The Aloha State. The Sandwich Islands. Hawaii is one of those places that seems to entrance everyone who steps foot on one of her islands. I know of dozens of people who return back again and again and I’ve never understood why someone would go to the same place for every vacation until I went myself. Now I know why. It’s absolutely stunning. Before going to Kauai, I had seen some pretty wonderful views. Glimpsing the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Bryce or Zion in Utah or Hallstatt in Austria. But without hyperbole, Hawaii, Kauai in particular, is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
Hawaii has something for everyone; for the beach bum you can spend all day at one of the many pristine beaches, for the the water sports nut there’s surfing, snorkeling, SCUBA, even windsurfing. For the explorer there’s kayaking and hiking, for the foodie there’s endless arrays of dishes to try from traditional Hawaiian and Japanese to all kinds of desserts to satisfy that sweet tooth. For the casual traveller there are dozens of beautiful sites you can just drive up to see, not to mention the literal rainforest you drive through just getting from your rental house to the grocery store. I could go on and on, but the point is that there is A TON to do on Kauai alone, not to mention the other islands so it’s easy to see how people keep coming back again and again. Every visit can be a different experience. My week in Hawaii was jam packed while still allowing plenty of down time to just relax and enjoy paradise.
So with all that said – this is going to be a long post! I wanted to give as much information about all the great and amazing things I did while on Kauai so hopefully you find it interesting enough to get through it. If TL;DR is more your style, I’ve included a bunch of pretty pictures. Ok, now on to the good stuff!
A few tips about driving in Kauai:
- You will have to rent a car. Everything on the island is spread out so to get anywhere you will need to drive.
- The size of the island is deceptively large. It takes at least 45 minutes just to get to a quarter of the way around it (our rental house was on the North Side in Princeville) and that is partially because people absolutely follow the speed limit of 25 mph.
- You can’t drive all the way around it because of the Napali Coast on the west side of the island. Keeping this and how big the island actually is in mind – be sure to plan your excursions accordingly so you don’t spend all of your time driving.
- There is not much light on the road after the sun sets. They don’t light up the highways like we do in California, so it will be very dark when driving at night. Because of this, we tended to leave early and come back well before dusk so we wouldn’t be out after dark. When we did go out for dinner we would eat in the near by town of Hanalei.
It’s really tough to narrow down the BEST beach, because 1) there are so many, and 2) they are all great in their own way. One of the first beaches we went to was Anini Beach. It’s on the North Side of the island, very close to where we were staying in Princeville. The reason why I liked it was because of its ample shade. Between the street and the beach is a grassy park and along the beach side edge of the park are huge magnolia trees that hang out over the sand. So you can set up your chair either on the grass or down on the sand but you are protected from the sun by the trees. Taking a weeklong vacation in a place that is constantly sunny is hard for people who burn easily, like I do, so I tend to seek out shade everywhere I go. This was also the first place I saw a sea turtle in Hawaii. I pretty much put my face in the water and found him chillin’ down there. It became something of a joke between my parents and I, my ability to find turtles so quickly. I still can’t get over how cool it was that they are just there doing turtle-y things, not caring about people, and more importantly how people don’t bother them. When you hear so many terrible stories about animals being harmed for selfies and stuff like that, it’s an amazing experience just to be able to float near a turtle and observe from a short distance.
Another great spot is Ha’ena Beach Park which is almost as far as you can go before the Na Pali coast. It’s on the other side of the curve from Tunnels. Because it’s kind of in a cove, the water is calmish and extra warm so it’s great for snorkeling with no blow out like Anini. There is an easy spot just outside the surf and another further out a wonderful reef to explore where we saw another turtle! (When diving the outer reef we were with a group and a boat, I would not recommend free swimming that far from the shore alone) There are pockets of shade on the sand created by overhanging trees, like at Anini. There is plenty of beach in full sun too, to work on your tan.Also in this area are three pretty awesome caves. The Maniniholo Dry Cave is directly across from Ha’ena Beach Park and down the road toward Ke’e Beach are Waikanaloa & Waikapalae Wet Caves, the difference being the wet caves are filled with water from underground springs. The Maniniholo Dry Cave isn’t extensive, It’s just a hollowed out space under a giant rock but it’s still rad. Probably not drive-all-the-way-out-here-just-for-the-cave rad, but since you’re already enjoying a day at Ha’ena you might as well. Note: There is a small parking lot at Ha’ena to park for free but the police were out ticketing every car that was parked along the road. Beware of parking illegally!
My very favorite thing we did was also one of the last. Ele’ele is an area of Kauai, on the south end of the island. Glass Beach is a little hard to find, being all the way at the end of Waialo Road behind the Chevron plant, but 100% worth it. Not only is it fun hunting for glass in the almost pebble sized sand, there’s also a totally rad cemetery on the hill above the beach. The cemetery is the eternal home of immigrant workers of the McBryde Sugar Plantation that used to be nearby. Most of the markers are in Chinese and Japanese characters with a Christian section near the back. The most amazing part of all, the cemetery was uncovered by a local woman who literally had to buy a sickle to get through the tall grass after her weedwacker died. Lean over the edge of the road to some awesome wave action against the rocks.
Points of Interest
The Kilauea Lighthouse is probably one of the most photographed places on the island. And for good reason. It’s absolutely idyllic. Unfortunately, the day we visited it was closed, so we couldn’t tour the lighthouse but the view of it from the parking lot was definitely worth the drive.
At the south end of the island, the area known as Poipu is another beautiful place with some really cool things to see. As you’re driving down Maluhia Road on your way to the South Shore, you’ll pass through the Tree Tunnel. Planted at the turn of the 20th century hundreds of towering Eucalyptus trees line the two lane highway creating a natural gateway to the towns beyond. Once you get down to the traffic circle in Poipu, there are two ways you can go. If you head down Lawai Road you’ll come to the Spouting Horn. It’s described on Google as a ‘dramatic blowhole’ which I think describes a very specific person rather than a hole in the volcanic shelf that causes a water spout every time a large wave comes by. Regardless, it is a pretty cool thing to see. In the opposite direction, down Poipu Road you might be able to spot a Monk Seal relaxing on Poipu Beach. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is an endangered species that only lives in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. Because it’s endangered, when they come up on the beach volunteers actually set up perimeters around them and keep guard to make sure no one bothers them.
Wiamea Canyon State Park
Wiamea is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and once you see it you immediately know why. The road to the canyon climbs up and up and you catch little glimpses of it from between walls of rock. There are a few turnouts where you can pull off and take a look but there is a parking lot at the top of the road with designated walking paths for an amazing view of the canyon. There are even far away waterfalls visible from up there. The red volcanic soil is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, but thanks the the climate on the island, that soil is coated in green.
I am not even going to guess on how many waterfalls there are on the island. They seem to be literally everywhere. I saw a ton just in the week that we were there. Some are easier to access than others though. A quick stop at the parking lot for Opaekaa Falls Overlook allows for a glimpse at a beautiful waterfall without the added burden of hiking. Another easy fall to get to is Wailua Falls. Both of these falls are in the Wailua River State Park, which is seriously a wonderland of beauty and important cultural heritage for the Hawaiians. Keep reading for another amazing waterfall and epic adventure in Wailua a bit later.
The Taro plant is a staple in Hawaiian cuisine. It’s a root vegetable that is used for a variety of dishes from poi to taro chips or fries. They have to be grown in wet fields, similar to rice so there are only certain places on the islands where it can be grown. In the village of Hanalei, on the North Side of the island there’s a great spot to stop and look at the taro fields below. Weird to think that agriculture can be beautiful, but there we are.
I told you I’d come back to this! Start by putting Kamokila Hawaiian Village into your Google Maps. It’s across the highway from Opaekaa Falls down a crazy steep and narrow road. Meet with the guys running the joint to set up your rental, either kayak (double or single) or a paddle board. This is how you will get to the start of the hike to Ulu’wehi Falls, aka Secret Falls. The hike is a little over a mile. The first part is mostly walking along the river with some moderate stepping over roots or rock piles. Then as you start to head inland you’ll have to climb up the side of a small cliff, navigate a few creek and pool crossings, then climb up a hill before you are rewarded with the falls. This was hands down one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, so of course you know I forgot to bring my camera! I needed a picture of us having made it to the falls so I asked a stranger if she would take our picture and send it to me, and thankfully she agreed. That aloha spirit, man. The waterfall is HUGE, over 100 feet, with a nice swimming hole at the base of it. The water is freezing, but worth it after that trek through the jungle. It was crazy crowded but still amazing. When you paddle back be sure to talk a walk (or a tour) through the Kamokila Village, a recreated traditional Hawaiian village with buildings rebuilt using the traditional techniques. Tucked between a cliff and the river, and filled with beautiful flowers and native fruit trees it’s really easy to imagine ancient Hawaiians living there.
Nā Pali Coast State Park
Without a doubt – when you visit Kauai you must see the Na Pali Coast. Taking up most of the east side of the island the coast is characterized by steep cliffs (pali) with narrow valleys cut by rivers and waterfalls that flow into the ocean. The ocean beats against the cliff edge and in many cases creates sea caves. The result is a simply stunning natural landscape that has been preserved from habitation. The only way to access the area is by the Kalalau Trail, which runs through the rugged coast, up and down the face of it. It’s extremely challenging even though it’s not really that long at eleven miles. To hike the whole thing you have to camp, but you can hike the first two miles (one way) without a permit. There are some sandy beaches along the coast and a few of them were used in filming Pirates of the Caribbean. We took a boat tour with Na Pali Coast Hanalei Tours, which was great. If boats aren’t your thing you can also take a helicopter tour and see it from above.
My week in Hawaii was action packed but surprisingly still relaxing. We were out all day but were able to come back in the late afternoon to our rental house and relax before dinner. There is so much to see and do, it’s hard to put it all in one post. It’s really easy to see now why people return multiple times to the islands of Hawaii. Not only can you literally spend an entire week snorkeling in a different beach every day or eating your weight in poke and shave ice and not get bored, there is a spirit on the island that is hard to explain and even harder to find on the mainland. The Hawaiian people are warm and open and love sharing their culture with you. I can’t wait to explore more of Hawaii. Now excuse me while I go play Moana on repeat.
Have you been to Hawaii? What where some of your favorite things about it? Let me know in the comments below!