Saturday, April 16, 2022

Kauai, Hawaii

Kauai is not easy to get to from New York  we took a 10-hour flight to Oahu, followed by a 30-minute puddle jumper to Kauai itself. But after spending just a day there, the difficult journey seemed worth it, and I was already planning my return trip. With its lush beauty and chill vibe, Kauai may just be my favorite Hawaiian island, earning a place in my heart slightly above Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island  and I love all those places! We spent five days in the Garden Isle, checking out beaches, going on hikes, and eating a ton of shave ice.

One big caveat with planning a Kauai vacation is that it's the rainiest of all the Hawaiian islands, and your vacation could easily be a washout if you come during the wrong time of year or are just plain unlucky. We were fortunate in that we had excellent weather for the majority of our stay, with just a few inconvenient rain showers here and there. It did rain heavily during one of our hikes, and that brief storm totally transformed the hike into a muddy, somewhat dangerous adventure. My advice is to pack raincoats, Keens or other similar trek shoes, and walking sticks if you plan on doing any hiking in Kauai.

Where to Stay

Most people visiting Kauai stay on either the north or south coast, where the best beaches are. But because I wanted us to be able to easily drive to both locations, I chose a place to stay on the east coast, Waipouli Beach Resort in Kapaa. (The vast center of the island is uninhabited and impenetrable, so it's impossible to drive straight up and down  you have to travel along the perimeter.) And while my plan worked out  we were able to check out the north coast one day, and the south the next without driving very far  it seems that these other locations are better set up for tourism, with more dining options and grander resorts. So if I were to visit again, I might choose either north or south and stick with it. 

That said, Waipouli Beach Resort was truly wonderful, featuring a fantastic pool that kept the kids very busy with its many sections and slides, as well as beach access. Our two-bedroom suite was massive, with a full kitchen, two soaking tubs, and my favorite hotel suite feature, a washer and dryer set. There was even some beach gear that came with the room, and whatever we were missing we could rent from a shop in the lobby. The location was also extremely convenient, situated right across the street from a shopping center that boasted several restaurants, a Safeway, and an ABC Store. We were very comfortable there, and I would definitely recommend a stay.

What to Do (Hikes)

The hike that's at the top of everyone's list for Kauai is the Kalalau Trail, along the Napali Coast. The entire trail is 11 miles long (one way), and therefore impossible for us to even contemplate. But the first leg of the hike, from Ke'e Beach to Hanakapi'ai Beach, is only 2 miles one way, so that is what we aimed to do. It should be noted that reservations for Ha'ena State Park are required for accessing the Kalalau Trail; at this time, they must be reserved one month in advance, and all the spots for each day fill up within minutes after they become available at midnight, Hawaii time.

That's the annoying bad news. But that means the good news is you know this hike is going to be epic. Which it totally was, even though we only did a small portion of it. It was also a fairly arduous hike, so 2 miles was quite enough for me, and we still had to hike the 2 miles back. All this to say that this isn't a hike for beginners, and it really helps to have a walking stick and sturdy, close-toed shoes. 

We went on a beautiful sunny day, so the trail was relatively dry, but I've heard that it can get quite muddy, slick, and treacherous if it's been raining. One thing I did appreciate is that the entire hike takes place in the shade  being able to keep cool was such a blessing, as the experience is so strenuous. Bring lots and lots of drinking water and a hearty snack (it not a full lunch) for when you reach the turnaround point.

The first mile of the journey is a steady ascent through different terrains and with different viewpoints. Sometimes we were switchbacking up a narrow dirt path, sometimes we were clambering up boulders and stones. I had to really concentrate on where I was putting down each foot, as the path would get quite rocky, so this slowed us down. (To be fair, no one else in my family seemed to have trouble with the terrain, and I am definitely the least surefooted one.) 

The coast was to our right the entire time, and every once in awhile we would get to peek out at it. One of these viewpoints revealed a rainbow; another one the iconic vista of the Napali cliffs.

The second mile was mostly downhill, heading back down to the coastline. I don't know what's harder, climbing up or going down. The climb is definitely a workout, but descending on uneven terrain can be tricky and slow going. Toward the very end of this leg is a stream crossing that the kids enjoyed immensely. You'll definitely get your feet wet as you enter the gushing stream, but that's part of the fun. Right on the other side of the water is the entrance to Hanakapi'ai Beach, our final destination. It took us about two hours to get there.

The beach is expansive and gorgeous  not the type you can swim at or set up beach chairs on. Instead, park yourself on a large boulder so you can admire the view while you eat your lunch or snack. The crashing ocean comes all the way up the shore and keeps the sand smooth and pristine, washing away any footprints. Some of the boulders covering the beach are carpeted in a delightful, furry moss. There's also a cave to the left of the beach that's worth checking out. Despite being surrounded by fellow hikers, I felt like the beach was a secret location that few people will ever access  probably because it is. The only way to get there is by embarking on that hike! 

The other memorable hike that we did in Kauai was the Ho'opi'i Falls Trail. Unlike the super popular Kalalau Trail, the trailhead for Ho'opi'i is situated on a residential street and kind of difficult to find. But once we managed to access it, we discovered plenty of other hikers heading to the waterfall at the end of the 1.2 mile trail (one way).

A rainstorm occurred just as we were starting our hike, and it transformed the trail into a slick, puddly mess. We each found a sturdy branch to serve as a hiking stick, and we definitely needed them to keep our balance. But the moisture also amplified the lush beauty of this hike  the whole thing takes place under majestic trees and shady vegetation  so that was kind of nice to experience. 

If it had been dry, the Ho'opi'i trail would be a fairly straightforward hike, with flat terrain and well-marked paths. You follow a gushing river for much of the trail, until you come to the top of a wide, majestic waterfall. 

The hike could end there, or you could raise the difficulty level by adding in an extra 0.2 miles to reach the bottom of the falls. If you're game, turn to the right, where you'll see a straight-up climb that looks intimidating, but isn't actually difficult to do, as there are many footholds. Once you reach the top, you'll see that the trail continues. Keep your eyes peeled on the left side of the trail for a rock scramble that leads downwards; the trail keeps going past that point, so don't miss this detour. It's a steep climb down, but there's a rope there to help you, as well as more footholds. 

Once you reach the bottom, you're rewarded with a spectacular, front-row view of the waterfall, and there's even a rope swing that you could jump into the pool from; we didn't partake, but we saw some people doing it.   

If you're adventurous, this last 0.2 miles to reach the bottom of the falls is a must-do. The kids were able to manage it just fine, although it could be dangerous if you don't have the right shoes or are inexperienced with rock scrambling. We did get incredibly dirty from the experience, but maybe if you're hiking on a rare dry day, you can make it out without being covered in mud splatter from head to toe.  

What to Do (Beaches)

Our resort featured access to a tiny but beautiful beach, so we didn't wander out a lot to explore the local beaches, but we did check out famous Poipu Beach on the south coast one day. It was a very lively, family-friendly spot, with restaurants and shave ice across the street, shaded picnic tables, a playground, and different sections of the beach for wading and snorkeling. 

We saw two different animals that came on shore, a seal and a turtle. The lifeguards put a rope barrier around the seal so that people wouldn't disturb it, and it napped on the sand the whole time we were there. The turtle also hung out for a while, which was pretty cool. 

We were told that you could see turtles while snorkeling at Poipu, but my husband, who was the only one who braved the water, didn't see any. He did say the fish scene was very nice, though.     

We spent our final morning in Kauai at Lydgate Beach, another neat place to snorkel and hang out. The beach has many sections, and the best spot is the shallow reef area near the playground. The rock enclosure protects the waters from the ocean waves and keeps things nice and calm there.

What Else to Do

On the second day of our stay, we went on a helicopter tour of the island with a company called Airborne Aviation. I hesitated with booking this excursion because it's just about the most expensive thing we've ever done, but by all accounts, it's worth the cost. And it totally was! The hour-long ride went by in a flash, and we were in awe the entire time. 

Our pilot, Brian, flew us into canyons, over mountain peaks, through valleys, and along the coast. We got to see the entire length we'd hiked along the Kalalau Trail, from the beach we started at to the beach we ended up on. From the sky, that two-hour trek appeared to be about two inches apart!

We also saw three rainbows and flew right into one of them ... although the colors dissipate as you get closer, so it wasn't like we could actually be in the rainbow sadly!

I thought I would love the coast view the most, but the best part of the tour turned out to be when we entered a corridor in the center of the island, where there were maybe a dozen waterfalls streaming all around us. I couldn't imagine anything more breathtaking to witness, and we flew up right near some of them! All in all, it was truly one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had in my life. 

I should mention that we opted to do the "doors off" experience, where we were flying in a helicopter that literally had no doors. This was, of course, super thrilling and probably the best way to simulate what it feels like to fly like a bird. 

My seat in the back right (my husband sat in the back left) was really exposed to the wind from the helicopter rotors, so it was a very loud and windy. Our kids, who sat in the front, next to the pilot, and had the protection of the windshield, experienced a much more peaceful ride. Despite the intense conditions, I would highly recommend the doors-off experience if you're not prone to worrying about broken seat belts. It only made everything more awesome.  

Kauai is famous for its super long ziplines, and I had us booked for an excursion at Koloa Zipline  but for the wrong week! By the time I realized my error, it was too late to reserve a spot that fit our schedule, so sadly we had to forego the ziplining. All the more reason to return another time!  

Where to Eat

My only complaint about Kauai is that we didn't find the food here to be as good as on some of the other islands. It could have just been the restaurants we picked, but something about the dining scene just didn't quite live up to the fantastic meals we had in Oahu. 

Still, a couple of places stood out. There was Puka Dog, right by Poipu Beach, which serves Polish sausages encased in pillowy fresh-baked buns and your choice of fruit relishes and other toppings. We tried two different kinds and they were both so very tasty. 

As for the shave ice, we had some every day (sometimes twice a day), and our favorite spot was Wailua Shave Ice in Kapaa. The texture is like fresh snow, and the combinations on their menu are creative and yummy. It's the obvious winner on our shave ice tour.

On our last night in Kauai, we dined at the Lava Lava Beach Club, a super fun restaurant with tables right on the beach, a wide variety of lawn games, and live music. We loved the vibe there so much, and it was the perfect way to end our stay. 

And just before we headed to the airport on the day of our departure, we stopped by Mark's Place, a no-frills takeout spot with picnic tables that offers delicious Hawaiian plate lunches (loco moco, musubi, barbecue chicken, mac salad) plus out-of-this-world desserts like banana-macadamia nut bread and crazy moist brownies. It was the last meal we had in Kauai and arguably the best one.

What's Nearby

Kauai concluded our exploration of the Hawaiian islands. We've been to Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island before this, and each one offers its own special vibe and array of delights. Check out my itineraries for each island, including my newly updated one for Oahu! 

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