When Hollywood seeks paradise, it comes to Kauai

After nearly three months on the Big Island of Hawaii, it is time to move on and the treat the eyes to something new. In this post, we’ll explore the beautiful island of Kauai. Known as the ‘Garden Isle’, Kauai’s dramatic beauty hits you during every minute of the day, even while you’re asleep or on a simple drive to the grocery store. It is perhaps the grandest of all Hawaiian Islands and let’s put it this way: when Hollywood needs a paradise setting, they come to Kauai!

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On this great new adventure, I am accompanied by my dear parents, who flew over 14,000 km from Israel to see what their son’s obsession with Polynesia is really all about. After a few days of hopping between my favorite spots on the Big Island, we are off to Kauai.

parents in hawaii

Like the siblings in a family, every Pacific island has its unique looks and personality. Kauai is no different. And you don’t need to be blessed with a 20/20 vision to quickly detect some of the island’s key ingredients, from the obvious to the bizarre.

Kauai’s favorite color

The first thing that strikes you when you exit the airport and hit the road is the dominance of the color green. They don’t call this place the ‘Garden Isle’ for nothing. Kauai is stereotypically tropical, the Hawaii you envision. All this lush scenery, fertile valleys with centuries-old taro patches, and waterfalls galore would not be possible without lots of H2O raining down from the heavens.

Hanalei Valley Lookout - Kauai, Hawaii

And it just so happens that Kauai’s second-highest peak – Mount Waiʻaleʻale – is one of the wettest spots on the planet, with over 11 meters of rainfall averaged yearly! Meaning ‘overflowing water’ in Hawaiian, this towering beast condenses moisture carried by the trade winds and feeds the island’s valleys with a constant supply of fresh water.

The mountains

Those vast quantities of rainfall have not only turned Kauai into the Garden Isle but have also sculpted its extinct volcanoes over millennia. We’ll examine this fascinating aspect more closely a bit later, but in short, from down at sea level to up high in the cloud forests, Kauai’s eroded peaks and cliffs are stunning, reminiscent at times of the spectacular jagged peaks of Nuku Hiva Island in French Polynesia’s Marquesas Islands group.    

Na Pali Cliffs from Kalalau Trail - Kauai Hawaii

Hanalei Scenic Lookout - Kauai, Hawaii

Na Pali Cliff Kauai - Kokee State Park Pu’u O Kila Lookout

Eroded sharp limestone sea cliffs - Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

The soil

In Kauai, fertilizer must be a four-letter word because the volcanic soil here is just so damn rich with nutrients. I’m not exactly sure why (if any geology experts are reading these lines, please comment), but while green is the dominant color above ground, red is undoubtedly the underground king. As a resu, Kauai’s reddish soil is everywhere, washing over roads after heavy rainfall and sticking to your shoes after a hike.  

The chickens

It’s totally legitimate to ask a chicken why it’s crossing the road. But what the heck is it doing in the middle of a remote trail, at the beach, or inside a church? In Kauai, chickens might even outnumber the mosquitos, so you better bring your earplugs; there is no escaping them! It turns out there is a perfect explanation for the abundance of chickens on the island, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

According to information verified and cross-checked with several locals, I learned that Kauai’s chicken population was totally normal and under control… until a cyclone struck the island not too long ago. Apparently, the cyclone swept thousands of chickens away from their hen houses and into the air. Miraculously, some survived the unsolicited (and violent) scenic flight and landed (literally) all over the island. Without any predators around, they thrived, multiplied, and adapted to life in the wild. And that, my friends, is why you’ll find chickens crossing the road just about everywhere in Kauai.   

chickens in kauai - hawaii

The lifestyle

Super casual attire, five-year-old dreadlocks, fine-looking women with unshaved legs and armpits, and (sometimes) a strong scent of natural body odor competing with the plumeria flowers over air superiority. Kauai is the home of the ‘chilled’, the hippies, the organic food lovers, natural fruit drinkers, acai bowl eaters, and those who seek to live off the land as much as possible. You rub shoulders with them at the countless farmer markets on the island, on hiking trails, and just about everywhere apart from ‘capitalistic’ Walmart – just look for the barefoot folks. The aloha spirit is alive and kicking on Kauai, but with your eyes soaking this kind of beautiful scenery every day – it isn’t at all surprising.

Kauai hippy lifestyle - hawaii

Farmers market in Hanalei - Kauai, Hawaii

Colofrul fruit and shave ice truck Kauai - Hawaii

Hippie with guitar - Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Fisherman in Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Now that we have a bit of sense into the makings of Kauai, let’s do some sightseeing, shall we? There’s so much to see and do on this island, far too much for a single post. So let’s sample the very best of Kauai.

Waimea Canyon

Earlier in this post, I mentioned Mount Waiʻaleʻale – one of the wettest places on Earth and the creator of the weather of Kauai. Nature’s never-ending faucet is also the creator of Waimea Canyon – a spectacular natural wonder dubbed the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Over thousands of years of plentiful rainfall, water has eroded this mountain chain, exposed its reddish soil, and created the Waimea River to keep things at a constant flow. It’s hard to believe such a thing exists on a relatively small and tropical island until you see it with your own eyes.

The canyon is over 15 km long and almost 1 km deep! Exploring this magical part of Kauai is all part of the Waimea Canyon Drive – an eye-popping scenic drive of the kind where you find yourself pulling over every 5 (or 2) minutes. It’s best to keep the camera handy and take things slow, as every bend in the narrow, twisting road unveils a different panorama. The only annoyance? The constant barrage of scenic helicopters zipping in and out of the canyon pissing off the unique bird species that were having so much fun catching thermals and chilling in the air. But this is a general Kauai annoyance, the price you must pay for visiting such a beautiful but albeit a developed American paradise island. There must be more choppers here than in the skies over Compton.

Seeing Waimea Canyon from roadside lookouts is great and all, but getting your hands dirty, or in this case your hiking shoes muddy, is the best way to experience this special place. So down we go on the Canyon Trail, eventually reaching the rim of the canyon but from the opposite side of the scenic road. The views are to die for; you might lose your life around here if you don’t pay attention to your footing. The semi-dry red dirt is slippery as ice, and it’s a long fall down to the Waimea River. On the positive side, not only are the views rewarding, but if you cheat a little and veer off the trail, you get to stand right above the Waipio Falls, at the exact spot where it plummets to the canyon’s floor.

Na Pali Coastline

Kauai’s signature trophy is its rugged and eroded northwestern coastline that’s known as the Na Pali coastline. The word pali means ‘cliff’ in Hawaiian and they sure are mighty high on this side of the island, rising to as high as 1,200m in some sections.

But unlike in Waimea Canyon, there ain’t no paved scenic drive over here. It’s either a chopper, a boat, a kayak or good old-fashioned hiking. And it just so happens that the hiking trail snaking its was along this rugged coastline is considered among the very best in the world, certainly in the United States. The Kalalau Trail runs for nearly 20 km, crossing several deep valleys, waterfalls and endless gorgeous vistas before finishing off at a beach that only a few lucky hikers (and some off-the-grid- dwellers) get to dip in its waters.

Na Pali Cliffs from Kalalau Trail - Hiking in Kauai - Hawaii

I embark on the first leg of the trail with mom and dad, and though the going is tough, the tough certainly get going. We hike our way on the slippery trail, up and down gulches that hide small but running freshwater streams. The views of pristine beaches, jagged peaks, and stunning sea cliffs make the effort worthwhile. Occasionally, other hikers spot a whale breaching in the distance or a group of spinner dolphins cruising down the coast, but I only manage to capture an exotic lizard on the hunt for a late morning breakfast.

Ke'e Beach from Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii
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After many ascents, descents, and questions mom asked, “are we there yet”? Finally, we land on Hanakapiai Beach – a wild place that you don’t want to take a dip in. I drop the folks off and take a little detour upstream to Hanakapiai Falls. This leg of the journey is like walking on butter, with rocks and tree roots so soaked in rain that it’s hard to get any kind of grip. On the bright side, the walk along the stream offers close encounters with massive bamboo trees and tropical flowers in bloom that decorate the moist forest floor.

Hanakapi'ai Falls Hike - rainforest - Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Hanakapi'ai Falls Hike - bamboo trees - Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

In an attempt to stay dry, I skip over rocks and cross the stream on the half dozen switchbacks and eventually make it to the falls. Was it worth it? You be the judge.

Hanakapi'ai Falls - Kalalau Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Koke’e State Park

You really can’t get enough of the Na Pali Cliffs view, so why not try a different angle? I heard from a couple of park rangers about a trail that leads you to the very best seat in the house, so I just had to try. So, with mom and dad sitting this one out, I head to Koke’e State Park and the Awa’awapuhi Trail.

The trail is nothing to write home about… that is until you clear the forest and enter the ridgeline, over those very same cliffs you only got a glimpse of on yesterday’s hike. The best seat in the house is quite the understatement here, and on this early Monday morning, I am the only one sitting at the top of a rocky ledge overlooking this amphitheater view.

Literally, beneath my feet, the jagged cliffs are towering above lush valleys with rivers snaking their way in a mad dash to the nearby ocean. On the one hand, I am curious as to what it’s like down there but on the other hand, the view from up here is one of a kind. Birds are riding the thermals in search of breakfast, probably knowing that soon enough, those annoying choppers will arrive and start their daily routine. So, like on the summit overlooking the dreamy island of Maupiti, I park it here for a good couple of hours, taking a nap, having lunch, and pinching myself to double-check if this view is for real.

As the sun’s position gradually changes to its high-noon position, so do the canyon’s colors, providing all the entertainment I need. 

Na Pali Cliffs from Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Na Pali Cliffs closeup - Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

Na Pali Cliffs Canyon - Awa'awapuhi Hiking Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

The beaches

As you probably expect, an island such as Kauai is blessed with dozens of fine beaches. In fact, its beaches are featured in such Hollywood flicks as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Descendants, and Jurassic Park. The list of beaches would be mighty long so let’s just pay a visit to two of the prettiest strips of golden sand on the island.

First one up is Hanalei Bay. Stretching for over 3 km, this is the biggest bay on the island and probably the reason why George Clooney chose this place for his morning jog in ‘The Descendants’. There is so much space around here that everyone can find their own spot to chill and soak up the views. The tiny village of Hanalei is also a pretty post-beach stop, with a cute historic church, restaurants, bars and an awesome Saturday morning farmers market.

Hanalei Bay - Kauai, Hawaii

Hanalei Pier Black Pot Beach - Kauai, Hawaii

Hanalei Town - Kauai, Hawaii

Waioli Huiia Church - Hanalei - Kauai, Hawaii

But the jewel in the crown, the very best beach in Kauai, is, without a doubt Makua Beach – better known as Tunnels Beach (haven’t figured out why). With the jagged edges of the Bali Hai Cliff soaring above the golden sand and ultra-clear waters, this is as close as I’ve come to ‘beach-perfection’ since paying a visit to remote Ofu Beach in American Samoa. So it’s understandably one of the most photographed spots on the island and one of the best snorkeling spots. But, of course, Murphy’s Law decided that Mr. GoPro would stay in the trunk on this day…

Bali Hai Cliff - Kauai, Hawaii Tunnels Beach

Some Hawaiian culture

To wrap up our visit to Kauai, it’s time to take off those muddy shoes and wear some evening attire. You can’t visit Hawaii without participating in a luau, and the best show takes place in Kauai at Luau Kalamaku.

Like all great luaus, the evening starts with a grand Polynesian feast. But the real highlight is the fire and dance show. And like in the Tiki Village in the island of Moorea and Te Vara Nui in the island of Rarotonga, the storyline here revolves around a pair of young lovers separated by either distance or quarrels (or both) until finally reunited in paradise. In this case, a beautiful woman waits to be reunited with her lover, who has set sail from Tahiti to settle the yet-to-be-discovered Hawaiian islands.

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian dance show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian dance show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii 3

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian dance show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii 2

When the two are finally reunited, it’s time to bring out the fire dancers and finish the spectacular show with a big bang.

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian fire show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian dance show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii 6

Luau Kalamaku - Polynesian dance show - Luau in Kauai, Hawaii 4

What’s next?

Sadly saying goodbye to the folks, I am now off to the island of Molokai. If you want to see the real Hawaii, you must visit Molokai. It’s an island with no traffic lights, no Walmarts, only 7,000 residents, of whom over 50% are actually Hawaiian, and my dear friends Bob and Karen whom I met on that remote island in American Samoa last year. See you next time!

Visiting Hawaii? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

Hawaii Travel Guide - Cover Image

Hawaii, Tailor Made!

The Hawaiian islands are among the last places to be colonized by mankind, five main islands, each with its unique personality.

Get expert advice and assistance with planning your trip to the destination where tropical dreams come true!