It’s no wonder that Hollywood goes to Kauai when it needs to evoke an exotic, otherwordly landscape. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Avatar, King Kong, Pirates of the Caribbean, the list goes on and on. You want landscape that screams unearthly beauty – Kauai is where you go.
The island could be circumnavigated by car, except for the fact that the Nā Pali Coast stands in the way, making the Kuhio Highway a horseshoe that ends on the north coast in a muddy parking lot, blocked by the 3,000-foot knife-edge ridges of peaks sculpted into sluices and spires and tortuous valleys by almost 100 inches of rain a year.
In 1960 National Geographic Magazine published a photo of Nā Pali, with the caption: “Napali’s towering cliffs wall a Shangri-la valley accessible only by sea.… Junglelike glens tucked amid the ridges offer an unspoiled world for the adventurous.” Fifty years later, ‘flightseeing’ helicopters whirr above the valley, an 11-mile trail winds through Nā Pali, and daytrippers, campers, and college kids come by boat in order to both enjoy the beauty and isolation firsthand and leave prodigious quantities of empty bottles, busted coolers, abandoned tarps – all the detritus of modern human existence. The cash-strapped Park Service struggles to keep up, but trash has to be hauled out by helicopter – the park’s largest expense.
Despite this despoilment and the condo complexes that sprawl along the coast’s clifftops, Kauai’s north shore remains staggeringly beautiful, rich in wildlife and draped with exuberant rainforest. We made our base in Princeville, a nice enough – if somewhat soulless – resort community, and stayed in just one of those condos I’ve been disparaging. It was lovely. It also made an excellent setting-off point for some excellent hiking and spectacular beaches. One thing to keep in mind is that unless you’re a surfer, the north shore is better to visit in summer; winter waves pound the north’s beaches, making swimming, particularly swimming with children, dangerous if not impossible.
Anini is a long strip of beach protected by what’s said to be Hawaii’s longest reef. The water is calm and perfect for the kids, and the snorkeling marvelous. There are restrooms, showers, tables and barbecue facilities available on site.
A tiny crescent of sand wedged between towering jungle on one side and coral reef on the other, Sealodge Beach is where to go if you’re looking for isolation, but it does have its drawbacks. There’s no place to park, so you need to take a taxi to the trail head. Yes, the trail head – it’s a 15-minute walk to the beach, but the path is part of the place’s appeal, crossing a burbling stream and winding through twining forest, ending in a scramble over beachside boulders down to the sand. The snorkeling is great in the channels between the reef, although there is really no place to actually swim. Young kids will enjoy just splashing in the shallow water, though. There are no facilities of any kind at Sealodge.
By far our favorite beach was Makua, more popularly known as Tunnels. Soft golden sand is framed at the far end by the spires of the Nā Pali Coast, and both an inner and outer reef make it a safe place for kids. The snorkeling is excellent, and you’re likely to see green sea turtles, moray eels, trumpet fish, wrasse, and a variety of butterfly fish, as well as Hawaii’s State Fish, the unpronounceable humuhumunukunukuapua’a, or Hawaiian trigger fish. We only went to Tunnels once, but had we visited it earlier in our stay we definitely would have gone again. Stunning. There are no facilities at Tunnels, but next door Haena Beach Park has bathrooms, shower, picnic tables, barbecue facilities and a lifeguard.
Hiking in the Hawaiian heat and humidity can be taxing at times, but it’s well worth it. The Kuilau Ridge Trail is a relatively easy 4-mile out-and-back which will take you about 3 – 4 hours with young children, and it offers spectacular views and a picnic area at the summit of the ridge.
Not so much a hike as a short stroll, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and the lighthouse therein are worth a visit for the spectacular views of the Pacific and the outstanding birdwatching. In addition to Laysan albatross, red-footed boobies, brown boobies, red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigatebirds, and shearwaters, you’ll probably see endangered Hawaiian monk seals hauled out on the rocky beach below. Possibly the best place on the island to watch seabirds.
Where to Stay:
Chances are, if you’re going to the north coast you’re going to be staying in Hanalei or Princeville. If you’re visiting with family, look into renting a condo – there’s certainly no lack of choice and it will almost certainly be cheaper than a hotel room. VRBO has loads of listings, and you can find a lot more on HomeAway, which has better filters and I find just more user-friendly in general. Gohawaii.com has a nice breakdown of accommodation options, including LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) listings, although there’s no explanation of what makes these particular places gay-friendly. Anyway, there’s a glut of accommodation, so shop around, and don’t be afraid to tell the owner or manager that their place is slightly beyond your budget – chances are they’ll be willing to knock a bit off the price.
Where to Eat:
Hanalei is a lovely horseshoe bay with a tiny town at the bottom, and it’s here that you’ll find most of the area’s dining options. The Hanalei Dolphin dishes up sushi, steaks, seafood and salads in a relaxed dining room. Attentive service and pleasant surroundings. Highly recommended.
Bubba’s slogan “We Relish Your Buns” pretty much says it all – it’s a laidback burger joint where you’ll feel perfectly comfortable bringing in kids in flip-flops and sandy swimsuits. Solid burgers, fries and the like. Recommended.
Take the kids to Lappert’s Ice Cream for a treat. As one reviewer summed it up: “It’s ice cream. It’s coffee. It’s very very good!” Highly recommended.
We don’t often return to places we’ve visited, just because there are so many marvelous destinations and life is short. In writing this, however, and looking at our photos, I’ve realized that Kauai is a place we’ll probably be going back to. And that’s pretty much the highest praise possible.