Touching down on Kaua'i, some people feel that they've
arrived at a spiritual place, one of the planet's "power
spots." Whatever that might mean to you, you will
be enchanted by Kaua'i: Ocean and sky, streams and rivers,
forests and mountains will all embrace you as you find
your own connection with the spirit of Kaua'i.
Apart from Ni'ihau, Kaua'i is the oldest of the main
Hawaiian Islands, having formed some five million years
ago. Its majestic central peak, Mount Wai'ale'ale, was
until recently renowned as the "wettest spot on
Earth" (that title is now held by a bog on Maui),
and the rainwater flows down its verdant faces to feed
Kaua'i's five rivers. On a clear day, you can see Wai'ale'ale
as you fly into Lihu'e, the Kaua'i County seat.
This topography allows for only one highway, which
hugs the coast and goes almost all the way around (except
for the impassable Na Pali coast on the North Shore).
From Lihu'e until it ends in the north, the road is
called the Kuhio Highway. From Lihu'e until its end
in the west, the road is called the Kaumuali'i Highway.
The junction in Lihu'e where the name changes is at
Rice Street is the main road leading to Kalapaki Bay
and Nawiliwili Harbor. Because this major and only artery
on Kaua'i is two lanes, be careful while driving: Don't
make sudden stops or U-turns (drivers have died recently
because they were attempting a U-turn) and expect traffic
From the airport, you can go in one of two inviting
directions: You can explore the East Shore and then
head up to the North Shore, or you can head for the
South Shore and then cruise out to the West Shore. Each
area has its own natural and social environments, including
special beaches, climates, vegetation, secret valleys,
river mouths, waterfalls and hiking trails as well as
dining, shopping, strolling and resorts.
The East Shore runs from Lihu'e to the edge of Kapa'a
town. It's the most densely populated part of the island
and offers everything from shopping and dining to river
valleys and ancient Hawaiian heiau (temples).
From the airport you can see Ha'upu (also called "Hoary
Head"), the massive, rounded peak that marks the
southern edge of the East Shore. Kaua'i Community College
is across Kaumuali'i Highway from it. Residents say
that clouds on the top of Ha'upu forecast a short, refreshing
rain. As you leave the airport, you can go one of three
ways: Straight takes you into Lihu'e town, left leads
to Nawiliwili Harbor and right goes to the North Shore.
Lihu'e town was the first business center on the island
and still serves as the civic and commercial heart of
Kaua'i. Wilcox Hospital, the main post office, Kukui
Grove Shopping Center and the main offices of several
banks are here. Visit the Kaua'i Museum on Rice Street
to learn about the history and culture of the Garden
Island. After the museum, head to the Nawiliwili Harbor
area. Here you'll find Kalapaki Beach, where locals
and tourists mix for sun, swimming and surfing. Kalapaki
is a good beginner's beach for surfers, and it's also
a home base for several Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddling
teams. A pleasant walkway hugs the beachfront here on
resort property, and at the resort or nearby malls you'll
find several places to dine or have a drink with a view
of the bay. At the first left after Kalapaki on Hulemalu
Road heading toward the harbor, the narrow winding road
will take you up to Alekoko (Menehune) Fishpond outlook.
Archaeologists estimate the fishpond was constructed
about 1,000 years ago. Go back to Nawiliwili Road, turn
left and you're a minute away from the Kukui Grove Shopping
Center where you'll find national chain stores as well
as many local businesses.
As you leave Lihu'e heading east on Kuhio Highway,
set your sights on the Wailua River. If you want to
view Wailua Falls, turn mauka just past Wilcox Hospital
where the highway dips. After passing through the old
plantation town of Hanama'ulu back on Kuhio Highway,
you'll soon see the Wailua Golf Course. Keep an eye
out for the turn-off to Lydgate Beach Park, a well-maintained
haven of grassy fields, pavilions, swimming areas, a
playground and a segment of the coastal walk/bike path,
which upon completion will be several miles long.
The mouth of the Wailua River has been a sacred place
since ancient times, not only for Hawaiians but for
Polynesians in general. There are seven heiau beginning
near the river mouth and going deep inland. These sites
are still used for spiritual purposes and are protected
by law; if you visit, please respect them by neither
taking anything from them nor leaving anything behind.
The Wailua area, though largely residential, provides
opportunities to kayak or canoe up the Wailua river
and view 'Opaeka'a Falls, which is on the right when
you drive up Kuamo'o Road. Just across from the falls,
a road winds steeply down to Kamokila Hawaiian Village,
a replica of a native village. Farther up Kuamo'o Road
between mile markers two and three, look for a trail
on the right snaking to the top of "Sleeping Giant"
(the profile of the mountain seen from Kapa'a town).
It's an easy hike with a rewarding view. At the end
of Kuamo'o Road is the Keahua Forestry Arboretum, a
refuge for relaxing, hiking, swimming and simply enjoying
Kaua'i's clean air. The resort property at the corner
of Kuamo'o Road and Kuhio Highway was once the Coco
Palms, Kaua'i's first resort hotel where Blue Hawaii
was filmed. It was damaged by Hurricane 'Iniki in 1992,
and its reconstruction remains in limbo. Across the
highway from the hotel is Wailua Beach, where the water
can either be very calm or rough and where there may
be surfable waves depending on the time of year.
Past the Coco Palms and Wailua Beach is another resort
area and a famous coconut grove. Then you'll pass through
the towns of Waipouli and Kapa'a, each with specialty
restaurants, gift shops, grocery stores, cafés
and a range of accommodations. You'll also find tour
companies offering kayaking, snorkeling, zipline adventures
and other activities such as movie location tours or
lu'au. These once small and sleepy towns have undergone
development in recent years, so be prepared for traffic
congestion and general busy-ness.
Where does the North Shore of Kaua'i begin? Some say
it begins at Kealia Beach, which is popular with boogie-boarders
and shortboard surfers. Something dramatic happens when
you arrive in the area: The comparatively urban landscape
gives way to ocean panoramas and mountain vistas, waterfalls
and white sandy beaches, azure oceans, gentle mists
and rainbows. Wherever the North Shore technically begins,
it's the most lush and soothing area of Kaua'i.
After Kealia you pass through Anahola. You won't see
much of the ocean on the long stretch of highway between
Anahola and Kilauea, but turn off the main road onto
smaller side roads that head towards the ocean. Often
a trailhead or a breathtaking view awaits.
Kilauea, a former plantation town, is mainly a bedroom
community today. It's the site of the Kilauea Point
National Wildlife Refuge, where you'll see a lighthouse
built in 1913 that marks northernmost point of the main
Hawaiian Islands and that once guided boats traveling
to and from Asia. The view from the point is stunning
and includes Moku'ae'ae Island bird sanctuary just offshore.
If you're lucky, you might see dolphins frolicking and,
in season, whales breaching. The refuge is home to native
and migratory birds including albatrosses, terns, tropicbirds,
boobies, nene and shearwaters. You might see endangered
Hawaiian monk seals sunning on the rocks below. You
can take a self-guided tour and birdwatch. Stop at the
visitor center, where you can borrow a pair of binoculars.
Between Kilauea and the Princeville resort development
is 'Anini Beach, which is great for windsurfing, walking,
picnicking, camping and playing in the large grassy
park. On Sundays the polo club plays across from the
beach playground. Camping here is popular with island
families, particularly during long holiday weekends
(a permit is required).
Princeville, the next stop as you travel north, is
upscale Kaua'i. It's a playground of posh hotels, condos
and vacation homes set among world-class golf courses.
Enter at the massive fountain makai of the highway.
At the end of the road is the St. Regis Princeville
hotel, which offers one of the best panoramic views
of Hanalei Bay; the hotel's lanai is a great place to
have a cocktail and watch an unforgettable Kaua'i sunset.
The Hanalei Bay Resort Hotel offers another spectacular
Before you drive down to Hanalei, you might want to
view the valley from the outlook a few yards past the
Princeville turnoff; it's a view that's included in
every calendar collection featuring Kaua'i: fields planted
in taro and the mountains beyond. The only way into
Hanalei is via a one-lane bridge; when it rains excessively,
the river overflows its banks and the bridge is closed.
While the bottleneck causes traffic jams, the community
has elected not to upgrade the bridge. The aim is to
deter development in the valley; there's no way to truck
in heavy loads of construction equipment and material
over the current bridge.
Hanalei is a welcoming and easygoing place. Green
mountains and waterfalls run down the mountains, a stunning
backdrop to the taro patches and conservation forest.
Rain clouds often shroud the mountain peaks. Hanalei
town has many restaurants, galleries and shops selling
jewelry, clothing, glass and watersports gear. Several
places rent kayaks, surfboards and boogie-boards. Head
toward the ocean on almost any street, and you'll soon
find Hanalei Bay. Behind the buildings fronting the
mauka side of the main street are taro patches that
have been tended by farming families for generations.
Continuing north, you'll feel that you've entered
an Eden. This is the "real" North Shore: one-lane
bridges, beautiful beaches and forests. At Ha'ena Beach
Park there's great snorkeling at a spot called Tunnels.
Limahuli Garden and Preserve, which is a part of the
National Tropical Botanical Garden, showcases native
plants and demonstrates how native Hawaiians farmed
taro in terraced ponds. At the end of the road is Ke'e
Beach, one of the best snorkeling spots on the island
and perhaps the most spectacular setting from which
to watch the sunset. The eleven-mile Kalalau trail takes
off at Ke'e; day hikers can reach Hanakapi'ai Beach
in a couple of hours; add more time if you want to hike
up the valley to the waterfall. Be careful about crossing
the river at Hanakapi'ai; if it has rained in the back
of the valley, flash floods can sweep away the unwary.
Only seasoned hikers should attempt the Kalalau trail
and only when the weather has been dry for several weeks.
The trail has been maintained by volunteers who realized
how dangerous it had become in parts. From various points
along the trail, you can see the Na Pali coast unfolding,
but if you want a panoramic view, boat tour companies
make it possible to view the Na Pali coast from the
ocean. You can also view it from the air by helicopter.
Whichever way you do it, make it a point to experience
the Na Pali coast, as it's one of the highlights of
Kaua'i-if not in all of the Hawaiian Islands.
Heading south on Kaumuali'i Highway from Lihu'e, the
road is often lined by vegetation. Adding to this lushness
are the invasive Hawaiian baby woodrose vines hanging
from the trees and power lines. When the yellow blossoms
dry they turn brown and are used for decoration. In
some places along the highway there are different kinds
of ginger. On both sides of the highway are acres of
former sugar plantation land. Kaumuali'i Highway takes
you to the South Shore area, where the sun is usually
shining even when other parts of the island are overcast.
Turn left off the highway at Maluhia Road ("tunnel
of trees" road), and you come to the former plantation
town of Koloa. The tree tunnel was created with eucalyptus
planted a century ago by one of the island's plantation
families, the McBrydes. Koloa was Kaua'i's first sugar
plantation town and had its own sugar mill. After the
sugar bust, the town suffered. It was restored to some
of its former cozy charm, and it's being transformed
again, this time to an upscale residential and resort
area similar to neighboring Po'ipu, which is closer
to the shoreline. Po'ipu is a major resort area boasting
a luxury hotel with a golf course (where the PGA Grand
Slam of Golf was held for several years), vacation condo
"villages," a mix of resident-occupied homes
and vacation rentals, shopping centers with good restaurants
and a fine beach. Po'ipu Beach itself headed Dr. Beach's
list of America's Best Recreational Beaches in 2001.
Other beaches in the area are Brennecke and Shipwrecks.
The latter fronts the hotel, and if you go past the
resort the paved road ends. Turn onto a dusty, bumpy
road to Maha'ulepu, which is a perfect area to spend
a day walking the shoreline, hiking up Ha'upu and taking
in the beauty of the cliffs and lava formations. Back
in the populated area of Koloa, at the opposite end
of the shoreline from Po'ipu, visit the Spouting Horn,
which sends a plume of water into the air at frequent
Back on Kaumuali'i Highway, you'll soon reach Kalaheo,
another former plantation town now home to a public
golf course and a mixture of middle and upscale residences.
On the outskirts of Kalaheo, the landscape changes dramatically:
Acres of former cane fields, coffee trees and open terrain
mark the transition to the dry West Shore.
The rain rarely reaches Kaua'i's West Shore, so it's
drier, hotter and more barren than the rest of the island.
You'll arrive first in Hanapepe, Kaua'i's "Biggest
Little Town." As you approach, take the turnoff
into historic Hanapepe, where you'll find a main street
lined with art galleries. Friday night is art night,
a good time to enjoy the galleries and shops. A stroll
across the Hanapepe swinging bridge completes any daytime
visit. At the edge of town turn left from Kaumuali'i
onto Highway 543 and drive out to Salt Pond Beach Park,
where there's an area of salt beds that are flooded
by seawater from wells; after the water evaporates the
salt is harvested by families who have made salt in
this way for generations. This prized "Hawaiian
salt" is available only from these families. Swimming
at the beach is safe any time of year.
Waimea town is the next stop. A twenty-seven-foot
obelisk memorializes the death of Captain James Cook
who landed on Kaua'i in 1778-his first landing in Hawai'i.
The Waimea ("reddish water," from the red
dirt of the area) River meets the ocean at Waimea. (Swimming
isn't recommended due to the runoff.) While in Waimea,
you might want to taste one of the local specialties,
including poke (pronounced "poh-kay"), a dish
made with chunks of raw fish or other seafood (including
octopus) and seasoned with seaweed and spices. Try it!
It's one of Kaua'i's delicacies.
From Waimea, you can either drive farther along the
highway to Kekaha and Polihale or go mauka on Waimea
Canyon Road. If you decide to go out to Polihale State
Park, also called Barking Sands for the sound of the
shorebreak, you'll first drive through Kekaha, where
the road runs along the beach-it's a starkly beautiful
area. At the Polihale turnoff, be prepared for a long,
bumpy, and totally worth-it drive on a dirt road that
leads to a pristine beach and views of the westernmost
cliffs of the Na Pali coast. The beach is wide and long,
running for seventeen miles from Polihale cliffs back
down to Waimea. Swimming here is risky, so be careful.
The shorebreak can be quite rough, and there are no
lifeguards or facilities.
If you choose Waimea Canyon Road, be prepared to have
your mind blown. Known as "the Grand Canyon of
the Pacific," Waimea Canyon was formed by successive
lava flows. The layering of the rock creates striations
reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. As you drive up the
road, more of the canyon comes into view. You'll soon
enter Koke'e State Park, where you can take advantage
of the lookout points and trails overlooking the Na
Pali coast. On your way into the park visit the Koke'e
Museum for maps and displays about native and introduced
plants and animals.
You can't end a tour of Kaua'i without visiting its
crowning glory: Kalalau Valley seen from the Kalalau
Lookout. You'll view the valley from above (the only
other vantage is from within the valley itself, accessible
only to those who hike the Kalalau trail or boat in).
There are no words for the beauty of this spot-it's
unforgettable, just like Kaua'i itself. If the valley
is shrouded in mist when you arrive, don't despair and
don't leave. After a few minutes, when the mists part
and the rays of sun touch the valley, you will experience
5 Things To Do On Your Visit...
Explore the North Shore
View the grandeur of Waimea Canyon and
Hike to Hanakapi'ai
See the Na Pali coast by boat, helicopter,
or on foot
View the sunset over Hanalei Bay