PHILIPPA BARR discovers plenty to see and do on Kauai, an island off Hawaii – from coastal treks to famous film locations – along with a welcoming, relaxed vibe.
On a rollicking boat ride from Hanalei Bay to the base of the Na Pali Coast, our bronzed captain and guide gushed over his recent surfing safari in Indonesia. Why on earth, I thought, would you bother to head to Indonesia to surf when you have the famous Pacific swells right here on your Hawaiian doorstep?
Then it struck me. You’d do it for exactly the same reason that it is undoubtedly worth flying the distinctly circuitous route from the tropical island you live on, to another that lies just 20 degrees north: the islands are not at all the same.
In fact, not even the seven inhabited islands of Hawaii are the same – which goes partway to explaining why visitors return to this, the world’s most isolated population centre, time and time again. On this occasion, we explored Kauai, a great choice in peak times because it is a step more difficult to get to, which deters some of the crowds.
Kauai is the fourth largest of Hawaii’s populated islands, the oldest, and the farthest west. Like all the islands, its isolated ocean setting leaves it subject to the vagaries of some unusual weather. It’s known as The Garden Isle – a polite way of saying it is very green, which comes from sometimes being very wet. In fact, at the somewhat muddy site of the Pu’u O Kila Lookout, at the very end of the Waimea Canyon Road, a sign reads “One of the Wettest Spots on Earth”.
Don’t let that put you off, however. The topography of the Hawaiian Islands lends itself to unique rainfall patterns: as the clouds travel long distances over the sea to reach the islands, they pick up enormous quantities of water, which they then dump dramatically as soon as they hit land. Their first point of call on Kauai is the Na Pali cliffs – shooting 5,000 feet almost vertically out of the sea. Once there, however, they tend to hover, making the heights very wet, and the eastern and southern lowlands of the island well irrigated but much drier. Unsurprisingly, the lowlands are where you find the bulk of the development, including the tourist resorts.
Nothing is all that far on Kauai, but it’s wise to hire a car to get around. Believe me, though: the GPS they try to up-sell you is really only going to tell you whether to take the highway clockwise or anti-clockwise round the island. Travel clockwise to the end and you reach the top of the aforementioned cliffs; travel anti-clockwise and you’re at the bottom. From one you can see the other, but the drive back around takes four hours.
We stayed at a resort east of Poipu. The lovely Maha’ulepu coastal path allows you to explore from the town several miles to the east, taking in spectacular scenery, several heritage sites, and often wildlife, including turtles, whales and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Poipu itself boasts a popular beach park and two quaint shopping centres, and abuts the historic town of Koloa (which, though it’s described as “charming”, we found less appealing than Poipu itself).
If you do stay in the area, book in to Brennecke’s Beach Bar – it won’t win any gourmet awards, but it serves great American fare with lots of seafood and in an unbeatable setting. There are plenty of beach resorts to choose from, but on another visit we would definitely opt to self-cater in one of the many holiday rentals along Pe’e Road.
There are two key sites on Kauai, and you must allow time to get to both. The first is Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Its scale is literally awesome, and from the roadside viewpoints you can take in sheer cliffs, thundering waterfalls, and an ever-evolving cycle of light and colours. The more adventurous head off on numerous trails, getting down into the canyon depths or up-close-and-personal with the rapids. Head to the end of the canyon road to take in a magnificent view of Na Pali from above, or to launch into one of the more challenging treks, from the Pihea Trail to the Kilohana Lookout. Much of this is low-lying and muddy, but the potential for spectacular views from Kilohana tempts many.
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