From the big island, Hawai'i, we flew via Honolulu to an older island, Kaua'i, which is quite simply one of my favorite places in the world. I say older, because compared to the relatively new (from geological standpoint) island of Hawai'i, Kaua'i is several million years the senior, having formed when the Pacific plate was located further east of its current location. At such a time, the full force of the deep-Earth hot spot was devoted to giving fiery birth to Kaua'i, in the form of near continual (again, from a geological standpoint) volcanic eruptions. Anyway, long story short, after ~5.5 million years of natural forces having their way with it, the island is now an epitome of tropical paradise.
In this post, I'll be circumnavigating the island, starting and finishing in the epic Na Pali Coast on the northwest side of the island and traveling in a counter-clockwise route. The picture above is one of the most photographed viewpoints in Hawai'i (if not THE most photographed), looking down into the massive and stunning Kalalau Valley. We were incredibly lucky to get such good weather too, as you'll find out below.
This viewpoint is literally the end of the road. The main "highway" on Kaua'i doesn't quite make it around the entire thing, with the sheer cliffs, deep valleys, and high mountains of the Na Pali Coast causing the final barrier. Fortunately, Hawai'i state management has set aside the Na Pali Coast as a state park, so it is fully protected from any development and left (mostly) alone to bask in its natural glory. Kaua'i as a whole is an incredible example of the erosive forces of nature, but this is particularly clear along the Na Pali Coast.
There are waterfalls everywhere in Kaua'i. The three in this picture are really quite large and high, but they are dwarfed by the far distance between us. Waterfalls are what you'll get when you plop a swampland at the top of these crazy mountains. So we can all thank the ancient volcano for leaving the caldera up there for water to settle into! Anyway, this swamp is perpetually draining via the sheer cliffs and mountainsides all around, resulting in a lot of waterfalls, particularly when it rains, which happens a lot up in the swamp (see more on this below). These falls are huge too. Falls are found all over the island too, not just coming off of the highest places, and the immense forces of flowing water over time, paired with the volcanic soil/rock characteristics, are responsible for the deep valleys and heavily crenelated ridges found around the island.
And here's another game of scale sizes... can you find the large helicopter in this picture? Hint...its dead center, hiding as an ocean white cap. The Kalalau Valley is huge...the scale is quite incomprehensible and really escapes you when looking at it all at once. This helicopter was nice enough to fly around the valley for us though, exemplifying just how enormous the place is.
Just another view down into the valley...the pictures do little justice to how spectacular it is in person...
So, as I mentioned above, the Alaka'i Swamp gets a lot of rain, and we were very lucky to have such clear conditions. Take a look at that elevation too; that means the ocean below in the previous pictures was vertically just short of 1 mile down.
The "hiking trail" leading off into the swamp. It is really more of a wash now that it has been cleared of vegetation. From my first trip, I know it is a mire of slick mud when it is raining...the swamp itself is huge, and there is a system of trails going through it. Supposedly, it is a great place for birdwatching, with some rare indiginous species in unusual abundance.
Speaking of birdwatching, here is a picture of Kaua'i's most populous species of bird (I have no idea if that is true or not...but it certainly seems that way). There are wild chickens everywhere on Kaua'i. They originally came with the Polynesian settlers, but unlike the other islands, there numbers in Kaua'i aren't kept in check by any "natural" predators. You see, the Polynesians also brought mongooses with them across the Pacific, and on the other islands the wild mongoose population keeps the wild chickens in check by eating chicken eggs. However, there are no mongooses on Kaua'i...the legend goes that one of the caged mongooses on the canoe to Kaua'i bit the canoe captain, who then threw the cage full of feisty, little critters overboard for the sharks. Who knows if that is true, but for whatever reason, there are no mongooses and lots of chickens on Kaua'i. I mean, we even saw roadkill chickens and a road-side wild cock-fight (honestly, this wasn't being staged...just two cocks fighting at the side of the road). On the island, anyone can kill a chicken whenever they want...it is open season, no limits...so technically, you could eat chicken whenever you wanted for free. However, plucking and cleaning (and killing) a chicken takes time and effort, and when you can get a full, plucked and clean, dead chicken in the store for only $5, why bother messing with the live ones?
Enough about chickens...back to the scenic wonder that is Kaua'i. Driving away from the end of the road at the Alaka'i Swamp and Kalalau Valley lookout, you enter the Waimea Canyon, what Mark Twain once referred to as "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific!" It is pretty spectacular...there are several epic lookouts over a staggering, lush, and deceptively large, canyon landscape. The thing I like most about it are the range of colors present in the various layers...both in the soil itself and in the vegetation, which changes drastically at different elevations through the canyon.
Once again, we were really lucky to have such incredible weather...this picture exemplifies the incredible contrasts provided by the colors in the rock and soil and by the shade of passing clouds.
Waimea is like the Grand Canyon in that distance loses all scale... the scene stacks up and you have absolutely no idea how many miles different features are away from you or how big they really are. I also really appreciate how alive Waimea is... all the vegetation and those different shades of green add in to the palette of blue sky, white clouds, and grey, black, brown, and red rock and soil. We speculated that the soil was so red on Kaua'i because it was older, and thus more oxidized than the very black, fresh lava rock of Hawai'i.
I've really run out of things to say about the canyon and these shots...but I just couldn't take these out...too much detail and color.
A view down at the river responsible for the epic canyon...it is hard to believe that this miles wide gouge in the earth was generated by this one ribbon of water. It makes you wonder if perhaps Waimea Canyon formed due to some catastrophic release of water from the Alaka'i Swamp or some ancient lake in the old volcano's caldera.
Coming down out of the canyon to the south shore of the island. The small town of Waimea is definitely worth a stop, both for the Waimea Brewing Company and some of the local food offereings...
We stopped at this Japanese grocery mart for some authentic poke (pronounced "po-kei" or "po-kay"), fresh raw seafood sliced up and served with some basic seasonings and vegetables. Ingredients include octopus, squid, ahi tuna, and/or salmon mixed up with Maui onion, tomato, garlic, chile peppers, and/or seaweed and all covered with some combo of soy sauce, sesame oil, hot sauce, and/or sea salt. Poke is a pretty standard appetizer in the islands, and man is it delicious! My favorite was definitely the spicy ahi tuna, with Maui onion, and some kind of soy/mayo/sesame sauce with sesame seeds. Incredible.
The Spouting Horn, a blow hole. This certainly is a tourist trap, but it is in a lovely location, what with the black lava rock platform back-dropped by the deep blue Pacific, and the drive out to it passes through some gorgeous country-side with some incredibly big, old trees and pleasant farmland. The larger blow hole in the center supposedly used to be much bigger (and actually active with vertical), but a farmer collapsed it with dynamite to keep the salt spray off his nearby crops. The blow hole makes a pretty rhythmic breathing sound thanks to the motion of the surf and the air trapped in the passage down to the sea. The native Hawaiians had a legend about a giant lizard that lived underground, which was responsible for the massive breaths. Here goes the "Where's Waldo" game again...can you spot the photographer in the picture? It makes you realize how large the plume of water actually gets...kind of impressive really.
Another waterfall...this one inland. These are the Wailua Falls, just a short drive inland from Lihue, Kaua'i's biggest town.
We spent a day kayaking up the Wailua River, which flows radially out from the center of the island to the east coast. The river flows gently, is quite wide, and clean. This is definitely a highly recommended activity.
Up the river, we parked the canoes and went for a hike through the jungle. We had a local guide, who informed us of all the edible and native or non-native plants. The most interesting edible ones were the giant yellow flowers (good as a laxative) and the mushroom-flavored tiny purple ones (supposedly a mild hallucinogenic). Another highlight was the natural "room" formed by legitimate walls of leafy vines. The jungle itself was just gorgeous too... the island is so lush, with water and life everywhere. And it is so tame as well, no dangerous animals other than wild boar, which are good about avoiding humans (rightfully so as they are hunted for food). We did most of the hike in bare feet, enjoying the feel of mud oozing between our toes.
The hike ended at this waterfall. The water was crisp and cool, and the bottom was really rocky/treacherous. It was deep towards the center, though, so we just ended up swimming. This is where I got my first real appreciation for just how strong the wind coming off a waterfall is. It was impressive how just this little fall pushed enough air out of its way to cause a stinging spray. The force of the droplets and larger deluges hitting you on the head actually stung too... a truly amazing and enlightening experience.
Swinging around to the north coast now, and Secret Beach...one of my favorite beaches in the world. What makes it so special? First, it is secluded...not at all a secret, as the name implies, but getting down to it does require an "off the beaten path" drive and a short hike through the bush, the combination of which apparently deters quite a few people. Next, it is scenically very pleasant and really big. There is a lighthouse and an island down at the far eastern point, and mostly unspoiled naturally vegetated hillside facing the shore. There are also these awesome outcroppings of lava rock, and a small creek flowing out of the jungle and into the ocean.
The houses up there on the bluff are supposedly some pretty prime real estate...Julia Roberts even owns one near here. I just love how the sand, rock, and water contrast...so beautiful.
Here is that creek I mentioned...just a nice little touch, you know? It makes it great for washing off a surf board and rinsing off after a session too!
Back on the main road driving west along the north shore of Kaua'i. Driving around the island is just epic... going from one jaw-dropping landscape to the next. The road itself is really fun too, very windy with plenty of nice bends and curves.
Further west along the north shore is the Queen's Bath. A system of tidal pools and channels, the Queen's Bath is this one seen here, which is pretty well sheltered from the surf (which batters the outlying rocks with terrifying force by the way). It is deep too, deep enough to dive in and swim around. It's quite nice, but...
The area immediately surrounding the bath is the really beautiful part. The rocks just seem to plunge down into the water...you don't see the bottom or any slope really... just that incredible deep blue.
There was this spot though, where some local teens were showing off and jumping off the cliffs ~20-25 feet or so down into the water. The swell in this little cove was incredible...there is actually a shelf about 8-10 feet down or so on the far, closed-off end of the cove, and it was exposed each time the water swept back out to sea, just to be covered back up again with the next inrush of the sea. The water was powerful, but alluring... I mean just look at that color. It was tempting to jump, but the locals definitely knew what they were doing. They timed their jumps just perfectly, waiting for the water to start rushing back out of the cove, timing the fall so that they landed when the water was lowest (guaranteeing the furthest fall too). They would swim into the middle for the next in rush, then swim towards the shelf, against the current while it flowed back out again. On the next in rush, they would get over to the shelf and either scramble out directly from the high water, or let the water strand them on the shelf and hurry to scramble up the wall before the next inrush. Pretty impressive overall....and pretty intimidating when thinking about doing the jump yourself!
We also had the pleasant surprise of four green turtles, who were just hanging out in the cove. The jumpers were careful not to jump onto the turtles, who really didn't seem to notice the people very much. They seemed to be having just as much fun in the undulating water as the people were!
The phenomenal backdrop to Hanalei Bay, with the water rushing down in falls thanks to the cloud dumping rain on the top of the mountain.
We got some surfing in on the small, odd knee-highs that would build-up out of the pretty calm bay. The break may have been small, but it was well formed, consistently left breaking, and carried enough power to make it quite easy to catch. It was a really relaxing session, and with that backdrop, I found it difficult to focus on looking out to sea for the next wave!
Looking back down on Hanalei and its bay. It's scenes like this that just floor you... you are overwhelmed with this feeling of "this is too beautiful to be real...have I died? Is this heaven?" At least that's how I felt when I saw this and other landscapes like it around the island.
Rice paddies in yet another beautiful landscape scene. A lot grows on the islands...a lot. From what we could tell, food in the stores was relatively cheap (compared to LA at least) except for that imported from elsewhere. They had a lot to offer though, the normal stuff like beef, chicken, and pork...as expected, phenomenal and super fresh seafood, plenty of rice, and tons of fruits and vegetables.
When I wasn't driving, I had my camera out the window a lot... it doesn't capture it though...the immersion of driving through a landscape is fully lost in photographs.
Tunnels Beach... another of my favorite beaches in the world. This little gem is located near the end of the road on the western side of the north shore...right before entering Na Pali State Park. I mean, what doesn't this beach have? There are a few private houses, but overall, it is pretty lush wilderness along the beach front...no awful, massive hotels. The water is crystal clear and brilliantly blue, and the sand is soft. There is a coral reef practically right up to the beach, making for some awesome snorkeling. There is a surf break off the point, and just look at these mountains! What else can you ask for.
Then there is this little area, right at the bend in the shore, where a small creek pours out into the ocean. I'm guessing that this is no coincidence...the water is literally chalky here, giving it this incredible translucent turquoise-blue color. It is a cloud though...you can go from the snorkeling area over the reef, where the water is gin clear as they say, into this zone and go to basically zero visibility. There is a pretty regular big beach break there too, which is a blast to jump into. It's also pretty funny to see it wash up and knock unaware tourists right off their feet!
I just love this shoreline. That shark fin mountain and those spires are just incredible....like catching a glimpse of some giant green sea serpent plunging back into the depths.
Finally, the end of the road: the famous Kalalau Trail. This backpackers mecca winds, meanders, snakes, and climbs and falls its way along and around the cliffs of the Na Pali coast.
The first part of the trail climbs through the forest, then all of the sudden you turn a corner and are faced with this view. The trail hugs the coast, winding in and out of the valleys and tempting fate along the edge of cliffs 100's of feet high, threatening falls straight down into that beautiful blue water below.
Here on the trail, we've come nearly full circle from the beginning, looking down into the Kalalau Valley. People can get a permit and hike the full, 22-mile round-trip length of the Kalalau Trail all the way to the beach we were looking down on from the viewpoint, 1-mile above.
Our first stop...the beach. Officially Hanakapi'ai Beach, it is really known as just "the beach" to most day hikers. This is the last place that the Kalalau Trail hits sea level until mile marker 10 (i.e., 10 miles in from the start of the trail), so it is the major destination for day hikers. To get to it, the trail crosses a pleasant stream coming out of the deceptively deep Hanakapi'ai Valley. The surf here is strong, and rough. With the sweat you have surely built up from the hike in, it is awfully tempting to jump into that perfect blue water, but beware. If you are not a strong, confident swimmer that is familiar with rip tides and ocean currents, I would recommend sticking to cooling off in the equally refreshing, and near-infinitely more tame, creek. The beach is beautiful though, and it makes for a great resting point, where you can reload your calories with a nice picnic on the round smooth boulders, and wash off the stink of the trail or sea water in the wonderfully clean and clear creek.
If you aren't satisfied with just the hike to the beach, you can hike up the valley for another 2 miles to the Hanakapi'ai Falls. The trail is muddy, very muddy, but it is a good hike, and you can even check out the ruins of an old coffee mill in the forest along the way. The hike gives you a good feel for just how big the coast, cliffs, and valleys really are in Na Pali. What looks to be so close from the beach is 2 miles away, and huge. The falls are the origin of the creek, and the falls are very, very high. I used the picture above specifically for the people standing in it for scale. I should note that they are still a good 50 yards or so from the base of the falls, so we are still suffering from perspective making the people look bigger than they should!
As with all the falls on the island, I was transfixed by the finer details in this one...
The wind coming off of the bottom of these falls was intense, yet amazingly it was very calm in the cove on the other side of the waterfall. The water was deep, rocky, and very cold too.
So there we go...a round-the-island, whirlwind tour of Kaua'i. I only focused on the highlights of our trip (excluding the wedding out of respect for the bride and grooms privacy of course), but Kaua'i has so much more to offer. The surfing was just right, with what we found to be beautifully consistent and powerful waves despite all the locals complaining about how dead it was. I could spend a long time exploring all the different food options...primarily the ingredients and the local styles of preparation, most of which are very simple, but so delicious thanks to ideal flavor pairings. The landscape is perfection... it is most definitely the type of place I want to escape to and immerse myself in and get to know intimately. Kaua'i is known as the garden island, and I hope it stays that way.