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On the road: Kauai: The Garden Isle’s amazing Na Pali coast

By Tim Viall, Special to The Record

We’re just back from a week in Kauai, preceded by a week in Maui. It’s our second trip to Kauai, which amazed us with its rugged volcanic beauty and lush greenery a year ago. And, once again, we departed wondering why it took us so long to discover this beautiful isle.

This year, we vowed to more thoroughly explore the storied and iconic Na Pali coast, both by hiking from the northeastern end and by a boat tour coming up from the southwest.

A bit of background. The Na Pali coast is a rugged, 16-mile roadless stretch on the northwest side of the island. It’s fringed by lofty volcanic peaks 5,000 feet tall, dropping precipitously toward the Pacific Ocean. Stark cliffs, filigreed waterfalls, lush valleys and occasional small sandy beaches break up the volcanic legacy. The coast was first settled about 1,200 years ago by Polynesian navigators. Once the route was pioneered, Tahitian migrants quickly followed, shaping the culture of both this island and the other Hawaiian isles. Early villages along this coast branched out to Ni’ihau, Waimea and Hanalei and, eventually, the other Hawaiian islands. When Capt. Cook visited in 1778, Westerners begin traveling to the islands — the Na Pali coast, though first settled, remained remote and one of the last truly wild parts of Kauai.

A year ago, we tackled the Kalalau Trail from the northeast side of the island, but hiked only about a mile up trail before Susan decided it was too wet, muddy and steep for her liking. We garnered some beautiful coastal views, but the next 12 miles of the exotic coast remained beyond our vantage point. This year, off we went early in our week, hiking poles and small binoculars in hand — only to discover that the huge storms of April had washed out the bridge on Highway 560 just beyond Hanalei, blocking our trip about 8 miles short. Next year for that route, I guess.

On Friday, we booked the Na Pali Coast catamaran sunset dinner cruise, departing Port Allen mid-day. I took two Dramamine, and we had a light snack at 11:30 a.m. at Kauai Island Brewery, in the town of Ele’ele, right across the street from Hawaii Sea Tours office. After a brew and a snack, we met with Captain Kauai and about 45 other passengers for our 5½ hour voyage on his 60 foot catamaran. Sailing north along the coast we passed two huge Gay and Robinson sugar mills, closed in 2009 and rusting away — once the economic lifeblood of Kauai and several other island.

We sailed for several miles past Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range, a huge Navy radar and missile-tracking installation, and continued past Palihale State Park and its drive-to beach-front campground at the end of the road prior to dead-ending into the coast. The Na Pali coast offers three campgrounds, but they’re “hike to” or “paddle to” only.

Beyond Barking Sands, distant but huge volcanic cliffs towered above the ocean, signaling the beginning of the lost coast. Captain Kauai kept up a running dialogue on how ancient Polynesians settled first this portion of Hawaii, and at one time thousands of Polynesians and Tahitians lived in these fertile, if inaccessible, valleys. Early on we came to a fresh waterfall arching off a huge overhang into the ocean. The captain pulled the front of the catamaran underneath the waterfall and invited those celebrating anniversaries to have a kiss under the sacred fresh waters. Susan and I, soon to celebrate 49 years, were one of several couples to get a wet, if memorable, kiss.

Eventually, approaching the eastern side of the coast, we came upon the broad Hanakapi’ai Valley, site of some of the movie shots from Jurassic Park. Gorgeous, with 4,500 foot peaks crowned by clouds billing over the top, with lush green mountain side tumbling down to the ocean and the longest beach, perhaps three-eighths of a mile, along the Na Pali coast.

Reversing the boat, we then sailed along the same coastline with the afternoon shadows making for even more dramatic photo-taking opportunities. The voyage was capped by not the greatest of sunsets over a good barbecued meal at 6 p.m., due to clouds coming in from the west. That sunset did not dampen our enthusiasm for such a memorable trip. It was money well invested, about $110 each.

The tour company also offers morning tours, including snorkeling, and several other enticing noshing and meal options are not far off the route. Those include Kauai Coffee Plantation, allowing sampling of scores of interesting Kauai-grown berries off 6 million coffee trees planted on former cane fields, and the fabled Puka Dog, an 8-inch polish or veggie dog on a bun with Hawaiian condiments, making for a taste-sensation — you’ve got to try one.

One also can get a birds-eye view of the Na Pali coast (a trip which also features Waimea Canyon State Park, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) at end of Highway 550. Stop at Kalalau Lookout for a view down into the coast from 5,100 feet, helping precipitate its reputation as one of the wettest places on earth, averaging more than 450 inches yearly.

For more information: Kauai gohawaii.com/islands/kauai; for Kauai Revealed phone app hawaiirevealed.com.


Follow Tim at blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel, or email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!