Kauai’s lush tropical interior may have earned it the nickname the Garden Island, but the small Hawaiian island’s most scenic panoramas can be found on the remote northwestern shore, where miles of sheer cliffs tower thousands of feet above the aquamarine Pacific Ocean. The iconic Na Pali coast (translated literally, “the cliffs”) is pristine and undeveloped: no roads, no hotels, no mobile phone signal. The lure of such unspoiled terrain is catnip to intrepid vacationers and seasoned outdoorsmen alike.
While there are several ways to take in this rugged coast – by helicopter; sailboat; Zodiac speedboat; or the 11 mile-long and at times hair-raisingly narrow Kalalau Trail, carved into the cliff sides – the most thrilling way to take in the full panorama of peaks, sky and water is undoubtedly by sea kayak. Paddling its 17 miles in three sections – from Haena Beach Park on the north shore to Polihale State Park on the west, stopping overnight at the Hawaii State Park campgrounds of Kalalau and Milolii – makes for a slow-paced and immersive experience. Kayakers can explore the island’s sea caves and hike into its valleys at their own speed, not to mention shower in waterfalls and fall asleep to the music of the waves under stars as bright as a meteor shower.
Napali Kayak, in the town of Hanalei on the north shore, offers multiday excursion packages, with a guide for at least the first leg of the trip plus ruddered double kayaks, seat backs, paddles, dry bags and life jackets. Day trips that compress the paddling into about six hours are also on offer. If the trip from Haena Beach to the first campground at Kalalau goes smoothly, the guide may allow kayakers to continue on their own down the coast. Kayakers should pack at least four days’ worth of personal supplies, food and water purification tablets as the water sources (waterfalls!) are unfiltered. And even if you do not usually get seasick, bring motion-sickness pills. The waves can be rough.
Just to be clear: this is not leisurely bay or river kayaking. The paddling is exhausting and can be extremely challenging depending on the conditions. Horror stories of sunburn, seasickness and overexertion populate review websites, and news stories about reckless kayakers who required rescuing dot the internet. But all that should not discourage healthy, reasonably athletic adults from taking a guide-led, well-prepared trip into Kauai’s true wilderness.
The itinerary starts at dawn just west of Hanalei, in Haena Beach Park, when the Pacific is its calmest. Once kayakers have paddled out past the break, the full expanse of the Na Pali coast comes into view. As far as the eye can see, impossibly tall cliffs rise majestically to the left, and the opalescent Pacific stretches out to the right. The cliffs fade from lush green nearby to reddish brown in the distance, and waterfalls stream down the cliff sides. The water here – clear enough for paddlers to see boulders that have fallen from the rock walls – is home to reef fish, flying fish, spinner dolphins and endangered green sea turtles who often swim directly underneath the kayaks. Lucky groups may even spot an endangered monk seal or a humpback whale.
Kalalau Beach beckons about seven miles ahead. Along the way, guides lead groups into sea caves that interrupt the coastline, where rivulets of mountain water form waterfalls that flow from the openings and waves crash against the walls. They point out wildlife and tell stories about the ancient Hawaiian warriors who once used Kauai as a training ground.
Arriving in the midday heat, Kalalau will look deserted; campers have retreated to sites amid the ridge of trees. At the west end of the beach, an icy-cold waterfall serves as water source. When choosing a spot to pitch your tent, pay attention to signs marking areas where tumbling boulders land. Night-time is punctuated by the sound of rocks skittering down the cliffs, courtesy of mountain goats nimbly climbing hundreds of feet overhead.