This year, I celebrated my 20th birthday in paradise on the island of Kauai, Hawaii in the United States. 24 hours of travel later from South Florida landed me in a magical land that boasts a thousand waterfalls and pristine beaches. I chose this island because it is the oldest in the Hawaiian archipelago and seems to be the least commercialized when compared with Maui and Oahu. The island offers stunning hikes, quiet beaches, plunging waterfalls, wildlife viewing, and the Aloha spirit. I stayed on the east side of the island in the quaint town of Kapa’a where I quickly found myself becoming familiar with the roads and scenery. Whether you are searching for adventure or relaxation, Kauai has just about everything in between.
The North Shore:
Historic Kilauea Lighthouse
I spent the first day on the island driving up State Road 56, or better known as the only main road on the island. I viewed the vast Pacific Ocean to the East and the lush jungle mountains to the west as I drove under ancient tree canopies. Life seemed to cover everything as vines wrapped around tree trunks and speed limit signs. This part of the island is speckled with sleepy towns filled with locals. Small gardens and stacks of surfboards cover the front lawns of most of the houses as you breeze past fruit stands offering exotic fruit that can’t be found on the mainland. We wiggled our way up to the northern most point on the island at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge where an old lighthouse used to beacon sailors to shore. This is every bird-lover’s dream as red-footed boobies and albatrosses encircle the rocky shores. Looking west, you will see the beginning of the Na Pali coastline – Kauai’s famed mountain coast.
Jungle on the North Shore
Continuing further along the main highway, the town of Hanalei is nestled among the taro fields, which is a staple food in the traditional Hawaiian diet. The lushness of the North side of the island means rain is frequent as clouds loom over the mountains. The beaches are still wonderful, even on a cloudy day. During summer, spots like Queen’s Bath are great for snorkeling, but wintertime brings heavy swells better suited for experienced surfers. Driving to the end of the road, Ke’e Beach is part of the State Park department and begins the most famous trail on the island – Kalalau Trail. 22 miles round trip through a jungle mountain range, this trail is no day hike. However, there are plenty of stopping points and many people choose to do one section of it before turning back. I highly recommend doing at least the first 2 miles to the lookout point, as you will be able to see the beginning of the Na Pali Coast. The North Shore is a great spot for hiking and relaxing on the beach. This area is so green and lush that I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.
The East Shore:
Town of Kapa’a
The east side of Kauai is known for its long beaches, kayaking, and waterfalls. In the town of Kapa’a, where I stayed, there were shops, grocery stores, and plenty of restaurants. As rumored, Hawaii can be quite expensive because most items are imported. However, I found a relatively cheap haven at Pho Kapaa, a lovely Vietnamese dinner. If you are looking to relax on the beach, Lydgate State Park offers views of perfectly crisp barrels rolling ashore. It even has enclosed swimming areas for little ones. Just stop anywhere along the road and you are bound to find a beautiful beach nearby.
East Side Adventures
For more adventurous ones, the east side is home to the only navigable river on the island, the Wailua River. There, you can kayak or take a ferry up to Fern Grotto, a natural amphitheater surrounded by lush jungle landscape. As you kayak up the river, you are actually climbing uphill towards the mountains of Sleeping Giant and Mount Wai’ale’ale. This mountain is actually one of the wettest spots on the planet, recieving over 400 in of rain per year. After about a 2 mile paddle, you can hike up to Secret Falls, although it’s not so secret anymore. The hike takes you through one of the last areas inhabited by traditional Hawaiian kings and queens, which is a sacred spot to their culture. The falls are 120 ft tall bellowing out cool water on the swimming area below. If hiking isn’t an option, there are two great falls, Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls are both easily accessed and can be viewed from the road. On the main highway, signs will lead you to the viewpoints.
The South Shore
Nicknamed the Sunny South Shore, this area has beaches great for snorkeling and swimming. Even if you need a break from the sunshine, there is plenty of shopping, rum-tasting, and coffee-tasting to be done here! A left turn on to SR 520 will take you through a tree tunnel towards the beach town of Poipu. Here, there is plenty to do at the local beach park or shopping center. Down the road from Poipu is the most visited spot on the island – Spouting Horn. It is a hole in the rocks that sprays water up to 40 feet at high tide. Just before this wonder, is the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. Definitely a gem on the island, these well maintained trails will show you what life on the island was like when the Polynesians arrived. These gardens are featured in the scenes of movies like Pirates of the Carribean and Jurassic Park. Ticket prices range from $30- $50 depending on if you prefer a guided tour, but this spot is not to be missed. Past the big resorts, a bumpy dirt road will take you to a another great beach with rocky limestone cliffs to explore.
The West Side
Hawaiian Grand Canyon
Continuing further along the main highway, views of the Pacific open up as the scenery transforms from lush mountains to red clay and valleys. Another spot that should not be missed is Koke’e State Park. This is home to Waimea Canyon, which is 10 miles long and 3500 feet deep. Stopping at the lookout points, I felt like I was back in Arizona at the Grand Canyon. This area offers stunning hikes throughout the park that go down into the canyon or towards the Pacific on the other side of the road. Be sure to stop at all the lookout points, as they each offer a different angle of the park. Looking out into the canyon, Waipoo Falls plunges to the valley below. The Canyon Trail will take you to the tops of the falls and stunning vistas. Be sure to drive all the way to the end of the road in the park, as it has the best lookout point of Kalalau Valley, which is the last section of the Kalalau Trail on the north shore.
Water Adventures on the West Shore
Winding your way back down the mountains, you will come across Port Allen. This is where all the oil and supplies comes into the island, and also where charter boats depart for tours. I highly recommend booking some type of boat tour to see the Na Pali Coast. These views can only be accessed by helicopter or boat. Sailboats will cruise along the coastline depicting ancient tribal stories and pointing out where Jurassic Park was filmed. Although I’m not one to book many guided tours, this was my favorite part of Kauai.
My other favorite part was at Polihale State Park. Following the main highway west until you can’t drive anymore, take a left turn on the dirt road until you reach the beaches. The beaches on the west side are some of the longest in Hawaii, and this one is characterized by the rugged cliffs on the start of the Na Pali coast. It is a great spot for camping as it is secluded and doesn’t see too many visitors.
Kauai is a spectacular island and teeming with life everywhere you look. I loved every minute here, especially because each section of the island is so different from the others. The jaw-dropping natural beauty here will leave you wanting more time outside and less in the hotel room. As with anywhere you may travel, the island is a delicate ecosystem that deserves respect of its wildlife and endangered species. Kauai embodies the Aloha spirit and welcomes visitors to explore her shores. From a week to a year, you cannot go wrong with a visit to Kauai.