It is no coincidence that the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands is also the most beautiful. Wind and water have had six million years to carve Kaua‘i into a stunning array of pleated cliffs and yawning chasms, while the rich topsoil of the “Garden Island” is cloaked in a spectacular mantle of emerald green vegetation. With its sandy beaches and large coral reefs, Kaua‘i is Hawai‘i’s most irresistible destination.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Līhu‘e is the administrative and business center of Kaua‘i and is also the site of the island’s main air and seaports. It was built in the mid-19th century to serve the Līhu‘e Sugar Mill, whose rusting machinery is being dismantled and removed from the area. Līhu‘e’s multi-ethnic heritage, which stems from plantation days, is reflected in some of the shops and restaurants here. Located within a few miles of central Līhu‘e are several more attractive areas. The oceanfront district is especially appealing. Though the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort dominates Kalapakī Beach, visitors can also enjoy a safe swim or a surfing lesson.
The one winding road through the old sugarcane fields, which branches left from the main highway a mile (1.5 km) north of Līhu‘e, leads directly to the 80-ft (24-m) Wailua Falls. From the roadside parking lot, you can admire the white cascade as it tumbles from a sheer ledge. After heavy rain, the river also bursts from a couple of natural tunnels hollowed into the rock wall below. Reaching the pool below the falls is forbidden. The walk down is difficult and dangerous because the hillside is all but vertical and very muddy. The best time to visit is in the morning when the sun is glistening off the water and you are likely to be the only people viewing the falls.
Although a bridge makes it impossible to sail up the Wailua River from the ocean, a constant procession of pleasure barges sets out from a marina upstream for the 2-mile (3-km) excursion to the Fern Grotto. This large cave behind a fern-draped rock face is famous for its beauty. A paved path, lined with lush foliage, leads up to the grotto, where you may end up being serenaded with the Hawaiian Wedding Song – about three couples per day get married here. The hour-long narrated cruise up the longest navigable river in Hawai’i gives you a chance to enjoy some attractive scenery; the riverbanks are covered in palm-like pandanus plants and piri grass. There’s a sing-along on the return trip.
The Wailua Valley was the seat of power in ancient Kaua‘i, and the nearby shoreline remains the island’s main population center. A trail of sacred sites known as the King’s Highway ran from the ocean to the remote peak of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale. It started just south of the Wailua River in what is now Lydgate State Park, a deservedly popular beach. Only vestiges survive here of the mighty stone walls of the Hikinaakalā Heiau (the name means “Rising of the Sun”), where worshipers would greet the dawn. Across the highway farther inland, Kaua‘i’s largest temple, Malae Heiau, lies buried beneath a tree-covered mound. North of the river, a short way up Kuamo‘o Road (Hwy 580), Holoholokū Heiau was, by contrast, so small that it could be entered only on all fours. Even so, it was the site of Kaua‘i’s first human sacrifices. Farther up the road lies a pair of boulders known as the Birthing Stones; only chiefs whose mothers gave birth while wedged between them could ever rule Kaua‘i. A mile (1.5 km) farther up Kuamo‘o (“lizard”) Ridge, on a flat promontory with wide views, the stone walls of Poli’ahu Heiau remain in place, guarded by swaying coconut palms. Half a mile (800 m) more and the ground to the right drops away to swift ‘Ōpaeka‘a (“rolling shrimp”) Stream, which tumbles over the broad ‘Ōpaeka‘a Falls. It is a fine spectacle, but do not go closer than the roadside lookout.
The east shore’s principal residential district nestles 3 miles (5 km) in from the ocean, behind the undulating ridge of Nounou Mountain. This long, low hillock is more commonly known as Sleeping Giant, thanks to an outline resembling a huge human figure lying flat on its back. Three distinct hiking trails climb from its east, west, and south sides. They are reached from Kūhiō Highway (Hwy 56), Kāmala Road (Hwy 581), and Kuamo‘o Road (Hwy 580) respectively. They converge to follow the alarmingly narrow crest, arriving at a meadow-like clearing in the forest at the top. This prime picnic spot offers panoramic views up and down the coastline, as well as westward to the sequence of parallel ridges that stretch inland. You can continue up the giant’s head from here, but be extremely careful; the ridge is very steep in places and prone to rock slides.
Within spitting distance of Kapa‘a’s sunny beaches lies one of the wettest places on earth – Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, or “overflowing water.” An average of 440 in (1,100 cm) of rain each year cascades in huge waterfalls down its green-velvet walls. The summit, wreathed in almost perpetual mists, was the last call on the sacred King’s Highway; the ancients would follow knife-edge ridges to reach a mountain-top heiau (temple). These days, unless you take a helicopter tour, you can glimpse Wai‘ale‘ale only from below. Follow Kuamo‘o Road (Hwy 580) past ‘Ōpaeka‘a Falls and the Keahua Forestry Arboretum, and if the clouds clear you will be confronted by astonishing views of a sheer, pleated cliff face. Dirt roads lead through the forest to its base, where the Wailua River thunders down from the 5,148-ft (1,570-m) peak. These roads are dangerous, if not impassable, after heavy rain.
Tourist development along Kaua‘i’s East Shore, also known as the Coconut Coast, is mostly concentrated into the 5-mile (8-km) coastal strip that stretches north of the Wailua River. Maps mark distinct communities at Wailua and Waipouli, but the only real town here is Kapa‘a, farther north, home of the Coconut Festival. Most of the false-front buildings that line its wooden boardwalks now hold tourist-related businesses such as restaurants, souvenir stores, or equipment rental outlets, but Kapa‘a still maintains the look of a late 19th-century plantation village. The fringe of sand at the ocean’s edge is divided into a number of beach parks.
The small, scattered village of Anahola overlooks the sweeping, palm-fringed curve of Anahola Bay, an ancient surfing site. North of town, just inland of the highway, is the picturesque Anahola Baptist Church. Set against a beautiful mountain backdrop, the church makes a lovely photograph. Nearby Anahola Beach is often relatively empty, despite its combination of a beautiful setting, safe swimming, and convenient access. Reached by a spur road that loops down from Kūhiō Highway (Hwy 56) shortly after mile marker 13, the beach faces the most sheltered section of Anahola Bay. The area nearest the showers is reserved for family swimming, while the slightly more turbulent waters farther north are enjoyed by local surfers. Hawaiian activists have sometimes staged protests on the beach, arguing that the state has failed to meet its obligation to provide native Hawaiians with affordable housing in the area. However, their campaigns have not been directed against tourists.
The Hawaiian name Kīlauea (“much spewing”) applies not only to the southernmost volcano on Hawai‘i Island but also to the northernmost spot on the Hawaiian archipelago, Kaua‘i’s Kīlauea Point. Here the name refers not to spouting lava, but rather to the raging waves that foam around the base of this rocky promontory. Together with a couple of tiny off-shore islets, the splendidly windswept clifftop has been set aside as the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for Pacific sea birds. Displays in the refuge’s well-equipped visitor center enable amateur birdwatchers to pick out frigatebirds, Laysan albatrosses, and various tropic birds.
A short walk beyond the visitor center leads to the red and white Kīlauea Lighthouse, which marks the beginning of Kaua‘i’s North Shore. When erected in 1913, the lighthouse held the largest clamshell lens in the world, but that has now been supplanted by a much smaller and barely noticeable structure on its far side. As you approach the tip of the headland, extensive views open up to the west beyond Secret Beach and Princeville to the Nā Pali cliffs. The exposed oceanfront slopes to the east, meanwhile, are flecked with thousands of white seabirds and can be explored on ranger-led walking tours.
From Kūhiō Highway (Highway 56), two successive turnings, a mile and a half (2.5 km) apart, are called Kalihiwai Road. The two parts of the road through this small settlement were connected until a tsunami washed away the bridge over the Kalihiwai River in 1957. The last few hundred yards of the eastern segment, just before the mouth of the river, run alongside the lovely Kalihiwai Beach. Shielded behind a grove of ironwood trees, this beach offers fine surfing and bodysurfing as well as swimming. Kūhiō Highway crosses the river about half a mile (800 m) back from the ocean; glance inland from the bridge at this point to spot the beautiful, wide Kalihiwai Falls.
The former sugar plantation and livestock ranch of Princeville, set on the rolling meadows of a headland above Hanalei Bay, was sold off in the 1960s to be developed as Kaua‘i’s most exclusive resort.
Below the bluffs, Princeville boasts some delightful little beaches. The best of the bunch, Pu‘upōā Beach, is reached by trails that drop from both the Princeville Hotel and the Hanalei Bay Resort next door. Its wide sands offer dramatic views across Hanalei Bay, as well as over the wetlands to the peaks that tower behind Hanalei (see p170), and there’s excellent family swimming in the shallow waters. Pu‘upōā Beach stretches as far as the mouth of the Hanalei River, so rented kayaks can easily be paddled upstream. Princeville-based surfers and snorkelers flock to Pali Ke Kua Beach, also known as Hideaways Beach, by way of a trail down from the tennis courts of the Pali Ke Kua condominiums.
Only one spot in all the islands bears the name Hanalei, or “crescent bay.” Nowhere deserves it more than the placid half-moon inlet, fringed with golden sand and cradled by soaring green cliffs, that lies just west of Princeville. The flat valley floor of the Hanalei River was in ancient times a prime area for growing taro. Later turned into a patchwork of rice paddies by Chinese settlers, it is once again dominated by taro, planted under the auspices of the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge to re-create the preferred habitat of the state’s increasingly endangered waterbirds. Criss-crossed by irrigation channels and scattered with inaccessible islands that poke from the mud, it is home to an ever-changing population of coots, herons, stilts, and transient migratory birds. The valley’s lush, green landscape is best seen from a lookout on Kūhiō Highway (Hwy 56), just west of the Princeville turn-off.
Immediately beyond Hanalei Bay, a small roadside pull-off marks the top of a steep, muddy trail down to the spell-binding Lumaha‘i Beach. Thanks to its appearance in the movie South Pacific, this has a reputation as the most romantic beach in all Hawai‘i. Its golden sands always seem to hold at least one pair of lovers, but the beaches are long and broad enough to maintain the illusion of privacy. Except on very calm days, rolling in the surf is not a good idea. The mountain peak of Bali Hai may have dominated the beach on screen, but that was due to technical trickery; in fact, it’s a tiny outcrop called Makana at the end of a ridge, 4 miles (6.5 km) farther west.
The lush Limahuli Garden is located a quarter of a mile (400 m) before the end of Kūhiō Highway, in a steep, high valley. In ancient times, the Limahuli Valley was part of a self-sufficient ahupua‘a (a wedge-shaped division of land running from mountain to sea). Since then, it has barely been occupied, with the exception of the notorious “Taylor Camp,” an oceanfront commune that survived from 1969 to 1977 on land owned by Elizabeth Taylor’s brother. Part of the valley remains insufficiently pristine condition to have been set aside as a botanical sanctuary, protecting both indigenous Hawaiian plants and species brought to the islands by early Polynesian settlers. The preserve is run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, whose aim is to preserve the native species and increase their numbers. Visitors can explore only a 17-acre portion that begins at the road and stretches inland, supporting reconstructed ancient taro terraces that climb the hillside. A network of trails allows one to meander through a mixed forest of unusual trees, such as the Polynesianintroduced kukui or candlenut, once prized for its oil, and the native ’ōhi’a ’ai or mountain apple. The higher slopes command wonderful views of the coastline below, as well as giving glimpses of the jagged Nā Pali cliffs to the west. Inland, the strangely eroded mountains loom above slender Limahuli Stream, overshadowing the off-limits Limahuli Preserve.
HĀ‘ENA AND KĒ‘Ē BEACHES
Two separate beach parks with similar names are located near the end of the highway along the North Shore. The first one, Hā‘ena Beach County Park, offers a pleasant campsite in a coconut grove where the shoreline is too exposed for safe swimming. Ten minutes’ walk east from here is Tunnels Beach, whose extensive reef is one of Kaua‘i’s most popular snorkeling sites. The name refers not to the beautiful coral formations but to the tubular waves that lure the surfers here in winter. Immediately west of here, the second park, Hā‘ena State Park, is mostly inaccessible to casual visitors, having been set aside more to spare this section of coast from development than to make it available for public use. Kē‘ē Beach, at the end of the road but still within the state park, is one of the most beautiful of all the North Shore beaches, its glowing yellow sands all but engulfed by rampant tropical vegetation. The turquoise inshore lagoon provides an irresistible cooling-off spot for hikers back from the Kalalau Trail, as well as a much-loved swimming and snorkeling site. However, the often-turbulent waters around and beyond the reef hold perils for the unwary. Many legends attach themselves to this remote beach, including one that identifies it as the original birthplace of hula. Pele the volcano goddess is said to have been enticed here in a dream by the sweet music of the young Kauaian warrior Lohi‘au. Upon waking, she sent her sister Hi‘iaka to bring Lohi‘au to her, but these two promptly fell in love. Beneath the undergrowth, near the start of the Kalalau Trail, crumbling walls mark the site of Lohi‘au’s home, while the raised headland just west of the beach holds the remains of Hawai‘i’s first hālau hula (hula school). Here, Hi‘iaka passed on the art of hula to eager devotees from all the islands.
Unless you persevere through the last difficult stretch of the Kalalau Trail, the majestic amphitheater of Kalalau Valley can be seen only from afar. Most visitors view it by boat or helicopter tour, or from the two lookouts at the end of Kōke‘e Road. For well over 1,000 years, this isolated valley was home to a thriving community of taro farmers. In the years after European contact, however, disease and the lure of the city thinned out the population, the last permanent inhabitant leaving in 1919. Later, Kalalau became a cattle ranch and was then briefly colonized by hippies who sneaked in during the 1960s. Attempts to evict them resulted in the creation of the Nā Pali Coast State Park, which now controls access and limits places at Kalalau’s idyllic campsite. The valley’s pinnacles made a perfect refuge for the infamous Ko‘olau the Leper, as immortalized by Jack London in his story of the same name. Ko‘olau, a cowboy from Waimea, fled into the valley in the 1890s rather than face exile and death at Moloka‘i’s dreaded leper colony. Ko‘olau’s wife eventually left Kalalau alone, after both her husband and son had died of leprosy.
WAIMEA CANYON AND KŌKE‘E STATE PARK
Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” was created by earth movements that almost split Kaua‘i in two. Over time, heavy rains have helped form a gorge 3,000 ft (915 m) deep that is still being eroded today, as occasional landslides slash away layers of rich green vegetation and the Waimea River carries the red mud into the ocean. Most visitors see the canyon from the lookouts dotted along the rim, along Kōke‘e Road, but hiking trails enable the more adventurous to explore in greater depth. At the north end of Waimea Canyon is Kōke‘e State Park, laced through by more hiking trails and including the most accessible part of the daunting Alaka‘i Swamp. The road finally ends at two stunning overlooks 4,000 ft (1,220 m) above the Nā Pali Coast.
The westernmost region of Kaua‘i, shielded from the ocean winds in the rain shadow of the central mountains, is characterized by long, flat expanses of sand. A sizable chunk has been taken over by the US military, whose sophisticated installations include systems that would give early warning of another attack on Pearl Harbor. Skirt the security fences by following the dirt roads inland, and 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Waimea you come to the vast expanse of Polihale Beach. The surf is far too ferocious for swimming, but it’s a wonderful place for a walk, with the cliffs of the Nā Pali Coast rising to the north. Head west from the end of the road and you’ll reach the dunes known as the Barking Sands, whose hollow grains are said to groan and howl when disturbed by wind or a heavy footfall.
Waimea is among Kaua‘i’s more historic towns. It was here in 1778 that the crewmen of Captain Cook’s third Pacific voyage – after pausing to shoot a Hawaiian – became the first Europeans to set foot on Hawaiian soil. Cook stated that “I never saw Indians so much astonished,” while he himself was amazed to find the natives speaking a Polynesian language similar to those in the far-off South Seas. A statue of Cook graces the town center. However, perhaps mindful of the mixed results of Cook’s visit, including rampant venereal disease, the beach where he landed is named not in his honor but after Lucy Wright, Waimea’s first native teacher. Situated west of the Waimea (“reddish water”) River, it is made up largely of mud washed down from Waimea Canyon. A plaque marks the site of Cook’s first landfall. Just across Waimea River, a headland holds what’s left of Russian Fort Elizabeth. This star-shaped edifice was built by an adventurer, George Schäffer, in 1816. A German doctor, pretending to be a naturalist but working as a spy for the Russian-American Company, he had gained the confidence of Kaumuali‘i, the chief of Kaua‘i, and decided to double-cross his employers. He and Kaumuali‘i hatched a plot to conquer the archipelago and divide it between the Tsar of Russia and the chief. Within a year, fooled into thinking that the US and Russia were at war, Schäffer fled the islands. His fort served the government for 50 more years but is now dilapidated.
Halfway between Waimea and Po‘ipū, Hanapēpē makes an intriguing detour off Kaumuali‘i Highway (Hwy 50). Although taro was once grown in the valley, the village owes its late 19th-century look to the Chinese laborers who farmed rice here after serving out their contracts on sugar plantations. Later Hanapēpē was all but abandoned, but several of its timber-framed buildings have now reopened as galleries and craft shops, and there are several attractive restaurants.
Lāwa‘i Valley stretches back from the pretty little cove of Lāwa‘i Kai, 2 miles (3 km) west of Po‘ipū. Occupied in antiquity by taro farmers and later used by Chinese immigrants to grow rice, the valley became Queen Emma’s favorite retreat in the 1870s. In the 1930s, it was bought by the Allertons, a Chicago banking family, and a plot near the sea was exquisitely landscaped to create Allerton Garden. Bequeathed to the National Tropical Botanical Garden by the last of the Allertons in 1987, the valley was devastated by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Both the Allertons’ oceanfront home and Queen Emma’s cottage have been fully restored, and the Allerton Garden is once more a showpiece.
Unlike its counterpart at Limahuli, it aims to delight the eye rather than concentrate on native plants. Visitors are transported from the visitor center near Po‘ipū to the otherwise inaccessible site via a mandatory 15-minute tram ride, and from there, tour the garden on foot. The Allertons conceived the design as a series of separate “rooms,” and each section, such as the serene Diana Fountain or the Italianate Art Deco Mermaid Fountain, has its own character. The plants are the real stars, however, from heliconias and bromeliads to assorted tropical fruits in the orchards. Species familiar as house plants in chillier climes run riot, while graceful palms line the placid stream that glides through the heart of the valley.
Serious botanists will appreciate the chance to see rare species in the nursery, including Kanaloa kahoolawensis, a woody shrub whose only two known wild specimens were first identified on Kaho‘olawe during the 1980s. Prior reservation is required for the tour, and children under five are not admitted. A visitor center, surrounded by ten acres of gardens near the parking lot, was opened in 1997.
Sprawling to either side of the mouth of the Waikomo Stream, at the southern tip of Kaua‘i, Po‘ipū remains the island’s most popular beach resort. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki ripped the roofs off its plush oceanfront hotels and filled their lobbies with sand and ruined cars. Give or take the odd derelict property, Po‘ipū is now back to normal: a strip of hotels, condos, and restaurants. The prime spot in the center of the beach is Po‘ipū Beach Park, complete with vigilant lifeguards and a kids’ playground. There’s safe swimming directly offshore, and great snorkeling around the rocks at its western end. To the east, Brennecke’s Beach is more of a haunt for young surfers, while farther along, beyond Makahū‘ena Point, the shoreline becomes a wilderness of sand dunes. The fossilized bones of long-extinct flightless birds known as Māhā‘ulepū have been found in this area, and several native plant species survive here and nowhere else.