Last week I had the opportunity to fly to Kaua’i with my sweet, generous parents and my two sons for a much-needed vacation.
It was my first trip to the island, and I spent much of it simply observing and taking in a place completely foreign to me.
It boggled my mind how I couldn’t identify a single plant or tree save for the banana and coconut trees growing everywhere, even at the edge of city parking lots.
The birds, too, were strange and beautiful and woke me up each dawn with their cacophony. Unfortunately, I learned that native bird species are in trouble from a number of factors, the biggest threat being avian Malaria. At least seven native bird species have gone extinct on the island, according to the Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project.
To our surprise, feral chickens were everywhere, too, strutting themselves on the shoulder of small winding highways, pecking fallen coconuts on dirt trails and even at the Waimea Canyon Lookout at 3,400 feet elevation above the sea.
With no predators, chickens are thriving. Chickens were brought by the various Polynesian cultures of people that settled on the island and have since bred with escapees from area farms.
By the end of my stay, I was finally beginning to feel oriented enough to sketch out the places I want to return for.
Kauai has nine state parks. We visited several but two get special recognition here for their jaw-dropping overlooks of the Na Pali Coast.
The Kalalau Trail – an 11-mile trail best suited for the advanced hiker — provides the only land access to the Na Pali Coast. Considered healing and sacred by many, the rugged coastline with its sheer fluted cliffs reaching upward of 4,000 feet above the sea has been the inspiration of many Hollywood films.
The trailhead is found in Ha’ena State Park at the northwest end of Kuhio Highway. For most backpackers in good condition, hiking the 11-mile trail (one-way) will take a full day. Camping permits are required, and water purification tablets or filters are recommended for stays beyond day hikes.
My two sons and I hiked a short half of a mile of this lush, serene trail and found it hard to turn around to meet our ride on time. Many tired looking souls were returning drenched in perspiration from hikes to local waterfalls and the beaches of Hanakap’ai and Kalalau.
“Kalalau is very sacred in the area. It’s very spiritual when (visitors) get there. You can kind of feel it — a real peace,” said Chelse, a local who was born and raised on the island.
By driving around the island to its opposite side, visitors can view the Waimea Canyon — called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” — and further up the road to Koke’e State Park for some of the best bird watching and native plant forests. Introduced species like Kahili ginger and Australian eucalyptus has become invasive on the island, making it more difficult for native species to survive.
Here, you’ll find the Alakai Swamp Trail, home to the highest elevation bog in the world, an excellent place for birding and botanizing. At the end of the trail are amazing views on a clear day of the North Shore of the island, featuring Wainiha and Hanalei valleys.
The park also offers a stunning high-elevation view of the roadless Na Pali Coast at the Pihea Trailhead, comparable only to the aerial view of a helicopter.
“You’re looking at the dramatic folding cliffs … It’s spectacular and best seen first thing in the morning,” when the trade winds keep the clouds and fog away, said Rosalind Thompson, an associate at the park’s museum.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily year round and is a great place to pick up maps, view cultural and biological exhibits or grab books on local flora and fauna.
Farmers markets are fun to go to on the island if you want to taste and see an array of fruit unlike any on the mainland. We bought fresh pineapple, mango and apple bananas for tropical smoothies. In recent years, a growing number of young people have migrated to Kaua’i to start up new organic farms.
While on the North Shore, stop at the Hanalei Valley Overlook where the valley below is a patchwork of taro fields bisected by the Hanalei River, popular among kayakers. Much of the valley is part of a 900-acre Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge.
Of course, beaches can’t be missed, and a number of local board shops and outfitters sell snorkeling gear and boogie boards for an affordable price. Check in with lifeguards first to get the low down on the safety of the surf.
We floated with colorful fish in the turquoise waters of Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena State Park and Poipu Beach Park on the South Shore. We spotted an endangered Hawaiian monk seal sunbathing on Ha’ena Beach. There are only about 1,000 Hawaiian monk seals remaining, according to the Defenders of Wildlife.
For those looking to get away from it all, the island’s biggest economy is its tourism industry, so expect to pay top dollar for dinner and run into honeymooning crowds.
“It’s our bread and butter,” said Thompson.
Although luxury resorts occupy some shorelines, it is still possible to glimpse pages of life on the garden isle that feel “more country,” like the local fishermen who sat on a broken folding lawn chair, casting their lines into the crashing waves looking to catch “whatever bites.”
“It’s very, very laid back,” Chelse said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.