai you will be impressed by how green the island is. The airport is located on the east side. Here there is much less green than on the North Shore. Still in all, the lush mountains you see through the plane window make it look so much greener than its neighbor islands Oahu and Maui.
Then you go see the North Shore, and your perspective on natural beauty will be taken to a new level.
Kalalau Trail Hike
To experience the best of Hawaiian nature, I recommend visiting Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. To get there, Kristina and I went on the 11-mile Kalalau trail hike (a 22-mile round trip). Because we had to carry a few days of food and water, it was one of the most grueling experiences of my life. Going up and down the face of a tropical mountain with all of that behind your shoulders is a very sweaty experience.
Even locals start respecting you more once you’ve completed this hike. The trail begins in Ha’ena State Park at the northwest end of Kuhio Highway (Route 56), about 41 miles (a 1 1/2-hour drive) from Lihu’e Airport. Although leaving vehicles overnight at the trailhead is not recommended, nothing happened to our rental car for the four nights we were hiking.
The end point of the Kalalau trail is the Na Pali Beach. This is where visitors can legally camp for up to five nights. A day hike of up to 6 miles from the trailhead, as far as Hanakoa Valley, no longer requires a permit. In order to hike beyond Hanakoa Valley in the Na Pali Coast State Park, though, a camping permit is required. Bear in mind that due to the limited number of permits issued every month, you may need to request your permit well in advance—weeks or even months. It’s possible to do it online here.
We managed to buy permits a few days in advance only due to a cancellation. It’s possible to do that by visiting the Kauai Department of Recreation office in person. Here’s the address:
County of Kauai Department of Recreation 4444 Rice St., Pi'ikoi Building, Suite 330 Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii 96766 Phone: (808) 241-4463 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Day Trip to Na Pali on a Sea Kayak
There are a couple more options for seeing the Na Pali coast that won’t require as much effort as the Kalalau trail hike.
A day long round trip on a sea-kayak with Napali Kayak, for instance.
I haven’t done this but based on the feedback of others a day of paddling in the Hawaiian waters may also be very exhausting. Keep in mind that this tour isn’t an option during the winter season, when big ocean swells make it very dangerous to kayak in open waters. Even during summer season, trips are occasionally cancelled due to big-wave conditions.
It sounds like my kind of adventure. I may try it on my next visit to Kauai.
Take a Boat to the Na Pali Coast
A boat ride with Captain Andy’s. That’s the easiest one. They offer different 4-6 hour catamaran tours on a daily basis. My sister did this for her birthday this year and her experience was amazing.
How About Hiring a Chopper?
Apparently there is also a helicopter tour that flies over the Na Pali coast. You may consider this option if you’re very short on time and are willing to see the most of the island in 55 minutes. It’s also the only way to explore some remote parts of the islands, such as Mount Waialeale, arguably the wettest place on Earth.
2. Never Ending To-Do List For All Types of Nature Enthusiasts
From surfing to hiking to biking to sky-diving to paragliding to zip-lining to kayaking to snorkeling, Kauai offers a full set of activities for different tastes and interests.
Besides surfing, the most amazing thing I’ve done in Kauai is sky diving. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Kristina and I. Imagine, a tiny airplane takes you 10,000 feet above the island. Then when you start questioning whether it’s really a good idea to be that high and your hands get sweaty, you jump off and see the entire island as if it were in the palm of your hand.
It was absolutely amazing! The most troubling thing for me was getting over the fact that the plane was supposed to drop us off far out over the ocean. It was hard to believe that the wind would take us back to land so easily. No doubt the guys at SkyDive Kauai knew what they were doing. They made sure everyone felt safe and comfortable.
Do you feel like sky-diving is pushing it over the top?
Then check out Kayak Wailua or zip-lining through the rain forest. It’s super fun and your grandma can do it.
3. A Bike/Pedestrian-Friendly Place to Visit
Once the East Kauai’s Coastal Multi-Use Path project is complete, visitors and locals can bike from the Lihue airport all the way to Anahola.
Although the project is still a work in progress, the completed parts currently open offer an amazing experience: to bike or stroll or walk along the magnificent Coconut Coast of Kauai. It’s something you should definitely try in the morning or before sunset, when the heat is not so exhausting.
There are 7-8 completed miles of the Kapaa Bike Path:
- One segment connects Lydgate State Park to Wailua Beach Park (2.5 miles)
- One segment links South Kapaa to Ahihi Point/Kealia Beach (4.5 miles)
- The Wailua Beach segment was just recently completed and opened in June 2013 (0.25+ mile)
4. Amazing Variety of Climates and Terrains
It’s hard to believe, but in Kauai you may drive for a couple of miles and move from tropical rain to sunny and dry conditions. The rule of thumb is:
- South Shore is dry
- North Shore is wet
- Everything in between is in the middle
When it rains at Hanalei Bay on the North Shore or Kapaa on the east side, you may have a perfect sunny day at Poipu down south.
One interesting fact is that the Mount Waialeale region receives heavy downpour throughout the year. As a result, Hawaii tourism officials call it the wettest place on Planet Earth. No wonder it looks just jaw-droppingly gorgeous!
One of the biggest attractions of Kauai is its Waimea Canyon, located on the western side. Waimea is Hawaiian for “reddish water,” a reference to the erosion of the canyon’s red soil.
Waimea Canyon Panorama by Bryce Edwards. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
5. Some of the Greatest Beaches in the World
It’s very cliche to say, but Kauai does have some of the most beautiful beaches out there. Some of them are hidden and some are in every guidebook. While I normally surf at Kealia, which stretches along the Kuhio Highway, I prefer to visit more secluded places when it’s time to relax. Keep in mind that almost all of the places I like pose an above-average safety hazard, so if you enter the water it’s at your own risk. Below is the list of my favorites.
Polihale Beach on the West Side
This beach is hard to get to but it’s totally worth the trouble. You have to drive west almost to the end of the highway and turn left just before the road ends at the military base. Then you need to drive for 4 miles on a very rough unpaved road. This last leg used to take me up to 40 minutes before I got to the beach parking. I’ve heard the road was improved, so nowadays it should be faster. Car rental companies usually don’t allow customers to drive their vehicles there and may void insurance if they happen to find out you did. So if you break down there, you’re on your own. Still in all the beach is absolutely amazing and it’s a great place to spend the entire afternoon and watch the sunset.
Donkey Beach on the East Side
It used to be a quiet and secluded place rarely visited by tourists. That was before the new shoreline property development and Kauai Bike Path came to life. I had some great surf sessions at this little beach. Some people warned that unattended parking lot may attract some unwanted elements, and over time many cars were broken into.(It never happened to me as I always leave my car empty.) Now you can ride a bike to this beach, so there’s less to worry about.
Hanalei Bay Beach on the North Shore
This is one of my favorite spots in Kauai. A dramatic backdrop with lush green mountains and waterfalls makes Hanalei Bay a very unique place on the island. If you’re not staying on the North Shore, getting to Hanalei Bay is a commitment. It’s totally worth spending the entire day here. There is a small town with the same name a couple blocks away from the beach. It has everything from an organic food store to fish restaurants to nighttime bar entertainment. Did I say that there are two very good surf spots far out in the bay? Now I did, but it’s not my advice that makes them crowded on a good day, but rather their first-class quality.
Do you have your own favorite spot in Kauai? Just share in comments below.