8 Ways to Fall in Love With Kauai
When you imagine paradise, what comes to mind? Perhaps misty waterfalls running down verdurous mountain walls, rainbows arching from deep valleys into endless blue skies, or the sounds of a creek trickling over rocks to spill into the sea. Sound like a dream fantasy land of magical unicorns and fairies? I swear it almost is. When we drove by the greenest field I’ve ever seen and spotted two white horses peacefully grazing by a babbling brook, I thought I was imagining things. Nowhere can be THIS beautiful. Welcome to "the Garden Isle."
The northernmost of Hawaii’s major islands, Kauai also is the oldest geologically. Here a towering mountain peak holds one of the wettest spots on earth, while just a few miles away red canyons dip down thousands of feet. The island’s untouched interior contains hidden wonders that can only be surveyed from flights above, while secluded beaches and coves welcome persevering trekkers to enjoy the calm of crashing waves.
If you aren’t already head over heels for this fascinating island, here are eight experiences that will make you fall deeply in love with Kauai.
One of the best parts about Kauai’s waterfalls is the multitude of ways to encounter them. Some are easy to drive to (Wailua Falls), others require a strenuous hike (Hanakapiai Falls) and many can only be accessed via helicopter (Jurassic Park Falls). We utilized all of these methods and recommend doing the same. It’s hard to pick the best cascade, but the magical “weeping wall” at Mount Waialeale makes a great case – imagine being enveloped by a green crater streaming with a hazy blur of falls rushing down thousands of feet to the base. OK it’s a clear winner. Read on for how to get there.
Drive the coast
Though public transit is available on Kauai, renting a vehicle allows you to get around easier. You can’t make a full loop of the island’s exterior, due to the rugged Na Pali Coast. Instead, the highway runs in a semicircle for 75 miles from North Shore Ke’e Beach to West Side Polihali Beach, about a two-and-a-half hour jaunt.
Around towns, the main streets are no more difficult or scary to navigate than anywhere else, though the scenery is admittedly better. We did manage to run into a few of what hubby calls “fun” drives – the kind where I have to shut my eyes tight and hope for the best. These were mostly limited to one-way bridges heading north, winding paths with steep drop-offs through Waimea Canyon State Park, and flooded back roads someone insisted we could pass through in our economy rental (we couldn’t). In retrospect, none of these were nearly as scary as driving up a mountain in the pitch-black night the following week in Maui.
Fly above the island
With only about 10 percent of the island accessible by car, helicopter tours afford special views of the remote interior. We chose Blue Hawaiian for our outing and couldn’t have been more pleased. As one who’s nervous of heights, I had all kinds of panicked thoughts about what the ride might entail, imagining the aircraft taking sudden dips and pulling stunts. Rest assured, the flight was calm and after take-off I was too. Words fail to describe the beauty you’ll encounter while hovering above the island – the dramatic cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, the contrasting red and green hues of Waimea Canyon, and the ethereal beauty of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on earth and only accessible in certain weather conditions (we got lucky).
We’re not usually the type to invest in excursions, preferring to explore on our own, but I recommend making room in your budget for this one, which lasts about 50-55 minutes. Through noise-canceling headphones, you’ll hear a mixture of informative narration from the pilot and epic movie soundtracks that fit perfectly with the scenery. Seating for six means it’s more like a group date on “The Bachelor” than a romantic one-on-one, but the whole thing will be recorded and you can purchase a DVD to watch later. The chopper’s expansive windows also make it easy to snap remarkable aerial shots to take home – just be sure to wear dark colors to cut down on the reflection off the glass.
Hike the Kalalau Trail
After flying over the Na Pali Coast, you’ll definitely want to see more from ground level, so head to Ke’e Beach on the North Shore. From here, the challenging 11 mile (each way) Kalalau Trail leads to amazing isolated spots, but only seasoned hikers should take on the long, dangerous journey. Luckily, one of the best views is from the half-mile marker, a relatively easy spot to reach as long as you can handle the uphill climb.
If you have a free day and are physically able, follow the path for 2 miles to Hanakapi’ai Beach, as far as you can go on the Kalalau without a camping permit. From there you can hop on a 4-mile round-trip route inland up to Hanakapi’ai Falls, a 300-foot tall cataract that flows all the way down to the ocean. Start early, as it can be slow going and slippery in spots and you’ll want to get back before dark.
There are a few other trails on the island with Na Pali Coast views, too. You read about those here.
Stare into a canyon
Spanning 14 miles with depths up to 3,600 feet, Waimea Canyon is a spectacular sight to behold. Waterfalls gush down rocky red walls, a river cuts through lush green valleys in perfect “s” formations, and rainbows often stretch across the sky, teasing onlookers to question whether what they’re witnessing is real. While helicopter tours offer the best perspective on the magnitude of this geologic feature (called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), multiple lookout points along Highway 550 provide perfect panoramas. Housed in a state park approached from the west, Waimea offers lots of hiking options, with trails leading to the canyon floor, falls and swimming holes. Carve out half a day or more for this area and the adjacent Koke’e State Park.
Walk in the clouds
On the 19-mile drive up Highway 550 through Waimea and Koke’e State Parks, the contrasting landscape of a canyon on one side and the ocean on the other makes for a stunning display as you climb higher and higher. If you make it to the end you’ll run into another treat, a panoramic vista of the Kalalau Valley. The road ends in a parking lot with an overlook, but if you have time to walk, follow part of the Pihea Trail that starts here instead. You’ll a run into several spots along the beginning of the path to stop and stare down toward the valley before heading into a forested area transplanted from a fairy tale. Beyond that, the going gets muddy and rough, with another view as a reward at the end. Because of the elevation, cloud cover can be quite thick here, and it is advisable to go earlier in the morning – though some light clouds hovering along the route as you walk or breezing quickly through only adds to the whimsical feeling.
Dine by the sea
We tried a couple of resort restaurants with lovely oceanfront dining rooms, but nothing compares to eating in the open air with a gentle sea breeze. So, when we passed a hub of food trucks steps from the beach, I knew we had to come back for lunch one day. There are dozens of these establishments scattered around the island and the handy Best Kauai Food Trucks site sorts them by locale and cuisine. Not far from our hotel in Kapaa, we found an eclectic mix of Southern fusion (think fried chicken and egg on a waffle), Thai curry and fish taco vendors surrounding colorful picnic benches. Hubby tried George’s Gyros and loved how meaty and filling his dish was, while I tested a tasty gluten-free pesto crepe from Gopals Creperie.
Sample all the coffee
Kona on the Big Island may be the best-known spot for coffee farms in Hawaii, but Kauai Coffee Company’s estate on the Garden Isle is actually the largest, with 3,100 acres yielding more than 4 million trees. Free guided tours given four times a day cover the growing, harvesting and roasting process, all of which takes place on Kauai. The company also runs a scavenger hunt weekly on Wednesdays to encourage visitors to roam the island. Winners are treated to lunch at the estate and participants get a free bag of coffee. The best part of visiting the plantation, though, is the free samples offered on the covered deck – the perfect way to test out as many fun flavors as your nervous system can handle. Our favorites so far are the banana nut cream, chocolate macadamia nut and coconut caramel crunch, and since finishing off the bags we brought home with us, we haven’t stopped ordering more online. If we can’t live on the island, at least we can have a little taste of it every morning!