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.
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.
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
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).