Kauai: A Day in the Life of Hawaii’s Oldest Island

Posted on 10/11/2023

The islands of Hawaii are diverse: Maui is a mecca with its Seven Sacred Pools. The Island of Hawaii is bigger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, is the most ecologically diverse and has one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. Oahu, the “Gathering Place,” draws the most visitors, due in no small part to world-famous Waikiki Beach.  

However, one of Hawaii’s smallest main islands packs one of its biggest punches and was the genesis of it all. Primordial Kauai, the “Garden Island,” was the first Hawaiian island to form approximately five million years ago and is home to the largest canyon of any island in the Pacific and Hawaii’s only navigable river.


9:30 a.m. - Wailua River, East Side of Kauai

“There are sharks in Wailua River so keep your hands inside the boat at all times,” the captain of our low-lying vessel only half-jokingly says. “Seriously though, we do see sharks here occasionally,” he adds, which prompts every passenger on the slow boat to the fabled Fern Grotto to look overboard.  

The banks of the Wailua River, which is fed from rains on Mt. Wai’ale’ale (one of the wettest spots on Earth), once served as the sacred capital of ancient Kauai and the birthplace of its ali’i (royalty). We dock at a small pier on the river and are let loose in the jungle. A well-trodden path winds its way through a dense rainforest and the faint melody of Hawaiian music beckons. We are greeted by a troupe of musicians performing the Hawaiian Wedding Song in front of the Fern Grotto, where couples are told they can now consider themselves married in the Hawaiian tradition. This evokes laughter in most, but terror in others. The jade-colored ferns of the amphitheater-like grotto appear to be swaying to the Hawaiian rhythms bouncing off the acoustically sound black lava rock from which they sprout upside down.


2 p.m. - Waimea Canyon, West Side of Kauai

From the town of Waimea (Hawaiian for “reddish water”), I ascend Waimea Canyon Drive. In the distance is Hawaii’s privately owned “Forbidden Island,” Ni’ihau. Waimea Canyon, aka the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is a 14-mile-long, one-mile-wide gorge that is more than 3,600 feet deep. From the Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10), the red layers of the canyon’s walls appear stained by the “reddish water” of the Waimea River, which helped carve the canyon in centuries past. In fact, however, the canyon walls are red due to lava flow that pooled and throughout the years turned from black to red. Across the canyon Waipoo Falls plummets 800 feet while wild goats cling to the cliffs.

The road from Waimea Canyon ends at the Pu’u o Kila Lookout (mile marker 19), with its panoramic views of Kalalau Valley, the largest valley on the Nāpali Coast. Although only 11 miles across to Ke’e Beach, there is no more road, thus making circumnavigation of Kauai impossible unless on foot, so it’s back in the car for more than 80 miles of driving to see its paradisiacal lagoon.


5 p.m. - Hanalei, North Shore of Kauai

I stop briefly in storied Hanalei to visit the 19th-century Wai’oli Hui’ia Church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The helicopters from Waimea Canyon beat me to the other side of the island and are swarming near the silver-threaded waterfalls cascading from the sheer cliffs behind the green church.  


6 p.m. - Ke’e Beach

Eight miles from Hanalei driving past some of the most scenic land on Earth and I land at Ke’e Beach. Ke’e, ironically, means “avoidance,” but is rather so enticing I sprint to the shore and immerse myself in its warm-water lagoon as the sun starts to dip below the cathedral-like Nāpali Coast mountains. The heavy surf pounds the protective reef and washes over the lagoon as the trade winds ruffle the palms. I can see the beginning of the Kalalau Trail, which traverses the Nāpali Coast and is perhaps the most famous hike in all of Hawaii. I don’t know if I’m more amazed by this quintessential tropical setting straight out of a Melville novel or the fact that I experienced all this majesty in just one day.  
 

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