Kayaking Kauai’s Na Pali Coast
The vibe at Kalalau is like a rustic festival, a la Bonnaroo or Glastonbury. Barely clad campers with saltwater-tousled hair share just-picked mangoes and greet one another with a friendly “Mahalo” or “Howzit?” (Hawaiian slang for “hello” and “what’s up?” respectively). A path winds through the campsite, fringed by the impressive lodgings of residents who seem to have adopted this paradisiacal existence for the long term, shoring up their shelters with found objects and materials gleaned from the surrounding forests. They lazily sip beers and sway in hammocks nested in spots with primo shade and vistas.
Of the two campsites on the coast, Kalalau merits a longer stay. A cool morning is perfect for a hike into the Kalalau Valley, where soaring mango and guava trees impart shade. Afternoons can be spent snorkelling or, when the tide is out, exploring a desolate beach past the caves to the west where delicate arches of stone have been etched by the waves and mammoth boulders rise out of the water like whales. Dinnertime entertainment is watching a postcard-worthy sunset unfold as the light fades from orange to pink to purple to inky blue, the only demarcation between sky and cliffs the patchwork of stars in the heavens.
For the second leg of the trip, it is advisable to set out early before the tide comes in. More sea caves dot the five-mile route to Milolii camp, the largest and most impressive of which is the open-ceiling sea cave that looks like a mermaid’s grotto. A rock formation perfect for sunning and snapping photos juts from the centre of the cave’s pool, and its ocean-sculpted walls possess the organic look and feel of something submerged, which many of these caves are in the winter. The main challenge of this stretch is paddling around the curve of the island, where coral reefs require kayakers to fan out a few hundred yards from shore.
After navigating channel markers signalling the path through Milolii’s own coral reef to the beach, kayakers will find themselves in relative luxury, with an outdoor shower, a spigot for running water, outhouses and picnic tables. It is a peaceful, easy place to camp – like a castaway’s settlement, with a long abandoned-looking park ranger’s cabin – but there is not much to explore. Because Milolii is located on the dry western side of Kauai, there is also less shade. Still, the snorkelling at Milolii makes for an eventful afternoon and it is fun to gather coral and shells on the sand.
The final part of the trip is a five-mile jaunt. Past Milolii, the cliffs grow abject and adobe spare. There are no more sea caves to explore, no more waterfalls – just the promise of civilisation glimmering on the beach at the Na Pali coast’s end point: Polihale State Park. Then, the only thing left to do is drive counter clockwise back around the island, watching its beautiful coffee plantations go by. Consider a pit stop for a Hawaiian-style shave ice – the local frozen treat of choice, consisting of flaky, thin-shaved ice flavoured with a rainbow of syrup possibilities, atop a foundation of macadamia-nut ice cream – at the original Jo-Jo’s (9899 Waimea Road; 808-431-4840), in the town of Waimea. For Na Pali coast veterans who have braved one of the US’s wildest adventures, such a cold treat is a just reward.
Mid-May through September is the time to kayak the Na Pali coast, because winter swells up to 50ft high make the excursion unsafe in the colder months. Napali Kayak offers guides and equipment for hire; from $380 per person, including equipment, a guide to Kalalau and transportation from the shop to the put-in point at Haena Beach Park and from Polihale Beach Park back to the shop at the end of the trip..
Camping permits for Kalalau and Milolii should be secured at least two months ahead of travel through Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources ($20 per person per night for Hawaii non-residents).