There had been heavy rain since we landed in Kauai, but now the clouds are slowly lifting. The sun insists on making its way through as I stop paddling for a few seconds to admire dramatic emerald mountains around Hanalei Bay – a long right-hand point break in the long stretch of beach where I am surfing – with views to cascading waterfalls.
I arrived in Kauai – an island in the Central Pacific and part of the Hawaiian archipelago – two days ago for the Christmas break with a few relatives. It’s late December, the wet and surfing season, which means the many waterfalls around the island are flourishing with water. From the moment I step off the plane in Lihue airport, on the southeast coast of Kauai, the rain starts to pour down, and I’m hit by tropical winds coming from sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs visible from almost everywhere in the island. We head North, taking the Kuhio Highway – Kauai’s only thoroughfare, which snakes along its virgin rainforests and rounded coast. In any other place, this would be just a regular ride from the airport, but in Kauai, given the raw beauty of the valley, it’s a magical one.
On a map of Kauai, to its center, is a large splotch of green, and across its entire, is a lack of roads, towns, or anything. Kauai is the oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain – which helps to explain why it’s the least developed (along with Molokai). As locals like to say, Kauai is the only Hawaiian island that hasn’t been conquered. It’s separated from others by a wide channel that thwarted King Kamehameha I, who united the other islands by force in the 19th century (Kauai joined the kingdom by treaty in 1810). Such geographic remoteness has forged a sense of separateness, with ancient indigenous Polynesians speaking a distinct dialect of Hawaiian.
This small tropical territory, therefore, has kept itself charmed and mysterious. Thanks to strict regulation (by law, building heights max out at 16 meters) and a certain amount of pushback from residents (in 2007 protesters quashed high-speed ferry service between Oahu and Kauai), most of the island still feels like a fairy tale. And even today, in 2020, eighty percent of it is uninhabited, and only one-fifth of the island can be reached on foot or car. The rest to be explored by boat or chopper, revealing views beyond the imagination – views that even the majority of Hawaiians have never savored. It lacks the tourist infrastructure of Oahu and Maui and brings to life every aspect of travel that I crave. Kauai is the real deal, here one can taste the treasured sensation of visiting a far off Pacific island that arguably managed to stay true to its roots over the years – and has absolutely nothing to do with the Hawaiian cliche.
Although relatively small, Kauai is separated into distinct regions. The sunnier South Shore is where you find most of the hotels, restaurants, and is nearer the rugged West. We, on the other hand, base ourselves on the North Shore, the wettest of Kauai’s regions, and as a result, with colors so vibrant, it seems to soak right down the roots that cling to the red dirt. The North Shore is refreshingly resort-free, and the laid back town of Hanalei, where we rent a house not far from the beach Hanalei Bay, is its hippiest corner. There is a serious food truck scene, where I enjoy delicious Poke meals and the casual aloha atmosphere. It has a soulful surfer village vibe and feels like some secret Hawaii, the last bastion of undiscovered authenticity.
Hanalei has vast tropical forests, green mountain valleys, waterfalls, and secluded beaches all around. When the rain allows, I love spending my days hitting the near-empty beaches outside town, such as Tunnels and Poipu. Then, surfing Hanalei Bay’s waves that break on a lava reef, and walking along its long stretch of sand to come across surf legend Laird Hamilton, who is a local here. Kauai is also home to some legendary hikes. Not far from where we stay, in the northwest, is the remarkable Napali Coast Wilderness Park (where you need to get a permit in advance to go to), famous for its towering sea cliffs, punctuated by narrow valleys, streams, and falls. On a cloudy morning of December, my family and I follow the Kalalau trail and make our way along a steep footpath running through the park, between nearby Ke’ e and sandy Kalalau Beaches. This is a madly beautiful coastal path, which runs up and down over volcanic ridges, graduating to steeper and steeper climbs with breathtaking drop-offs.
There are also extraordinary hiking trails and nature on Kauai’s eastern and western sides. An alternative would have been spending a few days in each part of the island to avoid long drives. But we remain in Hanalei for the entire stay and do day-trips from the North Shore. On the first one, we head east, to navigate along the 20-mile Wailua River – Hawaii’s largest – on a Kayak. We endure a long day of paddling on Wailua and trekking through a thick jungle with mud up to our knees to reach a gorgeous waterfall at the end. On another sunny day, though, we move West, to road trip across the spectacular Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Waimea is an immense Canyon, stretching 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep. We drive for a few hours, hopping across several lookouts dotted across the rim of the canyon to grasp different angles of the deep valley gorges. There are mesmerizing waterfalls and green-and-pink scenery, and at the center of everything is a volcano that collapsed 10 million years ago.
Kauai’s cinematic landscape moves me. I’m compelled to see further, so I try to book a chopper flight a few times, but all operators are fully booked (it’s Christmas holidays and the busiest time of the year). Then, the day I am off to Oahu, I hear the tour helicopter I was waitlisted has a crash with no survivors. It turns out Kauai is the deadliest place in Hawaii for helicopter accidents – the ruggedness of the terrain makes it all but impossible to make an emergency landing. “There is not a level surface that isn’t covered with vegetation,” I read in a local newspaper, “Weather conditions are impossible to know before taking off, and pilots may encounter unexpected clouds or winds.” Even from below, I realize, the Napali Coast is wild, rocky, and beautifully forbidding. I’m also aware of Hurricanes: Iwa crashed through in 1982, and, a decade later, Iniki, a Category 4, devastated the island. At first sight, the most uninhabited place on the other side of America looks like a fairy tale, but it’s not Disney. I love the instant immersion into the wilderness that I find here. But the very attributes that make it so appealing are also the ones that magnify its risks.
We traveled to Hawaii in December 2019 and spent a week in the North Shore of Kauai. We flew with Lufthansa from Munich to LA and with American Airlines from LA to Kauai.