Editor’s note: thanks so much to our adventuring doctor here at The Royal Tour, Dan, for this awesome article to wrap up Hawaii Month in our Facebook group, Travelers Tell All. For more of Dan’s writing, click here for his index page.
I first went to the Hawaiian Islands when I was 16 years old. I remember being captivated by their beauty and fascinated by their culture in a way that was different than any other place I had been. But as I got older and my thirst for international travel grew, my desire to explore more of Hawaii lessened. Perhaps it was my misconception that all the islands were the same, and since I had been to Maui and Oahu, there wasn’t much to gain by going back. Or perhaps it was the common blunder that prevents many people from visiting nearby and easily accessible places: “I can go anytime, so I’ll just go later.” In either case, I didn’t return for many years.
After visiting the Big Island in 2015, I finally realized how unique each island is. I am sure being an adult and having a greater appreciation for nature had something to do with it. But in any case, I was reminded just how special Hawaii truly is. From the active volcanoes, to the green and black sand beaches, to the frigid temperatures of the world’s tallest mountain (from its base at the ocean’s floor), I was awestruck once again.
And yet, I still hadn’t been to the last of the four largest islands. Over the years, I had been told on several occasions that Kauai was really the gem of them all. More untouched than its neighbors and consistently ranked as one of the wettest places on Earth (depending on what part of the island you are on), the natural beauty of Kauai was said to be unparalleled. After all, the island is nicknamed the Garden Island for a reason.
But it wasn’t until COVID hit that I got an opportunity to visit Kauai. When our previous plans fell through and with few options for travelling in the fall of 2020, my wife and I decided to visit Kauai for our honeymoon. After all, Southwest finally started flying there the year prior and I had a bunch of points I had been saving. And who doesn’t like a free flight? Starting on October 15th, the previously strict, mandatory 14-day quarantine for all visitors was being lifted. It seemed like the perfect recipe for an unforgettable vacation. And yet, just one week before we were supposed to leave, the Mayor of Kauai announced a plan to reinstitute the mandatory quarantine due to an increase in COVID cases on the island. The problem was that we had no idea when that might happen. Since we were only going for 8 days, a mandatory quarantine would effectively ruin our trip, as we had plans to explore the entire island. As our departure date approached, we had no idea if we’d have to cancel the trip. Lucky for us though, we arrived just 3 days prior to the quarantine being reinitiated. Not only did this allow us to complete our planned itinerary, but it also prevented many other tourists from visiting at the same time. As a result, we got to experience the island with considerably less people on it than normal.
During our time in Kauai, we stayed in the Koloa region. Since it was during the rainy season and the north side of the island gets considerably more rain than the south side, I thought it would be better to prioritize sun. The ecolodge we stayed at was amazing, but in retrospect, I probably would have chosen to stay in Hanalei or Princeville on the north side of the island. Don’t get me wrong, the south has some great things to offer. There are some tasty food spots like Lappert’s, La Spezia, Kickshaw, and Kauai Juice Co. And if you like sea turtles (which happen to be my favorite animal), there is no better place to see them than Koloa Landing and Poipu Beach at night. But overall, the beaches and food options are better in the north. We spent considerable time at Hanalei beach, which is consistently rated as one the island’s best beaches. Foodwise, we especially loved Nourish Hanalei and Bar Acuda.
For us though, there were a few activities that were the highlights of the trip. The first was a helicopter ride over the island. I have done helicopter tours before, but this one was special. Perhaps it was due to this being the first helicopter ride I have been on without doors and therefore with unobstructed views. Or maybe it was because the company we chose and the weather were just right. (We went with Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours and it turned out to be a great decision.) But likely it was the island itself. I have seen amazing waterfalls all over the world, but Kauai beats them all. Flying over the interior of the island, you gain an appreciation for the sheer number of waterfalls Kauai has. Imagine one the greenest landscapes you have ever seen, littered with diffusely spread waterfalls as far as the eye can see. It was truly spectacular.
The second highlight was an adventure to Uluwehi Falls, also known as Secret Falls by the locals. To get there you need to kayak up the Wailua River, which is on the east side of the island. It takes about 1 hour to paddle up river to the beginning of the hiking trail. From there, it is about a 30-45 minute hike to get to the falls. There are several tour companies that you can join, but my wife and I decided to go ourselves. We rented kayaks from a local tour company called Kayak Kauai and got on the river a little after 8am. In an attempt to get there before the crowds, we kept a pretty fast pace and were the first to arrive at the falls. We had about 20 minutes by ourselves before the crowds arrived. I would definitely recommend going as early as possible. It is important to note that you do have to cross the Wailua River on the hike, and during the rainy season, it can be very dangerous. We got very lucky and the river was low and the trail was relatively dry. Be very careful when crossing the river!
But without a doubt, the main highlight of the trip was our hike up the Na Pali Coast to Hanakapiai Falls. The Na Pali Coast is world renowned for its stunning natural formations and beautiful landscapes. It is located in the Haena State Park on the northwestern part of the island. In order to enter the park, you will first need to purchase a day pass. It is $35 per person, but well worth it. The trailhead is right next to the parking lot and from there it is a short hike to Ke’e Beach, which is actually one of the top-rated beaches on the island. From there, the real hike begins. Overall, the trek to the falls is a challenging one. It is about 6 miles each way and you have to navigate through some deep forest and rocky terrain. But the pay off is well worth it. You will be rewarded with amazing views of the Na Pali Coast, which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. As you traverse the twisting trail, there are several inviting pools you can swim in. We stopped at a couple on the way in and out that were very refreshing. As you get closer to the falls, you start to hear the familiar sounds. But the trail continues on and on and you begin to wonder if you’ll ever see the falls. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the trail opens up into this large clearing and you realize you are in a canyon. The walls ascend about 1400 feet and are painted with green flora in all directions. Though not the most powerful waterfall I have seen, it is definitely one of the most impressive. There is a large pool at the bottom you can swim in. (As a side note, we visited in November and the water was pretty cold, but still worth a swim.) There are also rocks behind the falls that you can climb up and relax on to appreciate the falls from another perspective. It is also important to note that if you plan to visit during the rainy season like we did, the trail can be very slippery and potentially dangerous in certain places, especially when the water levels are high. Again we got pretty lucky, as the trail was fairly dry. It was an adventure for sure, but trust me when I say, don’t miss it!
Kauai is amazing, but it is not perfect. It is very expensive, though all of Hawaii is. Though there is an abundance of fresh fish and fruit, if you are a foodie, the quality food options leaves something to be desired. Although the beaches are fantastic, the snorkeling is better on the other islands. And for those looking for a lot of activities, especially for kids, the other islands are probably better choices. All that said, Kauai is a truly special place and one of the few places that I have travelled that I feel like I could live in. In terms of natural beauty, Kauai is up there with New Zealand, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Iceland for me. I highly recommend you go check it out for yourself.
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