By air, by land and by sea — these are the ways I explored the wonders of Kauai. Given its diverse landscape — mountain cliffs soar from the ocean floor along the Nā Pali Coast, the 14-mile Waimea Canyon (“Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) drastically alters the landscape, and lush greenery comes to life everywhere — there is no better way to unearth each facet of Hawaii’s garden island.
The oldest of the eight Hawaiian islands (its younger side is 1.5 million years old), Kauai was the first populated. Today there are approximately 65,000 full-time residents on the island; at any given time, one-quarter of the population is tourists. The fourth-largest island, it is easy to soak it all in at only 25 miles long north to south and 30-plus miles across east to west.
In 1992, Hurricane Aniki devastated the island and rocked the natural geography, leaving much of the island without power, cable and water for three months. Nearly one-third of the houses were leveled, with a mere 2 to 3 percent surviving unscathed; Kauai was flattened by the natural disaster. Today, the natural beauty of the land and the people thrives, and each turn brings a new discovery.
Each twist can also deliver a new weather pattern. Diverse in climate, the island’s center is one of the wettest places on Earth and its more arid locales on the desert side among the driest. In July, the island is ablaze with color, and the scent of flowers carries in the air. As with the other islands, there is a trade wind side (the north), and Kauai experiences 450 inches of rainfall per year.
Over my five days in Kauai, I experienced only one day of gloomy weather, bookmarking days full of adrenaline rushes — ziplining across wide breaks in the landscape and dangling above even the highest treetops — and total relaxation, indulging in sublime spa treatments. Peace of mind goes hand in hand with a place where no structures can be built higher than a mature coconut tree, there are no billboards anywhere, and drivers use the spirit of aloha instead of the car horn. Whatever you seek — adventure, romance, rejuvenation or tradition — it can be found here. The island excites any type of traveler, but Kauai is far from cliché.
I started my journey of discovery on the island’s North Shore, an area marked with mountains, wide-open splotches of land and the even-keeled waters of Hanalei Bay, recognizable from the recent film The Descendants, starring George Clooney.
Here, on the calm of Hanalei, I took to the water — a variation on my by-sea exploration — for the first time aboard the 45-foot traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe Kuupaaloa, built and operated by Hawaii natives Trevor Cabell and Travis Bonnel, owners of Island Sails Kauai. A peaceful afternoon on the water, barely a ripple in sight, was the perfect lead-in for my afternoon massage and a fitting introduction to the tranquility of the island’s North Shore, just as the sun began its westward descent.
North Shore is also home to the exclusive Princeville enclave, a small community named for Prince Albert Kamehameha and a former coffee and sugarcane plantation. The land later became a working cattle ranch before blossoming into its current incarnation, which includes two resorts, a golf course, homes, shopping and dining, all nestled along the serenity of Hanalei Bay.
Since 1978, the Carswell family has operated eco-adventures from their working cattle farm. Princeville Ranch Adventures offers ziplining, horseback riding and hiking tours. It was here I explored by land, hiking to the five-tiered Kalihiwai Falls. After reaching the top of Pu’u O’ Henui and drinking in the vast landscape of the North Shore, a trek through lowland rainforest led me to the upper tier of the waterfall. As the falls rumbled and gushed, the other sounds of nature harmonized.
I was fairly skeptical, knowing just how clumsy and uncoordinated I tend to be, when I rappelled a 10-foot rock wall to reach the bottom of the falls. Somehow I survived without a scratch, climbing both down and up the jagged rock. It was certainly worth the effort when I reached the brilliant teal-green waters at the bottom of the falls, a private, bath-like pool where I enjoyed lunch while dangling my feet, tips of my toes in the water, communing with the land as I seldom do in my own neighborhood.
Back from my private watering hole into the blaze of an afternoon sun, I moved from Princeville to Kauai’s South Shore. The six beaches of the southern side — Baby, a protected cove; Brennecke’s, perfect for body surfing; Mahaulepu, a remote two-mile beach; Lawai, a snorkeling spot; Poipu, a Top 10 beach nationwide and the most popular; and Shipwrecks, favored by advanced surfers — bring golden-white sands, reef formations and the best watersports and snorkeling on Kauai.
I, however, wouldn’t stay shore-bound or southbound for long, taking to the sea to explore the famed Nā Pali Coast. Dramatic is an apt term for the spectacular 15-mile stretch on the northwest side of the island. Accessed only by air, boat or on foot, mountains and cliffs soar above the twinkling emerald of the waters below. It was here, along the craggy coastline, that early Polynesian settlers dwelled, fishing and trading. The rock preserved evidence of their existence, irrigation systems and culture.
Several options for exploring the Nā Pali Coast exist, but I chose to soak in the splendor — and the sun — from a catamaran. With strong winds posing a potential disruption to the morning’s activities, I set sail on Kauai Sea Tours’ 60-foot Lucky Lady. As we ripped across the tumultuous waves, the majesty of the land was met with awed silence save for the whirring and whipping of the boat through the water. Spinner dolphins and sea turtles joined us for the half-day excursion, flipping from the water as we careened with the waves and swimming alongside the group while we snorkeled in a calm bay off the coast. Choppy seas awaited once again on our trip back inland, but the stunning vistas provided enough distraction.
Back to land, I sampled the traditional flavors of Kauai at Lūau Kalamakū at Kilohana Plantation. The estate and working farm also houses a restaurant, Koloa rum tasting and an authentic Hawaiian train depot in addition to the island’s only theatrical luau celebration.
The most interesting part of the evening harkened back to the land which I was currently exploring, watching as the main course — a pig — was unearthed from the underground imu oven. The evening’s menu featured many traditional dishes, including poi and ono. As the sun set, hula dancers and fire knife dancers came to life, culminating with the acting-out of the story of the first Hawaiians’ voyage from their Tahitian homeland.
Legend has it a father prayed to the god Akua for guidance before telling his daughter, Orama, of his decision to leave Tahiti for the new land. He would send for her when this new place brought forth the first harvest. The Blue Wind called as the men — Orama’s father accompanied by her one true love, Ari — journeyed. Upon arrival in Kauai, the men planted taro, pounded bark cloth and speared fish, bringing new life to the land I was engulfed in discovering. When he sent for his daughter, the family reunited in the new land with Orama and Ari’s wedding and the birth of their son, Kalamaku — a celebration of the land and its people, the essence of the island.
By air was, by far, my favorite way to explore that essence. After a morning spent on a small bus learning about Kauai from shore to shore with a canyon in between, it took only five minutes in the air on an Island Helicopters’ Jurassic Falls Landing Adventure tour to appreciate the island more than I had the entire trip — on a bus, on foot or in a boat.
It felt surreal to land next to Manawaiopuna Falls, best known for its cameo in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Circling the treetops, we thudded gently next to the screaming falls, appearing from nowhere, as the helicopter pilot cheesily played the blockbuster’s theme song. Aside from the corny music, I left awestruck at the beauty surrounding me. (Islands Helicopters is the only company on the island offering the waterfall landing.)
More spectacular was the up-close-and-personal vantage point afforded by the helicopter. I’d spent days exploring and learning about the island, but dipping into Waimea Canyon and circling the rivulets in the mountains along the Nā Pali Coast brought the landscape to life in a way unlike any land- or boat-based tour could.
It’s not often I find myself rendered speechless, but in those moments, floating and balancing between each natural wonder, suspended in the air absorbing the beauty, the words to describe the sights escaped me. Words cannot fit the landscape, and the earth beckons to be discovered. The unrivaled beauty of Kauai is best experienced firsthand — from the air, the land and the sea.
INFO TO GO
Many airlines offer non-stop service to Kauai’s main airport, Lihue Airport (LIH), from several mainland destinations; travelers can also opt to fly through Honolulu (HNL). Taxi service and hotel shuttles are available from the airport. The best way to explore the island on your own is via rental car.
Offering something for every traveler, the 602-room resort includes several restaurants, pool and beach activities and even an 18-hole golf course. 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa $$$
Situated on Kauai’s north shore in the 9,000-acre community of Princeville, the resort offers golf, dining, spas and killer views of Hanalei Bay. 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville $$$$
A $16 million renovation converted the resort into Poipu Beach’s newest hot spot. The on-site restaurant, RumFire, is causing a buzz. 2440 Hoonani Road, Koloa $$$
The Fish House is set on an old Hawaii plantation, where Chef Peter Merriman prepares Hawaiian regional cuisine using a farm-to-table concept. 2829 Ala Kalamikaumaka St., No. G-149, Koloa $$$
Oceanfront views complement the restaurant’s open design and menu rich with the freshest seafood and produce in Hawaii. Koa Kea Hotel & Resort, 2251 Poipu Road, Koloa $$$
Enjoy signature dishes, including ono in a lemon-lime buerre blanc with green papaya and kona kompachi with a Port wine sauce, in an idyllic setting. 4-733 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa $$$
COMO Hotels and Resorts offers travelers new immersive luxury retreats for 2022. Perfect for couples, small groups or solo travelers, the new COMO Journeys are available to book in Australia, Bhutan, Indonesia and Thailand.
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