Adventures Abound on Kauai, Hawaii's "Garden Isle"

March 19, 2019

Yes, it rains about 15 days of every month on Kauai, the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands. The entire island averages about 43 inches of rain annually, compared to 17 inches on Oahu.

Dubbed “The Garden Isle,” 97 percent of Kauai is covered by forests or mountains—rain-fed canopies so dense, and rain-eroded valleys that you can’t imagine anyone having ever lived in (although up to several thousand people did live in different valleys as recently as the early 20th century).

But all this rain has an upside: It’s responsible for the island’s distinctive landscape. The rain helped create the Waimea Canyon, the biggest gorge in the Pacific. The rain also feeds thousands of magnificent waterfalls, while light, misty sun-showers create some of the most spectacular rainbows on earth.

Today, the island’s 67,000 residents are clustered in small, laid-back towns on the coasts. Much of the 3 percent of the island that isn’t forest or mountains is beach. Kauai residents like to claim their island has more beaches than any other in the chain. Whether this is true or not, it’s not difficult to find a small beach you can have all to yourself. And unlike some of the more popular islands, Kauai’s beaches are made up of soft sand rather than lava, and easily accessed from the road that circumnavigates the island—the island’s only road that takes about 2.5 hours to travel by car.

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The 4,000-foot red cliffs and cavernous canyons of the island’s north and west coasts are too treacherous to build a road on, but they make ideal locations for filming adventure movies and shows set in remote locations or prehistoric times. More than 70 Hollywood movies and television shows have been filmed on Kauai, including classics such as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While your own time on the island likely won’t include such harrowing adventures as these movies do, you’ll certainly find no shortage of fun excursions and breathtaking sights.

Kayak the Napali Coast

The Napali Coast is spectacular. On one side is a tangle of thick vegetation; on the other side are steep, sheer cliffs—napali means “many cliffs” in Hawaiian—that end in roiling ocean. National Geographic once described it as “the finest coastal hike in the world.” The hike, while unforgettable, is a multi-day affair that requires camping and securing a permit several months in advance.

In contrast, you can kayak the Napali Coast in just a day with much less planning, and without much ocean kayaking experience. If you’re comfortable in water and generally fit, you’ll be just fine, even if the trip is a somewhat daunting 17 miles long.

You’ll gear up at Ke’e Beach and set out onto the water with an expert guide. Along the way, you’ll likely pass sea turtles floating lazily near the water’s surface, and channel their energy as you bob up and down on the ocean’s gentle swells. Following the path of your guide will take you close enough to the shore’s soaring cliffs to wave to the hikers above, or out a couple hundred meters into the open ocean, where you can marvel at the island’s remarkable landscape from afar. You’ll stop for lunch on Milolii Beach, which is accessible only by boat, and where you might just stumble upon a Hawaiian monk seal. A few hours later, the trip wraps up at Polihale Beach State Park.

Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Set off from Shipwrecks Beach on the flat, 4-mile, out-and-back Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail to Punahoa Point. The trail, along the last stretch of undeveloped coastline on Kauai’s southern shore, passes 350,000-year-old sand dunes, cultural and geological sites, sturdy Kiawe and Ironwood trees, hillsides blanketed in colorful ilima flowers, limestone pinnacles, rocky inlets, tide pools, and the cliff that actors Anne Heche and Harrison Ford famously jumped from in the 1998 movie Six Days, Seven Nights. Jumping from this cliff, Makawehi Point, isn’t just a movie stunt: Brave Hawaiians and tourists do it too, timing their leaps with the waves. You can decide for yourself whether to take the plunge or simply peer over its sheer edge.

Past Makawehi, groupings of fragile-looking limestone and sandstone pinnacles rise from the ocean. According to the trail guide, in the 1970s paleontologists from the Smithsonian Institution discovered bones from two extinct species of birds in these formations.

From this ruggedness, the hike takes a jarring, quarter-mile detour onto the Poipu Bay Golf Course, a temporary workaround due to landslides. While the landscape couldn’t be more manicured and civilized, families of nene, an endangered, non-migratory species of goose indigenous to Hawaii and whose population was once as low as 30, seem not to care. They wander the greens like they own them.

Back on the trail, you’ll pass a heiau, a sacred site where fish were offered to Keoniloa, the god of the sea, to ensure a good catch. And gazing out from the trail to the water, you’re likely to see humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea turtles, along with other wildlife. The trek concludes at Punahoa Point, the apex of the oldest sand-dune system in the region.

Tube the Irrigation Canals of Lihue Plantation

Along Kauai’s East Side, also known as the Coconut Coast for the groves of coconut palms that grow there, you’ll find a truly one-of-a-kind experience: tubing down old irrigation ditches on a former sugarcane plantation.

Built deep in Kauai’s lush interior, Lihue Plantation is crisscrossed by a network of canals, tunnels, and flumes that were hand-dug all the way back in 1870. For more than a century, these ditches delivered water to irrigate the plantation’s sugar crops. But after sugarcane was taken out of production in 2000, they sat vacant, collecting rainwater for a few years before Kauai Backcountry Adventures bought the entire property with something uniquely fun in mind.

Today, tourists plunk down into inner tubes and traverse the gently rolling waterways on exclusive tubing tours. Starting near the top of Mount Waialeale, tubers descend through some of the most remote land on Kauai, passing through thick rainforest and sliding down small waterfalls.

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The water is decidedly more brisk than that lapping up against your favorite beach, as it comes down from Mount Waialeale, Kauai’s second-tallest mountain. But it’s not so brisk that tubers need to wear anything more than their bathing suits. Except, of course, the helmet and headlamp (provided by your hosts), which come in handy as you wind through old irrigation tunnels, which can be up to a mile long.

Ride in a Helicopter above Waimea Canyon

After kayaking, hiking, and tubing—not to mention likely bouts of swimming, snorkeling, and possibly surfing in between—you might be ready to sit back and let someone else take the reins. A helicopter tour provides just such an opportunity, though with no less excitement.

On its west side, Kauai’s tropical rainforest gives way to dryer, more desert-like conditions at Waimea Canyon, once dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. More than 10 miles long and 3,600 feet deep, Waimea Canyon offers visitors a chance to peer at the topography of the island’s interior, marked by deep valley gorges and crested buttes. Rainbows frequently arch over the canyon, which was carved by the Waimea River long ago. The word “Waimea” is Hawaiian for “reddish water,” referencing the canyon’s red soil.

The only way to truly appreciate the unique complexity of this landscape is with a bird’s-eye view from high above. Tours depart from Lihue Airport on hourlong jaunts. As you take in the untamed land below, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back to prehistoric times, especially as many helicopters chopper over Manawaiopuna Falls, a 400-foot-tall cascade, made popular by its appearance in the original Jurassic Park in 1993.

Dine at Tidepools

After all these adventures, you earned some time for a refreshing cocktail and a delicious meal. In general, Kauai is not a fancy place. That’s one reason the island’s devotees love it so much. The dining, like most things, tends to be low key—fish tacos, plate lunches (two scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and a meat—often Spam—might not seem exciting but is the quintessential Hawaiian meal), fresh fruit bowls and smoothies, and shave ice. Often, the best of these places to eat are tucked away in strip malls. But if during a stay filled to the brim with rugged, outdoor adventures, you’re looking for something more formal, head to Tidepools.

Made up of a cluster of open-air hale pili (thatched-roof bungalows) that seem to float like massive lily pads atop koi lagoons within the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, Tidepools is very much “Hollywood Hawaiian.” Flickering tiki torches and dark koa wood create a retro ’60s vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-century travel brochure. This ambiance pairs perfectly with signature (and slightly over-the-top) cocktails such as the Tai Chi, made with Captain Morgan’s spiced and Malibu coconut spiced rum, along with pineapple and orange juices, and the Lava Flow, which consists of light rum, coconut crème, pineapple juice, strawberry, and ice cream all blended together. You might be lucky enough to be seated at Table #42, which the staff says is the best in the house because of its secluded location in a separate hale, but really, there’s no bad table in the house.

Chef Kevin Horan, who came to Tidepools after stints in Las Vegas at Restaurant Guy Savoy and Mandarin Oriental, presents a contemporary Hawaiian menu. He uses traditional ingredients like opah, a fish with a rich, creamy taste, macadamia nuts, fresh-caught seafood, and beef, but does not necessarily prepare them traditionally. Adventurous palates will enjoy the opah topped with papaya-habanero sauce or caught-that-morning macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi topped with a roasted banana-macadamia nut sauce and papaya-avocado relish. Foie gras isn’t a traditional Hawaiian food, but Horan brings an island influence to the dish by pairing it with macadamia-nut mousse and strawberry-papaya jam. The fresh greens are grown on-site in the resort’s 4,000-square-foot hydroponic garden, which is open to resort guests for tours twice a week.

Sitting here, cocktail in hand, watching the colors of the sunset streak across the sky behind the gently swaying palms makes for a fitting end to a day exploring this natural-born island paradise.