Hawaii’s Garden Isle, Kauai, is a true paradise and the only place I have visited that I could honestly say I could permanently relocate to. With a year round temperature of about 78 F and terrain ranging from powdery sand beaches to mountains and cliffs, it the perfect environment for me. (If only it weren’t so far away from everywhere else!) Despite wicked jet lag (we had a 13-hour flight each way from our eastern US home, with short layovers on the west coast), the relaxing power of this visit lingered for weeks after our return home.
Kauai gets its nickname by virtue of being the rainiest place on earth, with an annual average of 350 to 400 inches measured at Mt. Wai’ale’ale. We happened to visit during the rainy season, in mid November, but this didn’t dampen my appreciation of all the natural wonder the island has to offer. Even though it rained every day we were there, it was not raining everywhere, and since the main road that travels most of the perimeter of the island can be traversed in under an hour, it is easy to just go for a ride to find someplace sunny. We stayed in Lihue, which is fairly central, and over the course of a week traveled pretty much the entire island. (There is plenty more to see, hiking or boating further inland, plus some areas accessible only via 4-wheel drive. We hope to do more exploring on a future trip.)
It would be impossible to detail everything to do (or even everything we did) in such a small place, so I will focus here on my favorites.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is well worth the admission fee and the 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot. The views are amazing, especially on the south side of the lighthouse, where a U-shaped crater is all that remains of the volcanic vent that formed this area 15,000 years ago.
The area is home to a number of birds, including the Laysan Albatross, which nest on the refuge, and the Red Footed Booby as well as a number of native plant species (signs help identify these). A number of young Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were roaming about, peeking from under the fence that protects them from visitors (there are many notices warning that the birds are protected, and that touching or harassing them is an offense). The 1913 Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse is the northernmost point of Kauai and is on the National Register of Historic Places; tours are offered on select days, pending staff availability.
We spent another afternoon wandering the shops in Kapaa Town and headed north, up the coast to Hanalei Town. We stopped to take a look in one of the caves (sadly, we didn’t see Puff the dragon) and continued on to where the road ends at the shoreline.
Though we didn’t go explore it, there is a trail from here that goes along the Napali Coast. There is a bridge on the main road that frequently floods, cutting off access to the rest of the island. It was raining that day, so we didn’t want to take our chances and stay too long. We chose an area restaurant for dinner and had one of many wonderful seafood dinners. (In fact, we didn’t have a disappointing meal the entire week.)
Though people say that Hawaii is very expensive, it seems to me that if you eat food grown and harvested on the island, it is no more so than back home. (I did stop in a local grocery store as I like to do when traveling to get a better feel for the true character of a place. Items shipped in from the mainland tended to be pricey, but local foods were very reasonably priced.)
Also on the east side of the island is Opaekaa Falls, which can easily be viewed from the road. Nearby, overlooking the Wailua River, is Poli’ahu Heiau (a place of worship), where we explored some of the sacred ruins of Hawaii’s past. Hawaii Visitor Bureau signs near the heiau state that the Hawaiians believed this structure was built by the Menehune, an ancient race of small people who inhabited the islands before the Tahitians. There are a number of informational placards explaining the sire and the environment as a whole is peaceful.
Another day we traveled southwest and found ourselves at the home of Lilo and Stitch, Hanapepe Town. The town is small but considered Kauai’s art capital, with more art galleries than any other place on the island. It was once a busy town and has
been the “location” for films such as The Thornbirds, and Flight of the Intruder as well as the aforementioned Disney film. We picked up some gifts for family back home and made a trip across the famous Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.
Of course you can’t make a trip to an island without spending some time on the beach. Kauai has many beaches and the sand differs quite a bit depending on location. We tested out the water at Poipu Beach Park, and I sat for over an hour watching the birds run into the surf, then back as it chased them up the beach. Not far from here, on Route 50 (which is the only main road on Kauai) we stopped at The Shrimp Station, a roadside stand, for what they advertised as “The Best Coconut Shrimp on the Planet.” After trying it, I would have to say I agree.
Also while in Kauai, our adventures included hiking the Waimea Canyon and kayaking the Wailua River. These were highlights of our trip and things I hope to do again.
Thankfully I had done my research and knew about Waimea Canyon before leaving home. This is the reason I packed hiking boots for a Hawaiian vacation, causing some to laugh at me. The boots were a must.
Waimea Canyon is breathtakingly beautiful, with each roadside vista more impressive than the last. Waimea Canyon State Park is the largest canyon in the Pacific. Ten miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep, it is on the western side of the island and is only accessible from the 18 mile long Rt 550. The hiking is rugged. At times we questioned whether we had gone off trail; unlike many other state parks I have hiked, there are no guardrails.
The geography of the Wailua River, on the east side of the island was completely different. We chose Wailua Kayak Adventures to guide us down the river and on a very muddy hike (thankfully they had warned us before we set out – be aware that your sneakers will never recover). Our journey took us down the river,
beneath low-hanging branches to a spot where we left the kayaks and started our hike through the rain forest to the Secret Falls, where we took a break and snacked on mangoes and chocolate! Our knowledgeable
guide pointed out flowers and seeds and told us that the hibiscus flower can forecast the weather. The flowers apparently bloom yellow and turn red within 24 hours. If bad weather is approaching (also known as “big water”), the color changes much faster. A light rain started while we were heading back and the river had many red hibiscus blossoms floating.
There is much more to see on Kauai. I hope to return and explore the Napali Coast, more of the beaches and maybe even try ziplining or go on a helicopter tour.
Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.
A version of this previously appeared as Kauai’s Garden Paradise and Exploring the Waimea Canyon and Wailua River