Remember when Maui was considered the undeveloped island of Hawaii, in the days before hordes of tourists — and the commercialism that inevitably follows — invaded its pristine coastline? Well quick — before the same thing happens to Kauai, visit the Garden Isle, the lushest and prettiest of the Hawaiian Islands. Go before it loses its virginity to the ravaging developers already hovering about its shores. But more on that later.
The oldest island in the chain — over five million years old, compared with the Big Island of Hawaii, a young upstart at only one million years — Kauai has almost as many superstitions as it does birthdays. The one that says it is the birthplace of rainbows — no doubt true because they are still there in abundance — is one of my favorites because it captures the essence of the island: mystical, magical, colorful, with surreal treasures to be found at either end.
It is no accident that so many films known for their resplendent settings — Thorn Birds, Blue Hawaii, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean, the classic South Pacific, and more recently, The Descendants — were shot here. If you do nothing else, sit on your hotel balcony and look out at the scenery. How often do you get a chance to literally see Mount Makana (more popularly known as Bali Hai) from your window? That view alone is worth the trip. Should you decide to check out the rest of the island, there’s much to see. And better yet, so many ways to see it.
Whether you drive around it, fly over it, bike across it, or sail up to it, you know you’ve reached paradise. The lushness is exquisite. Green grass merges with green plants which spring into green bushes to grow into green forests which meld into green mountains. The eye often cannot distinguish one from the other; the monotony of color is almost mesmerizing.
Along the island’s edge, translucent waters spawn rolling whitecaps that nip playfully at the mulatto-colored sand. At other times, waves loom so large, they form a wall between you and the ocean. For the briefest moment, time and wave stand still — then it breaks with resounding force as if to reassert its uncontested dominance of the area.
One of the most personal connections with the islands can be had hiking along the Na Pali Trail on the island’s north shore. “Spiritual” is the word used most often to describe the experience. A friend who has walked all over the world, from Nepal to New Zealand, calls the Na Pali Coast the one place to which he always wants to return.
The 11-mile trek begins at Ke’e Beach at the northwestern tip of the island and continues along a steep narrow trail, past waterfalls and streams, mango trees and wild orchids, along daunting cliffs and knife-point peaks until it reaches Nirvana in the form of Kalalau Beach. The scenery there is so spectacular as to seem unreal. The all-day hike — more often a scramble over rocks and mud slides than it is a trail walk — is not for the faint of heart or heavy of foot.
Those who wish to taste the trail without ordering the full course may opt for a two-mile appetizer from Ke’e to Hanakapiai Beach. Each time I started to bemoan my inability to navigate the slippery boulders and protruding mud-slicked roots (if you can schedule your outing during a dry spell, go for it!), I’d spot a nine-year-old using the muddy surface as a slide or a grandmother confidently spearheading the path with a make-shift walking stick.
It was the young mother with a baby on her back gingerly sidestepping the rocks as though out for a suburban stroll that finally convinced me to keep my whiny self-deprecations to myself.
But the experience was exhilarating; the walk back much easier, and the views along the way well worth the somewhat arduous effort to get there. For those who find such challenges unappealing, other methods of transport offer comparable if less personal connections with the coast.
A helicopter ride along the coast provides an extraordinary overview, like a beautifully written abstract of a book. The Zodiac raft trips allow you to visit the coast beach by beach, chapter by chapter. But hiking the Na Pali Trail, you become one with the story, immersed in the characters and a part of the book itself.
Another must-see that allows for multiple methods of exploration is Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” As you snake your way alongside the 3600-foot-deep chasm, glimpses of Christmas-colored pageantry unfold. Red and orange desert hues tease the tropical greenery, hinting of the daunting canyon vistas yet to come. Still, you arrive at Waimea Canyon Lookout unprepared for the expanse and grandeur that finally greet you.
Again, if you wish a different perspective of this staggering panorama, consider a helicopter tour that dips into the canyon for even more breath-taking views, or select one of the many miles of trails that take you inside the canyon on foot.
Not far away, yet another vision of wonder awaits. Kalalau Lookout casts a sweeping eye over the historic Hawaiian Valley and Na Pali coast from its vantage point of 4000 feet. Looking beyond the overgrown gorges and razor-edged cliffs, you can’t tell where the ocean stops and the sky begins. I considered one more mode of island transport as I envisioned sailing a cloud from the coast to the heavens.
For many, most of Kauai’s appeal lies in its natural splendor. However, if you can force your eyes away from the beauty of the surroundings, there are indeed other attractions to be enjoyed. A drive around the island, spanning less than 100 miles, brings you to several small towns unchanged since the mid-1800s.
Visit the Waioli Church and Mission House in Hanalei, where the first missionaries arrived in 1834. Walk along the wooden sidewalks of Hanapepe and check out Shimonishi, world famous orchid store with original storefront in tact, boasting some varieties of orchids so rare they won’t sell them. Stop by the vintage 1913 lighthouse in sleepy Kilauea town, which sits on the northernmost point of all the Hawaiian Islands.
Visits to ancient hula temples, lava blowholes, wet and dry caves rich in tales of Hawaiian folklore all contribute to Kauai’s magic. Oh yes, one other thing. Kauai also has more beaches than any of the other islands. Although the most glorious year-round are in the southern resort area of Poipu, long stretches of white sand surround the island, forming a blanket of beaches as inviting as satin sheets and plush pillows at the end of an exhausting day.
But nothing is perfect and the island landscape, while not yet pockmarked by fast-food establishments imported from the mainland, has recently fallen prey to a couple of Starbucks. But even here, there is good news – big box stores have been banned and no building can be taller than a mature palm tree. So as long as they keep those palm trees in check… Even if paradise is occasionally flawed, Kauai may be as close as you can get.
For more information, visit www.gohawaii.com/kauai