KAUA‘I MAY BE THE REST OF THE world’s image of the serene South Pacific, but this green jewel of an island is Hawai‘i’s drama queen. And why not? It has starred in more Hollywood hits than Harrison Ford, who raided the island seeking the lost Ark. In 1958, the she gods of Shark Reef ran wild on Kaua‘i; in 1993 it was the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Most recently, King Kong rampaged through Honopu Valley. Kaua‘i’s star qualities are towering sea cliffs, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Hawai‘i’s only navigable rivers, hundreds of waterfalls, supersize flora, and 43 white-sand beaches on an island 33 miles long by 25 miles wide.
Author Rita Ariyoshi Photography Todd Pearson
DAY ONE / Wake in your room at the Sheraton Kaua‘i Resort, located on the best part of sun-drenched Po‘ipu Beach. Since you requested accommodations in the Ocean Wing, you can look forward to glorious sunsets from your lanai. Today you’ll be taking a drive to the Grand Canyon of the Pacific: Waimea. Bring walking shoes and a windbreaker for a spectacular hike.
Fuel up with breakfast at Gaylord’s at Kilohana, a working sugar plantation. From Maluhia Road go right on Kaumuali‘i Highway, Route 50. You’ll see the big 1935 Kilohana estate house from the road. Pull in the driveway, and stop, look, and listen at the railroad crossing. The recently restored narrow-gauge line with its steam engine is almost ready for tours. You also can tour the plantation by horse-drawn coach and hear a bit of history from the driver as the Clydesdales clomp along.
Gaylord’s will greet you as guests were traditionally welcomed to this gracious home, with a fresh-flower lei. The modestly priced buffet is served around the inner courtyard. The cooks will be hu-hu(upset) if you don’t try the cinnamon rolls, because they got up very early to bake them. So many rooms in this lovely manse have been turned into boutiques and galleries that you’ll need the blinders from those Clydesdales not to linger.
Head west on Kaumuali‘i Highway. Just outside Waimea town, near milepost 22, explore the ruins of a czar’s Pacific ambitions at Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park. Built in 1816 and named for the wife of Czar Alexander I of Russia, it’s now one impressive pile of rocks. On the opposite side of the Waimea River, a cement slab in the mud marks where the first European set foot in Hawai‘i, changing the Islands forever. A more fitting monument to Cook stands in the middle of Waimea town.
Turn mauka (inland) at Waimea Canyon Drive (Route 550) to begin the 20-mile climb skirting the canyon rim. Although you may be tempted to stop every few feet for the views, the most spectacular panorama unfolds at the Waimea Canyon Lookout, between miles 10 and 11. Here, three tributary canyons converge in a splendor of deep gorges and red-rock buttes carved by the silvery Waimea River, 3,567 feet below. Look to the left for the 800-foot plunge of Waipo‘o Falls. The canyon is the domain of mouflon sheep, mountain goats, and boars.
Continue on to Koke‘e State Park in the cool uplands, and have lunch at Koke‘e Lodge. Save room for the warm coconut pie with a layer of chocolate and a toasting of macadamia nuts. You’ll be walking it off.
Koke‘e is laced with hiking trails exploring the canyon, coast, and upland forest, home to some of the rarest flora and birds on the planet. Even the chickens strutting around the parking lot are rare moa, descendants of poultry brought by the first Polynesian settlers of Hawai‘i. Find out more at the Koke‘e Natural History Museum next door. Pick up a map and check on weather and trail conditions for the Pihea Trail. This 3.8-mile trail is one of the premier hikes in the park. It’s a tad strenuous—with a 500-foot elevation gain—but you should be able to do it in two or three hours.
Drive to the end of Koke‘e Road to mile marker 19 for the Pihea Trailhead, at Pu‘u O Kila Lookout. Taste the rugged beauty of the Na Pali Coast, with its sand-castle ramparts and Erin-green valleys.
Rainbows, drifting mist, and sailing clouds render this magnificent view different from moment to moment. The trail follows the rim of Kalalau Valley into heavy vegetation with 10-foot-tall ferns. Smell the anise-scented air perfumed by the mokihana tree. The brilliant red flowers are ohia lehua. Avoid the spur to the 4,200-foot Pihea Peak. Stay on the main trail until the junction with the Alaka‘i Swamp Trail. Alaka‘i is the wettest place on earth, so this is your turn-around point.
After the hike, head back downhill to Kaumuali‘i Highway and go east to Hanapepe, a creaky old town that has become a hip artists’ hangout. Every Friday is art night, and the galleries and boutiques celebrate with food, wine, and music. At any store, get a walking map of the town’s galleries and historical sites, such as the rope bridge over the Hanapepe River. Best bets: Banana Patch Studio for art and reasonably priced original gifts, Kaua‘i Fine Arts for an amazing collection of old maps and engravings, and Art of Marbeling for sarongs, scarves, and translucent wood bowls. In the rickety Taro Ko store, buy bags of taro chips and Moloka‘i purple sweet-potato chips, hot from the wok, dusted with garlic. Dinner will be at Hanapepe Café & Espresso Bar (reservations are a must). The ’50s-era soda fountain goes gourmet on Friday night with linen and candles. Its specialty is local seafood in delicate sauces and glazes. The homemade apple pie à la mode is your reward for a very full day.