Exploring Kauai: Hawaii’s ‘Garden Isle’

kauai travel

Like many kids, I was enchanted by the idea of Hawaii from an early age. Lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, bustling reefs, and warm water year-round – it seemed like a place so special it could only be found in movies or on postcards.

When I was thirteen, we took a family trip to Oahu. A few years later, we found ourselves on Maui, exploring and surfing as a family. While both trips were every bit as dreamy as I imagined, I was after something different—an older Hawaii, that was less built up and contained more remnants of the ancient culture. I had my sights set on Kauai.

Fast forward 10 years and my boyfriend surprised me with tickets to “The Garden Isle.” Three months later, we were on a plane en route to our dream destination.

kauai travelKauai is the fourth-largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is geologically the oldest. The island is home to 562.3 square miles of beaches, rivers, and jungle – only 20% of which is inhabited. With so much to see and do, we knew we had to prioritize to make the most of our 10 days on the island.

We spent the first couple days getting acquainted with our home base in Hanalei Bay, on the north side of the island. Hanalei Bay is like something straight out of a movie – the bay is roughly two miles long and is surrounded by lush mountains, complete with waterfalls running down their faces. The outer reef offers steeper waves for more experienced surfers while the protected bay has small, gentle waves, ideal for beginners and longboarders.

The Hanalei River, is a long, calm river that feeds into the bay and was fun to explore on kayaks when the surf wasn’t good. While the views of the beach were stunning, the view of the bay from above was nothing short of spectacular. We followed the Okolehao Trail, which was beautiful in its own right, to the top where we had panoramic views of the bay and the taro fields that account for much of the agriculture on the island.

The next day, we rose before the sun and followed the Kuhio Highway to the town of Poipu. There, my boyfriend strapped an air tank to his back to explore Kauai from under the sea while I donned a mask and snorkel.

Poipu Beach has something for everyone: a calm, protected area for snorkeling and an outer reef for surfing. We spent our time exploring the inner reef and although the coral has suffered from bleaching and tourist trampling, it was still beautiful and we swam among countless tropical fish and the honu (turtles).

After a few days on the island, we settled into a routine. We woke early to the sounds of birds and rainfall, ate a quick breakfast, and packed a lunch, before setting off for the day’s adventures. In the evenings, we’d return to our Airbnb, salty and sun-drenched, and enjoy a meal on the lanai before retiring to bed.

On day five, we found ourselves at Kauai’s largest navigable river: the Wailua River. Although the river is most heavily trafficked by kayakers, we decided to forge our own path and standup paddle down the river. It’s wide and calm and after two and a half miles, we reached a docking point for our boards and set out on foot to the “Secret Falls.” The hike was muddy and beautiful and the falls were stunning, albeit crowded.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The following day, we ventured into Lihue, the government and commercial center of the island, and made a quick stop at Costco to load up on macadamia nuts before heading to Wailua Falls. We took in the view from above and set off to the base of the falls on recommendation from a local. The climb down was muddy and steep but the view at the falls was well worth the minor scrapes and stained shorts.

The two-tiered, 173-foot waterfall was absolutely breathtaking. Unlike other falls we’d ventured to, this one was void of tourists snapping selfies and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Mist emanated off the falls, giving the swimming hole and surrounding jungle a dreamlike feel. We swam in the cool water and soaked it all in – this is what Kauai was all about.

Unfortunately, the Na Pali Coast trail was closed during our visit due to recent flooding but we did have the chance to view the famous coastline via boat. We departed early from Port Allen and along the way, were treated to sights of empty beaches, spinner dolphins, and of course, the Na Pali Coast, which was every bit as beautiful as it was hyped up to be. We awed at the towering cliffs, sea caves, narrow valleys, and waterfalls that dotted the lush, green landscape.

After returning to land, we jumped in our rental car and cruised over to Waimea Canyon, lovingly known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Located on the western side of the island, the canyon is 10 miles long and in some places, 3,000 feet deep.

The red soil and deep valleys were a stark contrast to the Na Pali Coast but were every bit as beautiful. Although there are a number of hikes in the canyon, we simply drove through it, pulling into lookout points and taking in the incredible views along the way.

kauai travel

The last couple days on the island were spent driving down random roads to unknown beaches and checking out local fruit stands and farmers’ markets. Although nowhere is too crowded on the island, we most enjoyed finding secret beaches and exploring several rivers via standup paddleboard.

The pace of life on the island is slow and the aloha spirit is clearly visible – with so much to do and see, it would take a lifetime to explore the island in its entirety. Ten days was just enough to get a taste of what the island has to offer, and inspire a thirst for more; we’ll surely be back.

All Photos Courtesy of Jonathan Kemnitz.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!