by Lee Foster
Kauai, Hawaii, is an unusual travel destination because many of the premier travel experiences here are free or low cost, accessible to all.
A traveler with outdoor interests and some energy could spend a week enjoying the following adventures. Your main expense for these recommended activities will be a rental car and gas:
*Hiking on the Kalalau Trail
This thousand-year-old trail, proceeding 11 miles down the scenic Napali Coast, offers a world-class hike. You begin at sea level at Kee Beach where the Hanalei Bay road ends on the north side of the island. The path ascends steeply along the ridge above the ocean, gradually revealing spectacular vistas of the coast after an hour or so of walking. The shifting light on the Napali landscape creates diverse and pleasing effects as the day proceeds. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking boots, carry a quart of water per hiker, and start early to allow plenty of time. During rains, the trail can be fairly slippery because the mud is slick. Summer presents the most congenial time to do the hike, sunny and warm, but with a pleasant breeze.
The hike proceeds about two miles to the Hanakapiai River, a good place for a rest stop and lunch. From there, you can take a popular side trip inland along the river toward the Hanakapiai Waterfalls. This is a rigorous two miles, but eventually you see the falls and can swim in the large pools of the river. The hike for the quarter mile or so to the actual base of the diaphanous, 300-foot falls is treacherous and should be attempted only by experienced rock scramblers. Get ample local advice before over-committing yourself.
From the river, the trail along the coast heads farther south, but it is steep. Pace yourself and hike in only the distance you are also comfortable backtracking to hike out.
The Kalalau and Hanalei area is so salubrious and temperate, with guavas dangling from the trees, that a traveler is bound to contemplate dropping out and remaining here. That’s what a few people have done here over the years. Historically, these valleys were heavily populated by the Polynesian settlers of early Hawaii, who grew their taro and other crops on terraces above the ocean. Haena Beach, a place to pause before the start of the hike, is one of the lovelier beaches on Kauai.
*Wildlife viewing at the Kilauea Lighthouse and in the surrounding Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
The historic Kilauea Lighthouse must have indeed been a pleasing view to the sailors plying the Orient route because it was the first landfall sighting after more than 2,000 miles of open ocean.
Surrounding the lighthouse is an area of extremely active bird life. Ground-nesting birds have flourished on Kauai because the dreaded mongoose, a predator introduced on other islands to control rats, never was released here. Where introduced, the mongoose failed to control rats, but it decimated the bird populations that built nests on the ground.
It is almost certain at Kilauea Point that you will see some endangered Hawaii nene geese, which roam the grounds without much fear of man. On Crater Hill, next to the lighthouse, there are thousands of red-footed boobies nesting. Albatross and shearwaters are also numerous. The well-stocked bookstore at the Kilauea Lighthouse has numerous titles on nature and culture in Hawaii, including handy guides for identifying birds and fish.
It is possible at Kilauea Point that an endangered Hawaiian monk seal will have hauled out on some of the extensive rock outcroppings along the shore, which you gaze down upon. Helpful staff rangers and volunteers walk the grounds, eager to share with you their love of the birds and mammals. From November to March, you may see humpback whales spouting offshore.
Another branch of the wildlife refuge exists along the north shore a few miles west of the Kilauea Lighthouse. Drive west and stop in Princeville at the scenic overlook into the Hanalei Valley. This is an inspiring view. Below you stretches a huge acreage of taro, one of the largest remaining planting of this historic crop in Hawaii. However, today the taro is grown under the supervision of the U.S. National Wildlife Service as an enhancement for the endangered bird population. Signage at the overlook will alert you about the main birds getting protection here, including coot, gallinule, Hawaiian duck, black-necked stilt, northern shoveler, northern pintail, lesser golden plover, and sanderling. Three water sources in the valley contribute to the habitat. Besides the taro fields, the other water sources are the Hanalei River and some natural ponds.
Then drive down the hill until you cross the single-lane bridge at the base. Instead of continuing on the main road out to Kee Beach, turn left on the side road that follows the Hanalei River and the taro fields. If you drive down the road a mile or so there is a Wildlife Service-designated parking lot on the left, adjacent to a large pond. Pull out your binoculars to see how many species of birds you can spot.
*Snorkeling on Kauai to see wildlife, especially the numerous and colorful reef fish and the large, endangered green sea turtle
Some of the best beaches at which to get started are Lawai Beach and the adjacent Prince Kuhio Beach, public beaches on the south side of the island. Lawai Beach has convenient parking, restrooms, and a freshwater shower. The protective reef minimizes the wave action. The beach is pleasantly sandy, and the water inside the reef is relatively shallow, down to around 10-15 feet. Most critically, there is an abundance of brightly colored reef fish awaiting your arrival, including Moorish idols, threadfin butterflies, convict tang, and needlefish. Veteran snorkelers have counted at Lawai Beach more than 140 of the 650 fish species estimated to exist in Hawaiian waters. A snorkeler may also see here the Hawaiian day octopus.
The celebrated green sea turtles are only a few hundred yards away, at the adjacent Prince Kuhio Beach. This beach is where Prince Kuhio was born. There is a monument dedicated to him at a park behind the beach. Exploring Hawaiian royalty is another theme for another time. Our quest now is wildlife.
Prince Kuhio is a rocky beach with a narrow sand entrance, dropping quickly to a 20-30 foot level. The current can be strong, so use it to drift across the reef west to east. Because snorkelers never touch the deeper coral here, there is minimal human impact. The fish life is even more abundant than at Lawai Beach. Large schools of fish of a given species are commonly seen. But the biggest thrill is that here, a few yards from shore, right in the midst of the condo developments of south shore Kawai, the endangered giant green sea turtles are flourishing. They rest their sometimes 300 to 400 pound bodies here, pausing under the coral ledges, occasionally floating to the surface to gulp a breath of air. At high tide, they feed on algae that grow on the rocks.
It is almost certain, year around, that you will encounter a few of these giant sea turtles here. You might see as many as 10-15 of them. It is important that a snorkeler behave prudently in their midst, merely observing them, not engaging or interacting or harassing them in any manner. The green sea turtle population in Hawaiian waters appears to be increasing, a conservation success story.
*Driving and hiking Waimea Canyon
A day trip by car up to the Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park, with scenic stops at the overlooks, allows you to gaze into the orange and red depths of the 3,000-foot depression. Such looks tend to entice lovers of nature into taking the treks for which the area is well suited. At the top end of the road, you can contemplate the Kalalau Valley, a fertile and well-watered valley that was heavily populated when Captain Cook arrived in the 18th century to explore Hawaii. The Kalalau Valley could be easily protected from marauding chiefs of other islands.
For information, visit the Kokee Natural History Museum, a “must” stop near the top of Waimea Canyon, for maps and literature about nature on the island. Anyone who loves natural history books will find this store and the shop at the Kilauea Lighthouse to be treasure troves. Displays highlight the plants and birds of Kauai. There is a room devoted to the sobering effect of Hurricane Iniki (1992) on the natural and human world of Kauai. Kauai residents realize that hurricanes are inevitable, but hopefully not imminent.
One choice hike here is to Waipoo Falls, a fairly rigorous walk in and out. Altogether, Kauai offers about 60 miles of hiking trails. Some guided hikes with a naturalist are organized by the museum. A hike can mean more when led by a local naturalist, who will know, for example, about the impending loss of additional bird species in this remote environment. Mosquito-born viruses are one of the killers, along with habitat destruction at lower elevations, plus the occasional devastating hurricane, of course. Overall, Hawaii has a large number of officially classified “endangered” animal species.
When looking at the peaceful mountains of Kauai, perhaps while hiking the Kalalau Trail, a traveler might be reminded of a local Hawaiian saying, which translates, “Beautiful is Kauai, perfect in the calm.”