My Obsession with Kauai
Move over, Big Island! Kauaʻi (pronounced kah-y-ee) is my new favourite destination. It’s the definition of paradise on earth! One travel review I read beforehand said it’s like walking into Jurassic Park, and they weren’t kidding! It’s no wonder they shot several of the films there.
Upon arrival, we upgraded our rental car to a Jeep Wrangler, and it was the best decision we’ve ever made. Having a vehicle with four-wheel drive opens up so many different parts of the island.
(Pro tip: 4L means maximum power and maximum traction. Good to know when you’re stuck in a creek, spinning your wheels on 4H having assumed 4High meant higher power. We learned the hard way.)
The island is small and very easy to navigate, so we were able to drive anywhere we needed in an hour or less. We stayed on the east side of the island in Kapaʻa (about 15 minutes north of the Līhuʻe Airport—the only airport on the island) at the Kauai Shores Hotel, which was a great little spot on the ocean and a close walk to restaurants and ABC Stores.
(Pro tip: ABC will be your best friend for anything you need. Remember to save your receipts because, for every $100 you spend, you get a gift. We got two super cute Hawaii mugs. Totally worth the $200 spent on alcohol, snacks and pre-made PB&J sandwiches!)
There is so much to explore and discover on the island that we could have stayed there another few weeks (or forever?) and there are so many things we can’t wait to do next time. But, for now, I’ll recap the highlights from some of the best things that we checked out, and you should, too!
Drive through the Grand Canyon of the Pacific
Waimea Canyon was stunning! There are so many lookout points along the drive, and each one was somehow better than the last. We lucked out and got a beautiful, clear day, but, in talking to others who went when it was overcast and foggy, there’s absolutely no point in going if you can’t see the view. So pay attention to the weather.
Throw out the hiking maps
The drive along the Waimea Canyon ends at Kokee State Park. That’s where we found the Kalalau Lookout hike—not to be confused with the Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile full day hike requiring a permit and an overnight in a tent (ain't nobody got time for that!). It’s not marked or advertised as a hike, but one of the locals told us about the access through a little gate off the to the left of the lookout. The hike was about 30 minutes through a fairly well-traveled path (with some very steep, narrow and muddy parts) to a beautiful point overlooking the ocean and the coast (way better view than the actual Kalalau Lookout). It was a great hike that wasn’t crowded or busy, so when we got to end, we were able to spend half an hour enjoying the view with only one other couple.
Go chasing waterfalls
The day hike on the Kalalau Trail to Hanakāpīʻai Falls is 8-miles round trip and took us about five hours to complete, including a half-hour break at both the beach (half-way point) and the waterfall. It was a great hike that traverses back and forth over the river, but the real payoff is the waterfall at the end. It’s a beautiful spot for relaxing and swimming that took my breath away. I mean literally—the water was so cold that I couldn’t breathe at first. On the way back, we noticed it seemed cloudier, windier, and colder than on the way there. Evidently, these were all signs that the weather was changing, and, before we knew it, we were in a torrential downpour running to get back to the river so we could cross before it got too dangerous. There are signs at every river crossing warning of flash floods and the dangers of crossing the river in bad weather. But what a cool experience to be in the thick of the rainforest during a rainstorm.
Swim and snorkle like a queen!
The Queen’s Bath is a secluded tide pool, accessible by a short (but very muddy) trail. The beginning of the trail is hidden away in a beautiful residential area called Princeville (I'm sure the locals love that). The Queen’s Bath was perfectly calm, and great for snorkeling and cliff jumping. And, again, barely anyone was there! What is everyone else doing on Kauai if not going to these amazing spots?
Update: Apparently barely anyone was there for a good reason. The Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau sent me a note indicating that they "never promote or encourage anyone to go to Queen’s Bath (and prefer no one else does) due to the extensive injuries, rescues and fatalities that have occurred there." We saw a carved stone plaque near the Queen's Bath indicating 29 people have drowned there, and including the warning "Unexpected large waves will knock you off rocks & sweep you out to sea!" It was recommended by a travel blog we read, but maybe in respect of the first responders who risk their lives to rescue people, you should skip it.
Dolphins and whales and waves. Oh my!
Of the many different adventure sea tours available, all of which are comparable and offer pretty much the same thing, we went with Kauai Sea Tours. (Go see Rich at Snorkel Bob's! He'll get you set up with all the best activities, plus a free tote bag! And, if we're being honest, who among us doesn't love a free tote bag?) Kicking off at 6:30 a.m., we took a six-hour catamaran snorkel trip along the beautiful Nā Pali Coast. The first half was incredible. Chris and I stood at the front of the boat (think Titanic meets Call Me By Your Name) looking down at dozens of spinner dolphins as they swam with the boat and jumped out of the water right in front of us. We also saw a giant female humpback whale and her calf back flip out of the water as they played right in front of us. And the views of the Nā Pali Coast were unparalleled. You can only see the coast by boat or helicopter (or a two-day hike, which I wasn’t about to do). But that’s when the fun ended for me. The waves were so big that I got seasick (along with ten others) and had to lay down on the floor with a barf bucket. Not my finest moment, but Chris made the most of the open bar and partied it up with some American girls he befriended.
Dance with the Hawaiians
Hot, shirtless Hawaiian men oiled and up and dancing. What could be better? No, this isn't Chippendales, it's a luau. And according to another traveler we spoke with, we had the hottest male dancers on the luau circuit. The Lu’au Kalamaku is a theatrical luau that tells the story of ancient Polynesia during the time of their remarkable migration and epic voyages between Hawaii and Tahiti. In addition to the story, the luau also featured fire poi balls, traditional fire knife dancing, and traditional hula dancing. Plus we received an incredible four-course dinner at Gaylords next door, bottomless champagne, fresh flower leis, and a torch-lit walk to our front row seats at the luau. Basically, we were Hawaiian royalty for a night!
Take a mud bath (not at a spa)
One of my favourite things about travelling is trading tips and tricks with people along the way. We ran into a girl at a smoothie shop who told us about this gem and said it was the best thing she’s ever done in her life. Now that we’ve done it, we think she may have oversold it a touch, but it was a really fun day. We booked our 4x4 off-road tour with Kipu Ranch Adventures, which offers a tour of the 3,000 acre privately-owned property that has been used for dozens of Hollywood films and has history dating back to Hawaiian royalty in 1872. The tour guides were incredible and so friendly, but the weather put a damper on things. It was pouring for half the tour, which made it fun to drive through huge puddles and get covered in mud, but sucked because we couldn’t go swimming in the private waterfall or use the rope to swing into the river. This is an activity that’s definitely better in nice weather.
Travel to the end of the earth
The “Queens Pond," not to be confused with the aforementioned Queen's Bath, is a beautiful spot along Polihale Beach, which is the longest beach in all of Hawaii stretching a full 12 miles in length. It’s often called the “End of the Earth” by locals. It has beautiful white sand as far as the eye can see and not a patch of shade in sight. Lucky for me, Chris dug me a hole in the sand to get some reprieve from the sun. But the spot itself was stunning and secluded. We had to drive down a long, bumpy dirt road in a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get there, so that might be why it was empty, but it was a glorious little spot. We watched the sunset and enjoyed the calm water that the reef break provides to Queens Pond, unlike other spots along the beach, which had big waves and strong currents.
Get beached like a seal
Poʻipū Beach Park is a nice beach to hang out at with lifeguards on duty and decent snorkeling. While we were there, three Hawaiian Monk Seals were hauled out on the sand sleeping in the sun. This is apparently not an uncommon sight in Kauai, despite the monk seals being one of the most critically endangered animals in the world. We also saw a Hawaiian Sea Turtle come out onto the beach for a rest. So it’s a busy little place for tourists and sea life alike!