by Lee Foster
A kind of travel, which might be called “comfortable soft adventure” or “luxury adventure,” has become the style of choice for an increasing number of travelers. Hawaii’s island of Kauai is one of the better places on earth to experience this phenomenon.
“Comfortable soft adventure” might mean a vigorous day hike on the world-class Kalalau Trail, but an evening looking out at the sunset from a suite in the Princeville Resort at the north end of the island.
Day may bring a rigorous walk in the Waimea Canyon to Waipoo Falls, but evening can mean a return to a top floor room at the Hyatt Regency Poipu. Look out to sea from your room, November to March, and you may see spouting humpback whales.
To make “comfortable soft adventure” work, a destination must provide both outstanding lodging and an extraordinary range of special adventure sports. Kauai qualifies more readily than many other destinations.
Adventure Outings on Kauai
The adventure traveler with a week to spend could enjoy the following. Be sure to bring your sunscreen and a water bottle for these outdoor activities:
*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 trail inland along the river toward the Hanakapiai Waterfalls. This is another 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 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 in the past. 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. The beach just before the Kalalau hike, Haena Beach, is one of the loveliest places in Kauai to rest up before or after the exertion.
*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 sight 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, upon which you gaze down. 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 at Princeville at the scenic overlook into the Hanalei Valley. This is an inspiring view. Below you stretches a huge acreage of taro, 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–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, other sights include 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 here 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 to get started at 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. One veteran snorkel tour leader reported that he counted at Lawai Beach about 140 of the 650 species of fish estimated to exist in Hawaiian waters. A snorkeler may also see here the Hawaiian day octopus.
It is helpful to have the services of a professional snorkel tour company. They have experienced guides who have snorkeled everywhere on the island for years. Safety is a major concern because you need to know the ocean current flows at various beaches. Guides provide a handy surfboard as something to hang onto if a snorkeler is new to this sport. The company may provide a body suit that keeps you warm in the water and maintains your buoyancy, making it easier to enjoy seeing the fish. Some snorkel companies also do a video of the entire trip, which the company’s guide later narrates, starring you, the fish, and the mammoth, endangered green sea turtles.
The celebrated green sea turtles are found only a few hundred yards from Lawai Beach at 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 is strong, so use it to drift across the reef. 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 Kauai, 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 round, 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 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-deep depression. Such looks tend to entice lovers of nature into 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 won’t strike again for good while.
One choice hike here is to Waipoo Falls, a fairly rigorous walk in and out. Altogether, Kauai presents 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 challenging 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.
*Indulging in an adventure in botany with a tour at the Allerton Garden, one of several gardens in Hawaii that are part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens
The Allerton Gardens are on the south side of Kauai, near Spouting Horn. A visitor will be fortunate who happens to take a tour led by a guide with a passion for botany.
The drama of plant life on Hawaii has few equals around the planet. How plants ever got to Hawaii is an amazing feat in itself. However, over millions of years the wind, waves, and wings (birds carrying seeds in their digestive systems) brought a number of species to Hawaii, where they evolved in isolation. When the first humans, the Polynesians, arrived, it is estimated that there were about 1,200 native plant species, of which 90 percent were endemic, meaning they existed only here in Hawaii. (About 60 percent of those endemics are now endangered and facing extinction.) The typical Hawaiian plant evolved in a benign environment, producing succulent leaves with no thorns or poisons because there were no predators. (Imagine today what a feral goat would choose for its preferred forage.)
The Polynesians arrived with hunger and practicality in their thoughts, rather than ornamentation, packing their canoes efficiently. They brought the taro and breadfruit plants for food, plus the milo tree, which can be carved to make good wooden bowls (with no tannic wooden taste) for serving food. The Polynesians added an estimated 30 species to Hawaii.
Then came the European and American contact. They introduced about 12,000 species of plants for varying reasons, such as food production, ornamentation, and practical purposes (windbreaks, cattle fodder, etc). Many of these plants have “escaped” and become invasive, crowding out the native Hawaiian plants.
Allerton Garden is a celebration of the beauty that introduced ornamental plants added to the design aesthetics of Hawaii. The horticultural efforts on the property go back to the time of Queen Emma, who loved to plant anything purple, such as imported bougainvillea. The Allerton family era brought the sophistication of learned plant architects, who created five “rooms” in the garden, where the floor, the eye level, and the ceiling are all different plants. The effect, such as the Thanksgiving Room, where the Allertons had their outdoor Thanksgiving feasts, is a monument to what moneyed horticultural passion added to the landscape in Hawaii.
*Bicycling down the volcano road
The main biking experience is a leisurely downhill run on the road along the flank of the volcano. However, at the top, near Kokee Museum, there are also 14 miles of back-country roads for mountain biking. Throughout the island, bikers can explore seldom-used cane roads to remote beaches, but it takes good local advice on where to go.
The 12-mile, down-the-mountain coasting trip begins at dawn, which gives the biker a sunrise view along the rim of Waimea Canyon, a chromatic treat. Dawn is the advisable time to start so that traffic on the narrow road is minimal. Only a few night shift astronomy observatory workers are commuting down the mountain in these early hours.
The trip begins in the forested highlands and ends in the sugar cane fields at the base. Inquire locally for current operators offering the logistics and bikes required for this trip today.
*Cruiser and catamaran boating along the Napali Coast
Boat tour operators motor or sail over to the Napali Coast, a glorious trip past waterfalls, towering cliffs, lava tubes, and sea caves. You may see seals, spinner dolphins, and sea turtles all year, plus humpback whales in winter. Looking at the mountains, you begin to feel the spirit of Kauai, which is distinct from the other islands, as it should be, because Kauai is the oldest. Morning cruises include snorkeling; afternoon cruises are often for sightseeing only. Sunset cruises occur in summer. Cruises in winter can be canceled if the surf is too high.
Operators leave from the south side of the island. Inquire locally about current providers.
There are a few nuances of Kauai seasonably to appreciate for many of these adventures. During the winter, the north can be windy and rainy, so some of the better outdoor activities are at the south end. During the summer, the north comes into its own, as a calm and sunny area of the island.
*Sea kayaking on Hanalei Bay or elsewhere
Kayaking along the sea coast is a popular sport at several places around the island. Outfitters in Hanalei can set you up for a paddle around the bay or up the Hanalei River through the wetlands, the National Wildlife Refuge.
Hanalei Bay has a special aura about it. Cultural historians consider it the original “University of Hawaii,” because it was here that the alii, or elite, sent their children to learn the hula and the genealogy chants. As the culture lacked a written language, perpetuating the history and mores in chant and song was critical. Legend asserts that the goddess Pele first landed here. Hanalei Bay is said to have more songs and chants about it than anywhere else on Kauai. The fertile, well-watered plain behind Hanalei Bay presented an excellent agricultural venue for growing the staple food, taro.
*Horseback riding along the cattle-filled uplands of the 2,700-acre Princeville Ranch in north Kauai
This historic and still-functioning cattle ranch celebrates the reality that raising cattle was a central aspect of the Kauai economy, along with sugar cane. On a horse, you cross several cattle pastures, seeing the beef cattle and their calves, with the mountains as a backdrop. These cattle provide a grass-fed, free-range meat appreciated by some consumers.
Midway through the ride, you dismount and hike down a steep path through lush forests to surging Kalihiwai Falls, savoring lunch on the trail and a swim in the mountain pool at the base of the falls if you wish.
After climbing back up to the trail, fording a couple of streams, and pulling yourself with a chain over a rock outcropping, you mount a horse again and head back to the riding stables through the pastoral landscape. The horses are lively and well-maintained.
*Helicopter flightseeing over the island
When you board a helicopter at the Princeville Airport, put on the headset with the soothing stereophonic music, and glide over this green isle, with its waterfalls and enchanting Napali Coast, the magic of Kauai becomes powerful.
Only from the air can you glimpse some of the more remote waterfalls and get a sense of the rain-forest moisture levels that these tall volcanic peaks create. The top of Mt. Waialeale gets more than 400 inches of rain per year. From a helicopter you begin to understand the full meaning of the ancient name for Kauai, “the fountain head of many waters from on high and bubbling up from below.” The entire island oozes with water that falls near the summit and percolates down and out, creating a lens of fresh water.
Also from the air, you get splendid views of Waimea Canyon, the appropriately-named “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and the Napali Coast, with its sharp, vertical fins.
Kauai Luxury Lodgings
Princeville Resort in the north and the Grand Hyatt Kauai at Poipu in the south are two of the most luxurious lodgings on the island.
Set on a terraced hillside, Princeville boasts a view that few hotels can offer, both in the early morning and at sunset. Rooms at Princeville look out over Hanalei Bay and the rumpled, green mountains of northwest Kauai in the distance. The morning light is a delicate pink, sometimes turning into a rainbow. Late afternoon presents a dramatic sunset, so sensual, yet so quick, disappearing with tropical swiftness. Winter can be somewhat windy and rainy here, but summer is clear and dry.
Within the Princeville complex, no expense has been spared to make the lodging a marbled trophy. The public rooms and restaurants have a clubby, living-room feel. There is also outdoor dining on a terrace with scenic views. The placid beach in front is safe for children.
The Grand Hyatt Poipu, at the south end of the island, gets more sun in winter than does the northern part of the island. The architecture, done in the style of upturned roofs that is a signature of the islands, boasts an elaborate freshwater river with secluded coves and swimmable lagoons. There is something subtly Hawaiian about the Hyatt Regency Poipu. Much effort is made to include local celebrations. You might well see one of the local hula schools, called a hula halau, giving a performance. Locals still remember how well this property served the community in crisis after Hurricane Iniki in 1992, providing survival lodging, food, and communications. The fourth-floor rooms are the most select at the Hyatt (nothing on Kauai is built taller than four stories, the height of a mature coconut tree, something that can’t be said of the other islands.) From the fourth floor, you can look out beyond the immense tropical garden to view the sea and possibly witness the spouts of humpback whales.
For the “comfortable soft adventure” traveler, it’s hard to imagine a better destination than Kauai, which has both outstanding lodgings and spectacular outdoor opportunities.
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.”
Kauai Comfortable Soft Adventure Travel: If You Go
For visitor information, contact the Kauai Visitors Bureau at http://www.gohawaii.com/kauai.
Princeville Resort is at http://www.princeville.com/.
The Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa is at http://kauai.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html.