We had a great plan for our trip to Kaua’i at the end of August 2009, knowing that our true target, the Kalalau Trail, was closed for a goat hunt. We planned to drive to Kekaha, on the western (leeward and dry) side of the island to pick up a kayak from friends and paddle north east from Polihale Beach to the Na Pali Coast. The plan was simple enough. Though the cliffs are steep and run right to the Pacific, there are coves and beaches along the way that make excellent remote camping sites, like Miloli’i Beach. We picked up the tandem sea kayak, purchased some last-minute supplies and were at Polihale well before sunset.
It was exciting to be so close to this rugged and remote coast of an island paradise like Kaua’i. Polihale Beach gets narrower as you go north until it simply runs out of flat and becomes an impassible cliff. The only way to continue toward the Na Pali Coast was to leave shore, which made it even more important that we had a seaworthy means of transportation. Our kayak would have to carry everything we would need for several days. We double and triple checked all of our gear to make sure everything fit, was watertight where it needed to be, was attached to the kayak and wouldn’t be lost by rolling over. We were truly ready. It was a very hot evening and no fire was necessary, though we made one just for the ambiance. We slept on top of our sleeping bags, which were wholly unnecessary on this side of the island.
Change of plans
An unscheduled goat hunt and then Mother Nature had a way of changing our best-laid plans. We awoke the next morning to the first northern swell that typically ends the summer of easy kayaking on mostly flat ocean. Undeterred, we packed up our camp and dragged our heavily-laden kayak to the water’s edge. As we drew closer to the shoreline, it became more apparent just how big the swell really was. The waves were breaking late and were powerful, causing a steep drop off to form where the ocean met land. Once over that drop, there was no protection from the incoming waves and no gradual way to get through the first set of breakers.
We tried our best to get the timing right and to move quickly, but Jeanne was battered at the front of the kayak by every approaching wave, and it was impossible to steer the kayak from the back. We were on our third or fourth exhausting attempt to launch when a local came up to us and at first offered to help but then declared it a ‘bad idea.’ Looking back, I’m glad he showed up. We were very determined and may have ended up in a dangerous situation if we made it through that first set of waves.
So what do you do on Kaua’i when you have a car, a kayak and all of your camping supplies for the next three days? You go find water somewhere else. That was exactly the conclusion we came to once we got over the disappointment of missing the Na Pali Coast yet again. The best, protected water we could find on the map was the Wailua River, near the village of Kapa’a on the southeast side of the island. This is normally a place where tourists rent kayaks take short trips upriver. That simply isn’t our style, so we launched into the river and paddled up to the supposedly ‘Secret Waterfall’ that wasn’t at all secret. It was great to paddle on the very scenic river, but it wasn’t enough adventure for fun junkies like us.
The rope swing
Locals told us there was a spot up a branch of the river with a rope swing and we needed to check this out. There was also a place called “Fern Grotto” that most people visit by a large riverboat that chugs up the river several times per day. Once past the disappointment of the very unsecret Secret Waterfall (there were reasonably large crowds for a weekday in August) we relaunched to check out these other spots.
While the Fern Grotto was interesting and pretty, nothing made our day like being able to swing out over the water on a long rope placed by locals. We took turns on the rope, each time going a little higher and a little further out. We had fun doing this until the mosquitoes drove us away (we weren’t prepared for this problem). Paddling back down the Wailua River was the usual challenge of overtaking every other kayak we saw, no matter how far off in the distance. We’re a little too competitive in that way. After a dinner in Kapa’a, we headed to a beach we’d heard about but had never visited, Anini.
A perfectly groomed and gorgeous beach, but not exactly remote or private, Anini Beach is a local park that locals use for family events. It was quiet on a weeknight and we found an excellent campsite just inside the treeline and quite close to the water. This part of the island is protected by a reef about 100 m (300 yards) offshore so there were no waves near enough to be a risk for sleeping right at the ocean’s edge.
Walking up in paradise, a few meters from the water is an experience everyone should have. The daybreak was cool and still in a way that made it very easy to sit at the water’s edge and soak in the atmosphere. We sat for only a few minutes before we became aware of movement in the sand in front of us. Sand crabs were busy digging holes, fighting over holes, and generally going about their early morning business. We probably passed thirty minutes just watching it all happen.
Not having a plan
From Anini, with no idea of what to do next, we stopped in a coffee shop to have a bite to eat and enjoy the morning. A group of ten or so people sitting nearby asked us to take their picture, which led to a conversation about their plan to hike to a nearby, truly secret waterfall. There was no way we could resist this opportunity. We parked blocks away and accompanied the eclectic group as we made our way through cow pastures and fields, crossing what was obviously private property, until we came to one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited. This ‘secret waterful’ is known to locals and not an easy place to get to unless you know the path and maybe the property owners that surround this slice of paradise. We were able to swim out and climb directly under the 25 m (40 ft) cascade. On a warm day, the water was the perfect temperature for a natural shower.
There were few ways to top what we’d done so far just that morning, so we decided to spend the day sightseeing the north shore. The first stop was Kilauea Lighthouse, a tall classic lighthouse that sits far out on a skinny point of land. It was a beautiful spot to watch the waves come in and crash against the nearly vertical walls of the cove below. It was easy to think it was the coast of Maine or California except for the warm trade winds and fantastic scenery in every direction.
‘Secret’ seemed to be the theme of this adventure, and our friends from the waterfall gave us a parting gift of directions to Secret Beach, or “Secrets” as the locals call it. This is a beach that you’ll never find without good directions, as the trail involves parking in a very unlikely-looking place next to enormous houses under construction and then following a small footpath with no view of the stunning beach that lies at the other end. From the moment the trail opens onto the sand, it is a clearly exceptional place from the color of the sand, to the water, to the view of Kilauea Lighthouse off in the far distance. The waves are driven by an offshore wind that gives a savage look to the place and causes strange patterns in the sand. We spent a few hours in the magical place before heading off to our hotel for our last night on the island.
With our time on Kaua’i coming to a close, we made our way back to the west side of the island and to a popular blow hole in the lava rock known as Spouting Horn. Not only does it shoot water in the air as waves roll into its underground crevasses, but the sound it makes is other-worldly as it moans and howls. Fences keep the tourists far away, and this is understandable as the temptation to get closer is powerful.
We already thought Kaua’i was amazing even before we found these treasures, but this trip cemented its reputation with us. We plan to go back in November 2011 to finally hike the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast over Thanksgiving Weekend. We feel sure that no matter how many times we go back, we’ll continue to find more reasons to love this island.