Trace Back – Kauai.. the garden island

How do you take three days and pack enough of Kauai in them? Well you begin with a little chat with the concierge.

After years of planning for vacations and coming up with the best itineraries, I finally enjoyed a vacation that I did not plan much in advance for. And even though we did not cover even a third of Kauai in our four day itinerary, we definitely explored it enough to fall in love with it and look forward to going back and exploring the rest of the island sometime soon. 

Kauai is one of the oldest and the furthest island amongst the inhabited Hawaiian islands. We landed at Lihue Airport (a direct flight from San Jose) at around ten in the morning and headed straight to our hotel on the Coconut coast, along the east shore of Kauai. After enjoying our Mai Tais and soaking some sun on the beach right in front of this fine Marriott resort, we decided to ask the concierge for some help with our planning. Realistically we had four days on the Island, including the day we had arrived. But the concierge helped us plan our short trip and packed it with the best of the highlights in Kauai. So here is a summary if you need a quickie –

Day 1 – South Shore up until Spouting Horn, and Poipu

Day 2 – Na Pali Coast Tour, Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park
Day 3 – North Shore – Along Hwy 50 towards Hanalei Valley up till Ke’ee Beach

Day 4 – Kick back, enjoy a light breakfast in Kapaa, write, sip Mai Tais and pack for your trip back home.

Kauai is a much smaller island, as compared to Big Island. From the south shore to the north shore is a two hour drive at best. This makes it easier to cover more attractions in a few days. As we are becoming older and more busy in our professional lives, we have started looking out for vacations that are more quiet and away from the crowds. Initially I was skeptical about visiting Kauai during the Memorial Day weekend, but I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the main roads and highways in Hawaii are single lane and that adds to the traffic, but the attractions and the vistas were lacking crowds with cameras clicking away. 

For the sake of convenience let us cover Kauai in four segments: North shore, East shore, West shore and South shore. After experiencing all the shores, I can confidently say that you will very easily be able to classify yourself as one of the two. You are either a north shore person or a south shore person. The east connects the two and the west is almost inaccessible.

Each of the shores lends its own color to your Kauai experience. The south shore is more lively and high in energy and spirit. Excellent food options and proximity to the locals makes south shore quite charming. Poipu is definitely the heart of the south shore and offers a wide variety of cuisines. The north shore on the other hand is more tranquil. It is more beautiful, has more beaches and is a little upscale. Most of the high end resorts are on the north shore. I am not sure about the food options on the north shore. Hanalei has some food options but definitely not enough. I can easily say that if I was staying on the north shore, I’d drive south for better food choices. What can I say, I am a foodie after all.

East shore primarily includes Wailua and Kapaa, both of which are pretty upbeat. You drive by this stretch to get from the north to south shore and vice versa. So you can enjoy it regardless of where you stay. The west shore of Kauai is pretty much inaccessible by road and can be enjoyed by either boat tours, long and tiresome hikes across the Waimea Canyon, or helicopter tours. 

Let us begin with my favorite attraction in Kauai – the Na Pali coast. This beautiful stretch of coastline between Polihale Beach on the south and Ke’ee Beach on the north, has attracted visitors on foot, by boat and by air over several years. If I had to pick one word to describe Na Pali’s beauty, it would be ‘untouched’. The long stretches of white and golden sand leave you breathless. To summarize my thoughts on Na Pali can take a few pages, so I will spare you the pain. But I felt it was almost unfair for so much beauty to be present all in one place. 

The cascades and valleys of Na Pali are untouched. They say there are still tribals living in these valleys. The steep cliffs and temple-like peaks are a sight to watch and capture in your memories forever. There are some corals along the way too. The best sight while you are exploring Na Pali are the dolphins that come along and swim adjacent to your boat. These attention-hogging mammals also perform some impromptu spins in the air. You can also spot several sea turtles along the way.

We explored the Na Pali coast in a Catamaran tour by Holo Holo Charters. The tour starts from Port Allen at eight in the morning. Our tour was five hours long and came with breakfast, lunch, unlimited alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages, an hour of snorkeling at the Nu’alolo Kai Beach and some fond conversations with the other passengers on board. It was a perfect way to start our first morning on the Island. Usually the first morning on the Island is always early since you are still jet lagged and hence such tours are a perfect way to use that as an advantage.

A few notes about this tour. You cannot get into the water if you don’t know swimming. They claim to have a lot of flotation devices on board, but if you don’t know swimming, you cannot snorkel. You can stay by the boat, hold the ladder, put on your snorkeling gear and look down into the ocean and a few fish or may be some sea turtles will come by and say a hello. The water is extremely clear and you can see schools of fish swimming with a naked eye. It is quite a sight. If you can swim, you are free to roam the waters and enjoy your swim up to the reef close to the shore. It is an exhilarating experience to say the least.

The catamaran tour is one of the many options of cruising through the Na Pali coast. For the brave hearted, you can rent kayaks from Ke’ee beach and explore the tunnels of the Na Pali coast. You can also take Zodiac tours that are a little better than Kayaks but still pretty adventurous. For the faint hearted there are catamarans, like the one we took. And for the weaker souls, old or pregnant – Sorry no Na Pali for you. At least not by water. The catamaran we were on was quite smooth but you cannot leave the railing for a single second. You have to keep holding on to something on the boat to ensure safety. Also make sure you are dressed for water when going for these tours. You are guaranteed to be soaked wet with the water splashes, especially on your way back to Port Allen. 

Once we docked back at Port Allen, we needed a fresh water shower and a change. The boat crew recommended the Salt Pond Beach right next to the Port which has enough showers and restrooms to change. This beach is also a great spot to catch sunsets. After our fresh water bath, we drove to Waimea Canyon. A short forty-five minute drive leads to the Waimea Canyon lookout. Commonly referred to as the Grand Canyon of the West, Waimea Canyon is quite a sight. There are several look outs along the way that you can stop at and enjoy the views. Most of these lookouts also offer a distant view of Ni’ihau, the forbidden island.

When you come out of the canyon, head towards the Kokee State Park. The Kokee road takes you all the way to the tip of the Na Pali State Park. Two of the most amazing and breathtaking view points in Kokee State Park are the Kalalau Lookout and Pu’u O kila . The Kalalau valley is quite an attraction when exploring Na Pali Coast. From the Kalalau lookout, you can look down into the valley. It is the most beautiful place on earth. Nothing more needs to be said. You can drive further up on Kokee road, where it finally ends into Pu’u O kila  lookout.  Once back in Waimea, if you have some time left, visit the Kalaheo Coffee Company.

The Na Pali boat tour and Waimea Canyon can take up almost an entire day. Enjoy them at your pace but make sure you take out the time to absorb the beauty of the island along the way; Kauai cannot be rushed. On the South shore, you must also visit Poipu. The Poipu beach is very crowded but you can always drive along the coast and find a nook that suits you best. Shipwreck beach, also famous for its sunsets is also in the area. Some of the famous restaurants and resorts in Poipu can be found around the Poipu Village Shopping area. There is Merrimans with its usual American fair on the first floor and high end sea food dining on the second floor. We picked Josselins for dinner one night and absolutely loved our meal. The Lychee sangria was delicious and so were the Ahi and Rock Shrimp poke, lamb meatballs and Asparagus with apple wood smoked bacon and egg, sunny-side up. Their duck and shrimp tacos were mouth watering. It was a perfect place to enjoy the local Hawaiian flavors of hibiscus and lilikois. The ambiance was very soothing and the service was impeccable. I would rate this meal as my best on the trip. There is also the famous Puka Dog in the same shopping center.

While in the Poipu area, you can also drive up south to Spouting Horn. The lava rock formations in this area result in a fountain of water that erupts like a spout and makes a loud noise, as a strong wave hits the shore. What makes it even more thrilling is that there are several such spouting horns across the shore and the timing and sequence of them is quite a marvel. It is like the fountains at Bellagios in Vegas, minus the lights, with a dash of nature’s awe. 

Since we were staying on the east shore, we got an opportunity to explore the food scene there more deeply. In my opinion, the east shore is the mecca for some authentic Hawaiian food options. I recommend the Kountry Kitchen for a sumptuous Hawaiian breakfast and Java Kai for an excellent selection of coffee and breakfast sandwiches (try the Surfer Girl’s Sandwich!). There is also Shrimp Station on Hwy 50 and Fish Hut in the Coconut Marketplace, for conventional Hawaiian fried seafood. Some other restaurants I wanted to try but could not make it to are the Art Cafe of Hemingway for good Italian coffee and Ono Family Restaurant for a Hawaiian breakfast with fresh local fish. A few other restaurants in Kapaa, close the coconut plantations are Tiki Takos, Eastside and Mermaids Cafe.

We kept aside a full day to enjoy the north shore. After an early breakfast in Kapaa we drove north on Hwy 50 with Ke’ee beach as our final destination in mind. The terrain and landscape on the north shore is drastically different from the other parts of the island. You will see a lot of green meadows, streams, taro farms and lush green mountains in the background. Out first stop on this drive was the Kilaleau Point National Wildlife Refuge and Light house. Apart from an old light house, this place is home to several species of birds that are only found in this area. We saw a plenty of Nenes and Laysan Albatross and enjoyed the sounds of the humpback whales that were nesting not so far away. The population of pelicans on a hill diagonally across from the lighthouse was quite shocking. Use your zoom lens or the binoculars available on-site to see the birds enjoying their natural habitat. The lighthouse offered beautiful views of Kauai’s shoreline. It was a refreshing, short, thirty minute detour on our drive to Hanalei. On the way keep an eye out for some beautiful valley views, especially the Hanalei Valley lookout.

As you drive to Hanalei, you come across several one lane bridges where the traffic movement is controlled by one simple thing – human trust. If you see some cars coming from the opposite direction, stop. Five to seven cars at a time can make it across the bridges. The system works flawlessly and you are left to wonder if it is the same human species that runs red lights that comes to enjoy Kauai on its terms. Hanalei town is small and spread over just a few blocks. As you drive further north, the hustle bustle of the town of Hanalei fades away and you approach a string of beaches. There is the Hanalei Beach park which offers the horseshoe view of the Hanalei bay. It is a beautiful beach with a pier that extends into the bay. Along this route you will see some wet and dry caves along the highway, Tunnels beach and Haena beach. These two are pretty popular amongst surfers and the turquoise colored water makes them a great place for a picnic or for day camping.
Our final destination, just a few miles from Haena Beach, was Ke’ee beach. We originally planned the 2 mile stretch of the Kalalau trail that offers breathtaking views of the Na Pali coast, but the shallow and turquoise waters of Ke’ee beach tempted us and we quickly changed and took a plunge in the beautiful, warm and shallow waters of the Ke’ee beach. Minutes became hours and we enjoyed floating in the waters of the most beautiful beach in Kauai. Walk south on the Ke’ee beach for five minutes and look back … and you see the Na Pali Coastline. Ke’ee beach can be very crowded. But once we were in water, it was just us, the green palm trees looking down upon us from the hovering cliffs, and the waves. Although I can barely swim, the beach was safe enough for me to float and practice backstrokes. Ke’ee beach also offers good snorkeling sites if you want to get your own gear and enjoy the ocean underwater. 

After a good swim, we wanted to explore north shore food options. There are a few gems in the small town of Hanalei. The first is the old and famous Postcards Cafe, where people line up an hour before it opens at six pm every day. It is a small cafe and cannot seat more than 25 people at a time. The cute courtyard leads to a beautiful little room. There are also some tables on the deck and some in the courtyard. This is quite a cute little nook to spend a romantic evening. Their fish is fresh and delicious. It comes with an option of herb citrus, pineapple sage or macadamia butter sauce. The appetizer platter (serves two) is quite good. Unfortunately it only comes with one crab cake. And that is to fight for 🙂 The second mention is reserved for Hanalei Coffee Roasters. The Ice Thai Coffee and Coco Mocha there is amazing. Pick between a home baked blueberry or apple pie to pair with your coffee. 

Kauai also has some beautiful waterfalls that have featured in movies over the years. Unfortunately we could only take out time for the Opaekaa Falls in the Wailua River State Park. We missed the Wailua Falls and some others famous waterfalls, but in hindsight, those are the things that will motivate us to plan our next Kauai trip soon! 
Over all we had a lovely trip. The highlight will be the views of Na Pali coast, both from the boat and Kokee State Park. I wonder if one day in our lifetime, there will be roads built across the Kalalau valley to get to Na Pali’s hidden and unexplored beaches. Part of me wishes that day does not come in this lifetime. Some thing are better left untouched, unexplored, uninhabited. 

Mahalo Kauai! Until next time.. stay pure

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