The island of Kauai offers devilish hikes, lava swimming holes, stunning canyons, and even a Hindu monastery.
“Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist, in a land called Honah Lee”
Local boys hanging at Queen’s Bath
These 1960s lyrics mythologizing Hanalei — Kauai’s erstwhile hippie town — paint a picture of pristine beaches caressed by a blissful breeze. Such heavenly hangouts are indeed easy to find on Hawaii’s Garden Isle, but travelers may be surprised to learn that, Kauai has more to offer beyond the beaches – from Hollywood stargazing to mystical pilgrimages.
Getting to Honolulu takes patience, but from there, twenty half-hour flights take off daily for Kauai’s Lihue Airport. Tan-skinned surfers regularly hitch rides on Kuhio Highway, although renting a car is the easiest way to explore the island’s majestic peaks and hidden groves. The driving is relaxed along Route 560 (Kuhio), which hugs the length of Kauai’s habitable coastline.
Just north of the airport, Kapa’a Town gives adventurers a chance to kick off the road trip with a hearty American diner meal at Kountry Kitchen. Start getting used to the friendly-but-no-frills service that is typical of laidback island restaurants here – the banana mac nut pancakes are well worth it.
Continuing along Kuhio Highway, Queen’s Bath, an out of the way lava swimming hole set in the slightly pretentious (as far as island pretense goes) resort town of Princeville, provides a perfect dipping spot. The rocky shoreline and moderate hike keep big crowds and vehicles out of the Bath. The natural walls of this clear blue tide pool shelters swimmers from the magnificent waves crashing all around.
Postcard perfection at Kilauea Point
Nearby, historic Kilauea Lighthouse gives snap-happy travelers a chance to capture picturesque scenes. The site also houses the Kilauea Point Natural Wildlife Reserve where breeding efforts rescued Hawaii’s official bird, the wild goose ne ne, from extinction. On a good day, families of ne ne’s stroll the lawn alongside with visitors.
Fabled Hanalei rests on the northern end of Kauai. Here, lithe bodies oozing with Ibiza-esque glamour loiter the beaches, expertly ride the waves at Pine Trees, and sip cocktails in front of ten million dollar vacation bungalows. A bike ride down the two-lane beachfront road yields better stargazing than a stroll down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The likes of Pierce Brosnan, Julia Roberts, Michael Crichton, and the Beastie Boys build homes or regularly come here to get away. In a town with a last-recorded official population of 498 (in 1990), chances of crossing paths with a sun-kissed celebrity are pretty good.
The northernmost “last stop” before Kuhio ends and the wilderness of the Na Pali Coast State Park begins is at Haena, where lovers can catch spectacular sunsets or treasure hunt for sea cucumbers as the evening tide recedes.
Spectacular sunsets nightly at Haena
Casual digs and fine dining dot Hanalei’s old town center. Pearls and a dress are not out of place at Postcards Café, while slippers and board shorts do just fine at Bubba Burgers and Java Kai’s porch front tables.
Thrill-seekers can plan overnight camping trips along the Kakalau Trail, an eleven-mile hike through the uninhabitable western coast of Kauai. The less adventurous can still get a taste of hiking and see exclusive views of the Na Pali Coast on a two-mile jaunt to Hanakapi’ai Beach or go an extra two miles to reach Hanakapi’ai Falls. The lazy and generously-budgeted can skip the footwork entirely and take an aerial tour of the coastline on a helicopter ride.
Mystic river: the Wailua River runs along monastery
Kauai’s hidden jewel, the Hindu Monastery, is another experience entirely. This mystical sanctuary, set amidst 353 acres of wild forest with the Wailua River running through, was founded in 1970. The tech-savvy (they Twitter and blog) monks of the Saiva Siddhanta Yoga Order reside here and, among other spiritual duties, fundraise for the sixteen million dollars needed to complete the monastery’s grand temple project – the Iraivan Temple, being built entirely of hand-carved stones shipped from India. Call ahead and set out early to catch a rare guided tour of the grounds, or come any morning to quietly take in the surreal sight of orange-robed Caucasian monks praying alongside Indian pilgrimage families.
The breathtaking valleys of Waimea Canyon are nestled along Kauai’s southwestern coast. Legend goes that Mark Twain baptized this natural wonder as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Sadly, no historical record exists to prove Twain ever set foot here. Nevertheless, the stratified layers of orange and red earth are so radically different from the lush greens and blues of the northeastern shores that one wonders whether it is still Kauai out here.
One of Waimea Canyon’s many faces
Although attractions and people are grow sparse on the southwestern side, there are still reasons to make roadside stops. Shrimp Station, the last dining spot before cars head up winding Waimea Canyon Drive, serves five-star coconut shrimp on paper plates. Despite its decrepit exterior, Jo-Jo’s is one of the few truly good shave ice joints, at bargain (not tourist) prices. For down home and nostalgic souvenirs, stop by Collectibles & Fine Junque in Waimea town (a real trip down vintage memory lane) and Aunty Lilikoi (home-made passion fruit jams).
Putting the babe in surf
The island road trip comes to a happy full circle down at Po’ipu Beach, the southernmost point of Kauai and a short drive from Lihue Airport. Here, snorkelers can find calm waters and schools of humu humu nuku nuku āpuaʻa, or reef triggerfish. Watching the sun descend at day’s end, it is hard not to wonder what Peter, Paul and Mary were really smoking if all they sang of Kauai was Hanalei.
Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines flies Honolulu-Lihue hourly.
Where to stay: Hale Ha Ha at Hanalei Bay is a 5-bedroom newly renovated guest house run by a hip long-time local. Rent a single room or book the whole house for an authentic stay.
Car rental: Dollar and Thrifty usually offer the best deals, although prices per day are high compared to elsewhere in the US. Expect to pay over $100/day in peak season.