Steve and Monika’s Hawai’i
Kauai is my favorite island. Although I have been there only once, and for just a few days, I have very pleasant memories and look forward to visiting the Garden Island again.
I tend to view Kauai as a big, inverted “C” because this is the only major Hawaiian Island that you cannot drive all the way around. The western, Na Pali, coast is completely road-free; the only way to cross this area is on foot via an extremely difficult hike on cliffside trails that are actually quite dangerous in places (the one Monika discusses below is not the dangerous part). My favorite part of Kauai is the northern side, where the town of Hanalei is located. This is the last town on the road to the where the Na Pali coast begins. Hanalei retains the flavor of an older, sleepy little town. But, the rest of the world is slowly discovering Kauai, and very large and fancy resorts have been built on the north side in Princeville, and in several areas on the southwestern corner. Nonetheless, Kauai, particularly the Na Pali Coast, illustrates why Hawaii will always have plenty of natural beauty to enjoy—there are just too many places where one cannot build, so those places must remain wild! I doubt that there will ever be a road on the western side of Kauai—it is just too wild, and the rocks that make up the cliffs are not strong or stable enough to hold a highway similar to California’s Highway 1.
Geography. Kauai is the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands, estimated to be 5.1 million years old (still much, much younger than the last dinosaur to roam the Earth), and its geography is unique because of this. Kauai is located about 100 miles northwest of Oahu—about the same distance from Oahu to Maui—but because Kauai does not have a peak higher than 5,000 feet, this island can not be seen from Oahu’s North Shore. Kauai has the richest jungle of all the islands because it has the most rainfall of all. I am not sure why this is except that Kauai’s lower peaks (though slightly higher than Oahu’s) are spread out in a broader area, so they probably catch and hold the clouds drifting off the ocean longer. One location on Kauai, Waialeale Crater, receives an average of 480 inches of rain per year. If you go to www.youtube.com and type “Waialeale Crater,” you will see some fantastic videos of the waterfalls in Kauai that have carved out this beautiful landscape over the past five million years. Many of these waterfalls are easily seen on the drive through Waimea Canyon, and from sailing trips around the Na Pali Coast.
One nice view from Kauai that you can see, very clearly from several points along the southern coast, is the island of Ni’ihau. This is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian islands, with only 69.5 square miles of area. From a distance, the geology looks very interesting. The southern half of the island looks to be composed of relatively high peaks, but the northern half looks very flat. The Island is still privately owned, and only a few, very monitored, tours are allowed. We have never been there, but always enjoy the sight of it from Kauai.
Overall impressions of the scenery. The island of Kauai is known for its heavy rainfall (as Steve mentioned), panoramic views, tropical forest, and rugged coastline. My personal dominating memory of Kauai is green, green, green! Mountains are deeply carved and lush green, with plenty of waterfalls visible from the road. I remember that we once stopped to have lunch in a small Mexican restaurant on the side of the road. Our table was outside, as is common in Hawaii. While waiting for the meal to be served, I looked around and was enthralled to see two waterfalls coming down the distant mountains. Imagine how big these waterfalls must be to have been clearly visible from such a distance! Much closer, only a few meters from the table, were various plants with colorful flowers … and these were not part of the restaurant decor. These plants were actually jungle trying to take over the restaurant grounds! Another feature I have seen only on Kauai and not on any other Hawaiian islands are rivers. Kauai has quite a number of them, and they are popular for kayaking. Because of its rich green and jungle-like landscape, Kauai has been a favorite place for filmmaking. Jurassic Park was filmed there, as was King Kong. Kauai’s scenery is truly magnificent, but there are two spectacular sites for which this island is famous: Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast.
Waimea Canyon is a mini version of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I have seen the Grand Canyon and I was not disappointed with its Hawaiian version. It is equally amazing. Waimea Canyon is the largest canyon in the Pacific area. It measures 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and more than 3,500 feet deep. It was carved thousands of years ago by rivers and floods flowing from Mount Waialeale’s summit. The layers in the canyon walls depict different volcanic eruptions and lava flows that have occurred over the centuries. One characteristic of the canyon is the rainbow of colors that dance along the canyon peaks. At the top of the canyon, the air is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the valley, and by afternoon many areas are often hidden in clouds. To get the best visibility, plan a trip to Waimea Canyon in the morning. Waimea Canyon Road (40 miles, no gas stations) traverses the canyon and provides excellent lookouts of the gorge, with photo opportunities at almost every turn. The canyon is protected by the Koke’e State Park, which encompasses 4,345 acres of land and has 45 miles of trails that run through the canyon and the nearby Alakai Swamp. Although we did not do any serious Waimea Canyon hikes, we heard that they were truly spectacular. If you opt for a hike, make sure to check with Rangers at the Ranger Station located at the Koke’e Museum, as some of the hikes require permits.
The Na Pali Coast is the second Kauai hallmark place. Historians believe this rugged yet beautiful fifteen-mile stretch of coastline was the first area of Kauai to be settled by the ancient Hawaiians. Na Pali literally means “the Cliffs.” These sea cliffs begin at Ke’e Beach and continue around the north and west portion of Kauai, ending at Polihale Beach. They extend upwards of 1000 feet and are made up of a series of “hanging” and traditional valleys and cliffs. A “hanging” valley is one that ends abruptly at a sea cliff rather than gently stretching out into the ocean. They are formed when the ocean’s waves cut away at the lava rock more quickly than the interior streams can scour out the valley floor. Movies such as The Thorn Birds and portions of South Pacific have been filmed along the Kauai Na Pali Coast using these steep cliffs as dramatic background. Numerous sea caves, small beaches, and high waterfalls add to the beauty and uniqueness of the landscape. One reason Na Pali remains one of the most beautiful and pristine coastlines in the world is due to its remote location and lack of access. It is accessible via a strenuous foot trail that traverses eleven rugged miles from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Valley. (Steve: This hike actually starts at a small beach park on the northwest corner of Kauai where Mitzi Gainer sang that she would “Wash that man right out of my hair!” in South Pacific. The locals affectionately refer to it as the Nurses’ Beach—it is a nice spot for novice snorkelers.) Beginning at Ke’e Beach and ending at Kalalau Valley, this challenging but rewarding hike earned the Sierra Club’s rating of a “9” out of “10” in degrees of difficulty. The good thing about this trail is that it can be experienced in pieces. The most popular section of the trail is from Ke’e to Hanakapi’ai (4 miles round trip), where you will find a lush river valley. Once you reach Hanakapi’ai Beach, you can either hike to a waterfall deep in the valley (another 4 miles round trip) or take a break and then go back. The beach is suitable for swimming only during summer months; ocean conditions can be dangerous and there are no lifeguards. From Hanakapi’ai Valley the trail continues on to Hanakoa Valley, eventually ending at magnificent Kalalau Valley. Hiking beyond Hanakapi’ai Valley requires a state permit, and overnight camping is essential.
We have done the first part of the trail, and it was one of the best hike experiences I had. Not so much because of the hike itself—as I prefer steeper trails with more climbing—but because of the surrounding beauty and … whales! The entire first part of the Na Pali trail consists of a narrow cliff path along the ocean. We were there in February, in the middle of the whale season. I did not have to stop and scan the ocean for any evidence that a whale might be there. They were splashes, spouts, and tails and fins wagging almost the entire time we walked. The stretch from Ke’e to Hanakapi’ai is particularly muddy. Both Steve and I were dirty to the core with Kauai red clay by the end of our adventure because we could not take eyes of the ocean and pay attention to what we stepped into.
The Na Pali coast can also be seen from a boat or from a helicopter. (Steve: Neither one of us has ever helicoptered Kauai, but I once took a very nice sailing trip from Hanalei all around the Na Pali Coast on a very quick sailing boat piloted by Captain Sundowner. The Captain loved to talk so we heard a lot of stories about the locals. This is a breathtaking view of the largely inaccessible cliffs, and I highly recommend taking this excursion if you can find the time.)
Another thing that struck me about Kauai was its relaxed, easy-going atmosphere. I have a feeling that the term “Hawaiian time” (take it easy, no rush, delay is not a problem … ) means even more in Kauai than on the other islands. Little villages that we were passing when driving around were all slow and half asleep. I remember when we stopped in one and walked around. It was a middle of the day, sun was shining and gentle breeze was making the day very pleasant. There were few shops, gallerias, and eating spots open. People were occupying benches, sitting on the grass, or just hanging out, talking and laughing. Many of them were a variety of “hippie,” mostly slightly aged, very colorful, and eye catching. Speaking of hippies, I have a wonderful story to share. We were staying in a house that our friend has rented us for a few days. The house was almost on the beach and adjacent to a small beach park. The place was rather off the road and quiet. In the park, a group of hippies had a camp. I later found out that they lived there semi-permanently, much to the distress of house owners who were not very appreciative when the marihuana (or other drugs) skewed the normally gentle personalities of the tribe members. I had my first look into the camp when we were coming back from our late morning walk on the beach, and what I saw was like a picture from another time and space. I first noticed the tipis (or at least something that looked like what I imagine a tipi must look). In front of one of them there was a tall, slim, young woman with long blond hair, dressed up in a long, loose, brownish dress. She was working on a piece of leather that was stretched on some kind of a stand made from tree branches. The woman was scrubbing this leather peacefully and seemed very preoccupied with the task. Beside her there was a little baby crawling around, completely naked, happily chewing on something it found in the dirt. Add to this picture a small, mixed-breed dog playing in the sand and a group of long-haired men in long wrap-ups (looked like oversized dresses to me but I cannot be sure) hanging around. You have to admit, this is not what you see often in the 210st century (at least not within USA borders).
Polihale Beach. I have to mention this beach because of its astounding beauty and because it is so much fun to try to reach. I last saw it on New Year’s Eve, 2007, when Monika sent me and Hubert to Kauai for one day as a Christmas present (long story, but we went to see a fish breeder on the island who specializes in discus). We rented a jeep and toured Waimea Canyon then continued on to Polihale Beach, which is located at the southern tip of the Na Pali Coast cliffs. The beach is a state park, and if you follow the signs, you will end up on a dirt road that gives new meaning to the term “potholes”—maybe “bucket holes” would be better. In the jeep, we bounced along so badly that we were constantly jilted from side to side. We were laughing so crazily that I had even more trouble driving. The road is about two miles like this, and it effectively discourages the casual tourist (this is one time I did buy the car insurance from the rental!). But, the trip is well worth the effort. Ocean currents on Polihale Beach are very, very strong, and I do not recommend swimming there. But the views are breathtaking. The beach itself is very wide with beautiful white sand. The waves are always full of white horses, and always moving. Looking north, you see the wonderful Na Pali cliffs, and looking south you see only beach. There is no other beach in Hawaii like this one.
Kilauea Lighthouse. One nice little treasure on Kauai is the northern-most point of the major Hawaiian Island chain, a beautiful little lighthouse is located. What I like about this tiny park are the birds. There is a colony of red-footed booby that roost just across a small inlet that you can see very nicely from the lighthouse grounds. This is one of the few places I have seen the native Hawaiian goose, the nene, running around just like its relative the Canada goose does in the New Jersey parks. This was also the place I saw my first tropic bird—a lovely sea bird with a long white tail trailing behind it. There are also frigate birds. Lastly, every time I go there people tell me you can see dolphins returning home about 5 pm; however, since the park closes at 4 pm, I am not sure how this is accomplished. I haven’t seen them, but I do believe they are there. (Monika: Speaking of birds … one other thing that struck me on Kauai were roosters. Wild domestic fowls are quite common on the islands, including Oahu, but I have never seen as many as on Kauai. And they were beautiful birds—strong, proud, and colorful. Our son Hubert was chasing some of them once and almost got in trouble because these roosters were truly wild and more ready to fight than to be scared!)