Kauai has a rural, country feel and a laid-back lifestyle all its own. Ask the friendly people of Kauai. They will tell you this is how it should be, and this is how it will remain. After all, Kauai is Hawaii’s oldest island, geologically speaking, and as the firstborn, it has the legacy of paradise to uphold.
Untouched by major development, Kauai is nicknamed The Garden Island. A voyage around Kauai is a sensory feast of green tropical forests, cascading waterfalls, golden sand beaches and the time of your life. Come and make some memories on beautiful Kauai. Welcome. You’re coming to Kauai, Hawaii’s Island of Discovery.
The dramatic beauty of the valleys and mountains of the north shore of Kauai are first glimpsed from the Hanalei Valley Lookout. Below, green fields of taro grow in beds of water that reflect the sky. Rare birds splash among the liquid clouds. Brooding mountains rise in primordial splendor, streaming with waterfalls. The valleys are so deep; they show up as purple and indigo shadows. A slow river winds through it all, like grace in the soul. The only way to get there is politely, across a one-lane bridge. Everyone likes it this way.
The little town of Hanalei is seamless and so are her sisters, Wainiha and Ha’ena. They are woven so delicately into the landscape that the greenery seems to bloom with their colorful shops, galleries and restaurants. This land has produced food for more than a thousand years since the first Polynesians arrived here. It is settled and fruitful. Guava Kai Plantation has put the island on the map as the “guava capital of the world”, and it dispenses the chilled pink drink to all who wander through its orchards. The picturesque flooded fields of taro are ancient and fertile, and they produce most of the state’s taro for pounding into poi, the Hawaiian staff of life.
Beside the meandering two-lane Kuhio Highway, Wai’oli Hui’ia Church, matching the deep green of the surrounding landscape, still rings with Hawaiian hymns on Sunday mornings, feeding the congregation with more than food. Behind it, the Wai’oli Mission House – with its broad lanai, lava chimney and period furniture – is a peek into the missionary past that has influenced the Hawai’i of today.
The beaches of northern Kauai are breathtaking. Beware – you will fall in love them. At lovely Lumaha’i, in foamy waterfalls created by surf breaking on lava rocks, Mitzi Gaynor, star of Hollywood’s memorable musical, South Pacific, washed that man right out of her hair. Perfect snorkeling can be enjoyed at ‘Anini Beach, where the water is four feet deep on one side of Hawaii’s longest reef and cascades off hundreds of feet on the other. Hanalei Bay lies in the embrace of mountains. In the morning, the water can be like glass, mirroring the mountains so perfectly that the world around it is reduced to silent awe. Ke’e Beach, where the road ends, appeared in the television miniseries, The Thorn Birds, starring Richard Chamberlain, and in Disney’s Castaway Cowboy, headlining James Garner and Vera Miles. Its reef is a lacy network of coral canyons beneath the spectacular cliffs of Na Pali Coast. Nearby is ancient sea caves formed more than 4.000 years ago when the sea was higher. One is the Dry Cave, a cool yawn in the lava; the other is the Wet Cave with a pool of blue water.
The 11 mile Kalalau Trail begins here and winds its way along green ramparts, with waterfalls cascading beside the path and roaring surf pounding the shore below. A secret: most of the spectacular scenery can be seen in the first mile. An ancient hula temple is still lovingly tended, and it was here, according to legend, that the fire goddess, Pele, drawn by the sound of the sound of the drums, fell in love with Lohi’au, a handsome chief of Kauai, inspiring one of Hawaii’s epic love stories.
Presiding over all this natural magnificence, Princeville Resort is a green enclave of planned luxury with hotels and vacation condominiums arrayed along the line of the setting sun. There are championship golf courses, fine restaurants, and a shopping village. The resort is named for Prince Albert, the son of King Kamehameha IV and his wife, Queen Emma. A festival is held here in his memory every May, marked by concerts of Hawaiian and classical music, and a children’s hula recital.
The small neighboring town of Kilauea has a sophisticated mix of shops that are wonderful diversions on the way to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge at the top of the promontory. Distinguished by its historic lighthouse, the sanctuary affords up-close views of the only diverse colony of nestling seabirds on the main Hawaiian Islands. Residents include red footed boobies, the Laysan albatross, shearwaters and the great frigate bird with its 8 foot wingspan. Hawaiian Monk Seals sometimes haul themselves out of the sea to laze on Moku’ae’ae islet at the foot of the lava cliffs.
The wilderness and reckless beauty of North Kauai are always close at hand, even from the lanai of very civilized accommodations. No effort is needed to discover enchantment. The seduction is total.
Kauai’s Eastside, from the county seat of Lihue to Kappa’s is the center of activity on the island. All roads lead to end from, so here you’ll find a large concentration of shopping, dining and places to stay. Farm fairs, orchid shows, holiday extravaganzas and music celebrations happen from time to time at Vidinha Stadium located in downtown Lihue.
One of the most unique places to shop and dine is a big early 1900s Tudor-style plantation estate. At Kilohana, boutiques fill every nook, and a restaurant spills from dining room to lanai, yet the house maintains the grace of bygone days. To see a fine example of a plantation home without the commercial trimmings, reserve a tour of quiet Grove Farm Homestead, sequestered behind broad green lawns and sheltered by giant trees. The house, once the centerpiece of a thriving sugar plantation, has walls and a staircase of handsome native Koa wood, and is beautiful furnished.
More treasures of the past are preserved at Kauai Museum, interestingly ensconced behind a Greco-Roman façade. Here, the story of the island is displayed in everything from lustrous feather leis to vintage photographs. It’s a good place to become acquainted with calabashes and kings, Kauai’s legends and people.
The most persistent legends of this island revolve around the Menehume, the leprechaun-like little people, blamed for every mischief and credited with wonders of construction. It’s no tall tale that a mysterious group of people did pre-date the arrival of the ancestors of the Hawaiians who, in speaking of them, say they sailed away on a floating island. Before they left, it is said the Menehune built the Alekoko Fishpond, a massive aquaculture facility, is one moonlit night. The wall of the pond is 900 feet long. Alekoko, popularly called Menehune Fishpond after its creators, is just up the hill from mountain framed Nawiliwili Harbor, where stately cruise ships call at the mouth of the Hule’ia Stream, which served as the location for a portion of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Sharing in the splendor of the setting is Kalapaki Beach. A nice sandy bottom and gentle waves make Kalapaki the best swimming beach on this part of the island. Kauai Lagoons Resort stretches out behind the beach in a rolling plain of golf courses, waterways, condominiums and a spectacular hotel with the largest swimming pool in the state.
More guest accommodations, in a broad range of prices, are strung in lei along the Coconut Coast, where royalty once ruled. Remnants of their reign and their faith can be seen in the many temple ruins. Lava-walled temple once lined the broad Waialua River and their prayers were carried from one altar to the other on giant sharkskin temple drums.
Today, ukulele music sings from the decks of the tour boats playing the river, taking people to the Fern Grotto where, in a sentimental ceremony, they can renew their wedding vows in a natural cathedral fringed in ferns – or they can take the occasion to make those promises in the first place, while serenaded by the stirring “Hawaiian Wedding Song”.
Two beautiful waterfalls feed the Waialua River – Opaeka’a, which tumbles out of the jungle in a symphony of rushing water, and the twin cascades of Waialua Falls. They can be seen by driving along the river and are most beautiful in early morning when sunlight ignites them molten silver. A 30 acre botanical garden, Smith’s Tropical Paradise, blooms amid the lush landscape beside the river. The garden is beautifully maintained by the Smith family, whose roots on Kauai are centuries old. Their evening luau and Pacific revue are staged beside a lagoon that mirrors the dances and the torches, doubling the magic. The show honors many of Hawaii’s cultures and includes everything from the hip-swiveling Tahitian tamure to the exuberant firecrackers of the Chinese lion dance.
You’ll find Lydgate Beach Park just south of the Waialua River. The waters are calm enough for babies and toddlers, clear enough for great snorkeling and are watched over by Hawaii’s renowned professional lifeguards.
The town of Kappa’s has managed to successfully blend local style general stores and restaurants with gentrified boutiques and dinning rooms. With a little luck, a shopper can spot in the eclectic retail mix the kind of Hawaiian collectible kitsch that has become popular and valuable – the hula girl salt shakers, vintage aloha shirts, lava lamps and vibrant floral fabrics. It’s all fun – and beautiful beaches are only yards away. Plunk down a towel at Kappa’s Beach Park or Waipouli, and soak up some sun. Only minutes away from the busy streets, the breezy of East Kauai bursts upon the senses in long stretches of sand, ocean and swaying palms.
The drive into South Kauai takes you under a mile long canopy of eucalyptus trees whose branches form a leafy ceiling, cutting through the majestic Ha’upu Mountain Range. Between you and the world famous beaches of Po’ipu and South Kauai is a great plain crisscrossed with red dirt roads originally built to move sugar cane to the Koloa Sugar Mill. You may as well have landed on another island. Here the colors form a different palette and the sun lights everything so brightly at times that you’ll need a pair of sunglasses handy.
Drenched in sunshine just about all year round, Po’ipu is a nearly perfect resort area. It has accommodations ranging from ultra luxe hotels to spacious condominiums and cozy bed-and-breakfast. There are gourmet restaurants, interesting shops and championship golf links. Po’ipu Beach is a smile of sand where the sunsets are a sacrament, holding the world in a chalice of color while the sea and sky melt into gold’s, pinks and sometimes a flash of emerald. Dr. Beach just ranked Po’ipu Beach one in the U.S. Po’ipu is actually many beaches. The sheltered coves of Po’ipu, with their gentle surf, are the perfect spots to learn to surf or snorkel, and the swimming is idyllic. Adjacent Nukumoi Point has a reef well-populated with angel fish, striped damsels, Moorish idols, black tangs and school of canary-colored butterfly fish. Po’ipu Beach Park is preferred by families who gather for picnics on weekends. It is a sharp contrast to Shipwreck Beach, separated from the rest of Po’ipu by a rocky coastline etched with nature trails. A dawn walk along the cliffs is exhilarating, and a very popular 2 mile hiking excursion. The beach itself is glorious although swimming here is recommended only for the most experienced. Many people like to bicycle beyond Shipwreck to isolated Maha’ulepu Beach, one of the loveliest strands of sand in the state and completely unspoiled. The beaches of Po’ipu draw sun-lovers of all species, including endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals who scoot up the resort sands and stretch out to rest after a strenuous night of hunting.
Prince Johan Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, a delegate to the United States Congress and a tireless worker for the rights of native Hawaiians, was born along the Po’ipu coast at Kukui’ula in 1871. The foundation of the royal home and its fishpond are incorporated into Prince Kuhio Park. His birthday is a state holiday, celebrated on Kauai with island-wide cultural events, including canoe races.
Further up the coast, lava tube forces spumes of salty surf as high as 50 feet in the air. Called Spouting Horn, this natural wonder is a photographer’s dream, especially at sunset when it becomes incandescent with the colors of the rainbow. Everyone stops here at least once.
Nature also has painted the gardens of Kauai with vivid hues. The United States Congress chartered the National Tropical Botanical Gardens at Lawa’i in 1964. This magnificent 186 acre preserve claims the world’s largest collection of rare and endangered plants. The Herbarium contains 26.000 specimens of tropical flora. Adjoining Lawa’i are another hundred acres comprising the oceanfront Allerton Garden. It was originally planted in the 1870s by Queen Emma who found solace here after the loss of her husband and only child. The garden is an enchantment of sculpture, pools, fountains and flowers set amid pathways beside a stream and along the sea.
The rustic charm of southern Kauai is evident in its country towns, many of them old sugar towns with cane tassels waving right up to the edges. Plan a visit to two such towns, Kalaheo and Lawa’i.
Koloa isn’t much bigger, but it stands out because of its place in history. Koloa Landing was once the main port of entry for the island. It was a favorite haven of the Yankee Pacific Whaling Fleet, and later, interisland steamers called. The remains of the island’s first sugar mill are here. There is great nostalgia for those simple days, so people pull out all the stops for the annual Koloa Plantation Days celebration every July. There’s a town fair, parade, music, sports and storytelling.
In the 1980s, Koloa was completely restored and repainted. Today, the little town beside the big banyan tree is a busy center of restaurants and shops and serves the Southside community of residents and visitors alike with a host of services including banking, cleaners, post office and medical facilities.
Venerable towns and many imposing natural attractions play major roles in West Kauai’s appeal. Begin your Westside adventure in Hanapepe, a nice old town that wears its age proudly. Boasting several fine arts galleries and restaurants, Hanapepe is a friendly stroll through the Kauai of yesterday.
Inland you must visit Waimea Canyon – the largest canyon in the Pacific. This is truly a dramatic sight to behold. As far as the eye can see, crags, buttes and gorges march into the distance under an earthen banner of roses, lavenders, celadon’s and sienna’s. More than 3.000 feet down, a river runs through it, patiently carving the rugged canyon wider and deeper. It is here especially that you get a sense of how long the special island of Kauai has existed on earth.
Explore Waimea Canyon on hiking trails or by four-wheel-drive guided tour. It can also be appreciated from several lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive. This road continues into the mountains, and ends in the cool forests of Koke’e State Park, where rare birds, the only ones of their kind on Earth, sing in the ‘ohi’a and sandalwood trees alongside the 45 miles of hiking trails.
At the end of the road, a 4.000 foot overlooks peers into Kalalau, one of the famed Na Pali Valleys, where the fabled coast rises from the sea in green ramparts and castle-like turrets. The light changes constantly so that from moment to moment, each glimpse is different.
At Koke’e Museum, there are excellent exhibits on the unique flora of the area, along with maps of hiking trails and nature walks. Rangers offer suggestions as to which trail will most suit a person’s interests and abilities. Koke’e State Park stages the Banana Poka Festival every May, offering hikes, crafts and family activities.
Waimea Canyon Drive starts at sea level in the sleepy town of Waimea, which marks a turning point in Island history. In 1778, the British explorer, Captain James Cook, and his ships, Resolution and Discovery, sailed into Waimea Bay. For the Hawaiians, who had lived for centuries in isolation, it was the equivalent of a spaceship landing today. A statue of Cook stands in Waimea, facing the sea. This sunny, sleepy town gives no outward clue to its historic importance. Nearby, at the mouth of the Waimea River, are the ruins of Fort Elizabeth, named for a Russian czarina. It’s all that remains of old Russia’s once held interest in Hawaii. The country’s imperial flag still flutters over the broken fortress walls.
While you are in the neighborhood, plan to stop in and visit the Kauai Technology & Visitors Center in Waimea. There you can get a sense of Kauaui history from the early Polynesian voyagers to the present day through their multimedia presentation.
Beyond Waimea, Kauai stretches out along a shore that’s almost always sunny. The forbidden island of Ni’ihau can be seen from Kekaha. At sunset, it is silhouetted darkly on the horizon. It appears to be floating.
At Barking Sands Beach, the dunes rise to 60 feet. People claim the fine white granules “bark” when anyone slides down them. One Hawaiian legend asserts that the name comes from a fisherman lost at sea, whose dog sat on the dunes forlornly waiting and barkling for him.
When you reach the end, you are where the southern extremity of Na Pali Coast rises in a tall green palisade. It is said than in the old days lovers came to this spot for its secluded beauty. But those days can just as easily be now. Polihale sears the soul with its unbounded freedom. It is a fitting place for a day of exploring to end. You’re on Kauai Hawaii’s Island of Discovery.